This is probably not the smartest business move for a cookbook author who writes books with 100+ recipes…or for a food blogger who wants readers to, you know, come back tomorrow — but I am going to say it anyway: In spite of everything you’ve read (on this blog and elsewhere), you really only need a handful of culinary moves in your back pocket to survive as a parent. Here’s the indisputably comprehensive, 100% definitive, not-at-all-subjective repertoire Andy and I came up with for your reading and cooking pleasure.
Chicken Orzo Soup (page 290, Dinner: A Love Story)
Why: Because there’s no problem that can’t be hashed out over a bowl of this stuff.
Best When: It’s soccer or football season; you want to make a deposit in the freezer bank; your best friend and her kids are coming for a weekend lunch; your son is under the weather; your daughter is stressed about the algebra test.
Why: Because it’s easier than you think.
Best When: You want to go under-the-radar meatless with the kids; you’re trying to clear out an end-of-the-week refrigerator; lots of people with lots of kids and lots of different tastes are coming for dinner; you add up how much you spent on take-out last month and have a sad, empty feeling deep down inside.
The New Staple
Why: Why not? Seriously, though. Because kale has so much more earthy flavor, more nutritional punch, more oomph and body than regular lettuce (no offense, regular lettuce), and because even the smallest portion feels like it has the magical power of canceling out that cider donut you ate this morning.
Best When: Your kids are too young to understand that people might make fun of them (and their parents) for eating kale. If you can hook ‘em young, you’re golden. And if you don’t wan’t to call it kale, lie and call it “salad.” How’s that for ethical parenting?
The Ol’ Reliable
Why: Because I guarantee you have all the ingredients in your house at all times.
Best When: You forgot to make something for the bake sale and the bake sale is tomorrow; you are charged with bring the classroom peanut-free treat; you are in the mood to blow big and small minds alike.
Chicken and Rice
Why: Because it’s not just learning a recipe, it’s learning a technique.
Best When: You are transitioning the baby to real food; you are learning how to cook; the kids are on a Sendak bender.
The Holiday Hallmark
Homemade Franks & Beans
Why: Because it’s important to get kids associating certain holidays with certain dishes (and because, forreal, when else can you justify it?)
Best When: A fire is blazing in the hearth; you have the whole day to do nothing but bake beans and carve pumpkins; you’ve invited every witch, ghost, princess, and Ironman (and their parents) for a trick-or-treat launch party.
The All-Purpose Bake-a-Gift
Why: Because in our almost twelve years of parenting, we have yet to find a situation where a Mason jar filled with the stuff isn’t a sufficient expression of gratitude when someone has done us a favor.
Best When: Your neighbor babysat for your borderline insane Boston Terrier while you were away; a fellow soccer mom has been doing the lion’s share of the carpooling; it’s Father’s Day; it’s Mother’s Day; you need a host gift; you need a birthday gift, you need a teacher gift; you need an anything gift; you have yogurt and fresh fruit and want to start the day off right.
Why: Because you can make it ahead of time; because it is infinitiely more flavorful than its storebought counterpart.
Best When: Everything else on your kid’s plate came straight from the freezer aisle. (When you toss any greens with from-scratch vinaigrette, it has the power to make the entire meal feel homemade anyway.)
The Dinner Party Showstopper
Why: Because we’ve always hated meals that require tons of chopping and fussing and flipping and, thus, negate the actual purpose of people coming over — which is, you know, to hang out. The beauty of this meal, beyond its all-around tastiness, is that by the time the guests show up, you are already done.
Best When: You’re emerging from the pain cave of new parenthood and you want to begin slowly working your way back into the entertaining game without assembling silver dollar buckwheat blinis or signing up for massive, six-pot clean-ups.
The Win-’Em-Over-Forever Breakfast
Aunt Patty’s French Toast
Why: Because weekday mornings, with their stale, plain bagels and instant oatmeals and soggy Trader O’s, could give breakfast a bad name.
Best When: Your kids’ friends sleep over; when you’re feeling guilty about not being around much for the kids that week; when you had one too many Manhattans the night before, and grease and butter is exactly what you need. (In that case, add a little heavy cream.)
The Gateway Fish
Fried Flounder (page 143, Dinner: A Love Story)
Why: Because (a) if you have a fish guy at the farmer’s market, chances are he will have flounder and there are not many types of fish, as far as we can tell, that are better when truly fresh; and (b) you can only have so much freaking chicken. Think of this dish as the perfect gateway to fish; if you can get your kids to like flounder, it becomes that much easier to move on to bigger, better things.
Best When: Served with a mound of tartar sauce, the world’s best condiment. (Try making your own: Few tablespoons of good mayo, one finely chopped dill pickle, squeeze of lemon, pinch of sugar.) Also perfect when you want something easy and healthy, but not that healthy.
Cold Brew Coffee
Why: Because we don’t enjoy making our own coffee in the morning. Cold brewing, on the other hand, makes it all so easy: Put 1/2 pound of good, ground coffee into your French press, fill with cold water, stir until grounds are coated, and let sit on the counter for 12-24 hours. (The longer it sits, the more concentrated it is, and the more concentrated it is, the better.) When ready for a cup, plunge, pour, and stash the rest in the refrigerator for later.
Best When: The baby woke up six times last night; you have just finished a long morning run, you are battling through a post-lunch food coma, or you are on your way to a stress test with your cardiologist and you want to freak the dude out. Sh#t’s potent!
The Tuesday Night Winner
Pan-fried Chicken Thighs
Why: Because you hear this a lot, but we are hard pressed to name a meal that is easier meal to make, save the ones you take out of a package and put in a microwave. The ratio of hands-on time to deliciousness here seems almost impossible.
Best When: You are not in a HUGE rush (cooking time is about 45 minutes), you have some tender baby potatoes and thyme on hand to roast along with the chicken, and it is between the months of October and April, when stuff roasted in cast iron pans feels right.
Why: Because it can be made in large quantities, in advance, on a lazy Sunday afternoon — and then frozen, to be devoured later, in less relaxed conditions. Also because it can be served a million different ways, which means everyone will eat it. On pasta, on a bun, over rice, on nachos, in little tortellinis made from wonton wrappers, straight from the pot, with a spoon.
Best When: You need to get dinner on the table very quickly, and the kids have that if-you-don’t-feed-me-something-very-soon-I-will-kill-you-and-dine-on-your-bones look in their eyes.
The Bad Day Eraser
Why: Because it works.
Best When: You don’t have a meeting early the next morning; you don’t need to operate heavy machinery or read anything you will be tested on later; or you just had a long, hard day and could really use a dose of good medicine.