Catherine Fulvio’s secret for fast and nutritious family dinners

With a busy job and school-going children, the celebrity chef’s secret is a little bit of planning

Five quick and tasty soups from the kitchen of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School. “Soups are a great fall back and they freeze well.”Photograph: Gill & Macmillan

Five quick and tasty soups from the kitchen of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School. “Soups are a great fall back and they freeze well.”Photograph: Gill & Macmillan

Tue, Sep 17, 2013, 01:00

Catherine Fulvio’s food philosophy is simple – “Eat well. Be well.” But as a busy chef and mother of two, the proprietor of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School is up against the same time pressures as everyone else.

“I see it every day in my cookery school. People say to me, from Monday to Friday, we’re just hard pressed to get a dinner on the table. Mid-week, we just want quick inspiration.”

With a busy job and school-going children, Fulvio’s secret for fast and nutritious family dinners is a little bit of planning.

“I have a repertoire of recipes pinned to the fridge door. I just make sure my weekly shop includes the ingredients to make a range of those recipes.”

Nothing too complicated
The dishes are nothing too complicated. “The dinners would usually have no more than four ingredients – I don’t want to be peeling lots of vegetables or doing lots of chopping, slicing and dicing, but at the same time, I want a balanced diet for my children.

“I make sure I’m organised enough to have the ingredients in advance so that I’m not stressed thinking I’m missing x, y or z. Keeping the ingredients to the minimum means I can prepare the foods quickly.”

Nutritious food can be convenient, says Fulvio. Stir-fries are a Fulvio family favourite.

“It’s a great way to get vegetables in the kids’ diets. You can sneak in extra veg that they won’t even spot. If you’ve got a picky child, you can grate carrot in there and they won’t even know it. I’ve been there.”

Add chicken pre-chopped by your butcher and noodles that take just minutes to cook and you’ve got a healthy family dinner.

“It can be faster than waiting for something to ping in the microwave, and you know exactly what the ingredients are.”

But can eating well be cost effective? She says it’s all about shopping cleverly. Left- over chicken drum sticks and thighs from Sunday’s roast can make a Monday cheesy pasta bake.

“It’s very simple to make a béchamel sauce. Then add the shredded meat from the drumsticks and thighs, a bit of grated cheese and some frozen peas, if you have them. Put some grated cheese on top and it will cook very quickly.

“It’s very inexpensive because you’re using leftovers. It’s about shopping cleverly and avoiding foot wastage which is such a massive issue for Irish homes.”

A bag of apples bought with good intentions that are now ageing in the fruit bowl can be put to use too. “Just peel and chop them, put them into a saucepan with a tiny bit of sugar and cook it down to make a compote. Have it with yogurt. Children will love it, and you’re not wasting anything.”


Cooking and freezing
Fulvio is a big fan of batch cooking and freezing too. “I’m teaching cookery all weekend so the thought of going into my kitchen on a Sunday and making enough to feed my family for a week wouldn’t be the most exciting, so I do it on a Monday which is my quiet day,” she says.

“Soups are a great fall back and they freeze well. Handy sauces can be done in small batches. Other things like ragus that you can use as a bolognese sauce for pasta or a lasagne are really usable too.”

Fulvio describes onions, carrots and celery as her “holy trinity” of ingredients, always in her larder. She uses these along with garlic and half pork and half beef mince for her trustee ragu.

“I find pork’s a bit leaner. I cook that off and make sure it’s browned on a high heat. If it’s for adults, I’ll put in a splash of wine. I’ll add tomato puree, tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper and leave it to simmer.

“It freezes brilliantly for up to three months,” she says. Just don’t forget to freeze it in portion sizes. It can be defrosted and used with pasta, with a bit of cheddar cheese on top and with some crusty bread on the side. “There’s loads of veg in there so I don’t feel guilty.”

She espouses the philosophy of Ballyknocken’s most popular cookery class. “People find themselves stuck in a bit of a rut, cooking the same thing. They just want a bit of inspiration, nothing complicated,” she says.

“It’s all about ‘771’ – seven nights, seven meals and one plan.”


Five Quick Soups
Here are her five quick and tasty soups. As with all soups, first heat the saucepan over a high heat, add the oil and onions, shallots and/or leeks, reduce the heat to low and sauté for 7-8 minutes, until soft.

Then add the harder vegetables, which are generally the root vegetables, eg potato or butternut squash, with the liquid, which is usually chicken or vegetable stock. When softened, add the leaf vegetables, for example, sorrel or watercress. Then purée, season, garnish and serve.


Butternut Squash, Sage and Apple Soup
Serves 4
Sunflower oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and diced
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and diced
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock, plus extra to thin the soup if required
1 tbsp fresh chopped sage
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Sage leaves, to garnish
cream, to garnish


Spicy Sweet Potato and Coriander Soup
Serves 4
Sunflower oil
1 large onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp Thai red curry paste (or to taste)
1 tsp cumin seeds
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1.2 litres chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 lemon, juice only
Small handful of coriander leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Crème fraîche, to garnish
Paprika, to garnish
Naan bread, to serve


Watercress Soup with Parmesan Toast
Serves 4
Extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, white part only, finely sliced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced small
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock
200g watercress
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 small watercress sprigs, to garnish
To serve, brush 4 slices of ciabatta with extra virgin olive oil. Grill on both sides.Sprinkle with 2 tbsp Parmesan and place under the grill until golden.


Potato, Spinach and Sorrel Soup
Serves 4
Extra virgin olive oil
4 shallots, peeled and sliced
2 leeks, white part only, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
4 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1.5 litres chicken stock
200g baby spinach
10 large sorrel leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp cream, to garnish


Carrot and Beetroot Soup
Serves 4
Extra virgin olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 beetroot, cooked, peeled and diced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 potato, peeled and diced
1.2 litres vegetable stock
1/2 orange, zest only
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp sour cream, to garnish
Chopped chives, to garnish


Catherine Fulvio and Janis Morrissey, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation, are giving a Cookery Demonstration and Nutrition Talk as part of The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthy Town initiative tomorrow evening at 7pm in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow town.

To book a place, contact Niamh O’Keeffe on tel: 01 6690299 or email niamh.okeeffe@ogilvy.com