Her iconic Cook’s Companion is standard equipment in most Australian kitchens and her kitchen garden projects are coming to a school near you (if they’re not there already), but Stephanie Alexander is not quite ready to retire just yet.
Alexander, 76, is just about to release a new edition of her incredibly successful Kitchen Garden Companion – now in a two-volume paperback set and just in time for Mother’s Day.
“The Kitchen Garden Companion sprang from my desire to encourage people to grow some of their own food, and once they’ve grown it to know a little bit more about it and involve their kids,” she says.
And while the original book was incredibly successful, it was a huge tome and Alexander and her publisher, Lantern, felt it was time to relook at the way it was organised for the new paperback edition.
“We both agreed that the best thing was to divide it into ‘Growing’ and ‘Cooking’. So I went through both halves and made sure that they stood alone. They each refer to the other volume, but can stand as a book on their own,” Alexander says.
Growing was released last year and incorporated personal anecdotes and observational diary entries. The second volume, Cooking, is in bookstores from April.
“What that really means is that Cooking needs to be understood in the context that it is talking about family food, specifically food where you may have grown some of it yourself, and where you’ve also involved kids,” says Alexander. “So a lot of the recipes are relatively simple.”
Alexander says she hopes that it will get children excited about cooking and growing their food.
“It’s certainly not assuming that everybody’s an expert market gardener or anything like that,” she adds. “It’s a bit more family orientated where you’ve got some herbs growing out the back, maybe a bit of broccoli or growing tomatoes in the summer – just enough to get them excited about growth.
“Cooking predominately includes recipes that are based on vegetables, herbs, grains etcetera. There are some recipes that have meat, fish and chicken in them, but they are very much in the minority.”
Try your hand at this tasty Broccoli Carbonara – get the recipe here
But it’s not just about children, says Alexander. Kitchen Garden Companion: Cooking is about family.
“It’s definitely about trying to engage the interests of young people as well. And I think young kids can do quite a lot, particularly if they’re in a family where everybody enjoys cooking together. Hopefully that’s what this book is about; a book for family eating.
“I think that the more young kids see their mother or father or grandparents cooking and enjoying sitting around a table, it’s good – all those influences start very, very early.”
The concept for the Kitchen Garden Companion had its genesis in Alexander’s ground-breaking (literally and figuratively) Kitchen Garden Foundation, which works with schools around Australia to create gardens where children can learn to grow produce and then use that produce to cook meals for themselves.
“The program came first,” Alexander says. “Then I found that there was more and more interest in what was happening in the program and I got constant questions about it, so I decided that I would write something.
“The Growing section certainly came first, where I wanted to say ‘I’m not expecting people who read this to be expert gardeners, I’m expecting them to be people who are interested in knowing a little bit more’.
“I tried to pick up the quirky things about crops and ways in which I thought children might get excited about broccoli, or excited about asparagus or something. And then I wanted to put a few recipes in that would show them how they could use broccoli or use asparagus in ways they might not have thought of that would be exciting and interesting, and of course delicious.”
The program is now running in more than 800 schools across the country – an impressive legacy in anyone’s language. “I’ve always wanted to convince people that loving good food and putting good food into your life is a plus; it makes you a happier and healthier person,” she says.
“I do believe that the earlier you start, the better. I guess that’s after all my restaurant years with training apprentices and talking to young people at that level. I now feel quite excited about seeing what happens. It vindicates my belief that if you start them young, children will change their behaviour and change their attitudes.
“Now it’s yet to be seen what happens when they raise their own family, but I’m confident that some of those influences are pretty deep, and that they will carry on into those children’s adult lives.” We have recipes from Stephanie Alexander’s latest book, Kitchen Garden Companion: Cooking here. Both volumes are on sale now.
Have you got a Stephanie Alexander cookbook at home? What’s your favourite recipe?
Photography: © Mark Chew, Simon Griffiths.