Entries Tagged as 'Organizing, Strategizing, Planning'

What’s Your Security Blanket?

December 13th, 2012 · 30 Comments · Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

A few weeks ago I got this letter from reader Catilin:

Dear Jenny,

So, um, DALS is one of the only things I read right now. I’m a lawyer (work about 65 hours a week), mother of two kids (3 and 1, oy) and have a great husband.  Our life is really blessed, but as you can imagine, we do nothing but work and take care of our kids – literally NOTHING except that!  BUT we both want to eat healthy food that gives us more energy (and less food coma), so we do eat frozen pizza sometimes, yes, but we also prep veggies, make soups and chicken stew and pot roast on the weekends so we can reheat it most nights for dinner.  And I make homemade hummus every week, not because I’m Laura Ingalls Wilder, but because I find when we have it in the house, everything else falls into place.  Hummus becomes a base for us to eat well and choose foods that last in the belly, as opposed to quick, fatty, salty things.  It was one of the first things I learned to make that changed the way I thought about how to eat for energy and to keep up with my kids. It keeps body and soul together.

I tell you all this because DALS helps me keep the faith that at some point we may actually have the time and space from our kids to make things in a more spontaneous way – right now “cooking” on weeknights (even if its only 20-30 minutes) is impossible.  So, we’re settling for reheating homemade stuff during the week.  Which isn’t terrible, but not as fun as throwing together Chicken Marsala on a Tuesday night. Sigh.  Anyway, thanks for all the good cheer and parental commiseration.

Love,

Caitlin

Let’s count how many things I love about this letter:

1) She has no time for anything except kids and work (sound familiar?) and yet she’s making time for DALS (yes!)
2) She has the good sense to make things on the weekend that can be reheated during the week. (And they sound almost exactly like what I make on the weekend.)
3) She also has to good sense to realize that this is just a phase and pretty soon she will be spontaneously throwing together that Chicken Marsala on a Tuesday night. (See “The Years the Angels Began to Sing,” in my book.)
4) She is not beating herself up over falling back on a frozen pizza now and then. (I just did that last night!)
5) It’s so well-written!
6) She knows what her security blanket is — she knowns what she has to have on hand in order to feel that all’s right with her dinner world. For me, it’s homemade salad dressing. For Andy, it’s Tuscan kale. For her, it’s hummus.

What is it for you?

Thanks for writing, Caitlin.

Hummus
Phoebe learned how to make this hummus at camp last summer and we’ve been looking for an excuse to write about it ever since. I’ve tried a lot of recipes before, but this seems to have the right balance of lemon and isn’t overly garlicky. She throws everything into the bowl of an unplugged food processor, then I take over.

1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups drained chickpeas
1/2 cup tahini
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin
juice of 1 lemon
water as needed

On a cutting board mince and mash the garlic to a paste with the salt. In a food processor, puree the chickpeas with the garlic paste, the tahini, lemon juice, scraping down the sides. Add olive oil in a thin drip until the hummus is smooth. Salt to taste.

Add water, if necessary, to thin the hummus to desired consistency and transfer the hummus to a bowl. Serve with pita or vegetable sticks.

For nut-free hummus, omit tahini.

Related: Two-minute hummus dinner.
Related: What’s Your Page-Turner?
P.S. An excerpt from  Dinner: A Love Story on Cup of Jo. Thanks, Joanna!

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Three Things to Do Now to Make Thanksgiving Easier

November 12th, 2012 · 12 Comments · Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Posts by Andy, Rituals, Thanksgiving, Uncategorized

Given that I woke up yesterday at 3am worrying about how early I need to leave work on the day before Thanksgiving to make sure I get my pumpkin pie made in time for a seamless departure the next morning, now seems like the perfect time for the last installment of our series featuring Sam Sifton and his new book, Thanksgiving. As we head into the final weekend before the feast, we asked him for advice on planning ahead — more specifically, we asked him what three things he takes care of in advance to make the big day a little less stressful. In his (elegant, reassuring) words: 

Make Cranberry Sauce.

I do this on the weekend in front of Thanksgiving, usually on Saturday night, as a way to say to myself: This thing is starting now. I dump a bag of berries into a pot with some sugar and orange juice. I get that cooking and wait for the berries to start to pop and bubble. It’s the culinary equivalent of priming a pump. It gets me started. As the sauce cooks, I sit in the kitchen and make lists I should have made days and days before. I make lists of dishes, ingredients, guests, needs, wants and, crucially, jobs. By the time the sauce is done — and that, by the way, is when a goodly portion of the berries have popped and released the pectin that binds the dish together — I have a pretty good idea of what I need to get done in the next couple of days. I dump the sauce into a serving bowl, let it cool off and put it in the fridge under some aluminum foil. There’s that job, DONE. I cross cranberry sauce off my list.

Try a Brine.

Too many people come to the idea that they’re going to brine their turkey on Wednesday morning (even Thursday morning!) and that is a little late in the game. Better to make the brine on Monday night, tip the bird into it when it’s good and cool, and then remove it on Wednesday morning so you can dry it, first with paper towel and then in the cool air of the refrigerator. That way, when you do cook it on Thursday the skin of the bird is really and truly *dry*, important because then the heat of the oven won’t have to evaporate anything before it gets to work tanning and crisping the bird. Science! It’s a Thanksgiving secret weapon.

Make Some Pies.

