When I was growing up, my mom made the best Swedish meatballs. And chicken Milanese. And lasagna with locally made sweet Italian sausages and old-school red sauce. (None of that fancy béchamel stuff.) These days, when I drag my family for dinner at my parents’ house, I beg her to make one of these dishes for me. How could I not? They were the tent-poles of my culinary upbringing — the family dinner rotation — and I must’ve had each of them once a week for eighteen years. If there were other things worth eating out there, I didn’t care to know about them.
I can’t believe how different the dinner situation is in my own house today. My kids never have any idea what’s going to be on the menu. Like all kids, they have their crazy-making aversions (as you know by now, one won’t eat pasta; neither will touch eggs), but their strengths are in the adventure department. They approach the table (mostly) game for just about anything else. Not because they are superior children, but because they have no choice. When you are a food blogger and cookbook writer, you have to keep up with the schedule. You have to keep things interesting.
Unfortunately, “interesting” to me and Andy, often translates to “annoying” for an 8- or 10-year old. As if my little lab rats are not already starving enough when they sit down to eat, they have to live in a test kitchen. They have to wait for the clouds to diffuse the sun just enough to create optimum photographic conditions to shoot what’s set before them. They have to hear their parents earnestly discuss things like acidity in their freaking salad dressing. And God forbid they love something as much as I loved my mom’s meatballs; they might never see it again. For months now, my 10-year-old has been begging for a reprise of the baked lemony chicken dish I debuted it at the table a year ago. The Lemon Chicken!Of course! I promise her. But first we have to retest the fish cakes for the cookbook, and after that we have to turn in our copy for Bon Appetit, so we need to double check that the marinade is getting the right flavor on the grilled flank steak. And remember how we were going to taste-test all those frozen pizzas? Sorry, sweetie, maybe next week?
Twice a year, every year, for the past ten years, we drive 850 miles from New York to South Carolina to spend a week at the beach. It’s a long drive. With two kids in the back, singing Adele a capella, it’s a really long drive. We try to do it in one shot with just one stop: Sally Bell’s Kitchen, two minutes off the highway in Richmond, Virginia. Their famous lunchboxes, which they’ve been packing since the ’50s, are almost worth the trip alone. We buy four, then walk to a park nearby to sit in the sun, stretch our legs a bit, and eat.
Inside each box is a happy meal from another, better time: a Smithfield ham-and-iceberg sandwich on a roll, a paprika-dusted deviled egg wrapped in parchment paper, a two-bite cupcake (You get three choices: chocolate, almond, or caramel) that is frosted on three sides, a cheese crisp, a packet of Duke’s mayonnaise and, best of all, a small paper cup filled with super-eggy potato salad and topped with a lone sweet pickle chip. Hot damn!
While the girls love the salty ham with mayo and the novelty of a cupcake that’s more frosting than it is cake, it’s the whole package—and the act of unwrapping of it—that blows their small minds. The white cardboard boxes, tied with bakery twine and lined with checkerboard tissue paper, are prizes they’ve earned by enduring four hundred miles lashed to their booster seats, watching I-95 roll by, and being force-fed Dad’s music. The food is real and great and they love it, but they also love what it represents: the trip is halfway done, and the next time we stop, they’ll be in vacation land, with all its attendant promise.
Occasionally, we try to replicate the lunchbox at home. The tangy potato salad in particular is a mainstay at our summer barbecues, and goes perfectly with a well-cooked burger and a salad. The kids eat up a (slightly less eggy) version as eagerly as ever. For them, it’s a little taste of vacation — but from the comfort of their own home
And by free we mean, um, sort of free. Here’s the deal: We like dinner. We also like books. And while Jenny’s upcoming book, on its every (“masterful,” says her husband) page, honors the meals we’ve made together for the past fifteen years, there is not a single word in it devoted to books — our love for them, or they way they inform our daily lives. What better way to fix that than to produce another book, devoted solely to the things we read and write about so frequently on this site. In some ways, we’ve spent the past two weeksmonths years pulling this project together*, and it was only a matter of time. We finally decided to turn it into a proper book of its own because we realized not long ago that (a) we’d already written more than 20,000 words’ worth of reviews since DALS was born, and (b) a big list of great, enduring books (for kids ages 0 to 10) might be something parents — as well as aunts, uncles, friends of pregnant people, husbands looking for point-scoring Mother’s Day presents, and good readers everywhere — could really use.
