Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's for Dinner?

Dinnertime in our home is a sacred time; it is a legacy carried over from my own childhood.  Almost every night, especially now that no one is working 12 hour shifts or running off to graduate classes, we sit down for a meal together - evening activities are arranged around dinner, not vice versa.  A gift from my mother, we have a canvas that hangs in the kitchen: Wash your hands; eat with an open heart; enjoy the company; compliments welcomed; no texts or phone calls; help set up and clean up; talk about your day; eat your veggies; say grace; clean up after yourself; kiss the cook; be thankful for the food in front of you.  Yes.  All of those things.

Our family dinner ritual is one of the finest legacies handed down to me by my mother, and yet I would be remiss if I were not to mention the other most influential foodie in my life:  Betty Eater.  When I was 7, I learned to make English Muffin pizzas, all by myself, followed quickly by French toast and cinnamon-sugar toast.  After several years perfecting my signature dishes, when I turned 10, I determined that it was time for me to write my own cookbook.  I got a small, yellow, spiral-bound notebook and titled it "Betty Eater's Guide to Cooking."  Naturally, it began with a detailed, step-by-step recipe for English Muffin pizzas.  I filled it with recipes I had made and loved, and ones I wanted to try.  I scoured the newspaper for inspiration and ideas; I laboriously copied ingredients and instructions from the many cookbooks we had in our kitchen.  I doodled pictures of the dishes in the margins and dreamed of filling tables full of food.

Betty Eater liked to dabble in the kitchen, especially at lunchtime, but she mostly liked to be served dinner (promptly at 6:15).  She didn't like to choose what was for dinner that night, or to be asked about it by her mother.   Betty Eater was slightly insufferable.  Driven by that memory, I set out many years ago to end the "what's for dinner" saga by planning out a monthly menu.  I've been creating menus by the month for almost 10 years now, and it has proven to be one of the greatest time-savers of my life.  I love the efficiency of the menu; I love that the readers in our family can now consult the menu posted on the fridge; I love hearing them excitedly shout, "Yes!!!  We're having [insert meal] tonight!"

I plan easy and no-recipe-needed dinners for busy weeknights, or I use the crock pot.  I maximize ingredients I have, serving roast chicken one night, then using the carcass for homemade stock for soup the next day.  I save time-intensive or more difficult meals for weekends, savoring the time I have to cook them.  In summer, I make quiches in advance to serve with gaspatcho, or pesto that can be tossed quickly with hot pasta.  We enjoy sandwiches and hearty salads that can be prepped easily and quickly, and even carted off to swim practice or meets.  In winter, I plan at least one soup a week, plus chili and oven-baked dishes like lasagna and eggplant parmesan.  I follow general patterns of quick-and-easy; something on a bun (veggie burger; sloppy joes); something Mexican; something Asian; something pasta; something extra special.  At least 2 nights a week are vegetarian, and while there are the occasional nights when the kids eat something different from us, by and large, we all eat (mostly) the same meal.  (A vow we made very early on was that we would not fight any food battles with our kids.  The occasional separate dish for picky eaters has never bothered any of us, and if they truly hate what is being served, they can help themselves to a bowl of cereal.) Each meal has side dishes (cooked veggies, rice, bread, etc.) that complement the meal, along with salad (for Jeff and me) and crudite or fruit (for the kids).  Although this is not a hard and fast rule, there are no repeats during the same month.  Leftovers get taken in as lunch, or frozen and saved for an unexpectedly hectic day when we need a quick meal. 

Posted on the refrigerator in a prominent spot:

I made two new year's resolutions this year, and one of them was to make 50 new recipes this year.  The * denotes a new recipe; I'm 6 meals in with weeks to go.  

And the Master Chef night?  Those nights deserve a post of their own, coming soon.

My best online resources:
The blog renewed my dedication and passion for the Sacred Family Meal.  I haven't met a recipe of hers I didn't love, and the book she published - part memoir, part cookbook - is among the best I own.  Be sure to read her posts that include deconstructing dinner, like this one. And if you want to make Family Dinner Sacred, but you don't exactly know where to start, read this post.  If I had to choose just one all-time favorite meal of hers, it would be these chicken parm meatballs - high concept food that is easy, delicious, and a much healthier version of the real deal, to boot. She is funny, she is witty, her husband is someone you kinda get a crush on, and she is a strong advocate of pairing a glass of wine, or a gin and tonic, with the nightly ritual of cooking dinner.  What more could you ask for?  (Oh yeah - you could ask for a cool bumper sticker.  She has those, too.  "Make dinner, not war" - you can order it on her site.)

My girlfriend has her own little food blog that I love to check out for all sorts of new recipes and ideas. She bakes way more than I ever do, so I use her blog as a go-to when I'm looking for a good muffin or cookie recipe.  My dinner favorites?  The salmon vodka cream sauce (being served here on Sunday the 26th) is the first recipe I remember her making for me.  I was 6 months pregnant with Aidan, she was 3 months pregnant with her firstborn, and we spent an amazing night eating.. and eating... in their NYC apartment.  This chicken alfredo is decadent, and worth every extra minute required on the treadmill.  And when I made this baked caprese as an appetizer for our dear friends, Ryan positively moaned with pleasure when he took the first bite.  

I've gotten a lot of great recipes from Food Network, but you have to know your chefs and your preferences on that site, or it can be overwhelming.  Read the reviews - they are quite helpful. I knew I'd found a good one when Ina Garten's seafood chowder received so many 5 star reviews.  I served this on Christmas Eve, and again on New Year's Eve, in bread bowls.  It was insanely good.

I keep just a handful of cookbooks on my kitchen counter; the rest are stored in a bookshelf in the basement.  Among those I grab most often are:
How To Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach
The New Vegetarian Cuisine by Linda Rosensweig
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
The Grilling Book by the editors of Bon Apetit...
...and, of course, The Joy of the Table by Betty Eater.

Does something on my menu look especially appealing to you?  Submit a comment, or send me an email, and I will be sure to send along the recipe for whatever entices you most.  Now if you'll excuse me, I hear Betty Eater calling.  She has a glass of wine waiting, along with a grocery list that needs a second review before tomorrow's shopping trip....

1 comment:

Emily said...

Love!! Your monthly menu organizer is so inspiring. I'm going to try this for February! Also love your 50 new meals goal--awesome!