Recently I have been forced, excuse me, chosen to spend a couple of hours every day alone with my 8 year old son. My daughter has had plans every morning and has left me to entertain my second born alone. They are really close in age, so usually my kids play together and leave me to get on with the important things in life (cooking (relaxing), cleaning (icky), running (yippee!), reading (not as much as I’d like)). Since I am a creature of habit and with a little bit of selfishness thrown in for good measure, I decided that I would go about my usual business and just include my son in my plans wherever possible, with surprising results.
Every day I try to prepare some part of dinner in the morning hours, so there’s not a mad rush in the kitchen come 5pm. This past week I still did this, but this time with an 8 year old helper who proved himself to be very useful. Shockingly, we both had a lot of fun and the arguing/nagging was at a minimum. I discovered that he is at a good age to (carefully) chop vegetables and any other item that needs to be cut, and he discovered how much fun it is to use a cherry pitter (a task I personally abhor). We made carrot gnocchi together, which proved itself to be a very child friendly task, and since this is a project that requires a big time commitment, having an extra set of hands around was really useful.
My son learned to crack eggs so he could help prepare our dinner strata. Such was my skepticism at his ability to do this without including a million tiny pieces of shell, I told him to crack the eggs one by one into a separate bowl and then pour each one into the master bowl. Not one piece of shell made it into either of the bowls. I was impressed. We made summer rolls together, which is another child-friendly, fun and relatively simple task. Rolling these things is always a challenge, but we had a good laugh at our first attempts and marveled and how well our last few turned out.
Aside from cooking, my son and I biked and ran together this week and talked about many things, from how much we enjoyed our lunch to what we would like to do on the weekend. We threw around the baseball and talked some more. I realized that I don’t talk to my son as much as I do my daughter because talking doesn’t come as naturally to him. I read somewhere once that a person is more likely to open up and talk about things if they don’t have make eye contact. Cooking, biking, running and ball throwing have allowed my son and I to have interesting conversations, with a little necessary distraction on the side.
One of the many strange mysteries of my kitchen is that whenever I look in my fridge, I see at least a dozen eggs. Somehow I am always surprised at the amount of eggs in my house, even though I am the chief purchaser of said eggs. I have decided it’s because they arrive in dozens, hence we go from zero to twelve in an instant. Personally, I am not a morning egg eater and prefer instead to serve them at dinner time.
Yesterday we ate this spinach and cheese strata for dinner. One thing I really like about a strata is that it can be made ahead of time, stored in the fridge, and cooked when needed. Another family dinner favorite involving eggs in my house are pancakes. Served with fresh fruit and a breakfast meat, this always makes us happy. If I am feeling especially motivated on pancake night I will whip up a fruit compote to serve alongside, something like this blueberry-maple syrup recipe. Any combination of fruit and sugar can be used for this, and I often add mint or basil for an interesting twist.
This summer I am on a mission teach my children how to make a good omelet. I have decided that this is a skill they will use their whole life long, no matter what their life situation. Omelets are cheap, quick and nutritious. We fill ours with any cooked leftover veggies we have in the house, combined with strong flavored cheese (so we don’t need as much) and a little bit of ham/bacon/sausage if desired.
Quiche is another egg-based dinner standard in my house. Recently I experimented with making the crust out of quinoa, instead of the traditional pie crust I usually make. This was definitely an acquired taste, but my whole family ended up loving it. And since I am always looking for new ways to serve eggs for dinner, this definitely fit the bill.
One daily habit that is very important to me is eating dinner with my family at the kitchen table. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, this is one of the rare moments in the week where the four members of my family are in the same room, at the same time, for a common purpose. No phones, no tablets, no distractions. Just good old fashioned chatting and eating. Secondly, and most importantly, I make one dinner, the same dinner, for all four people involved. Dinner is there, you can eat it or not, but you do not get to choose an alternative. Aren’t in the mood for chicken? Take a bite or two and then fill up on sides. Suddenly have an aversion to kale? Fill your face with more pasta salad instead. I offer two to three items on a dinner plate so there is no excuse to leave the table hungry.
Which brings me to May. Crazy, over-busy, over-scheduled May. Every year I enter a panic spiral as soccer overlaps with baseball and choir bleeds into play practice. I find myself driving children here, there and everywhere at all times of the day and night and wondering if and when it will ever end. Mealtimes, specifically dinner, therefore become an issue. For several nights a week it is nigh impossible to gather around the dinner table for a common dinner and “talk about our day”. Dinner is instead a rushed affair with multiple sittings and locations (4pm early dinner at home for son; 5pm dinner in the car for daughter). And so I have become resourceful.
There are several items I like to make when times get busy. Salads, soups, grain salads, pasta and anything egg-based can all be either made ahead or eaten at different times. We eat eggs for dinner at least once a night in my house, since an omelet can be whipped up in two minutes flat. Fill it with veggies and pair it with fruit and a side of Canadian bacon and you have a satisfying, filling dinner. Recently, I made this tagine during the daytime and then served it up as needed in the evening (note, I omitted the saffron and preserved lemons because I didn’t have any, and then served it with couscous). The next day (and I was proud of this one) I used a slotted spoon to scoop leftover tagine into a tortilla, mixed in some couscous, and instantly had a “Moroccan wrap” for my daughter to eat in the car on the way to guitar. Apparently anything (soup excepted of course) can be wrapped into a tortilla and eaten on the go.
It takes a bit of planning, but it’s still a viable option to eat well at the busiest of times. Something as simple as cooking a big pot of beans or roasting some chicken breasts at the beginning of the week to provide a quick source of protein for your on-the-go meals, will really make life easier and tame the over-scheduled panic spiral, at least for a little while.
