Stephanie Alexander's five key kitchen lessons for home cooks

Stephanie Alexander in her home kitchen.
Stephanie Alexander in her home kitchen. Photo: Armelle Habib

Australia's redoubtable grande dame of the kitchen is on the verge of releasing her latest cookbook. It's her 19th, and, as she approaches her 81st birthday, Stephanie Alexander hints that Home may be her last.

More than two years in the making, much of it during Melbourne's extended COVID-19 lockdowns, Home is a reflective book, filled with essays distilling her food philosophy, reminiscences about travels and thoughts on living in the time of coronavirus, along with 200 recipes and sage advice (as well as advice about sage).

Alexander acknowledges that Home will probably appeal to people who are already good cooks. "But I haven't tried to make everything super fancy and I'm not particularly interested in super fancy.

"It's to just bring a bit of joy and pleasure into people's lives and perhaps give them a different way of looking at something that they might have ignored, or haven't seen its full potential."

Pleasure is a recurring theme in any conversation with Alexander. "I really am still fixated on the idea that for so many people, they just don't get pleasure out of providing their daily food," she says. "And I just think that's so incredibly sad and so unnecessary."

Home is Stephanie Alexander's 19th cookbook.
Home is Stephanie Alexander's 19th cookbook. Photo: Macmillan Australia

It's the same preoccupation that led her to establish the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, which teaches children positive food habits through hands-on learning, and to pen her master work, The Cook's Companion, published 25 years ago this year.

When I interviewed Alexander in 1996, before the release of her encyclopaedic 800-page book, her modest hope was that it might help novices and inspire good cooks, although she admits now that she feared it would become a massive white elephant.

Now, the book is considered Australia's kitchen bible, having sold more than 500,000 copies. Wherever she goes, people tell her they use the book all the time. "And that's the thing, use it, not just have it on the shelves."

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While Home lacks the breadth of The Cook's Companion, it goes deeper, with detailed instructions encouraging readers to make ravioli from scratch, experiment with broad beans or bone a quail. More than ever, it's like having Alexander at your elbow, imparting her kitchen wisdom.

So what are her key lessons for novice and good cooks alike? Here are five.

The Age Excellence in Early Learning feature 29/7 Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden

The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation turns 20 this year. Photo: Supplied

Lesson 1: Start them young

When she stepped out of her kitchen clogs after 30 years in the restaurant industry – as owner-chef of three-hatted Stephanie's in Melbourne's Hawthorn and co-owner of the more casual Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder – Alexander was seized by another mission: to rekindle interest in cooking by inspiring in children a love of fresh produce and an interest in its preparation.

Starting with one Melbourne school in 2001, the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation now operates in more than 1000 schools around Australia, teaching children how to cook and eat the fruits (and vegetables) of their labour.

Having visited countless school vegie patches over the past 20 years, it's the children's pride in what they've learnt that resonates for Alexander.

"The fact that they can stick a garlic clove in the ground and it grows and turns into a garlic bulb, I mean, it is magic... For many young children, it really is like fairy land being in a vegetable garden that's producing."

Other plants Alexander recommends for budding gardeners are broad beans, snow peas, milder varieties of salad leaf, silverbeet, rocket, cherry tomatoes and herbs, particularly basil, "because it's such a fabulous thing to smell".

Young cooks also love learning to make pasta. "They start off with a very raggy product, and we show them how to fold it and put it through [the pasta machine] again," she says. "They do get very competent at it and they are so proud of being able to do this, more or less with minimal supervision."

Lesson 2: Be a good role model

One of Alexander's founding principles is to involve children as often as you can in shared meals. Gathering around a table and serving dishes "family style" in the centre encourages everybody to talk and to share, setting kids up for a lifetime of food appreciation, Alexander believes.

"It's so unbelievably important for parents to care about this part of their life," she says. "If they don't model this behaviour, of taking a modest amount and not just swiping a plate clean, it's unlikely their children are going to get it."

Alexander acknowledges that eating dinner together at the end of a busy working day can be difficult.

"My answer would be a weekend lunch," she says. "Let's make a ritual that Saturday or Sunday lunch, or early dinner on Sunday, becomes part of family tradition and it's anticipated and looked forward to. And even better, you can get everybody involved, even if it's just setting the table."