Or ensure that someone is making them. It’s hard enough dealing with all the stress of cooking the savory side of the meal on Thursday when you’re also trying to bake sweets. That’s why pastry chefs get to work at three in the morning. The kitchen isn’t as hot as it is when the line cooks are in there, and the butter and lard in their dough doesn’t melt until it should. Make pies on Tuesday night. Make them on Wednesday. They’ll be better for your thinking ahead, and you’ll have more things crossed off your list on Thursday morning besides.

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I Want to Marry Marinating

October 9th, 2012 · 43 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pork and Beef

I’m just going to ask you point blank: Do you know about marinating? Do you know how marinating has the power to change your dinnertime? (Which is to say, of course, your life?) Do you know that marinating can be a working parent’s best friend?…That I, Jenny Rosenstrach, take thee marinating to be my lawful wedded….

Yes, I’m sure there’s a science to it, and yes if I were a real food writer I would give you exact measurements for each of the following three-minute marinades that you can assemble in the morning in order to be that much more ahead of the game when you walk in the door at night. But to get all scientific is to lose the beauty of it. Marinating is like braising — it’s very very difficult to screw it up and even someone with the tiniest bit of culinary courage could wind up having fun with different combinations of flavors. Just remember that you need to whisk some acid in there (lemon, lime, vinegar, buttermilk — to help with the tenderizing) and getting creative with a fresh torn herb or two is never going to be a bad idea, but otherwise, it’s up to you.

Marinade: A few shots soy sauce + 1/2 cup bourbon + spoonful brown sugar
Add
: A pork tenderloin for Pork with Apples (shown; page 71 Dinner: A Love Story just replace the peaches with apples that hold their shape when cooked, like Cortlands or Jonagolds)

Marinade: Cup or so of buttermilk + dollop of mustard + heavy drizzle olive oil + salt & pepper
Add
: Chicken drumsticks for Oven-fried Chicken

Marinade: Mostly yogurt + juice from one lime + chopped peeled ginger + olive oil + torn cilantro
Add: Chicken thighs or breasts for Yogurt-marinated Chicken

Marinade: Maple syrup + soy sauce + rice vinegar + oil (I’d go same amounts for all but syrup which you only need a heavy drizzle of…)
Add: Pork chops for Rory’s Maple Candy Pork Chops

Marinade: White miso + sake + mirin + sugar
Add: Cod for Nobu’s Famous Miso-glazed Black Cod (OK, fine that one takes three days, but you’ll have to eat on Friday, too, right?)

There. Doesn’t it sorta seem like there’s a little sous chef at home thinking about dinner so you don’t have to? How good does that feel?

Feel free to share your favorite combos as well.

 

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School Year’s Resolution 2: Master the Weekly Shop

September 20th, 2012 · 33 Comments · Favorites, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

Now that we are three weeks into the school year, I am assuming you have all mastered School Year’s Resolution 1 (More Freezer Meals) and we are free to move on to a very popular cry for help among the DALS readership: I don’t know how to shop efficiently for dinner. This is a little tricky because how and what you pick up at the grocery store is inextricably linked to how you eat, so no two shopping lists for the Piggly Wiggly or Wegman’s or your local Farmer’s Market or Trader Joe’s (where we go) are ever going to look the same. So what I’ve tried to do here is outline a few rules and strategies that we shop by that can hopefully be universally applied. This list also assumes we all want to at least try to have a sit-down dinner at least four times between Sunday and Friday.

Rule 1: Put it in Writing Those of you who have read my book, know that I began this whole dinner ritual by sitting down on Sunday with my dinner diary, writing down the meals I wanted to make in the upcoming week, then shopping for everything we needed to make that happen. This strategy helped kickstart the ritual in a few ways: It got the momentum going; it eliminated those odious late-afternoon back-and-forths (What do you want to eat tonight? I don’t know, what do you want? I don’t know what do you?); and later, when we had school-aged kids, it helped lessen, if only a little bit, the existential dread of lunch-packing. (It’s so much easier to do the first pack of the week with a full fridge than with a fridge that’s been run dry.) Ultimately, the goal here is to take the daily thinkwork out of dinner. If you come up with a plan for the week, you just freed up all that psychic energy to direct towards more exciting pursuits, like watching, dissecting, and ruminating over all four seasons of Breaking Bad.

Rule 2: Squeeze in a Sexy Shop Another reason we hit Trader Joe’s on Sunday is because our farmer’s market is open on Saturdays. Unlike the dutiful, checklisty supermarket shop, this is where we can let the food (as opposed to the list) inform the shop. So we pick up what looks good — almost always fish that was swimming off Hampton Bays just hours earlier and a bundle of Tuscan kale, sorrel, summer spinach, or any other beautiful greens that last us the week and allow us to skip their mediocre bagged counterparts at Trader Joe’s. And there we have Meal 1: Grilled Fish with some kind of greens.  I’m not saying your Meal One has to be this. It might be a bolognese made from some good grass-fed beef, or pasta with fresh butternut squash or a kale and feta quiche made with the eggs from your favorite farmstand. The point is: We almost always earmark our Sunday dinners to be market-inspired. (And please don’t tell anyone I just called kale-shopping sexy.)

