Variation on a Theme: End of Summer Pan Fried Gnocchi

by Lisa

In some ways, the food blogging/writing world misleads us.  If you believe everything you read, people out there are cooking new, interesting, fresh, inspired things all the time.  On the one hand, this can inspire you and give you lots of new ideas, recipes, ingredients. The blogging world is great for that.  On the other hand, the constant stream of new content can put a lot of pressure on the cook in the house. It can be hard to measure up, not just in terms of skill and innovation, but simply in terms of getting something new and different on the table every single night.  Where are the leftovers? The repeat meals? The meals that come straight out of the freezer? The take-out or pizza nights?  Not to mention:  those nights when activities and work schedules mean the kids have to eat separate meals and the parents eat even later. Pete Wells got it right: sometimes we are just too busy to cook.

It is true that I do try to cook every night. But last night? Wednesdays are my teaching night, so my sitter prepares what I leave, and my kids had TJ turkey chili out of a can. Which, for the record, they think is one of the best things ever.

Also: we eat an awful lot of the same things for weeks, even months at a time. This is what happens when you eat seasonally. When it’s tomato season, we eat tomatoes. Lots and lots and lots of them. We’re Italian like that.  You can romanticize it all you want, but it’s not exactly inspired.  And unless you’re Mark Bittman, it can be a challenge to figure out something to do with all the same stuff day in and day out. A girl can dream and plan and try, and lots of us do, of course, but if you’re not a food professional, and you’re tired, it can be a lot of work to be inspired.

Moreover, we have had an unusually busy week.  A slight shift in Ella’s schedule has meant that she has 20 minutes to eat dinner in between Finn’s drop off and pick up from swimming and her own drop off at soccer.  I have no idea when Finn is going to eat.  Our afterschool hours are such that I have to have dinner ready for them both to eat by  4pm.  Because between 4-7 pm, I won’t be home long enough to cook. Certainly, this week is not usual, but the fact remains that there are plenty of other families who face this challenge on a regular basis.  It’s one thing to cook and eat a family meal when your kids are young.  I found it a hell of a lot easier to cook for toddlers than it is now, with a 6 and 9-year-old.  It doesn’t help to say my family dinner will never be sacrificed, because if your kids have activities, sometimes it will be.  All of which is to say that how we cook and how our families eat our meals changes.  I am here to say: it’s okay some nights to eat on the run. It’s okay to eat the same thing over and over again.

Which brings me to my dinner dilemma tonight. What could I cook that would keep from 3:45 pm until 8 pm? I had tomatoes, corn, and hooray! a package of gnocchi, which, once cooked, keeps far better than pasta.  I have  a bin full of good produce: green beans and great lettuces for a side dish or salad.  Also some good mozzarella.  And this morning I was talking to my very dear friend Melissa Clark, the novelist, who introduced me to gnocchi, and is also a contributor to our book. Then there was Caroline’s post yesterday, and dishes I’ve made before, and this is the result:  our end of summer (and end of a very long day, and nearly the end of the week) pan fried gnocchi.

Like tonight’ s dinner, which has not yet been cooked, this photo is repurposed. But you get the general idea…

End of Summer Gnocchi with Tomatoes, Corn, and Mozzarella

1 package gnocchi

1 clove garlic

2 T butter

2 T olive oil

1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

2 ears of corn, cooked, cooled and kernals sliced off

2-3 slices fresh mozzarella, sliced into bite- sized cubes

3-4 leaves fresh basil

  1. Mince the garlic & sautee in olive oil and butter in a large pan.
  2. Add the gnocchi to the pan & cook until heated through and lightly golden brown.
  3. Remove from heat, and in a large bowl gently toss in tomatoes and corn.
  4. Toss in mozzarella and basil.
  5. Serve immediately or after (soccer/swimming/piano/tutoring), at room temperature.

BLT Pasta

By Lisa

Last summer, I never pulled up our tomato plants. We had 3 or 4 plants in the ground–Sweet 100s, SunGolds–delicious little bites of summer, that bore fruit until October. (It’s like that here, please don’t hate us.)   And then we got busy, and it started to rain, and we spent most weekends at one soccer game or another, and I just let those plants go. And guess what?

This spring, up popped a tomato seedling. Then two, then three, then six.  I didn’t think they would survive, so ignored them. But they kept growing, and I still didn’t really believe what was happening, and so I neglected to thin out the plants. And then, all of sudden, we were back from a month of vacation, the plants were nearly taking over yard, and now we have pints and pints of the best little cherry tomatoes you could ever hope for.

They are perfectly ripe and sweet, and we can barely keep up. They plants are a glorious mess, but I don’t care. They just keep producing and producing and all we can do is pick as fast as we can.

We give pints away and I am still wrist deep in tomatoes every night. We eat them whole, straight off the plant.  I make fresh salsas, with a touch of red onion and cilantro. I make caprese on a stick , or bruschetta, or a modified tomato surprise. I make gazpacho several times a week, which is a dish both kids slurp like addicts. And I’ve made a couple of version of  BLT pasta, because we have also been on something of a bacon kick.

