Good for the soul food

by Lisa

Let’s just say there was a storm. It might have been a terrible rain storm, with high winds, and dark skies, and cold slashing rain that I watched, miserably, through the kitchen’s glass wall.  It might have been a squall between the kids, a tornadic escalation of he said/she said spinning destruction through the house. It might have been a tempest between me and my son, or me and my daughter over what’s (not) for dinner, or homework, or cleaning a room, or doing a chore, or feeding the cat.  It was all of that, or some of that, and more. It was a soul-killing storm.

I struggled to bale myself out of the misery and cook dinner. Inspired by Joan, Pietro’s wife, and the chicken Milanese we love, I dredged fresh fish in flour, then beaten egg, then fresh bread crumbs. I fried it in a pool of limpid oil.  It turned golden brown, exactly, miraculously, as it was supposed to.  The skies hadn’t cleared, but dinner was done.

And then, we entered the eye of the storm.  Hungry and exhausted the kids came to the counter. We ate. It was delicious: fragrant, moist, crackling pieces of fish. Sweet cornbread. Tender, lemony greens. More fresh, hot fish.

And then, too soon, we were spun out of that silent, still place, back into the terrible squall.

Dinner did not save us. But it gave me a pale ray of hope. Which is, I suppose, the thing our soul most needs. That, and sometimes, a good new recipe.

Fresh Fried Red Snapper

  • 1 lb fresh Red Snapper filet (not previously frozen)
  • 2-3 eggs, beaten
  • flour for dredging
  • 2-3 slices whole wheat bread, processed into fine crumbs
  • pinch salt
  • canola oil for frying
  1. Carefully check the fish filets for bones, and with a pair of tweezers, remove each bone completely.
  2. Cut the fish into nugget-sized pieces. Where possible, cut along the natural lines of the filet.
  3. Set out 3 bowls, large enough to accommodate the fish. Fill one with flour, one with the beaten eggs, and one with fresh bread crumbs.
  4. Add up to a teaspoon of salt to the flour.
  5. Pour the oil about 3/4 inch deep in a frying pan and turn on heat to medium high.
  6. When the oil is hot, dredge each piece of fish in flour, then coat completely in egg, then cover in bread crumbs.
  7. Fry the fish until one side is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Then turn and fry on second side.  Be careful not to crowd the pan.
  8. Drain briefly on a paper towel covered plate.
  9. Serve immediately, with lemon wedges, aioli, sauteed greens, cornbread.

On & Off Dinner

by Lisa

There are times in the family when I feel like the caterer. Then there are the times when I really am the caterer. Like last weekend, when most of our family living space was taken over by leprechaun-trap builders.  This the fifth year of trap building and it’s, well, escalated over the years. This year, the kids begain to plan in Februry, and the real construction madness took place over the final weekend on our kitchen table, picnic table, kitchen floor, breakfast counter, car port.  Activities included, but were not limited to:  foam board cutting; non-stop hot glue-ing; measuring & planning on the kitchen table; painting on the kitchen floor; dremmeling in the car port; tinker-toy pulley making; Lego stair building; trap-door cutting; paper-mache-ing.

Which meant dinner was impossible when things looked like this.

The only choice I had was to clear a small section of counter for a baked ziti, which the kids call “pizza pasta”, some spinach, flat bread, and a bottle of wine. They ate when and where they liked. Ella called it the “on and off dinner” and has been begging for it ever since. I have not obliged.

Eventually A few days later, things were cleaned up.

Baked Ziti

  • 1 lb ziti
  • 1 container ricotta cheese (15 oz)
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 8 oz grated fresh mozzarella cheese, plus more for slicing
  • 1/4 cup fresh grated parmesan
  • salt and pepper
  • optional: dried oregano, dash nutmeg
  • 4-6 cups of your favorite red sauce, with or without meat
  1. Cook ziti in boiling water about 1 minute less than recommended cooking time, so it is al dente.
  2. While ziti is cooking, mix ricotta, egg, mozzarella in a large bowl, season with salt and pepper, & oregano and nutmeg if using.
  3. Drain ziti and mix thougoughly with cheeses.
  4. Mix about 2 cups of sauce with cheese and ziti. Add more to taste or if pasta seems dry.
  5. Cover casserole with a few slices of mozzarella and the parmensan.
  6. Bake in oven until cheese is bubbling and casserole is warmed through. The time (15-30 minutes) will depend on the temperature of casserole. If it’s at room temperature, it will take longer.
  7. Serve piping hot with extra sauce and cheese.

Fajitas. Fast.

By Lisa

While Caroline is out of town at the annual AWP conference, enjoying drinks and such at Frontera grill, I am home, sampling Rick Bayless’ prepackaged goodness with my family.

That I chose this pack of skillet sauce off the shelf of the market the same day that Caroline was enjoying the real thing is either a) sheer coincidence or b) proof that after years of working together, we’ve achieved mind meld.

Or you could say I bought the sauce because I broke the first cardinal rule of grocery shopping:

1) NEVER shop while hungry.

My lapse led me to purchase, in quick succession:

  • “fajita” meat (precut strip steak. Dumb. I know. )
  • Frontera Fajita sauce

Then I went to the Mexican market for the rice my son loves but which I have never been able to make successfully.  Driven by falling blood sugar mania, I left that market with:

  • Mexican rice
  • Fresh refried Pinto beans
  • Whole Pinto beans
  • Al pastor (but that is another story…)

Which left me with all the fixings for a really fast, festive dinner.