Rule 3: Make a Realistic Line-up Now, for that dutiful, checklisty shop. It’s crucial to keep it simple — save the Nathan Myrhvold Foamy Broth Number for Saturday night. The loose formula that I sometimes use when dreaming up my line-up is the following: (more…)

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Tumultuous Tuesdays

September 12th, 2012 · 21 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

If you opened my refrigerator on a Tuesday afternoon, there’s a good chance you’d find my green Dansk pot sitting on the bottom shelf filled with dinner. I try to limit any scheduled work events that day because the way after-school activities have shaken down for the past year, is that from 2:45 until almost 7:30, the house is pulled in 40 different directions. So much so that we’ve taken to calling it “Tumultuous Tuesdays.” I’ve come to believe that complicated family activity logistics are the very definition of First World Pain (and sort of resemble dreams – they’re boring to everyone except the people directly involved in them) so I won’t say more than this: Boy do I appreciate a meal ready-to-go when we all walk in the door. I’ve called the dinner table many things in my career as a blogger (“magic guilt eraser”, “7:00 magnetic north,” “a god@#m% freaking warzone”) but on these kinds of nights there’s one word that’s top of brain: recalibration. It goes against reason (and sanity) that on the busiest days, during the busiest times of the year, I crave a sit-down session with the family the most.

That’s why the pot is in the fridge. At some point during the day, I try to carve out a half hour from my 8:00 to 2:30 workday to get dinner ready. It can be a pot of turkey chili. Or a quick bolognese. Or this chicken stew.  Anything that looks good in my green Dansk which fits neatly on the bottom shelf of my refrigerator. (Skillet meals need not apply.) If I were more organized, or someone without the flexibility to cook dinner during lunchtime, I might put it together on the weekend and freeze in a flat bag. (And, yes, Slow-Cooker Evangelists, I think you know what to get me for my birthday.) But there’s something extremely satisfying about walking in the door, opening the fridge, transferring the pot to the burner and serving up dinner 10 minutes later. Almost as though I’ve convinced myself that no way, dude, my children are not over-scheduled. I have it all under control. Recalibration? Self-Delusion? All I know is that next Tuesday feels like a lifetime away.

Chicken Stew and Biscuits
This recipe is based on my normal chicken pot pie filling, but for this version, I prefer it stewier so there’s plenty of juice to sop up with the biscuits. When you don’t have leftover cooked chicken on hand, poach 2 chicken breasts in simmering salted water for 15 minutes, while the vegetables are simmering the other pot.

storebought buttermilk biscuits (we like Trader Joe’s frozen)
1 to 1 1 /2 cups chicken broth (cookbook owners, I had some homemade stock, page 289 in the freezer which elevated this to pretty insane levels of deliciousness.)
2 red or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
handful chopped carrots
1/2 medium onion, chopped
leaves from 1 sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup milk whisked with 2 tablespoons flour
1 cup cooked chicken (shredded or cubed; storebought rotisserie is ideal)
handful of asparagus or peas or green beans or all three
Parmesan to taste (I add about 1/4 cup; sharp cheddar or Jack would be good, too)

If you are baking biscuits, preheat oven and follow package instructions. Bring broth to a boil in a medium-size pot like the one shown above. Add the potatoes, carrots, onions, thyme, and bay leaf, and simmer the mixture for 15 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Drizzle the milk-flour mixture slowly into the vegetables and simmer, stirring until it is slightly thickened. (Or to taste. Remember: you want some sopping liquid for the biscuits.) Remove the pan from heat, stir in chicken and asparagus and cheese. (If making this ahead of time, allow to cool, cover, and place in fridge*. When ready to serve, reheat uncovered over low heat.) Place a biscuit on each plate and top with stew as shown.

*Note: I’m sure there’s some rule for how long you’re allowed to keep a pot in the refrigerator before its contents start to take on a metallic taste. I’ve never done it for more than a 6 to 8 hour stretch, though, and it’s worked out just fine.

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School Year’s Resolution 1: More Freezer Dinners

September 5th, 2012 · 38 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

You should see The List right now. In addition to the usual suspects (book doctor appointments, contact accountant, hire business partner!!!, “garage sale!!!!!”) there are all those tasks that have the distinct whiff of self-betterment, the kinds of things usually reserved for New Years. Does this happen to you? Do you get the Clean Slate feeling every September? Do you find yourself making silent resolutions to yourself in the Starbucks line like “Make More Freezable Dinners” or “Eliminate All White Foods” or “Call More, Text Less” or “Stop giving so much money to Starbucks.” Well, apparently a good number of you do, because upon my return from vacation, my DALS inbox was filled with requests for posts like these: (I’m paraphrasing)

How do I shop more efficiently?
How do I squeeze in exercise when I have kids, a job, and the need to sit down at some point during the course of my 18-hour day?
How do I cook with sustainable fish without mortgaging my life?
How do I serve more vegetable-based dinners without alienating the meat-eaters at my table?
How can I help you sell as many Dinner: A Love Story books as possible?

OK, so maybe that last request I might have made up. But the other issues are very very real so in the next week or so I’ll be addressing them and any other back-to-school resolutions you may want to discuss here on DALS. Well, except for resolutions about fondant. I will not be able to provide any assistance with fondant.

You can either email me those requests directly or comment below. In the meantime, here’s one answer to my Make-More-Freezer-Dinners Resolution. I made a big old pot of this pulled BBQ chicken for Andy’s birthday dinner party last spring (alongside some pulled pork, quick-pickled onions and jalapenos, and lots of slaws). In addition to being an excellent Make-Ahead Menu, I happened to notice that the pulled chicken froze exceptionally well. So my resolution this week is to make a pot of it on Saturday, freeze in small, thawable stashes (flat ziplocs!), and then be prepared for any dinner situation this school year decides to throw my way — late trains, babysitter cancellations, ridiculous amounts of extracurriculars and all! Warning: Freezer Dinner Ambition Subject to Waning.