And now, for the fine print: If you pre-order Dinner: A Love Story, we’ll send you our new book of kid books FOR FREE. It only exists for now as a pdf, which means it’s easily forwarded and shared and copied, but we know you guys are decent, upstanding people and we trust you so deeply and know you would never send this around, all indiscriminately, since we spent so much time and effort putting it together FOR FREE. If you want one, all you have to do is email firstname.lastname@example.org, tell us you ordered a copy of Dinner: A Love Story, and we’ll send you all 25 pages of our book, in beautiful color, FOR FREE. Jenny’s whizbangy technical consultant has figured out a way to prompt every fifth email with a one-step request for proof of purchase. And yes, we know this means there’s an 80% chance you can lie and get this book without pre-ordering, but, well…see above re: decent, upstanding people.
One last thing: This offer is only good through Thursday, April 26 at midnight. So let’s do this thing. – Andy
*A huge, huge thank you to the supremely talented Chelsea Cardinal – magazine genius, illustrator, book cover designer, clothing designer (for real), seriously solid person — who turned our pile of disjointed text into something that makes us so happy to look at. We are convinced Chelsea will be famous one day, and we are grateful to have worked with her.
UPDATE: This offer has now expired. Thank you to everyone for the nice response and the even nicer notes that came along with the pre-orders. There’s a chance the offer might resurface on Facebook in the next few weeks, so if you missed it, be sure tofollow DALS there.
I bought the perfect black blazer earlier this spring. I had been looking for one forever — it’s such a basic wardrobe staple that it had to be exactly right — and as soon I brought it home, I headed straight to my closet and started pulling out different tops and pants I could wear it with. I tried it on with jeans and Bensimons. With wedges and a skirt I hadn’t seen in ages. Then with jeans and flats. And then with those white jeans that had been buried way at the bottom of the trunk. And the dress jammed in the back of the closet. (Hello old friend!! Where have you been?) Does this happen to you? When you are excited about a new piece of clothing does it somehow make you see everything else in your closet with brand new eyes?
Well, last week, I think a pack of chicken chorizo sausage had a similar effect on the contents of my refrigerator. Whenever I have a few links in my kitchen, opening the fridge door on a weeknight at 6:30 seems somehow rich with potential — instead of fraught with peril. This week it was all excitement and experimenting: What should I wear my chorizo with? Last week I sliced up some links for a frittata with kale, potatoes, manchego, onions, and tomato. This week, I browned some slices and stuffed them in a tortilla with spinach, avocado, and a creamy cilantro dressing — a riff on a salad I order all the time at the local Tex-Mex joint. It almost feels like cheating, this having chorizo around. Like I need to suffer more for my dinner somehow. Oh well. There’s always tomorrow.
Chicken Chorizo Taco with Spinach and Avocado Serves 4
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup cilantro
juice from 1/2 lime
1/4 teaspoon cumin
2 links smoked chicken chorizo sausage, sliced into rounds (or 1/2 link per eater)
4 whole wheat tortillas
4 handfuls fresh spinach, cleaned and chopped
1 avocado, chopped
Make creamy cilantro dressing: Using a small food processor, blend together yogurt, cilantro,lime, cumin, and salt.*
In a small skillet (preferably cast-iron), fry chorizo rounds until crispy on both sides, about 2 minutes a side. Remove from skillet. Turn heat to medium-high and cook each tortilla until brown, about 30 seconds per side. Top each with a handful of spinach, chorizo rounds, avocado and a drizzle of cilantro dressing.
*If you are pressed for time and can’t deal with a food processor, you can skip the dressing and just garnish your taco with cilantro, lime, and yogurt (or sour cream).
Chorizo and Kale Frittata
1 link chorizo, sliced into coins
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped onions or shallots
Handful of fingerling potatoes, thinly sliced into “coins” like thick potato chips (about 1⁄2 cup)
8 to 10 grape tomatoes, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 handful washed and roughly chopped kale
1/3 cup shredded Manchego cheese (or cheddar or Jack)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley or chives
Preheat the broiler. In a cast-iron (or oven-proof) skillet, fry the chorizo over medium-high heat until brown and crispy, 3 -5 minutes. Remove from pan.
