For the last 14 years, every child that has come through the Little Darlings Childcare Centres in Sydney has experienced the tasty and nutritious meals of ‘Yia Yia’ Mary Mitropoulos. And now her kitchen secrets are finally out a beautiful cookbook titled (you guessed it) Yia Yia’s Kitchen Secrets.
Owned and run by educators Poppy Stamateris and Marika Gouveros, as Mary’s daughters, they initially thought the children loved their mother’s food out of habit. That was until they opened a second centre.
“We introduced mum’s food there too, and the kids went crazy! We were just constantly inundated with requests from parents for her recipes, so whatever’s in the cookbook are the actual meals that we cook at the centre,” Poppy tells Neos Kosmos.
The love affair with Mary’s food has spread like wildfire thanks not only to the six meals provided to the children daily, but her natural philanthropy that has extended beyond daycare.
“If we’ve got parents who have sick kids, mum often sends food home with them. So the parents get to taste the food, and they are just beside themselves with how tasty it is! I had one mum say, ‘I had to hide it from my son, so I could eat it!’,” says Poppy with a laugh.
Mary’s love of cooking is deep-seated, dating back to when she was a young girl observing her mother in the kitchen.
But like most Greeks, she has always cooked from the heart (and with the eye), so when it came time to collate her recipes, it was a two-year process to
get it all down on paper.
“When we said ‘mum we want to do a cookbook’, she prepared the meals and actually measured things and cooked them again until perfection,” says Poppy.
Unprocessed and cooked from scratch, all the recipes are Greek-based and tweaked by ‘Yia Yia’ Mary, who assures they’re fail proof and include the likes of ‘Spicy Lamb & Tomato with Chickpeas’, ‘Greek-style Meatballs in Lemon Sauce’, ‘Zucchini and Feta Pasta’, and the list goes on.
Recalling her first days in the centre, Mary can’t believe how far they have come.
“When I see children eating my food, I feel really proud of myself. When I first started, all they wanted was vegemite sandwiches, baked beans and spaghetti in the can,” she says.
“But I managed to teach the children to eat all the legumes, like black eyed beans, lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans – they eat all that. There are recipes where the veggies are hidden, but in most of my recipes you can see the beans and you can see the vegetables.”
It’s not uncommon for parents to come up to Mary, overjoyed by their children’s newly-established eating habits, but somewhat baffled.
“Why don’t they eat vegetables at my place?” was a common question, to which she would respond: “I don’t know what it is. Whatever I cook they eat.”
One of the keys, she says, is teaching children to try new things from an early age, without shying away from spices and herbs.
“Parents say they love that their children often go home smelling of garlic,” says Poppy, with Mary quick to point out: “Garlic is a very good antioxidant for the children, that’s why I’m using it. My mother taught me that.”
For those who have children with allergies, ‘Yia Yia’ will once again come to the rescue, having encountered almost every allergy and adapting her recipes to match.
“Mum has created meals around those allergies that parents could not think of doing themselves. Most of the recipes are now designed to minimise allergies, so there are no fish products, egg, honey or butter; we minimise meat, and include lots of vegetables and legumes, and we always use extra virgin olive oil.
“As educators, my sister Marika and I know that the first five years of life are critical to the brain’s development. That’s why nutrition at that point in particular is so important,” explains Poppy.
With many parents admitting to cooking a different meal to cater to the adults and children each night, this is a chance to bridge the gap without skimping on flavour or nutrition.
Easy to navigate, with colour-coded chapters to entice even the children to get involved, the book is divided by styles of cooking, and includes testimonials from the kids and their families who have experienced ‘Yia Yia’s’ cooking first-hand.
While it’s always been about the children, it’s the parents who are more excited than anyone.
“They can’t wait!” says Poppy. “They keep asking us ‘is the book out yet?’, ‘when is it coming?’. They’re over the moon.”
Yia Yia’s Kitchen Secrets is now available for purchase in all good bookstores, and is also available as an e-book. For more information, visit www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/yia-yias-kitchen-secrets/