Pulled Chicken Sandwiches

1 cup barbecue sauce (bonus points for homemade, which takes 15-20 minutes, page 238 Dinner: A Love Story)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 chipotle pepper in adobo (not adobo sauce, just a single saucy pepper)
6 to 8 boneless chicken breasts (2 pounds-ish), halved if they are large, salted and peppered
Potato Rolls (slider or sandwich)
pickled onions and jalapenos (optional)

In a large heavy pot, mix together barbecue sauce, cider vinegar, onion, garlic, bay leaf, and chipotle. Add chicken and enough water to cover (about 2 cups), whisking water with barbecue mixture until it’s blended. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and shred with two forks. Bring the sauce to a boil until it thickens and reduces, another 10 minutes. Once it reaches desired consistency (should not be as liquidy as show in photo above — I was losing my light! I had to act fast!) stir in chicken. (If you want to freeze for a later use, allow to cool at this point, then spoon into zip-top bags and flatten slightly so they are easier to thaw.) Otherwise, serve chicken on potato rolls (sliders are always fun) with pickled vegetables (or jarred pickles), your favorite slaw, or shredded sharp cheddar.

For the super-ambitious, here’s how to quick-pickle some onions with jalapenos: Bring 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar, and a heavy pinch of salt to a boil in a saucepan. Add red onion slices and cross-sectioned jalapenos and simmer, uncovered about 3 minutes. Drain and cool to room temp. Serve on top of pulled chicken sandwiches. I don’t want to overstate things, but…Killer.

And Just for the Heck of it…A Basic Cole Slaw

In a large bowl, whisk together 1/3 cup cider vinegar, dash of Sriracha, 3 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise, ½ teaspoon celery seed, 1 tablespoon sugar, salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Shred half a head of green or red cabbage (5 cups) as thinly as possible. (With a mandoline or the shredding disk of a food processor.) Add to the dressing and toss to combine. Toss in a little chopped cilantro. Serve right away.

PS: If I knew anything about slow-cookers, I might suggest adapting the chicken for that use, too.

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A Make-Ahead, Room-Temp Menu for Entertaining

August 16th, 2012 · 9 Comments · Entertaining, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Uncategorized

I had such fantasies when we invited our friends Todd and Anne for dinner. It wasn’t a special occasion dinner — only a sort of a “last gasp of summer” kind of night since both our families are going our separate ways for the rest of the month and the next time we see them we’ll be all busy with things like teacher conferences and homework supervising. I thought the occasion offered the perfect excuse to experiment with all those recipes I had been dog-earring and bookmarking for the past few weeks. Plus, The Sprouted Kitchen had just landed on my doorstep and I loved what I saw — whole grains and the most inspiring vegetable-heavy dinners that take advantage of beautiful, gem-like, peak-season summer produce. (These three weeks are the ones I look forward to all year long and to waste a single August eating opportunity is a crime!) I drew up a menu for Tuesday night, the night they were coming over. There were beet slaws and buttermilk dressings. Exotic grains and chilled soups. Yes, this would be one to remember.

But there I was on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours from dinner with no time to shop, still looking at the line-up which was not so much inspiring as it was taunting. Various assignments and appointments had conspired against my Fantasy Summer Menu and so instead of sniffing melons at the market (as I had imagined I would be doing), I found myself in what is increasingly becoming my default position: Standing in front of refrigerator scratching my head. Luckily it was only Tuesday so we still had a lot of food from our weekend shop. And luckily I had my Big Feel-Good Batch of Barley that I could transform to something nice in minutes. The rest of the menu holes I filled in with dishes that were the opposite of brand new, i.e. dishes I had been making for the past fifteen summers. But as soon as Todd and Anne and their kids arrived and sat down to the meal,  I was reminded why the dishes have lasted fifteen summers — because they work! And they’re delicious! I totally forgot — when produce is this good, you don’t have to perform any culinary acrobatics to make a successful meal. You don’t have to outshine yourself just for the sake of it! You just keep it simple and let the food do the talking.

A Summer Menu
It worked out well because Grandma Jody’s Chicken is just as good at room temperature as it is hot from the skillet so I could make it an hour or so ahead of time and leave on the counter tented with foil. When the doorbell rang, everything on the menu was ready to go — except the gin and tonics.

Starters: Baguette slices, figs, parmesan, ricotta mixed with lemon zest, thyme, and honey. Gin and Tonics.

Dinner: Grandma Jody’s Chicken with Arugula and Heirloom Tomatoes (page 13, Dinner: A Love Story), Bacon-Corn Hash (page 29), Herbed Barley Salad (page 245)

Wine: A beautiful Italian Sauvignon Blanc, a gift from my babysitter Ali who had just spent the month in Florence.

Dessert: Emily’s Peach-Blueberry Cobbler and Cold Watermelon

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A Weekly Meal Plan for YOU

June 21st, 2012 · 36 Comments · Dinner: A Love Story, the Book, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

Ok guys — didn’t I say right there on page 2 of the book that in order to kickstart the dinner habit, you are not in any way whatsoever required to start writing down what you are cooking and eating in a dedicated diary? So what is up with all the emails* telling me that you are starting your own books and filling them with chilled soups and grilled fish tacos and other simple, delicious-sounding summer dinners? Do you not know you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of obsessiveness and ridicule and…simple, delicious-sounding summer dinners?

Well anyway, I was thinking this morning that since I was the one who got you into this whole mess, the least I could do is help you kickstart some weekly planning. So book owners, you are welcome to download a PDF of the line-up that I intend to scribble into my own diary next week. It’s been hot in New York the past few days and this menu (including shopping list) was designed with that in mind. And, also, with the Really?-Dinner-is-Here-Again? cook in mind. All you have to do to access the plan is click here and type in the secret code, i.e. the last word on page 137. (Or, for Kindle readers: location 39% – 2151 of 5506, the word right above “November.”)