Add oil and cook onions about 1 minute.
Push onions to side of the pan and add the potatoes in a single layer. Cook another 5 minutes, until the potatoes are crispy and mostly cooked through. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the kale to the pan and stir until the leaves wilt. Add chorizo.
Whisk together the eggs, cheese, and herbs in a small bowl. Pour the egg mixture into the pan and stir lightly to make sure the spinach and potatoes are evenly distributed.
Let cook without stirring for about 2 minutes. When eggs are mostly cooked around the edges, transfer to the oven. Broil for 1 to 2 minutes, until eggs are cooked and top is slightly golden. Cut into pizza-like wedges and serve.
The subject of the email was “High Levels of Arsenic…” and the first sentence, written by Ali, my babysitter, was “Did you see this?” (Never a good sign.) Attached was a link to an ABC News story telling us to watch out for elevated levels of aresenic in organic powdered formula, cereal bars, energy bars, or anything that listed “organic brown rice syrup” as the first ingredient — like, for instance, the granola bars from Trader Joe’s that our children had been consuming five days a week for three years now.
I googled a bit more to see what else I could find – for whatever reason, it makes me feel better in these situations when an alarmist title like “Arsenic in Baby Formula” doesn’t spread like wildfire. I like to convince myself that the media is more savvy about these things, so they don’t fall for sensational health (more…)
On any given day, there are about a zillion things that can derail family dinner – where do we begin? — and I’ve probably heard about every one of those things from you guys these past few years. How do I deal with the fussy toddler? The spouse who won’t help? My coworker who makes me feel bad about leaving the office before him? The relentlessness of after-school activities and all the schlepping it entails? This last one always stumped me. It seemed of all the obstacles one could face, this one was something we could control instead of complain about. What I didn’t know until fairly recently, though, was how broadly defined the term “after-school” has become. We just got the soccer schedule for the spring and one of my daughters has a practice that ends at 7:30, at a field that’s a 20-minute drive away. That’s a dinner deal-breaker if there ever was one. Well, unless you have this recipe in the repertoire. Cause you can have this on the table in the time it takes for your midfielder to walk in the door, change out of her jersey, get washed up, and return to the table where she belongs.
Simple Miso-Glazed Salmon A big reason why I could get this on the table so fast was because I had a stash of the glaze in the fridge already. Making the glaze definitely qualifies as the kind of task your bright-eyed morning self can do ahead of time — it takes only a minute or two if you have all the ingredients on hand. Your beaten-down evening self will thank you later.
1 1/3 pound salmon
2 tablespoons white miso*
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon brown sugar
squeeze of lime
In a small bowl, mix together everything but the lime. Slather the miso glaze on salmon and broil for 10-12 minutes until it gets golden on top. (Watch it carefully. The sugar in the glaze will burn.) Serve with lime wedges.
While the salmon was broiling, I briefly sauteed some snap peas in a drop of sesame oil, then tossed them with a sliced radish, sea salt, a squeeze of lime, and chives. (Scallions would be better than chives, but I didn’t have any on hand.)
*You can buy white miso at Asian specialty stores or better supermarkets like Whole Foods. It keeps in the fridge for ages.
I realize I’m not breaking any journalistic ground with this observation, but I’m going to say it anyway: It’s kinda crazy what you can check off The List when you’re not surrounded by small people asking for a snack or to tie a soccer cleat or to find the math notebook which was right here a second ago and to look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Take, for instance, an unseasonably warm winter Friday this past February. My friends Ed Nammour and Kate Porterfield showed up in my kitchen at 8:00 am — a few minutes after Andy and I shepherded Phoebe and Abby to the bus stop — and by the time the girls disembarked seven hours later, brains filled with fractions and parallelograms, Ed had shot this crazy beautiful honest-to-God Book Trailer for me, complete with a thing called B-Roll? Do you guys know from B-Roll?
I’m exaggerating a bit there — B-Roll is one of the few terms I knew going into the whole production, but that’s about where the knowledge tops off. A big reason why I chose a career as an editor and then opted for the blog medium when I started Dinner: A Love Story 2 1/2 years ago, was because I didn’t have to, you know, talk. With my mouth. Out loud. In front of people. I warned Kate — who was serving as the off-camera interviewer, and who you might remember for coining the page-turner concept — that she would have her work cut out for her. I was not going to be able to put a sentence together in any kind of coherent way. I am a writer! I speak through my keyboard and like to have time to scratch my chin while formulating unique insights!
