Market Planning

June 13th, 2011 · 13 Comments · Rituals

There was a time in my life when Sunday meant sitting down with my Dinner Diary and mapping out a meal plan for the week. Like this line-up from June 14-18, 2004:

Monday: Fried Sole with Green Beans
Tuesday: Ravioli with Green Salad
Wednesday: Fajitas with Black Beans and Cheddar
Thursday: Curried Chicken with Apples
Friday: OUT (always in caps, always!)

I remember telling a food editor friend about my meal-planning system and her response was not the usual “Why again do you record this stuff in a diary?” but this: “Well what happens if you see a big shiny eggplant at the market on Tuesday afternoon? Are you going to just pass that up if it’s not in the plan for Tuesday night?” She said the word “plan” like she was holding a dirty diaper. (more…)

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

April 1st, 2011 · 26 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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Separate but Unequal

October 15th, 2010 · 14 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Picky Eating, Vegetarian

I knew what I wanted for dinner yesterday before I had even taken a sip of my morning coffee. It was going to be that beautiful fusilli with chard and crunchy breadcrumbs that accompanied Melissa Clark’s story in the Times about whole wheat pasta. I didn’t have any fusilli — but I had some whole wheat rigatoni, and chard, and onions and…hey look at that!…I had some thyme and goat cheese and mushrooms, too! With the addition of each new ingredient to the pot, though, I was not only getting further away from Melissa’s recipe, I was getting further away a meal I could expect my children to eat no-questions-asked*. So just before I dolloped a hunk of very un-extractable goat cheese into the hot pasta, a point-of-no-return move if there ever was one, I made a decision: The kids are eating something else tonight. Tonight, I just need to cook my dinner the way I want to cook my dinner, and I want to eat my dinner the way I want to eat my dinner. The family has sat down to roughly the same meal for, what, about four straight nights now? Plus, I volunteered at school today and sent out Abby’s birthday invitations! Surely these noble deeds qualified me for some kind of kickback? So Andy and I had our special earthy, herby pasta and the kids had their Trader Joe’s chicken taquitos from the freezer. And the sun still rose from the east in the morning.

*in my house, mushrooms + goat cheese is asking a lot

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Cure for the Common Thursday

October 7th, 2010 · 13 Comments · Dinner, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Quick, Vegetarian

Do you guys suffer from Thursday Syndrome like I do? Symptoms include dry refrigerator, a shriveled vegetable supply, and feelings of guilt-fueled resistance to ordering in or going out. (That’s what Friday is for, you weakling!) Lucky for all of us there is a cure, and it involves a combination of the six magical grocery items below, all of which you have in your pantry already since I told you to shop for them a few days ago. (Right?)

1. Whole Wheat Pasta
2. Quinoa
3. Frozen Spinach
4. Canned or Frozen Artichokes
5. Eggs
6. Onions

I find if I have nothing else but these long-lasting pantry friends in the kitchen (plus a few basics like olive oil, soy sauce, and Parm) I can almost always churn out a fast, healthy meal that will bridge me to the weekend. Here are five of those meals below. Please feel free to recommend any combinations I’m forgetting. I can always use more meds…I mean ideas. (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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