And non-book owners, what are you waiting for? Now that I’ve put my diary-inspired mania out there, and you have access to the meals that have seen me through fourteen years of first jobs and working late and eating in shifts and witching hours and picky eaters and two cursed egg-haters and dinners at the beach and in front of the World Cup and the Olympics and American Idol — well, now that all of this is out there, I’m going to be presenting these book-based meal plans as bonus features and I don’t want to feel guilty about leaving you behind! It’s bad enough that I’ve sent all these poor unsuspecting souls down the diary road. So, as Andy would say, let’s do this thing!

*If you have not heard back from me yet, please forgive the delay. Please do not mistake this delinquency for ungraciousness or apathy. I’ve read (and sometimes re-read) every note and will eventually repsond to every single one.

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One Meal, Three Ways

June 4th, 2012 · 15 Comments · Deconstructing Dinner, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pasta, Picky Eating, Quick, Vegetarian

If you asked 8-year-old Abby to list her favorite foods, I have a feeling the following would show up in the top ten: penne, fettucini, rigatoni, farfalle, gnocchi, orechiette, and (as of last week), cavatelli. I don’t know how much of this love affair is because she’s defining herself in opposition to her sister, a world class pasta hater,  but I do know that because of Phoebe’s refusal to touch the stuff, Abby doesn’t get a nice bowl of spaghetti and meatballs nearly as often as she’d like to. I also know that eliminating pasta from our dinner repertoire is not an option given how much Andy and I love it, and given how much the girls’ Great Grandmothers are named Turano and Catrino. So while the rest of us might get a nice bowl of cavatelli with spring asparagus, tomatoes, ricotta, and lemon, Phoebe would get something that looks like this:

Not bad, right? I might call this ricotta and tomatoes on baguette a first cousin of the real dinner.

And maybe I’d call this one a second cousin, which I might serve a toddler (or a pincer-grasping baby) who prefers his food equal but separate.

Pasta with Asparagus, Tomatoes, Ricotta & Lemon
This recipe has you tossing the aspargus in with the boiling pasta water which saves you a pot to clean. (You’re welcome!) For Version 2 dinner: toast a baguette, top with ricotta and tomatoes as shown. Drizzle with olive oil and some good sea salt. Serve asparagus on the side. For Version 3: I think you got that one.

Cook 1 pound pasta according to package directions. (We used cavatelli, but any kind will do.) While pasta is cooking, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Swirl a halved garlic clove in the oil just for a quick flavor hit, then remove. Add 1 1/2 cups chopped grape tomatoes (yellow or red), salt, pepper and cook until tomatoes are wilted.

During last three minutes that the pasta is cooking, toss in 1 bunch asparagus spears (chopped) to the pot. Drain pasta and asparagus together and immediately toss in with tomatoes, cooking until pasta is coated with tomato juice.

Remove from heat and toss in 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of ricotta (or to taste), 2 teaspoons lemon zest, salt, and pepper. (If it’s too hard to toss in the skillet, you can do  this in a large bowl.)

Serve with chopped fresh basil.

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Perfect Little Starter Plate

April 6th, 2012 · 10 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Quick, Rituals

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.

Have a great holiday.

 

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How to Plan Family Dinner

March 22nd, 2012 · 33 Comments · Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Quick, Rituals

Last weekend I was in my friend Nina’s bright, airy kitchen, taking in the expansive view of the Hudson River out the back window, when she motioned me over to the kitchen table.  ”Please sit down,” she said. In front of me, there was a small pile of cookbooks, some old Gourmet magazines, and a well-loved, yellowed recipe booklet that once belonged to her grandmother. Nina handed me a pad of paper and a pencil. She took a seat next to me and said, “I feel like maybe I should be lying on a couch.”

Her 9-year-old came bounding into the kitchen and thanked me — unprompted! — for the meal Andy cooked for him at our house the night before. We laughed. We talked about last night. He left and she turned to me again, a serious look on her face.

“OK, Nina,” I said. ” What seems to be the problem?”

She took a deep breath. “I just can’t get organized when it comes to grocery shopping” she said. “I really need help.”

Because of my line of “work,” I seem to land myself in these kinds of dinner heart-to-hearts all the time. I imagine my friend Kate, a psychologist and the world’s best listener, helping her friends through stress and anxiety and deeply personal issues, offering them comforting advice with phrases like “That’s normalizing.” Not me. My patients’ issues — at least as they present themselves to me — tend to center more on pork chops and grocery lists. Last year, at pick-up, a mother of three approached me and said “I get angry – really angry, when my kids say they don’t like the food I’ve spent time cooking for them.” She paused then added, “Sometimes I have to get up and walk away from the table.” About a gazillion times a month I hear this complaint: “We eat the same things week after week. I can’t seem to break out of the rut!” Last year, after a book talk I gave at a local school, a mother asked me: “What do you do if you don’t know how to make sauce?”

But of all the issues that can face a dinner-maker — no time, no skills, no inspiration, no help with the cooking — Nina has the big one down: Family dinner is the house default mode. She and her husband (who both work from home) and their two kids sit down to a meal together every night.

“What are you so worried about?!” I told her. “That’s the hardest part to nail!”