“Jenny,” Kate replied to all this. “You’re not talking about North Korea here. You’re talking about dinner.”
See why I forced her to be on set with me? Five hours later, I had managed to articulate a few thoughts about family dinner and my book, and why this project has meant so much to me as a parent these past few years. And Kate was on the 1:20 train back to Brooklyn, where her daughters were returning from their school day.
I hope you have some time to watch it and, if you like what you see, to share it with other people who might be inspired to catch the family dinner bug, too. If you love what you see? Well, by now, I think you know what to do. And if you’d rather spend those 3 minutes and 57 seconds reading about North Korea, I’ll crystallize the video and the book and the entire mission of DALS for you with one quote I said at about 3:09:
“What I tried to do with this book is cover all the things that can happen at the family dinner table during all stages of a family’s life.”
That means the Just-Married Days, the New Parent Days, and the Bonafide Family Dinner Days, when we get to have conversations at the table that don’t begin with the phrase “If you don’t eat that fill-in-the-blank….”
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Ed’s work was far from over when the bus came at the end of our shoot day. He spent more hours than I can bear to think about whittling the 60 minutes of dinner-talking and pizza-flipping footage into the 3:57 narrative you see above. How I got so lucky to live around the corner from a filmmaker and commercial director who (on the side!) loves to support local projects…I’ll never know. I’m just glad I got to meet him that day five years ago when he, his wife, and six other families bid farewell to their kindergartners at the bus stop.
Reminder: A week from today, April 24th, be sure to check in with DALS! We have an exciting proposition for you which, amazingly, doesn’t involve our yogurt-marinated chicken. Well, it sort of does, I guess. But only peripherally.
We have a bowl on our counter. It’s a wooden salad bowl that we have turned into a fruit bowl. I’m not a chemist, so I can’t tell you why this is, but this bowl has a strange and unpleasant effect on the produce we (stupidly) put inside it: it accelerates the ripening process. It possesses mysterious transformative properties. It’s like some kind of primitive oxygen deprivation chamber, a Destroyer of Life. Put a plum in there and, two days later, it’s a prune. Put a potato in it and, one week later, it has been colonized by these creepy, blooming nodules. It turns limes yellow, and lemons brown. Put a bunch of green bananas in it, blink three times, and they’ve been turned into the wizened, leathery fingers of a prehistoric animal. We end up throwing most of this stuff away. You’d think, given all this, we’d figure out a solution to the problem – like, I don’t know, use a different bowl? – but we’re people who have had a broken, leaning lamppost in our front yard for eight years, and have never quite mustered the energy to get it fixed. We’re people who bought four huge plastic storage bins to organize our family shame basement a few months ago, and have yet to move them the ten feet from the garage into the basement, let alone fill them. It can take me weeks to change a light bulb – to the point that the act of finally replacing them feels like a victory. Inertia is our default mode – or, at least, it sure can feel that way sometimes.
The bowl, though: God, it bums me out. I resent it for reminding me of my powerlessness. So, last Saturday morning, when I looked over and saw three blackened, old-before-their-time bananas sitting there, on the cusp of total putrefaction, I decided to act. I would save them from the trash.
“I’m making banana bread,” I said.
Jenny was at the table, reading. “You’re weird,” she said.
I went over to the shelf and pulled a few stalwart cookbooks down – Bittman, Gourmet, New York Times, Ina Garten — and starting scanning indexes.
“I have a banana bread recipe,” Jenny said. “It’s in the blue binder, under desserts.” I knew the one she was referring to: it was from her friend Elizabeth, handwritten on a Real Simple notecard, and we’d been eating it for years.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’m good. I think I’m gonna try the Bittman.”
“Why? You love that recipe.”
“Do we have any coconut?” I asked.
“Yeah, Bittman calls for shredded coconut. Do we have any?”
“You’re really annoying.”