Lesson 3: Prepare ahead

Alexander admits she's a bit obsessed with preparing ahead when she has guests over. That way, she's not stuck in the kitchen missing out on the news and the stories.

"[After decades in restaurant kitchens] I just do it automatically and pride myself on the fact that when I have people over, which hasn't happened for ages, that I can join in everything," she says. "I can have the first drink and I've either got something simmering in the oven, which doesn't need any attention at all, or I've got something which takes four minutes to flash in a very hot oven so I don't need to think about it yet."

Mise en place, the art of having everything prepared and in place, is a skill home cooks can borrow from the pros. "I don't think it means that you're serving twice-cooked food or badly cooked food at all," says Alexander. "And it's not just chopping and slicing. There are often steps in getting dinner together that can easily be done hours beforehand."

Most recipes in Home come with "do ahead" tips, such as to prepare a salad and heat the serving plates before putting salmon on the grill, or the point at which to refrigerate a curry so the following day you need only reheat it and add the finishing touches.

"The more I can prepare in advance the happier I am," she writes. "And I do enjoy the accolades as I bring a steaming pot or platter to the table with a flourish, knowing that all the preparation evidence has been cleaned and put away."

Lesson 4: Cooking for one

Living on her own in an inner-city apartment (Alexander is pictured in her garden, above) after decades of cooking for a crowd, Alexander has developed some clever tricks for solo dining.

"I'm very big on braised vegetables because they can just cook themselves while I'm watching television," she says. "Chop up fennel, a red onion, anything I've got really – add olive oil, a bay leaf from the garden – into the oven, leave it there for an hour or so."

Ratatouille, the Provencal dish of braised eggplant, capsicum, zucchini and tomatoes, has become the Francophile food writer's mainstay. Alexander makes batches year-round, using tinned tomatoes in winter, which she freezes, "labelled and dated", in one-cup portions. When she decides it's dinner time, it makes an appearance alongside grilled lamb cutlets, as the base for a baked egg, in a quick stew with chunks of fish, over baked prawns or with meatballs.

"Most of my ratatouille meals take a few minutes, no more than 15," she writes in Home. "This is what I call fast food."

Fish is another boon for the solo diner because, she says, you can choose a piece of fish of just the right size for one.

Alexander usually takes a simple approach to cooking it, giving it five minutes in a hot oven with a little butter on a tray lined with baking paper. "If I'm being fancy, I will take another little piece of butter and cook it with some sage leaves until they're crispy. And then a squeeze of lemon, slosh, slosh, swirl, swirl, pour over the fish."

Of course, she's already boiled potatoes and, while the fish cooks, she plunges broccolini into a pot of lightly salted boiling water for four or five minutes. "So that's dinner in, say, eight minutes from whoa to go. And all that's required is good purchasing and thinking ahead."

Lesson 5: Make friends with your freezer

In early 2020, while the rest of locked-down Australia was experimenting with sourdough and stockpiling pasta, Alexander set about filling her freezer.

Now, masses of blanched baby spinach leaves, squeezed dry and wrapped like bonbons in clingfilm, stand ready to be reheated with butter, dropped into a casserole or curry, or folded into an omelette.

Home-made chicken stock is another essential, the better for making barley risotto and soup, both welcome additions to her solo-dining freezer armoury. From Italian chef Carla Tomasi, via Instagram, she adopted the trick of making "basil blocks" by whizzing a vast amount of roughly chopped basil leaves in the food processor and adding olive oil to create a brilliant green slurry, then pouring it into a tray. Once frozen solid, she chops the block into squares, which go into a container in the freezer, ready any time she needs a bright burst of basil.

And while Alexander says her fishmonger would probably freak out at the idea, she's not averse to freezing fish – albeit only for a few days, giving it the VIP treatment by wrapping it in baking paper and packing it a single layer into a heavy-duty lidded container. When needed, she takes a piece of fish out and puts it on a plate in the fridge, where it gently thaws over two or three hours.

Home, by Stephanie Alexander, published by Pan Macmillan Australia, photographs by Armelle Habib. Out September 28, RRP $59.99. Buy now. Personalised copies are available from the Kitchen Garden Foundation: kitchengardenfoundation.org.au