She didn’t quite see it that way. “I guess. But I never have a plan when I go shopping,” she told me. “I never seem to have what I need to improvise.” She led me to her pantry and, Vanna-White-style, swept her arm across the shelves. There were three full bags of panko breadcrumbs, about a dozen bags of pecans. Nina told me she hits the supermarket  once a week for the kids’ school lunch and breakfast staples, but on that shop doesn’t ever think about dinner ingredients. “Honestly,” she told me, “I don’t really think about dinner until the moment I’m standing in front of my refrigerator at 6:00.”

I had a sudden urge to rewrite the first line of Anna Karenina: Every unhappy family dinner-maker is unhappy in his or her own way. But instead I started scribbling some strategies that I wanted her to put into play immediately.

Strategy 1: Think about dinner before you have to make it. It’s not exactly breaking news, but if the goal is to make dinner something to look forward to — as opposed to one more task in between “pay taxes” and “schedule root canal” on the to-do list — you need to plan ahead. And planning ahead comes in all shapes and sizes. It means on Sunday, you look at the schedule for the upcoming week to determine which nights are going to be home-cooked meal nights and which ones are going to be storebought dinner nights. (And which ones are going to be Moo Shu pork in front of American Idol.) It means on a Monday or Tuesday morning taking two minutes to ask yourself: What can my 8:00am self do to help my 6:00pm self? Marinate something. Chop something. At the very least, decide on something. Get the momentum going.

Strategy 2: Try something new once a week. Nina’s kids eat almost any meat and love salmon, but they don’t love things mixed together, and could use some help expanding their vegetable repertoires. We looked in my upcoming book for some salmon recipes that were familiar to the boys, but different enough to feel like she was busting a rut. We also looked for interesting ways to upgrade the vegetables so the grown-ups could get a little more joy out of the steamed broccoli. I always feel like the trick to trying something new is to introduce it gradually — and preferably when there’s something else on the plate that is universally loved and embraced.

Strategy 3: Give yourself at least one From-the-Freezer night. Whether it’s thawing something homemade or chucking in the storebought default dinner you picked up at Trader Joe’s. Nina’s go-to in this situation is Trader Joe’s Mandarin Chicken. (Note to self: That stuff looks goood.) Don’t put pressure on yourself to cook something from scratch every night of the week. I don’t have to remind Nina, a sustainability consultant, that the name of the game is to create a sustainable dinner system.

Strategy 4: Be your own sous chef. Make something on the weekend (or at least a Sunday dinner) that can carry over to one meal during the week. It doesn’t even have to be a bolognese — though that would be nice. Even a five-minute homemade salad dressing will end up yielding some seriously happy dividends.

Strategy 5: Go out on Thursday or Friday night.  No matter what your dinner issues are, you’ve earned it.

Click here to download a PDF of Nina’s weekly meal plan (plus shopping list!) and also to see how we applied each of the above strategies.

 Above photos shot by Jennifer Livingston.

 

 

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The Importance of Routine

February 1st, 2012 · 24 Comments · Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

I was having drinks with a few local friends last year when one of them, the mother of a newborn (her first), leaned across the martinis and whispered to me “How come everyone says it goes so fast? I just find it to be the EXACT opposite.” Her face was awash in guilt as soon as she sent these words out there, and quickly hedged. “Oh my God! Is that a horrible thing to think? It’s not like I feel that way all the time.” I was shocked by the statement too — not because she was confessing to what every parent thinks at one point or another, especially during the particular points when the baby is not sleeping — but because she was asking me for advice. How was I suddenly the veteran with a third and fourth grader who had advice to dispense on parenting? What the…? Damn, that went fast!

I told her what I believe to be 100% true: Everything changes when the baby, and therefore the baby’s parents are sleeping. Until then, you can’t be expected to remember where you put your car keys, let alone think straight about the great cosmic meaning of children and happiness. Then I told her my theory about sleeping which I also believe to be 100% true, but might have a harder time backing up with, you know, JAMA studies: Every parent has to deal with one of three sleep handicaps:

  • Handicap 1: The baby/toddler will torture you for hours at bedtime before finally shutting his or her eyes.
  • Handicap 2: The baby/toddler wakes up in the middle of the night for long stretches, during which time you feel like the loneliest person on earth.
  • Handicap 3: The baby/toddler rises before the sun and you are forced to function before you’ve had a cup of coffee.

Each handicap carries its own particular set of tortures, but in my experience, it seems rare that a parent has to deal with two or three at once. (I can already hear the emails of dissent pinging in my inbox.) As we’ve mentioned several million times on this blog, our sleep handicap was always the morning. No matter what we did, for the longest time, we could not figure out a way to get Abby to sleep past 5:30. (How I dreamed of the sevens!) But then we’d go to a friend’s house for dinner and we’d all be eating dessert at 10:00 while their 3-year-old would dart in and of the bedroom every 15 minutes, burying his sleepy bedhead in mom’s lap, until finally his parents, through gritted teeth, would just give up and invite him to join us for a piece of pie.

Our first pediatrician told me that kids crave routines. I like to think this is a fact that one might even find in JAMA. I also like to think that we were so Draconian about our evening routine early on that this is what made it impossible for our daughters to suffer from handicap number 1. Even though we weren’t necessarily eating dinner with them when they were that little, we were always sitting with them. There was always some form of after-dinner event (as full-time working parents, this was the half hour when we attempted to cram in all the “quality time” we felt we missed during the day), then bath, bedtime story, and finally, lights out. On the weekends, we’d let them “watch a movie” (a 10-minute Pixar short; today it’s more like The Danish Poet*, above) because what’s the point of having a routine if you can’t break it every now and then?

As for how to solve handicaps 2 and 3? What do you think I’m some sort of veteran? How should I know?