Jenny was all uppity about it, too. She couldn’t believe I was stepping out like this, looking elsewhere for inspiration. Was this a referendum on her banana bread? No, it was not. Did this mean I loved her any less? No, it did not. The truth is, she does the same thing to me all the time. I have a perfectly good stir-fry recipe, one we’d made happily together for ten years, but she had to go and improve it by adding rice wine vinegar and hoisin sauce. Partly, this constant off-roading and experimenting is due to having a food blog and always needing new things to write about; but partly, it’s about, well, you know what it’s about. It’s about showing your spouse that you are still capable of discovering something new, all by yourself. It’s about keeping that (flickering) flame of your old identity — the one that exists outside of the “we” of marriage, the one with free will – alive in some small way. So, with Phoebe’s help, I put our stand-by aside and tried a new banana bread. Was it better? Who’s to say? But was it mine? Yes.
Chocolate Chip Banana Bread This is great for school lunches and, toasted, for breakfast. I added a handful of chocolate chips, and subbed out some white sugar for brown, but otherwise, this is the Bittman recipe from the original How to Cook Everything.
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 cups flour (any combination of whole wheat and all-purpose)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 ripe bananas, mashed with a fork
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a loaf pan.
Mix together the dry ingredients. Cream the butter and beat in the eggs. Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients, being careful not to overmix. Stir in vanilla, nuts, coconut, and chocolate.
Pour the batter into your greased pan and bake for 50-60 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes.
It’s 10:45 on Wednesday night. I’m in bed. The girls are too. If they are not yet asleep, they are puzzling over who will be booted from American Idol tomorrow. My husband is sitting next to me working on something very exciting for DALS that we will tell you all about the week of April 23. (Please make a point to visit that day.) And I’m writing about Cobb Salad. (How exactly did I get here? Please tell me.) I don’t have a whole lot to say about the meal, other than it was assembled between 4:00 and 4:20 (wedged in between a long overdue pediatrician appointment and a soccer practice that was plotting to invade our dinner hour), and that the swap-in of shredded kale for crunchy romaine went largely unnoticed by the girls since it was buried under some favorite flavors (read: bacon), and that it works well for kids because it can be customized like a salad bar, and that it made a dent in our significant stash of hard-boiled Easter eggs, and that I wish my kids would eat eggs as enthusiastically as they decorated them, and that every time I eat it I wonder why I only think to make this the week after Easter.
Kale Cobb Salad
In a bowl, toss together large bunch kale (shredded), 3 pieces bacon (crumbled), 2 tablespoons scallions/red onion/shallots (minced), handful tomatoes (chopped), 2 hard-boiled eggs (chopped), 1/2 cup crumbled blue or feta, 1 avocado (chopped), 1 cup cooked chicken (shredded or chopped) with your favorite dressing or this all-purpose vinaigrette. Set aside any potentially deal-breaking ingredient for the kids — in my house, that would be the ingredient that inspired the meal to begin with: eggs.
I’m beginning to think that parenting is just a lifelong excuse to turn anything into a celebration. Because if you really think about it, there is always something to celebrate. The problem with this of course, is…there’s always something to celebrate, i.e. there’s always some kind of treat that — in our house at least — seems to be central to the celebrating. It’s the last day of school before spring break: By The Way Bakery cupcakes! You just rode your bike four miles: Mint chip ice cream! It’s Daddy’s birthday: Cherry pie! No cavities at the dentist: Pain au chocolat! It’s Passover: Matzoh brittle! It’s Easter….oh dear Lord, Easter. I think this holiday — which we technically don’t even celebrate — might have officially eclipsed Halloween as the biggest treat-o-thon in our family. It begins with the obligatory air-dried Peeps, then the neighbor’s Easter Egg hunt where we are lucky to come home with only a few chocolate eggs. (Woe is the poor soul who wins the 1000 Jelly Bean Jar contest!) And then there is the long-awaited treat-filled basket from Grandma, which, to the girls delight, always includes a ginormous chocolate bunny. A ginormous chocolate bunny that ends up sitting in his plastic case in the corner of the kitchen like a museum piece: So fun to look at, yet never consumed. This year, we decided to change that — instead of letting him get all dusty and sad, we melted him down to make the healthy-ish chocolate covered banana pops that you see below. They are easy, delicious, and just the thing to cap off our dinner on Thursday, when we plan to celebrate the dog’s third birthday.