Cabbage salad, fajita meat with peppers and onions, Mexican rice, guacamole, whole pintos, refried pintos, salsa, lime, fresh corn tortillas

My daughter, the ranking carnivore of our family, whose love for hamburgers is surpassed only by her love for carne asada, gobbled up the meat. And then she ate all the leftovers the next night.  And asked for the same thing the night after that.  I had to draw the line somewhere.

Which is to say: my quest to simplify my cooking life continues, and this night was an unqualified success.  I can add to the list of Things I’m Okay With Feeding My Family:  Meals cobbled together with some fresh foods, some premade foods, some packaged products.

Something Slow, Something New

By Lisa

I’ve come to learn the hard way that it’s not a good idea to introduce new food on a weeknight, especially not after a long afternoon on the soccer field.  When the kids sit down to eat at 6:40 (if we’re lucky) on Monday nights, it’s cold, it’s dark, they’re covered in turf dirt, and all they want is something warm and familiar. You can’t really them. It takes energy to try new things, and an hour before bedtime is not a good time to ask them to rally.

So this week, I made the new (to them) soup in the slow cooker on Sunday. This way, if there were tears, at least it would be early in the night, bedtime wouldn’t be jeopardized, I could mitigate the damage.  As a precaution, I served the soup with the pannini they love.  They could decide what to eat.

We all pitched in with the final prep.  The soup, which is about as far as I’ve ever gotten in Julia Child’s classic cookbook (in case you don’t know, it’s the first recipe…), was delicious.  And even though they were reluctant to stop eating the warm bread and various kinds of pork on offer (Finley has taken to repeating, “Ham? Yes! HAM!!” and bouncing in ecstasy whenever said meat is offered to him), both kids  admitted they liked the soup and drank their cups without complaint.  Small victories.  More: the leftovers have kept Kory and I fed these past few cold nights.

pannini prep: ham & swiss, salami & swiss, just swiss

Dad’s kidtinis

Finn tests the immersion blender…

no kids harmed…

Ella’s table

Potato and Leek Soup

  • 3 large baking potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2 inch pieces
  • 2 large leeks, cleaned and sliced into rounds, including white & tender green leaves
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 tablespoon salt, more to taste
  • 3-4 tablespoons butter
  1. Place all ingredients in large pot or slow cooker, cover, and bring to simmer.
  2. Simmer soup 1-2 hours, until leeks and potatoes are tender.
  3. Using an immersion blender, blend until smooth. Add butter and blend until mixed. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  4. Serve immediately.

Full Stop: Slow Cooker Red Sauce

By Lisa

One of my resolutions this year is to do only One Thing At A Time.  This is very, very hard for me.  Somedays, when I have 12 things on my to-do list, including writing, teaching, errands, chores–it’s physically painful not to do that one extra thing.  The commitment has meant, among other things, that I am trying hard not to Get Dinner Ready While Helping With Homework. Or not to Section The Cauliflower While Doing Laundry.  Or not to Peel Carrots In Ten Minutes Before School Pickup.  I’m trying hard to avoid Eating Dinner In The Car On My Way To Work.  It means other things, too, like not asking my kids to Get Ready For Soccer And Eat Your Snack. Or Clean Your Room and Get Ready for Bed.  You can extrapolate.

You can call it my Oxford comma moment.

However, I am still trying to cook with fresh food.

Leaving the fast food to Finn

Doing One Thing At A Time means I have to plan more than ever. It means I have to start early. It means I have been thinking hard about what I can do to minimize my cooking time between the hours of 3 and 6.

In my quest, my new appliance has been life changing. Technically, my slow cooker is not a traditional slow cooker. It also roasts, sautees, browns, and simmers.  I am still learning the best ways to use it: how the high/low settings work; how long to parboil pastas; best cooking times for different sizes of baked potatoes; how much extra liquid  to add to simmer-all-day soups.  But it has been on my countertop nearly every other day since I got I it, and it has helped me slow down and simplify in countless ways. To date, I’ve made delicious Swedish Meatballs and Beef Stew.  But also: macaroni and cheese, red sauce, baked ziti (with leftover red sauce), split pea soup, baked potatoes.  Not all the recipes are perfect. Yet. (Except the pea soup. And the hint to rub the potatoes lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt before baking.)  But it has made my life exponentially less stressful.  And that, as some of you know, makes everyone less stressed-out. Funny how that works. Funnier that it has taken me so long to learn the lesson.

So along comes last Sunday, when our local football team played my childhood football team for a spot in the Superbowl.  I have fond memories of dark winter afternoons, a house full of the smells of my mother’s red sauce, or spaghetti and meatballs, or lasagna, endless football games, tv trays, warm garlic bread. And so even though I didn’t need to use it, I pulled out my slow cooker, sauteed the meat, added the tomatoes, herbs, and wine, and set it to Simmer for the next, oh, 4 or 5 hours.

Right before game time I cooked the pasta. Ella made kidtinis. We watched the game.  We ate.  We put in all the stops.

Ella’s 49er Kidtini. It involved club soda, Meyer lemons, grenadine, and a whole lot of cherries. Also red sugar.

Slow Cooker Red Sauce

  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cans Italian tomatoes
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • 1/4-1/2 cup red wine
  1. With slow cooker on Sautee/brown, sautee meats with a pinch of salt until cooked through.
  2. Add onion, garlic, and bay leaf, and cook, stirring constantly, until onion begins to soften.
  3. Add tomatoes, thyme, wine.
  4. Simmer for 4-5 hours.

This easily makes enough to dress 2 lbs of pasta. Save 1/2 for a batch of quick baked ziti during the week.