Notes from The Dinner Playbook

March 3rd, 2014 · 15 Comments · Chicken and Turkey, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning

There was a time, when the girls were two and three, that we dreamed of the day when they’d be 10 and 11, able to sit at the table and place food in their own mouths while filling us in on their days. Now that we’re finally here—avert your eyes, new parents—we realize that our dream was a mirage, that life finds a way of constantly moving the goalposts on you. Family dinner is still chaotic, only the challenges have shifted from the physical to the logistical. And March and April, for us—with the girls deeply entrenched in two spring sports—is the most chaotic time of year. As we’ve detailed more than once on this blog, practices don’t end until 7:30, which means that, most nights, dinner doesn’t happen until the (very European) hour of 8:30. When you’re dealing with an overstuffed activities schedule, it’s crucial to have a few strategies that make a solid dinner possible. Here are three we will be relying on all season long:

Strategy 1: The Before-Work Play
When the cook is on carpool duty—i.e., it’s not just the athlete coming home late—the key is to prepare something in that 15-minute window before you head to work in the morning. We love soba noodle salad with a simple rice vinegar dressing and greens—spinach, kale, chard—tossed right into the pasta water in the last minute of cooking. Refrigerate till you get home, toss on the dressing, and, if you have time, add some shredded chicken for the win.

Strategy 2: The Pan-Fried Pizza Move
By the time our li’l midfielders stagger through the door, they’re like a couple of feral dogs: They don’t even bother to take off their shin guards before inhaling whatever is put in front of them. A piece of fish on a night like this? Ain’t. Gonna. Cut. It. Individual pan-fried pizzas with whole wheat crust? That’s more like it. Just brown your rolled-out dough in a cast-iron pan with some olive oil, flip, add sauce and toppings, then finish under the broiler. Abby likes a classic Margherita; Phoebe goes for ham and pineapple. (Book owners: Please see page 281 for the official recipe.)

Strategy 3: The Freezer Plan
When there’s so little time on the clock, it’s tempting to fall back on takeout or frozen pot pies. But we’d rather walk through the door, reach into our freezer, and pull out something homemade—like a batch of bake-ahead turkey and spinach meatballs. Think of it as the utility man of the family dinner: ever reliable, can play both protein and vegetable, goes on a bun (meatball subs!) or over pasta, and will crush its store-bought competition any night of the week. Pro tip: Freeze them in single-serving batches, so you can thaw and deploy as needed. Victory.

This is our “Providers” column for the March 2014 issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for the spinach-and-turkey meatball recipe. Photo by Matt Duckor (meatballs) for Bon Appetit.

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Fall Ball

September 26th, 2011 · 14 Comments · Pork and Beef

It’s not that I’m not an autumn girl. I do love how the backyard Japanese maple turns canary yellow and my kitchen window frames it like a painting. I love the crisp air thing. And even though I complain about the weekend-eating game schedule to anyone who will listen, I love the return to soccer. Not a whole lot thrills me more than watching pony-tailed girls sprinting down a field in uniforms.

It’s more that, at heart, I’m a summer girl. And so for me, fall means the end of summer. The end of evening swims, sundresses and flip-flops, lazy nights drinking Dark & Stormies by the grill, tomato sandwiches. The end of coming home from work and feeling like there are still hours and hours left in the day to actually see the kids, make a nice healthy dinner, and in general, have a life.

Not Andy, though. He practically sprints to the calendar on the day he gets to flip the page from August to September. Back when we were in Brooklyn, he used to make a point of cranking up the volume when he sat down to his first football game of the season. (I always wanted to answer “No” when Hank Williams Jr. screamed “Are you ready for some footbaaalll?”) For Andy, if he can get through the first week back after Labor Day, September marks the beginning of a beautiful stretch of bourbon, baseball playoffs, and, of course, braising. I think it was in the middle of this past July — you know the month where New York had 15 straight days of 90-degree days — when he started talking about braising meatballs. When the weather turns, he’d say, I’m going to make pork and sage meatballs. Through August, his vision gained momentum, as though thinking about how to make them (lemon zest! he said driving north on the Saw Mill River Parkway one day) might will the weather into dropping 30 degrees, and he could be back where he belonged: Calling the lines of a soccer game in the late-afternoon autumn light; walking around in fleece; being surrounded by Cortlands and Honeycrisps at the farmer’s market. The market was where he had the final epiphany about his meatball magnum opus. (Apple-cider braised pork meatballs!) And last night when we finally ate them, even a summer girl like me had to admit he was onto something.