Chocolate Covered Banana Pops
There is a recipe for these in my first cookbook, but you don’t really need official instructions. Before you begin, cut your bananas in half, insert popsicle sticks or halved wooden skewers (as shown below) and freeze for about 15 minutes on a flat surface. While bananas are freezing, melt down your bunny over low heat (removing all bowties and styrofoam accessories, please), whisking as the bunny shrinks*. (You can also do this in the microwave in a Pyrex for about a minute, depending on the size of the bunny.) When your chocolate has melted, pour into a deep measuring cup or a cereal bowl. Dip your now semi-frozen bananas into the chocolate and place pops down on a wax-paper covered surface. Quickly sprinkle oats, sprinkles, or chopped nuts on top before the chocolate hardens. Freeze until ready to eat, at least a half hour.
*I added water as mine melted to get to the right consistency, but usually even a drop of water or hint of steam puts the chocolate at risk of seizing, so only do this if absolutely necessary. My friend who works in a test kitchen surmises that the reason mine didn’t seize and get grainy was because the chocolate in the bunny was not, in fact, real chocolate.
The chocolate hardens fast, so add your toppings quick like a bunny.
One of these days Andy will write his post calling bull$#@t on starters. (He could, in fact, fill a book dedicated to calling bull$#@t in general.) “Why,” he always asks “do we spend so much time putting together a delicious dinner if our guests are just going to fill up on cheese and crackers and approach the table stuffed before they even lift their forks?” I think he has a point, but I also know that a well-curated starter plate is one of the great pleasures in life, and if assembled correctly can actually make you hungrier. As usual, I have a formula in the back of my head when I’m putting one together. It goes something like this:
Perfect Starter Plate = something sweet + something crunchy + something pickled + something from a pig + something aged
The trick is just to not have an obscene amount of any one thing. Above, you’ll see a small hunk of aged Manchego, about a quarter pound of Parma (you could do regular prosciutto or Serrano ham), some cornichons from Trader Joe’s (the best in my opinion and there would be more in that bowl if the girls didn’t eat them like popcorn right from the jar), and some pecan-raisin crackers from Eli’s Bread. Lesley Stowe’s raincoast crisps (Whole Foods) hit the sweet-crunchy note nicely, too.
Notice something different about DALS today? In an attempt to make the site a little more navigable, we’ve added a menu on the upper right there. Try it out and be sure to click on the “About the Book” link to read some of the nice things people are saying about Dinner: A Love Story.
A What to Eat pad (from KnockKnock) has been sitting in my basement for over a year now, wedged in between a pile of cookbooks and other assorted items marked “Tag Sale.” Of course when I say “marked” I mean not with a Sharpie or a label or anything, but in the back of my own mind; and when I say “Tag Sale” I of course mean “Event that I’ve been trying to organize for six years but really only serves as justification for not throwing things away.” In any case, two weeks ago, the girls found the “What to Eat” pad while they were unearthing tutus from the old dress-up box (also “marked”) and immediately came sprinting upstairs begging me to give it to them.
“Why?” I asked.
“We want to tell you what we want for dinner this week.”
There’s a chapter in my book called “Getting a Non-Cook on Board” and it outlines all the tasks that can be done by the Non-Cook to help the Cook get dinner on the table. One of these tasks is “The Non-Cook should tell the Cook what to make for dinner.” I remember Lee, my editor and also The Cook of her house, circling this advice and noting in the margin “I’m not sure I’d respond so well to this. You may need to do a little more convincing here.”
What I told her — and what I ended up writing in the book — was that there are so many things besides the actual making of dinner that go into making dinner happen. For me, the cooking part of dinner is the easy part — dare I say, the fun part. The planning part? Not really. Just because I have four thousand meal ideas recorded in my diary doesn’t necessarily mean I’m brimming with inspiration on any given weeknight. (I’ve yet to figure out why not.) So it’s a huge help for me to have someone else think up a plan. I know I’m not alone — I’ve heard from a lot of you that the think-work part of dinner can often be the most paralyzing stage of the process. So having a partner in any phase of the planning (no matter how diminutive that partner may be) helps make the meal more of a shared family goal than an it’s-coming-no-matter-what burden.
This is why I had no problem taking strict orders from our daughters these past two weeks and why the “What to Eat” pads have been rescued indefinitely from the “Tag Sale” pile. I thought you’d like to see the line-ups they came up with.