The pasta works two ways, with cooked or uncooked tomatoes, but it’s fast and easy and you can use a range of simple ingredients;

  • 3/4 lb oriechetta
  • 1 pint Sungold or Sweet 100 tomatoes
  • 4 slices bacon
  • 1-2 handfuls fresh spinach or baby arugula
  • freshly shaved parmesan OR baby mozzarella

It works like this:

  • Cook the pasta in well-salted water. While the pasta is cooking:
  • Cook 4 slices bacon  in a pan to desired crispness, remove and drain on paper towels. Chop into 1 inch pieces.
  • If cooking the tomatoes, pour off all but 2-3 tablespoons of bacon grease. Then toss the tomatoes into the pan and cook just until they’re wilted and beginning to burst. Alternatively, slice the tomatoes in half and toss with salt and extra virgin olive oil. Let these sit for about 10-15 minutes while you cook the bacon.
  • When the pasta is done add it to the pan with cooked tomatoes, two big handfuls of spinach or arugula. Toss gently until the greens just begin to wilt.
  • And the bacon and toss.
  • OR, toss the cooked pasta with spinach or arugula until greens are just wilted. Then add the fresh tomatoes and their juices, then the bacon.
  • Serve immediately with shavings of parmesan cheese or the fresh mozzarella.

Nemesis Foods

by Caroline

A year or so ago, we had a funny dinner table conversation about our “nemesis foods:” the things we really, really don’t like to eat but occasionally must to be polite. Ben’s is chili; Eli’s is sauteed spinach; mine is sweet potato casserole (the kind with marshmallows on top [shudder]). Tony’s is something I don’t eat at all anymore but when I was a kid, it was my absolute happy comfort food, and my mom made it almost every week.

This week, visiting my parents, I offered to stock their freezer with meals for when they don’t have the energy to cook. My mom and I talked about a couple different options — enchiladas, soups, lasagne, curries — and decided on a corn chowder, a vegetable and tofu curry (using many of my dad’s garden vegetables), and, as a cold weather comfort food, Tony’s nemesis food: tuna noodle casserole.

Now it’s my sister who makes it for her family most often, and her essay for The Dish shares a funny story about my nephew’s love for this dish, plus her recipe, which I offer you here, following this picture of the tuna noodle casserole assembly line. My husband kept his distance.

Libby’s Tuna Casserole

My kids would eat this every night if I would make it. Especially Nick.

1/2 stick (1/4 cup) butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk (skim is fine)
1 tsp mustard, optional

1 lb. pasta; shells or fusili seem to work best

1-2 cans tuna, packed in water (or, I suppose, oil, but I never buy that kind. Actually I buy the kind that has no salt added, too.)

1-2 cups frozen tiny baby peas. Or not so tiny ones, if you don’t mind them. They seem kind of icky to me, but I like the little tiny ones. You don’t need to thaw these.

2-3 cups shredded cheese of your choice. I usually use 2 cups of colby-jack and a cup or so of parmesan or romano, but it depends what I have in the house. Something that melts well is what you’re going for, and since you’re probably feeding kids, don’t bother with really good cheese. I buy bags of shredded stuff and throw them in the freezer, then pull out whatever I have and use it. “Italian” blends work fine, as do “Mexican.” Real cheese that you shred yourself is probably better.

breadcrumbs, optional

OK. So you have your ingredients. Turn your oven on to 350 or so (400 if you’re in a hurry) and make sure you have a casserole dish that holds a pound of cooked pasta.

Put up a pan of water for the pasta. While you wait for it to boil, melt the butter in a medium sauce pan. Medium heat. When the butter’s melted (don’t let it burn!), whisk in the flour. When it collects into a sort of pasty mess at the bottom of your pan, add the milk and whisk madly to break up the clumps. (If you heated the milk beforehand this might go more smoothly, but if you just keep whisking it will work with cold milk out of the fridge.)

Keep whisking while you heat the milk to just below boiling. Turn the heat down a bit if you need to. The sauce will thicken up quite a bit. Whisk the mustard, if you’re using it, in as it thickens. (I find it makes a big difference.)

If you already knew how to make a bechamel (aka white sauce, aka cream sauce) you could have skipped those last two paragraphs.

When the sauce has thickened take it off the heat. When the pasta water boils, duh, add the pasta and boil it until tender but not mushy. Drain the pasta and run cold water over it to stop it cooking.

Dump the pasta back in the pasta pan. Pour the sauce over it and mix it together. Then add the tuna (breaking it up in the can a bit before you dump it in) and the peas. Mix it all together so that the tuna and peas are evenly distributed.

Put half the pasta/sauce/tuna/peas mixture in the bottom of the casserole. Scatter half the cheese over it. Then the rest of the pasta, and the rest of the cheese. If you like, blanket the top with bread crumbs. Crushed up Ritz crackers or potato chips would be decadent and tasty. Pop the whole thing in the oven and bake until the top is golden and crusty. This will take 15-20 minutes at 400, up to half an hour at lower heat. Since everything was already cooked before it went in, all you really need to do is melt the cheese and brown the top, but if you have to go take a shower or something and need it to be in the oven longer, you might cover the casserole when you put it in, then take the top off and blast the heat up to 425 or so for the last few minutes.

