family dinner

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.

Mardi Gras

By Lisa

Caroline has a lot of terrific pancake recipes that she’s shared here over the years: including corn, pumpkin, and lemon.

I tend to stick to just this one classic recipe, which is a lot like having cake for breakfast. Or, in last night’s case, for dinner.

In our house, Mardi Gras–Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins–has come to mean pancakes. Traditionally pancakes were served on Fat Tuesday as a way to use up all your dairy and eggs and sugar before long, lean spell of Lent.  Historically, some Christians abstained from all animal products during Lent, and one year I did just that, and it was really hard. But that was before kids and migraines.

While we do try to limit our sweets during Lent–and this year I am giving up all cocktails & wine during the week (stay tuned to see how that works out)–we don’t encourage the kids to do food-based things for the season.  The all out pancake-gorge-for-dinner is symbolic, and it does begin to remind them that a time of reflection is beginning.

In true Mardi Gras spirit, they ate with their hands. Finn picked up the fork when I told him I was going to blog about what he calls Dinbr.


This year, they’ve resolved to pick up after themselves with greater vigilance–or with just one reminder from me–and our whole family is resolved to Practice Peace. Without the cocktail, this might be a long 40 days.  We’ll see.

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.

More Adventures in Slow Cooking: Swedish Meatballs

by Lisa

Tuesday night I have a plan: Swedish Meatballs. I take the pork and beef out of the freezer just fine.

Wednesday morning: I realize I have no onion, no potatoes.  Kids say they will boycott Swedish meatballs if mashed potatoes aren’t involved. I have no plan B. Resolve to go to store.

Later Wednesday morning: Put off trip to store for onions and potatoes.

Wednesday afternoon: Forget to go to store entirely.

Late Wednesday after, 20 minutes before school pick-up. Rush to store. Buy pre-chopped onion and pre-made mashed potatoes for the first time in my life.

School pickup time: T-1o. Soak bread in milk, dump in egg, meats, salt, nutmeg. No time to sautee onions, dump them in raw. What’s the worst that can happen?  Mix ingredients. Cover bowl. Wash hands.

Pick up kids. On time! Drive straight home.

35 minutes before first run to soccer field.  Begin making 20-something meatballs. Ten minutes later, our sitter arrives. Turn on slow cooker to “brown/sautee” for the first time.  Butter melts.  Meatballs brown evenly and quickly in less than 15 minutes. I begin to breathe again.

With help from sitter, kids have found themselves a snack, filled water bottles. Soccer uniforms are on. No one is yelling.

I melt another tablespoon of butter, stir flour, cook for two minutes, then whisk in chicken broth. Gravy comes to a simmer. Meatballs go back in.  Slow cooker gets turned to “HIGH” and programmed for 30 minutes, after which time, I hope it kicks back to “warm” setting. I stare at it for a minute, willing it not to let me down.

Leave for soccer with child #1.  Child #2 stays home with sitter to do homework and make scarves for her Scandanavian doll, who is largely responsible for the Swedish meatball phase.   We are on time for soccer. No one is crying.

It’s my turn to stay at the field, so an hour later, sitter arrives with child #2, takes home child #1.  By all reports the cooker is doing what it is supposed to . My sitter has heated up the potatoes and cooked the broccoli romanesco (she really is amazing).

An hour and half later, it is very dark and very cold.   I am shivering and can barely feel my extremities.  We drive home. The house is bright. And warm.  It smells like Sweden, or at least the pleasant afterglow of a long, successful trip to IKEA, before you’ve begun to assemble anything. My son has eaten something like ten meatballs.  My daughter tries to match him, meatball for meatball.  I salvage a few for the grownups.

Slow Cooker Swedish Meatballs

  • 2 slices white bread
  • heavy cream/milk (enough to moisten white bread)
  • small onion, diced
  • 1 egg beaten
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb ground pork
  • 1 tsp salt
  • dash nutmeg, cardamom, white pepper
  • 2 T butter
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  1. In a medium sized bowl, pour enough cream or milk over the bread to completely moisten both slices.
  2. Dice onion and add to bowl along with meats, egg, salt, and spices.  Mix gently until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
  3. Shape mixture into small balls.
  4. With slow cooker on Brown/Sautee setting, fry meatballs in 2T butter until brown on all sides. Remove using a slotted spoon and set aside.
  5. Whisk flour into pan drippings. If need be, add another 1-2 tablespoons butter.
  6. Whisk in broth and simmer until gravy is thick.
  7. Turn slow cooker to “HIGH” and return meatballs to gravy. Cook on for 30 minutes, or until meatballs are cooked through.