Sunday: Chicken with Artichokes “Yum”
Monday: Homemade Pizza “We get to pick the toppings” (we just had a basic marinara & mozz on a no-knead Jim Lahey pizza crust)
Tuesday: Lamb Chops with Abby’s Salad*
Wednesday: Chicken Tacos “with optional toppings”
Thursday: Pork ragu & pasta (we had this in the freezer; do not attempt to make this from scratch on a weeknight — you will never forgive me)
Friday: Out! SUSHI! (They wound up eating at their Aunt Lynn’s house instead.)
Saturday: Salmon with “tereaki and yummy flavor”
*Abby’s salad = “crispy lettuce” with tomatoes, carrots, miso-ginger dressing. She likes to make this herself.
I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t call up about a line that Lisa Belkin wrote in the New York Times two or three years ago. In an article about overparenting and the self-esteem generation used to getting praise at every turn, she asked Are we raising kids who are prepared for college, but not for life? I think about it when my 8-year-old refuses to tie her cleats by herself because she likes the way her parents tie them tighter. I think about it when I read about Ramona walking to kindergarten by herself (or maybe with Henry) while we have a really hard time letting our 10-year-old walk home from a friend’s house around the corner. I think about it when I’m reading about 11-year-old Laura Ingalls helping Pa turn straw bundles into kindling in sub-zero blizzard conditions during The Long Winter. I think about it when I see my daughters’ ballerina classmates twisting up their own buns (complete with hair net and bobby pins), when I am picking up their rooms, and hanging their wet towels, and reminding them to pack their homework, and on “Steakhouse Night” when I’m cutting their filets into teeny tiny pieces because if left to their own devices they’d probably shove Buick-sized chunks into their mouths. Or at least that’s what I think they’d do. Since I’ve never trusted them to cut their own steak, I don’t really know what they’d do. And even though I wish I was a different kind of parent, the way things are going, I don’t think I’m going to find out any time soon.
Steakhouse Night “Steakhouse Night” includes about 2 pounds of filet, Andy’s no-cream creamed spinach, and pretty much always takes place on a Saturday night. The only variable is the potato dish. This past weekend we did a rosti (or, as Abby calls it “the hugest potato pancake ever”) but nothing should stop you from switching it up with twice-baked potatoes or oven fries.
Generously salt and pepper four steak filets. Grill over medium-high heat about 5-6 minutes a side (depending on thickness) until meat is firm but not rock hard. Cut into microscopic pieces if serving to a child under 21.
Potato Rosti(or “Hugest Potato Pancake Ever” as Abby calls it) This is the kind of thing you don’t really need a recipe for. If you have two or three baking potatoes you can make a thicker rosti; if you only have one, it will work fine, too. Just be sure to add the potatoes to the pan as quickly as possible after shredding to prevent the potatoes from turning brown. But if it does turn brown, fear not, they’ll still taste as good. They just won’t look as golden.
1 to 2 baking potatoes, peeled
1/4 to a 1/3 small onion
salt and pepper
vegetable oil and butter
Using a grater or the shredding attachment on a food processor, shred your potatoes and onion into a large bowl. If you have time, take a paper towel or dishtowel and pat the potatoes to soak up as much moisture as you can. Add salt and pepper and toss. (You can also get creative with add-ins here — herbs, shredded cheese, etc.)
In a cast iron skillet over medium-low heat, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil and a tablespoon of butter. Add potatoes to the pan, spreading and pressing flat so it looks like a large pancake. Let sit for 8 to 10 minutes until the edges look golden and crispy.
Place a large plate on top of the skillet and, working carefully, invert pan so cake flips onto plate. Add a little more butter and oil to skillet and slide the cake back into pan, uncooked side down. Cook another 8-10 minutes until cooked through. Cut into wedges and serve.
Thaw a box or a bag of frozen spinach by placing it in a colander and running warm water over it for a few minutes. Press down on the spinach to squeeze out all the liquid. In a small frying pan over medium heat, add olive oil and a half a large onion (chopped), salt, pepper, a few red pepper flakes (optional, as always). After about 5 minutes, add spinach and toss with onions until spinach is heated through. Sprinkle 1 to 2 teaspoons of flour (this will prevent curdling of milk in next step) and stir. Add about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of milk (lowfat, 1%, whole…any kind but chocolate!) depending on how creamy you like your creamed spinach, and a pinch of freshly ground nutmeg. Stir until heated through and serve.