Fresh Corn Pancakes

by Caroline

When my husband and I decided to get married, I told him I could imagine making a life in his native San Francisco as long as we spent one week every summer somewhere I wouldn’t need to wear a scarf.

That means, happily, an August week in Northwest Connecticut, visiting my parents, and that also, very happily, means corn. Usually, we’re eating my Dad’s corn, but this year the crop failed so we’re getting it from local farm stands. My Dad likes the one the First Selectman sets up at the end of his driveway (presumably because he can get caught up on local political talk); my Mom (and I) like the bigger one that also offers fresh, homemade mozzarella. Either way, with this much corn around, you are bound to have leftovers, and this recipe is my new favorite way to use them. Don’t be put off (as I nearly was) by the somewhat fussy step of blending and straining some of the corn with milk: it makes a difference.

You can eat these the way my kids do, drenched in maple syrup (and when the syrup’s homemade, I won’t stop them), but you can also eat them savory, as I’ve pictured, with guacamole and fresh tomatoes. It’s summer on a plate.

Saying Goodbye to the Kid’s Menu

by Caroline

When Lisa told me about her family’s road trip plans, I was envious (the sun! the stars! the Missions! the meals!) and then, instantly, dubious on the one point she was nervous about herself: the meals. Two weeks of restaurant meals. Forty-two restaurant meals. With two kids. At (among other places) several theme parks.

I wished her well and waited to hear the report.

Happily, the family survived well and Lisa’s writing about how to handle two solid weeks of restaurant meals with kids, covering everything from breakfast to theme park meals to the kids’ take on all of it. All of which has made me realize an exciting recent restaurant development in our family: we are saying goodbye to the kid’s menu.

Let me back up. We eat out a fair amount. Tony and I ate out regularly before we married (we both did growing up, too), and it was important to us to cultivate good restaurant habits in our kids. So we were strategic about it. Ben’s first restaurant meal, I have to admit, was at Chevy’s; he was about 7 weeks old and gazed at the balloons while I drank a margarita. Success! His first fancy restaurant meal, months later, was at Lulu, a place we chose partly for its delicious menu but also for its volume: we figured a crying baby wouldn’t be heard over the din. We needn’t have worried; he was old enough to sit in a high chair and gnaw happily on baguette, while we enjoyed several courses.

We continue to be thoughtful about eating out and follow the same practices as Lisa’s family. We eat out at fancy places to celebrate, sometimes, (both kids have eaten at plenty of places that don’t offer high chairs or kid’s menus) but more often we walk to one of the many local spots in the neighborhood where we can afford (both in terms of environment and price) to experiment. So if, as happened once when Ben was a toddler, there’s a meltdown between ordering and the food arriving, it’s no big deal to flag down the waiter and get dinner to go. Luckily, it’s been a long time since such an evening has gone awry; more often, we eat and chat and it feels quite a bit like home, just a little more special. But the kids’ preference, always, is to eat at home: it’s more relaxed, they don’t have to wait for their food, they like our cooking.

This summer, we’ve traveled a bit but managed — by booking hotel rooms with kitchenettes or staying with family — to keep the restaurant meals to a minimum (on our visit to Seattle this June, just the second restaurant night made Eli mournful). Tony researched spots that looked good — Italian and Asian restaurants tend to offer a good variety for our choosy, vegetarian kids — and we’ve been eating well. I’ve been remembering the mom I used to be, who would sweep the fragile glassware into the middle of the table, far from a toddler’s grasping reach, or who would set the high chair far from the tempting tablecloth. I’m grateful for older kids who (mostly) sit politely and use the kid’s menu now (mostly) just for drawing.

Kid’s menus certainly offer a welcome landing spot, a sign — as surely as highchairs and lidded cups — that the restaurant welcomes kids, and we’ve been grateful for them. But honestly, the kid’s menu has never offered a great selection for my kids; of the standard burger-fish sticks-chicken fingers-pizza-pasta quintet, most are either too meaty or too cheesy for my kids. So we have always looked beyond it, and are now really moving away from it. Eli will just eat a big salad (particularly Caesar, the gateway salad) if there’s nothing else on the menu he likes, though still often augments with pasta or grilled cheese. Ben, however, is making some new choices. Recently at our favorite local place, he passed up his beloved pasta “shoulders” (a toddler malapropism of his we have all adopted) in favor of a new dish: soba with grilled tofu and greens. It’s the kind of dish he eats all the time at home but would never order out. He’s also not shy about ordering exactly what he wants. He’ll scan the menu and assemble himself a meal from side dishes, he’ll order a salad without that cheese or with that other salad’s dressing (I know special orders can be a nightmare for a kitchen staff, and we always check that they don’t mind). At our most recent meal out, I noted how the water goblets stood a little unsteadily on thick placemats atop the marble table, turned down the waiter’s offer of plastic, lidded kid’s cups, relaxed and ordered a glass of wine. They are growing up and I am enjoying it.