I am a runner and I love to run, which has nothing to do with anything apart from the fact that it makes me really hungry. I am always hungry. And that’s both a good and a bad problem to have. For the most part I can tame this hunger by eating at regular intervals and making sure I eat enough protein. Yogurt, nuts, fruit, and cereal (mainly as a vehicle for milk) are all part of my day-to-day life. However, I am always on the lookout for a new, tasty, relatively nutritious and satisfying snack that will tide me over until the next mealtime. My lunch time in particular has been creeping earlier and earlier and I am ashamed to admit that yesterday I ate my lunch at 10:45, which is early even by my standards.
I really love this homemade granola bar recipe from Smitten Kitchen. Mainly I love how customizable it is so I can whip up a batch spur-of-the-moment, without having to first go to the store to buy extra ingredients. I generally have something in the house that can go in these bars, and they always work out well. Similarly, these Morning Glory Crumble Muffins are easy to make and taste delicious. I never have coconut oil on hand so I always use melted butter instead. Often I substitute applesauce or yogurt for half of the butter in a muffin recipe, but this one already contained both applesauce AND yogurt so I hated to meddle.
Yesterday I bought a back of Frollicks Crunchy Chickpeas, and they were surprisingly tasty. Most afternoons I make myself some sort of snack mix that contains any combination of nuts, pretzels, crackers, and dried fruit. The chickpeas added a whole new dimension to my usual snack and this has inspired me to make my own crunchy chickpeas sometime soon.
And finally, I read this article earlier and it made me smile. All my worlds colliding: http://www.runnersworld.com/fridge-wisdom/10-herbs-that-will-help-you-run-better/mint
One of the many delights of moving into a house with a yard is that we are now the proud owners of a gas grill. Having never owned a grill before I am obsessed, I grill everything, it’s really fun. Hands down, my greatest grilling success so far is David Lebovitz’s Tandoori Chicken. As David explains in the recipe preamble (yes, I call him David, I’ve made many of his recipes and have read his book. This means we are on first name terms), this recipe can be customized in numerous ways and is particularly delicious served with a homemade yogurt sauce. I personally like to mix yogurt, mint, lemon, cucumber, salt and pepper and use that.
I love the smoky taste of grilled vegetables. When time allows, I thread whatever veggies I have on hand onto skewers (peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant), brush them with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and grill until cooked to my preference. If I don’t have time for the skewer rigmarole, I simply toss veggies with olive oil, salt and pepper and throw them on foil on the grill.
At least once a week we have salad for dinner and I am always looking for ways to make this seem new and fresh instead of rolling out the same old recipes week after week. A family favorite is my Mexican chicken (or shrimp, or tofu, or pork) salad. I simply mix my protein of choice with romaine, tomatoes, beans, corn, avocado, jicama, and jalepenos and then toss it all with a cilantro-lime salad dressing or something similar. This week I decided I would grill the tomatoes, corn and red pepper before adding them to my salad. And what a difference this made. Such a simple change made a tried and true recipe seem new and exciting. I plan on doing something similar with next week’s salad by grilling peaches and steak and adding blue cheese. I will let you know how it works out.
For the most part I consider myself to be a pretty good cook, albeit in a non-professional, mainly based on feedback from family and friends capacity. I can make a decent loaf of bread, a delicious pot of soup, a tasty pasta sauce and on occasion, a complicated layer cake, all with very little trouble and generally positive results.
So why, why, somebody tell me why, do my grilled sandwiches always, ALWAYS end up looking like this (monstrosity pictured on the left). I have tried everything: low and slow heat, fast and high heat, covered, not covered, non-stick pan, non non-stick pan, butter, olive oil, various breads. Nothing changes the blackened outcome. I don’t understand! I would one day like to enjoy a grilled sandwich, made by my own hand, that is not burned and whose contents are actually hot and melty. “Use a panini press!”, I hear you yell. Well yes, I do sometimes use a panini press, but that is not the point. It apparently takes a lot of skill and practice to master the art of a good old-fashioned, pan-cooked, grilled sandwich. And I have yet to get there.
On any given day I usually have an idea of what I will make for lunch and for dinner. Sometimes I have already thought of specific recipe I will follow and sometimes I have a vague idea of what the meal will include and take it from there. For example, today is hot and I will make a hearty salad for dinner, complete with previously frozen homemade bread. I have chicken, I have an abundance of strawberries and of course, mint as far as the eye can see. Likely I will compose a green salad with a dressing that looks something like this strawberry-lemon basil dressing. Instead of basil, I will use mint, and I will add the maple syrup to my taste, since I do not enjoy an overly sweet salad.
Over the years I have discovered that there are several ingredients that are really helpful to have on hand at all times (the “indispensables”). Plain yogurt in particular can be used in a million ways and I always have a large tub in my fridge. I add it to salad dressings, combine it with a herb and a squeeze of lemon to make a quick dip for veggies, use it to marinate chicken and add a swirl of yogurt to finish a pureed soup. I could go on and on about the ubiquitous of yogurt in my house, but I won’t.
Other indispensables include fire-roasted tomatoes (pasta sauces, salsas), frozen fruit (add to oatmeal, blend into salad dressings), oats (can be added to most baked goods to boost nutrition), and anything in a jar and pickled. We add pickled jalepenos to every sandwich and taco we make. And the leftover juice from the pickle jar can be used as the base of a delicious and often spicy salad dressing.