I am so delighted to feature guest-poster Caroline Campion today. Caroline is a Saveur alum and one of the OG bloggers, having first caught my attention almost a decade ago with her site Devil & Egg; today she co-writes keeperscooks with Kathy Brennan. Their new book, The Dinner Plan, is, obviously, near and dear to my heart, and, among other things discusses the all-too-familiar concept of the Staggered Family Dinner. I’ll let Caroline tell you all about her delicious solutions to the problem. (Hint, you’re looking at it up there.) Take it away, Caroline!
When my kids were younger and their extracurricular activities consisted of a once-a-week ballet class or a Little League game, it wasn’t hard to assemble and eat as a family on most nights. Around 6:30 we’d be pouring the milk, serving up the pasta and meatballs, arguing over who was bogarting all the grated parm, and be full and filling the dishwasher by 7. But then something began to happen upon entering the middle school years…for better or worse…and suddenly nobody ever seemed to be in the same place at the same time anymore. Overlapping activities—like my daughter needing a ride home from field hockey at the same time my son needed a ride to soccer practice— and the necessity to drop and fetch kids all over town, became the new normal. On those evenings when miraculously every family member arrived under the same roof at the same time, they were all invariably some combination of exhausted, famished, cranky, and freaking over a French vocab quiz. Which is really not the best time to tell everyone that “the chicken pot pie won’t be done for another 40 minutes and who wants to set the table?”
It took me awhile to relinquish my grip on the fantasy of a daily dinner time, but once I did, and embraced something that me and my cookbook co-author call “situational cooking” (I know, not the sexiest term, but you get the idea), it relieved a heck of a lot of stress. When we were writing our new book The Dinner Plan we spoke to a lot of families, friends, and readers who were just like us, and what they needed weren’t just foolproof recipes but recipes that were flexible enough for their family’s evolving schedule. This is especially true on evenings when your family is like the moving pieces on a map of Westeros. For this situation we came up with the Staggered Meal: Dishes that are ideal for nights when people will be eating at different times, so they can be left on the stove to be gently reheated when needed, or are also terrific left at room temperature on the kitchen counter for members of your family to serve themselves. So for example, I’ll make a platter of Chinese Chicken Salad with the dressing in a jar on the side and place it on the counter with a stack of bowls and forks; then my daughter can make herself a bowl of as soon as she arrives home from hockey practice but before grabbing a shower and tackling the rest of her homework. This means I can also have a few moments with her to ask about her day and there’s no pressure to set the table or manage a group meal and bonus, I know she’s still gobbling a homemade dish rather than a Hot Pocket.
One of our faves for nights like these are the Okonomiyaki or “Japanese Pizza” with Shrimp from The Dinner Plan. If you haven’t had an Okonomiyaki then you’re in for a treat—a beloved crispy-pancake like dish that can you can play with by adding a variety of fillings. We love them with shrimp and cabbage but feel free to sub in chopped ham instead or skip the meat for the vegetarian in your life. They’re pretty great with a quick homemade sriracha-mayo as well. What makes them Staggered Meal is that you can make a batch then keep them covered in a 200°F oven or make the batter ahead of time and let the older kids in your house go DIY with the fillings and cooking, which is a pretty fun activity (they’re as easy to fry up as pancakes). We’ve also discovered they’re ideal cocktail snacks, just cook and serve as guests arrive…you’ll have them at “Japanese pizza.”
Thanks Caroline! Caroline and Kathy’s book contains dozens of other recipes for staggered cooking and is packed with strategic make-ahead and one-dish meals. It is available at Amazon, Indiebound, and everywhere books are sold.
Okonomiyaki with Shrimp (“Japanese Pizza”)
Okonomiyaki is a beloved crispy pancake-like dish that is sometimes called Japanese pizza, perhaps because of its shape or because it’s cut into wedges, it’s usually shared with others, and you can play with the ingredients (okonomiyaki means “as you like it, grilled”). Try it with thinly sliced pork, ham, or squid instead of the shrimp or leave out the protein altogether and add some shredded carrots. Makes about eight 3-inch pizzas.
3 large eggs
1⁄2 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
2⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
1⁄3 cup cornstarch
5 cups very thinly sliced (crosswise) green cabbage (less than 1 small head) or bagged coleslaw mix
1 bunch of scallions, sliced
1⁄2 pound large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus 1 tablespoon
Sriracha or hot sauce of your choice (optional)
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, broth, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and salt. Add the flour and cornstarch and whisk until just incorporated. Avoid overmixing; some lumps are okay. Add the cabbage, scallions, and shrimp and gently fold into the batter.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Spoon about 1⁄2 cup (120 ml) of the cabbage mixture into the skillet. Use a spatula to lightly pat down the surface to form a round about 3 inches (7.5 cm) wide and 1⁄2 inch (12 mm) high. Repeat until the skillet is full, but not overcrowded. Cook, undisturbed, until golden brown, about 3 minutes.
Flip the rounds over and cook, undisturbed, until cooked through and golden brown, about 4 minutes more. Transfer to plates and repeat with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil and cabbage mixture. (It’s okay if there’s liquid left in the bottom of the bowl; don’t use that.) Serve with the mayonnaise and Sriracha, if you like; you can also mix them together as shown in the photo.
Staggered: Okonomiyaki is best eaten right away, but will keep, covered, in a 200°F (90°C) oven for about 1 hour.
Photo credit: Maura McEvoy; Recipe and photo reprinted with permission from Abrams.