*Which contains the immortal line: “Kaspar became living proof that some poets are better off happy than sad.”

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Four Strategies for Nervous Nellies

January 9th, 2012 · 7 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pork and Beef

I was at a dinner party with two other couples last year when the host approached me discreetly in the living room. “Can you come here?” she whispered, motioning towards the kitchen. She led me to the oven, pulled out a roasting pan filled with eight split chicken breasts whose skin were all a nice caramel-ly brown. “They’re ready, right?” she asked. I always get nervous with thick chicken breasts, too, so I asked her how long they’d been in. “About an hour,” she told me. I had a feeling they weren’t done yet. “Can I touch one?” I asked. I poked one of them in the thickest part. It felt too soft. The rule for doneness with chicken, I told her, is that it should feel firm to the touch but not rock hard. “It needs more time.” Andy walked in and I pulled him over for his opinion. Along with his tight spiral and his general kindness towards humanity, gauging meat doneness is one of his greatest qualities. He poked the chicken once, and with a conviction I envied, declared, “Five more minutes.”

Five minutes later we were sitting down to a delicious, well-cooked herby chicken with market-fresh greens.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been in the same situation as my chicken-roasting host. Or I should say, how many times I used to be in that situation. It’s not that I’ve become so confident when face-to-face with, say, a lamb shoulder, or a $20/pound Christmas filet mignon or a bacon-spinach-stuffed ribeye, but I don’t stress about cooking meat to proper doneness nearly as much as I used to. Part of the reason for this — OK most of the reason for this — is that Andy is so preternaturally gifted with meat that it just makes sense to cede the floor to him when a Porterhouse or a flank steak is on the menu. But the other reason is that I’ve discovered a whole bunch of ways to prepare meaty main dishes that involve absolutely no stressing about doneness at all. These are the strategies I tend to fall back on when I’m having people over for dinner and there’s a 100% chance that I would be filling a sippy cup at the exact moment a meat thermometer would hit the point of no return.

1. Put Away the Meat Thermometer and Braise. Large hunks of meat become much more friendly when you braise them. This basically means you are cooking a loin or a shoulder in liquid in the oven or on the stovetop for a few hours at a low temperature. Beyond the fact that this technique makes it impossible to overcook or undercook, it magically transforms cheap cuts of meat into melty tenderness and is almost always just the thing for a warm-your-bones winter meal. See: Marcella’s Milk-braised Pork Loin; Braised Short Ribs; Pork Ragu; Baked Chicken with Mascarpone. (That last one is less braising than submerging, but it’s equally effective and takes much less time.)

2. Think Small. It’s much easier to gauge the doneness of small pieces of meat and fish than it is to make the call on larger pieces. Just think — if you’re not sure, you can break open a small piece of chicken in a stir-fry to check for the telltale shiny pink and the dish won’t be any worse for the wear. You can’t really do this with a whole roast chicken without releasing the trapped juices that make a perfectly roasted chicken so tasty. See: Chicken with Broccoli; Pan-seared Scallops; Beef with Broccoli.

3. Hack! One of the reasons I fell in love with salmon salad was because after a fillet was roasted or grilled you had to shred it into pieces and toss it with the vegetables and vinaigrette.  This meant that if you weren’t sure the salmon was cooked to proper doneness you could definitely take a peak in the middle with a knife or a fork or a pick axe — and if it wasn’t ready, just send it back for another few. Who cares what the thing looked like if you were going to eventually hack it all up, right? See: Salmon Salad.

4. Make Clams. Every time I prepare Andy’s clams — which, as you can gather by the name, is not that often — I am amazed at how easy they are. This meal is a bonanza for people who fret about whether something has cooked through or not. Think about how beautifully unequivocal it is that clams, when cooked properly, will open up their shells to tell you that they are done. It’s like they have little mouths. I’m done! Take me out! Eat me! To me this is as much of a miracle of nature as the Blue Footed Booby. See: Spaghetti and Clams; Steamed Little Necks (more…)

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The Table is Set

December 16th, 2011 · 20 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rituals

No matter how early I got out of bed when I was a kid, I would come down to a set breakfast table. Even during the school week. Even in the winter when my alarm (“You’re listening to 95.5, WP…..L….J”) would go off in the pitch black. Even when I was the first one up on Christmas morning, I could expect to flip on the kitchen light and see five plates, five place-mats, five juice glasses, five forks, knives, and spoons. This was not Santa or Santa’s elves at work. It was my dad, who had set the breakfast table the night before, after dinner, after the dishwasher cycle. After we had all retired to our bedrooms to do whatever it was we did before teenagers holed up in the dark texting their friends. When my friend Jenny would call me at night the first thing she’d always ask was, “Did Ivan set the table yet?”

We made endless fun of him for his obsessive advanced planning  – and yet, there I was, two years ago, with our holiday table all ready to go (sans the fresh flowers) a full week and a half before any guest would walk through my white-Christmas-light-framed doorway. The truth is, that dinner was the first Christmas dinner Andy and I had ever hosted (usually it was at my parents’ or Andy’s parents’ house), and I was overwhelmed by all that had to go into feeding ten adults and six children. I found that hosting the holiday dinner wasn’t like the rest of the season’s chaos — much of which could be done in advance and usually one-clicked while waiting for the chicken to finish roasting. When I sat down and looked at my dinner to-do list, it was a lot of last minute shopping and stressing and the only thing I could think of to do to feel more in control was…set the table.