Pork Meatballs Braised in Wine and Cider

Using your hands, mix together all the following ingredients and form into golf-ball size meatballs.

1 1/4 pounds ground pork
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
2 eggs
3/4 cup plain breadcrumbs

Set a medium saucepan or Dutch Oven over medium-high heat and add a little olive oil. Brown meatballs on all sides (in batches if necessary) and remove to a plate. They do not have to be cooked through.

Add 1 large shallot (chopped) to the pot and cook 1 minute. Add 2/3 cup white wine, 1/2 cup apple cider, 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, a little salt, and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low, add meatballs back to the pot. Cover and simmer 15-20 minutes.

Remove balls from pot, whisk 1 tablespoon heavy cream into the braising liquid. Serve meatballs with sauce spooned on top.

We served them with “confetti” brussels sprouts.

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Great Grandma Turano’s Meatballs

November 8th, 2010 · 30 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Pork and Beef, Posts by Andy, Rituals

Once upon a time, Brooklyn, New York was not a cool place to live. Back in those days – the late seventies, actually — in an unhip and unironically aluminum-sided neighborhood known as Borough Park, in the windowless basement of a plain row house with a concrete yard and a Madonna in the living room, a 95-year-old Sicilian woman named Vitina Turano toiled at a stove, four burners blazing. She was my great grandmother. Four and a half feet tall, clad in house dress, slippers, and homemade apron, bent of spine and hairy of chin, Great Grandma Turano was busy making meatballs.

A horde of us were gathered, as we did once or twice a year, at an enormous table covered in floral-print oilcloth that ran the length of an entire wall, a long wooden bench on one side, a humming furnace at the end. My parents and brother, my Aunt Patty and Uncle Julian, a few of my mom’s cousins and second cousins, none of whom I ever really got to know but all of whom had names like John and Sal and Paul and Mary and Anthony and Tony and… Anthony and Tony. (There was even a girl named Toni, no joke.) The men would all sit, drinking Gallo from a green jug, as the li’l matriarch did her thing, with an assist from the younger Turano women, until it was time to eat – at which point, steaming platters of food would magically appear before us, exist for a few perfect moments, and then be devoured.

Great Grandma Turano died when I was seven years old, so my memories of her, and of these epic dinners, live on now only in glimmers and shards: her heavily accented English, utterly baffling to my untrained ears; her basement lair; her folding lawn chair out back, where she would sit and motion for me to come over – “cuh me-uh,” she’d say, curling a crooked finger at me, “cuh me-uh” — so she could hug and kiss me, which in retrospect was a small thing I should have happily given in to, but in the moment felt kind of scary and to be resisted at all costs, despite my mother’s prodding.

And her meatballs. I do remember those meatballs. Though it’s hard, this far on, to say whether I remember the ones she made specifically, or the ones my mother made for us – using Great Grandma Turano’s recipe, of course, which she had been forced by her family to commit to paper before she passed away – pretty much once every couple weeks for the first eighteen years of my life. Talk about a staple of your youth: This was mine. Pasta and meatballs with a green salad and some crusty bread? Damn. I can picture those nights perfectly now, the pot of extras simmering on the stove, waiting to be pillaged for seconds. We’ve managed to keep the tradition going strong in our house, too, busting these badboys out on Sunday nights in the fall and winter for the past almost twenty years. Hell, they even made it onto our recipe door. The kids have gotten into the act lately, too — Phoebe performed half the work on the batch you see here, rolling the balls by hand, and helping to brown them. Five generations and counting…

Grandma Turano’s Meatballs Recipe (more…)

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