I think the surest way to ring the death knell on family dinner is to cook something different for every party present. It’s hard enough to get one dinner on the table let alone four, each of which may be greeted with groans or, worse, no comment at all. But considering that children (green-fearing, sauce-o-phobic, generally annoying children) are often the defining variable in the term “family dinner,” this can be a hard thing to get around. Luckily you are here, in the care of a family dinner expert, the author of not one, but (almost) two family dinner cookbooks, so pay careful attention to the hard-won, time-honored advice you are about to receive. The trick, I’ve decided, is to lock yourself into a state of extreme denial and then psyche yourself out with careful inner rationalizing every step of the cooking process in order to convince yourself that you are making one thing when in fact you are doing nothing of the sort. Behold last night’s dinner. I wanted — no, needed — my favorite ace-in-the-hole pasta: Whole wheat spaghetti with caramelized onions, spinach, and Parmesan. Even though Phoebe won’t touch pasta. Even though Abby loves pasta, but generally won’t eat this pasta unless it has a hint of sauce on it. (“Pink!” she commands.) But I plowed ahead anyway. Let me show you how it’s done.
Psyche-out Moment 1: I set four identical plates in a grid. This immediately creates the promise (illusion?) of uniformity and order.
Psyche-out Moment 2: I earmark the lower right bowl as Abby’s and spoon in just the right amount of spaghetti sauce — and a couple hunks of butter. This can barely be called “customizing” since it takes under 10 seconds.
Psyche-out Moment 3: I earmark the lower left bowl as Phoebe’s. And while, yes, the baked potato is not exactly the same thing as whole wheat spaghetti, it’s not like it took sooo much extra effort for me to chuck the thing in the oven at 400°F as soon as I walked in the door from work at 6:00. If I was editing this recipe for a magazine, I told myself rather convincingly, I would’ve just have to replace one word: “Pasta with Caramelized Onions, Spinach, and Parmesan” would be “Potatoes with Caramelized Onions, Spinach, and Parmesan.” And Sour Cream.
Psyche-out Moment 4: Pasta is done and plated in three out of four bowls. Onions and spinach are done and plated in three out of four bowls. Three out of four! Even though the two kids’ bowls are barely related to each other, each can lay claim to having one major component in common with the grown-up version. Right? Right? Right? Who’s the April Fool? Not me!
Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Caramelized Onion, Spinach, and Parmesan (The No-Mind-Game Version) I think of this as the stepsister of Pasta with Yogurt and Caramelized Onions. My friend (and former Real Simple co-worker) Frances used to make a version of it for her own family and I fell in love because it doesn’t require hunting down sheep’s milk yogurt, is remarkably pantry friendly, so perfect for those nights you walk in the door from work with exactly no idea what to make. It takes 20-25 minutes, unless you have a daughter who requires the pasta be swapped with a baked potato.
Pour a few glugs of olive oil into a skillet set over medium-low heat, and cook 3 large onions (sliced) for a minimum of 15 minutes and up to 45 minutes. While onions cook, prepare 1 pound whole wheat spaghetti according to package directions. During the last minute of pasta cooking, add a handful of frozen spinach (or a big handful of fresh spinach) to the water. Drain pasta and spinach together. (If spinach integrated into pasta is going to cause a revolt with certain diners at your table, then just cook the spinach in the pasta pot after you’ve drained the pasta.) Toss pasta with olive oil and distribute into bowls. Stir about a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar into the onions, then heap the onions on top of the pasta. Top with freshly grated Parmesan.