I was talking to another mom on the soccer sidelines last week, and when she got wind of my book and blog, she asked what everyone asks: What’s for dinner tonight? I wasn’t going to walk in the door that night until almost 7:00 so I had planned my come-together-fast Fettucini with Pre-Shredded Brussels Sprouts. I told her that, and then she told me she was going vegetarian also with “a big fresh salad.” She then added, “Remember how our mothers used to think about dinner? A protein, a vegetable, and a starch?” Ha ha ha ha ha! I can’t remember exactly what she said next but it was something like this “Remember how charming and silly that was?”
If I’m making her out to be an ogre, I’m sorry, that is absolutely not the case — the woman is a saint — it’s only that I was kind of embarrassed. Apparently, the person who’s supposedly in love with dinner (me) is still thinking about dinner the way our mothers do. I mean, we’re big on Meatless Mondays in my house, and for a while there during the Atkins craze we made a big effort to replace the starch with a second vegetable. But for the most part, I have to say, the meat-starch-veg template is my default mode. When I’m thinking up dinner ideas, the plate is still a puzzle with three fill-in-the-blank pieces.
I will say, however, that I’ve updated that three-piece model a tiny bit with what I call my Two-for-One strategy. This means I try whenever possible to make a single dish that combines two food groups so I don’t feel like I’m making three separate dishes. For whatever self-delusional reason, it feels like less work and it makes dinner come together faster. Here are some of my favorites:
White Beans with Onions and Spinach (Protein + Veg, shown above)
Saute a halved garlic clove in a few glugs of olive oil to a skillet. Let it infuse the oil for a minute, then remove. Add 2 tablespoons chopped onions (or shallots or scallions), a shake of red pepper flakes, and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add one can of rinsed and drained white beans (such as Great Northerns or Cannellini), stir. Add a handful of frozen spinach (it’s best if it’s thaws, but works fine if it’s not). Add salt and pepper, and stir. Serve with grated Parm.
Chickpea Fries (Starch + Protein)
This one, which calls for chickpea flour (or besan) is both a starch and a protein, so just slap a salad alongside and they are less of a side dish than they are the main event. So so so delicious. Dip in marinara or ketchup. See page 210 of Dinner: A Love Story for recipe.
Cheddar-Squash Muffins (Starch + Vegetable)
I can see some of you out there getting into making a batch of these on the weekend, freezing, then popping into a 350°F oven to warm up before dinner during the week. See page 49 of Time for Dinner, the book I wrote with my former Cookie editor friends for recipe.
Corn Fritters (Any combo Protein + Veg + Starch)
This came from reader Nadja. I loved her note along with it: “I know that you are not “supposed” to hide anything from your kids, but honestly the “experts” who are writing these books had kids so long ago they have forgotten. I made these for the kids one night that we were going out and “hid” some cooked shrimp in them as that sounded delicious to me and they won’t eat seafood at all. My 5-year-old spotted it instantly and asked “what’s this?” So I told him “it’s love, it’s my love for you.” He didn’t buy that narrative but he ate it nevertheless. So did the 2-year-old because I told him it was “crunchy pancake.” And because there was ketchup.
2 cups frozen corn
1/3 cup milk
¾ cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
salt and pepper to taste
Thaw the corn and put half in the blender with the milk and egg and puree until smooth. In a bowl whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt and pepper. Add the puree to the dry ingredients and mix until combined. Stir in the remaining corn. At this point you can add any number of other things: cooked shrimp, fried onions, fried mushrooms (especially shitakes), red pepper, and probably other things that I haven’t thought of yet. Heat oil in a nonstick skillet and fry small mounds of the batter, turning once. Enjoy.
JR Note: I added two tablespoons of Parmesan and topped with yogurt.
Corn pancakes with shrimp! I would like to eat that for breakfast RIGHT NOW. Excuse me while I add some things to my grocery list.
nadja sounds like a genius. my kid would totally be down with the fritter. i make the veggie fritters from time for dinner quite a bit…i’ll try nadja’s next. somehow i missed the cheddar squash muffins…i gotta check those out. also, i make a version of your bean + green salad, but usually add tomatoes since the kid loves them.
corn fritterrrrrrrrrrrrrrs. totes bookmarking this recipe.
i’m so hungry.
I absolutely love the idea of the White Beans with Onions and Spinach with a baguette and a tomato salad tonight. Done!
Thanks for the inspiration,
I just made this for lunch, but with fresh spinach. Yum!
As much as I might prefer the veg+veg+veg algorithm, as my kids have hit their teens, I’ve discovered that the protein and starch are essential components of dinner for a reason. Without them, my kids are looking for their next meal before the dinner dishes are done!
I definitely still think about dinner as a protein+starch+veggie. And in my husband’s mind, the only acceptable form of protein is meat; still working on that. I’ve always been a little thrown when I decide to serve something that fall into two categories (sweet potatoes, baked beans, etc.); do I serve a separate veggie or a separate starch? But I like your philosophy – much simple to just let it count for both!
White beans with onions and spinach is a great way to start a recipe/dinner thoughts!
I try to do protein+green+starch. The starch could be either a real starch, like rice/bread/potatoes, or it could be a veggie starch, like squash. I also generally go with the theory that salad goes with everything. But in reality, I actually have a lot of dinners that are frozen+microwaved+served with ketchup. Ah well – life with a toddler!
Commenting for pasta day and the Barilla contest. 🙂 My little ones are only 18 months and like to feed themselves – no help from Mama – so I sneak finely chopped basil, tomato and onion into their plain pasta. A little bit of veges stick to the relatively dry pasta and make it into their mouths (ok, honestly, about half ends up on their face), and every little bit helps, right?!? 🙂
also commenting for Pasta Day! Hearty greens (often kale, but spinach or any other) and white beans are a staple at our house …. the grownups eat the greens and beans with penne and the kids eat … just the penne. And maybe some thawed peas. Sigh. Our kids new favorite (in all seriousness, not just for the contest) is Barilla tricolor penne. Someday our kids will eat legumes………!
We are celebrating World Pasta Day by adding left over meat from french dips, to fresh tomatoes and barilla penne. Happy Pasta day!
Commenting for Pasta Day: we’ll be celebrating by making mac ‘n’ cheese or a new pasta recipe I found in the most recent Moosewood Cookbook: pasta with green French lentils, thyme, kale, tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Very, very flavorful and the green lentils are so amazing.
My children won’t eat food that’s combined with the exceptions of soup, pizza and lasagna. One child also won’t eat anything with a sauce on it. My spouse doesn’t believe that dinner is dinner unless something has been killed and eaten (meatless Mondays? HAHAHAHA, I wish). Protein + veg + starch it is.
These are great. Much better than the recipes that use more flour. They cook fast, brown up nicely and taste great!!! Nice.
My mother used to serve a variation of the white bean + spinach, with the addition of garlic and some pizza sauce mixed in. Can eat it as a side, over rice or pasta…
i just got finished making these, AMAZING. i put some cajun seasoning and shredded cheddar cheese inside. they are so delicious!!!! i will make them forever and ever!!