Chaos Theory

So back-to-school. The week that rivals New Years for clean-slating more than any other. You’re making plans, you’re making resolutions, you’re waking up at 3:00 in the morning saying “I am not going to allow math homework be my undoing this year. I’m not I’m not.” Perhaps you’re also resolving that it’s finally time to get on track with family dinner, to impose some structure into your mealtime, but then you talk yourself out of it again…maybe next month….there’s too much going on right now for all of us. I’ll start later, another week, when things calm down. I want a week when there’s no lunch-packing routine to deal with, no kid’s-been-placed-in-the-wrong-class stress, no brand-new-school drama, no soccer tournament to coordinate, no presentation for work that you’re going to be obsessing over, no activities that are going to disrupt and distract from all the planning and cooking.

These are all legitimate excuses for getting a family meal organized  — but if you think about it, they’re also some pretty compelling reasons why you might need a your dinner table oasis more than ever.

If you are looking for “a month that works,” you should probably know by now that you are not going to find it. What are you looking for exactly? A month with no plans? With no school? no work? No sports? no pottery, karate, chess, play rehearsal? No tap dancing? No what-I-did-this-summer essay due tomorrow even though the kid, God love him, had two months to write it? No teething? No witching hours? No carpool coordinating that would make an air traffic controller look lazy? No recitals, games, playdates, meetings, parent observation days at ballet that sounded so sweet and precious until the day you have to figure out how to hang up on the client in order to get there?

If you’re lucky, you’re not going to find that month. And even if you did, is that really what you want? Organizing family dinner under circumstances with absolutely nothing going on? Wouldn’t that be sort of like preparing for the white-water-rafting trip by lounging on an inner tube at the town pool? The idea of making family dinner happen is to work within the swirl of your messy, beautiful chaos. To embrace it. Because that’s the default state for most of us. That’s when we — ok I — crave its restorative powers the most.

So start tonight. Start with this…

Fish Nuggets with Kale and Bacon
There are two major pieces of learning here: 1) You don’t have to use an egg for the dredge — a trick I learned from my friend Jenny in Alaska. (Rejoice parents of kids with egg allergies!) 2) I fried them in my Dutch Oven (instead of a deep skillet) which really kept my grease splattering contained. I’m never going back!

1/3 cup sour cream
1/4 cup of milk
1 cup panko bread crumbs, salted and peppered
1/2 teaspoon paprika
pinch of cayenne
1 tablespoon mustard powder
about 1/3 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 1/2 pounds halibut (or any firm white fish like cod; we drew from our Alaskan halibut freezer bounty), cut into nugget-size chunks
1 piece good quality bacon
2 tablespoons chopped onion or shallot
dash red pepper flakes
1 large bunch Tuscan kale, stems removed and cut into bite-size pieces
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar (or red wine)
tartar sauce

Whisk together sour cream and milk in a small bowl (or measuring cup). Set aside. Add panko to a large dinner platter, tossing with salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, and mustard powder. Add olive oil to a Dutch Oven set over medium-high heat. Take each fish chunk and dunk in sour cream mixture — allowing excess to drip off — then press into panko and add to Dutch Oven. Cook for about five minutes, flipping half way. Remove from pot with a slotted spoon on a paper-towel-lined plate. (Cover with foil to keep warm.) Repeat with remaining nuggets making sure not to crowd the pan (but if you do, you have company; I don’t have the patience for batches) and adding more olive oil as necessary.

Once you’ve finished with the nuggets, wipe down the pan and decrease heat to medium. Add bacon and cook until crispy and fat has rendered. Remove and chop into bits. Add shallots, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper. Stir about one minute. Add kale and cook just until it wilts. Remove from heat, drizzle vinegar on top and toss with bacon.

Serve everything with a nice dollop of tartar sauce.

Parts of this post (not the recipe itself) appear in Dinner: The Playbook, my second book about family dinner that will be on sale tomorrow (!!!), August 26. The book includes 80+ simple recipes like this one, plus menu-plans, make-ahead tricks, and lots and lots of pep talks.  Available for purchase from AmazonBarnes & NobleIndiebooks, and Ballantine.

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Parent of kid with egg allergies here: Thank you! I’ll show this to her as a selling point.


My copy of the playbook is scheduled to arrive tomorrow….i may need to call into work sick on wednesday 😀


Thanks from another egg allergy parent! Seems obvious when you read it but instead we’ve just had bad dredging with uncrispy food with breading falling off. Thank you Jenny!


I pre-ordered Dinner the Playbook. I will be so disappointed if my order ships out vs. arriving at my door step tomorrow. Congrats!


Nothing, but nothing is more important than dinner. If I get home at 10pm and it means eating at 11pm, I will get dinner on the table if it kills me.


My family and I LOVE LOVE LOVE this meal. It’s especially popular when I make it with ‘mushy carrots’ (5 yo terminology). Meaning I throw some cut up carrots in the last 10 mins or so.
My one problem I have is making the rice not mushy or making sure all grains are cooked through. I’m using my huge Le Creuset on a stupid electric stove (#^@*#^) so I know it holds heat and that could result in rice problems, I am cooking it over low.
Any tips for non gloppy or non crunchy rice? Thanks!

Katy Rotman

could you please help me make this dairy-free? Meaning, how to dredge this in egg instead (mom to kid with dairy allergy here .. 🙂 )

Thanks !