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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One Meal Fits All (Or: Whatever You Gotta Tell Yourself)

April 1st, 2011 · 25 Comments · Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Pasta, Picky Eating, Quick, Vegetarian

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! (more…)

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Spaghetti and Spring Vegetables

May 3rd, 2010 · 4 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Quick, Vegetarian

Until fairly recently, I had been an absolute slave to the written recipe, i.e.  it was a dealbreaker if the ingredient list called for shallots and all I had was an onion. If Everyday Food told me to serve the sausages with horseradish mustard and I only had grainy, then by God I went out and spent the $4.39 for the horseradish mustard. When I was 16 my neighbor hired me to help prepare and serve hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party, and not only did I incinerate the cheese puffs, but I stood there and watched them become more and more incinerated because the recipe said 15 minutes in the oven and it had only been 12.

If this sounds like you and you don’t like it, I have two pieces of advice for you. First: Have children. (What is parenting if not one long improv routine?) Second: Force yourself to cook only with what you have at the end of the week. Look in the fridge and the pantry. Then back in the pantry and the fridge…and see if anything comes to you. Pasta plus any vegetables (even those on their last legs) is the ideal default dinner. Last Friday I was fortunate to have a box of spaghetti, some asparagus, peas, and (yes!) even a shallot. And look, I managed to get it right.

Spaghetti with Spring Vegetables

1 pound spaghetti
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed at the bottom, and chopped into 1-inch pieces as shown above.
1 cup peas, preferably fresh organic (but thawed frozen will do just fine)
1 shallot, chopped
olive oil
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest
4-5 basil leaves, slivered
salt & pepper
freshly grated Parmesan

Prepare spaghetti according to package directions (make sure you salt the water). During last 2 minutes of cooking, throw asparagus and peas into the boiling water. Meanwhile, heat a little olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat and add shallots.

Before draining pasta, use a slotted spoon to scoop up as many of the vegetables from the pasta water as possible, and chuck them into the skillet to finish cooking.

Drain pasta and add back to pasta pot. Toss with a little more olive oil, vegetables, lemon zest, basil, salt, pepper, and Parm.

Another pasta-veg dinner that ignited a frenzy on DALS: Fettucini with Brussels.

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