It felt so good to have that part of the event under control that now I do it before almost any occasion that merits the Dining Room Table treatment. Phoebe’s Secret Agent Party birthday table was set at least three days ahead of time and when Andy came home from work that night and saw it, he looked at me like I had nine heads. Just like we all used to look at Dad. But Dad gets it. I know he’s running around the county right now picking out gifts for his six grandchildren, and I’m sure he’s overwhelmed by the chaos, too, but I’m guessing that wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, his table is set.

PS: Andy made an apricot-bourbon glazed ham for that holiday dinner and it rocked. Look for that post in the next week.

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Controlling the Controllable

November 30th, 2011 · 217 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Uncategorized

Do you know this phrase? Controlling the Controllable. Or should I say, have you heard of this condition? Symptoms include:

-Adding tasks to your to-do list even after you’ve completed them, just so you can experience the satisfaction of crossing that task off the list.

-Having a sudden irrepressible urge to rearrange your sock drawer or color-code your bookshelf or clean the living room blinds with a toothbrush after reading a terrible story in the newspaper.

-Recording what will be for dinner or what has been for dinner every night for going on fourteen straight years, even when those dinners consist of a pasta-potato-buttered-biscuit starchfest (picky toddlers) or a microwaved Boca Burger, which was as imaginative as it was going to get after a long day at the office  (picky bosses).

-Organizing your grocery list by supermarket aisle.

-Mentally spreadsheeting the time your children spend with you versus the time they spend in childcare or with a babysitter or nanny. (And hoping you will come out ahead.)

-Having the fleeting thought If I could make all corners of my life look and feel as orderly as this compartmentalized lunchbox by PlanetBox, then I can accomplish anything. (more…)

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Top 10 Quick Dinners

September 7th, 2011 · 21 Comments · Favorites, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Quick

If I didn’t know that September was here by the first-day-of-school butterflies, the sudden, almost primal urge to re-organize my bulletin board, or the to-do list spinning through my brain like a slot machine at 3am, I’d know it by looking at my DALS email inbox. Help! You all write. I need quick dinner ideas for the back-to-school scramble. I started replying one by one, but then I thought almost everyone out there would be interested in my suggestions. So here they are, in no particular order.

1. Pretzel Chicken Courtesy of City Bakery (pictured Below).
2. Chicken and Rice for Beginners. You’ll never go back.
3. Pork Chops with Kale A Bugiali favorite.
4. Angel Hair with Corn and Bacon Your window for sweet summer corn is about to shut — take advantage of the fresh ears as much as possible!
5. Sausage Stew with Kale and White Beans I’m making this tonight.
6. Avgolemeno Insane how creamy this lemony Greek soup tastes — without using any cream at all.
7. Salmon with Brussels Sprouts and Ginger-Scallion Sauce  Superfast, superhealthy.
8. Quick and Easy Pork Fried Rice Easily made veg by omitting the pork. It’s almost too easy!
9. Turkey Sloppy Joes with Melted Cheddar For nostalgia night.
10. Chicken with Artichokes in a Creamy Mustard Sauce This is in danger of becoming my new “Stairway to Heaven” of Dinners. It always makes whatever list I’m compiling. But I promise it’s more satisfying.

Quick Dinner #2.

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Two Bowls

July 21st, 2011 · 9 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Picky Eating, Sides, Salads, Soup

I wish I could say that the inspiration for this meal came from a stroll through my farmer’s market — from those gorgeous bunches of lacinato kale and bushels of Romano beans; from the juicy blackberries and rosy, plump apricots and white nectarines; from the summer spinach that seems to coo: Come hither! Slather me in olive oil and toss me around a little! (more…)

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The Quinoa Solution

April 11th, 2011 · 23 Comments · Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Posts by Andy, Quick, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

We usually do our food shopping once a week, on Sunday afternoons, bolting to Trader Joe’s as soon as the final whistle on the final soccer event of the weekend finally blows. It’s our secular pilgrimage. We genuflect at the altar of dried fruits and granola bars, we load up the cart, we drive home, the kids go upstairs to animate some plastic stuff, and Jenny and I begin the never-gets-less-brutal process of unpacking the groceries… at which point, we realize, as we put the fresh crop of vegetables into the refrigerator, that we haven’t made use of half of what we bought last week. There’s a sad fennel bulb, once crisp and fresh, now yellowish and funky. (A pity, too: I had big plans for that. Look for a roasted fennel recipe one of these days.) There’s a quart of now-slimy mushrooms, and an exhausted hunk of red cabbage. There’s an ominous cluster of tupperware containers, each holding part of an onion, lemon, or red pepper, all of uncertain vintage, all well past their prime. And way in the back, by the sour cream, there’s always a tub of grape tomatoes, now a week old and only 1/3 eaten, and we really want to make use of them, but they’re just this side of too-far-gone to put on our salad.

We’re not proud to admit this, but we often end up throwing too much of this stuff away. It’s a lot of food, and a lot of money, to go to waste.

Last weekend, though, we may have solved the grape tomato problem. Since they were already starting to turn, we embraced the shrivel. We doubled down on the decay. We slow-roasted them, until they were all wrinkly and intense and sweet, and then we tossed them into a quinoa salad. Roasted tomatoes are so easy, very hard to mess up, and versatile as they wanna be: you can put these over pasta with olive oil and cheese, on bruschetta with garlic and basil, on top of fish or chicken. Or, as we ended up doing, you can use them to add a whole new hearty dimension to a salad. Tomato problem: solved. I don’t know why it took us so long.* – Andy

* Very important note: I highly recommend listening to this while you cook. And maybe follow it up with this. Or this. Or just buy the whole album. It’s in heavy DALS rotation. (more…)

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