Weeknight Strategies: Salads + Spaghetti

by Lisa

Like all other families with school age kids, we’re back in full swing,which means afterschool activities most days of the week, homework for the 3rd grader, and a generally full schedule from 3-6:30, which is more or less when my kids start getting ready for bed.  We have an early lights out around here, basically because my two need it to stay tantrum free rested.  This discipline really does work to keep the peace here, day after day, but it does mean getting dinner on the table fast and early.  This can be a challenge when we don’t get home from swimming or soccer until 5:15 or 5:45 pm.  I have to plan ahead, know what I want to cook, what I need to prep at lunch or after school while Ella is doing homework, so it’s all ready to go as soon as we walk in the door.  I aim to get dinner on the table in 20 minutes most nights–which is the time it takes for them to wash off the dirt and sweat from the field in the bath.

I try to set the table (or counter in this case) after school while homework is being finished and playing ensued.

Generally speaking, I’ll have a small salad or two ready to go as an appetizer as soon as they sit down, so they have something to eat immediately post-bath, in the event that the the main course takes a little longer.  Last night it was this:

Tomatoes, Roasted peppers, pimentos di padrone, romaine leaves

This looks like a lot of work, but it’s not:  The Roasted peppers with garlic and capers I had made on Sunday and simply had to pull from the refrigerator before we went to practice); padrones take 60 seconds to fry; romaine salad had been prewashed and bagged, also on Sunday, and the mustard vinaigrette I made on Sunday for the week–equal parts country mustard and red wine vinegar, smashed garlic clove, pinch salt, olive oil; fresh cherry tomatoes with olive oil, balsamic, and torn basil took maybe 2 minutes  The early prep meant all 4 of these salads were on the table in less than 5 minutes. Even though I do this all the time, it is a huge relief and great satisfaction every single night I can get dinner on the table swiftly and easily. It never gets old.

I like serving several small salads for two reasons:

  1. It looks pretty. I say never underestimate what the good looks of you food can do for your happiness at the table and your kids enthusiasm for eating.
  2. It gives them choices.

The corollary to #2:

With choices, the kids learn to serve themselves, take a variety of foods and adjust their portions.  Exercising control and self-control is a crucial part of learning to eat, and I’m not just talking about manners. We work on that, every night (sigh), too.

All that was left to do was slice some fresh bread and cook a very simple but very flavorful pasta with oil and garlic, which can be made in the time it takes to cook spaghetti–about 12 minutes, water boiling include.

This is one of my favorite vegetarian ways to eat: a very simple pasta + lots of side salads.  Think Italian: This rubric is really just an antipasto + primo –which is all we need most weeknights. Add a glass of wine for the grown-ups and a dolce for all (we had peach sorbet and waffle cookies)–and your time is spent enjoying a fresh, home cooked meal and not stressing over how to get it all to the table.

Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil

  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Olive oil, probably a scant 1/4 cup. (About enough to coat the pasta)
  • A handful of chopped parsley
  • 1/2 lb spaghetti
  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
  2. Finely chop garlic.
  3. Heat oil in a small pan & sautee garlic until it just barely turns brown. Remove from heat.
  4. Break pasta in half and cook until finished. Drain and return to pasta pot.
  5. Pour most of oil over the spaghetti, scraping to get most of the garlic out. Toss oil, spaghetti and parsley until well mixed over very low heat.
  6. Remove from heat and add the extra tablespoon of oil.
  7. Serve immediately. With cheese if you prefer–but it’s not necessary.

*Note: We had so many salads, a small serving of pasta was sufficient for us. But if you have fewer salads, go ahead and use 3 cloves of garlic,  a little more oil, and 1 lb. spaghetti.

Grilled Spicy Sweet Chicken Wings

by Lisa

It may be the end of September, but it’s still summer weather here. So when we had friends over for dinner on Saturday, the only thing to do was barbeque. In retrospect, I might have chosen to do something other than stand in front of the grill in 90+ degree heat grilling wings, but it was a great meal and pretty perfect for the weather. These wings have been a hit in our family for years, and they actually work really well for weeknights if you follow the original instructions and broil them instead of grilling. It’s a lot faster and requires less tending. The sauce/glaze takes about 2 minutes to make if you use bottled lime juice, which works just fine. These wings are sweet and a little spicy and completely messy and addictive–just likes they should be. We had 4 adults, 2 8-year-old girls, a 5-year-old boy and a 6-year-old boy. We ate nearly 8 lbs of wings. I had the genius idea to give the kids their own little table, a little apart from ours, under the shade of the orange tree, and their own plate of wings to dig into. We served them their salads restaurant style, and refilled their wings plate 3 times.

The grown-ups sat here.

Alongside our wings were a Green Goddess salad, a mustard-chive country potato salad (recipes for these TK this week!), a cooling cucumber salad, and a mixed up caprese  with grape tomatoes and fresh mozzerella. But maybe the best side of all was the Aspasie champagne my friend Dena brought, which was the perfect drink for the wings.  I would have been happy to eat wings and drink champagne all night long.

The original recipe is here but I’ve also copied it below, substituting drumettes which I find easier to cook and eat, reducing the cayenne (you can adjust to your taste), and added grilling instructions.

Apricot Glazed Chicken Wings

  • 4 1/2 lb chicken drumettes
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 cup apricot preserves
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  1. Toss wings with oil, black pepper, and 2 teaspoons salt in a large bowl. These can stay covered in the refrigerator for a few hours, or until you are nearly read to grill. It’s a good idea to take them out a little ahead of time so they’re not ice cold when you put them on the grill.
  2. Blend preserves, lime juice, garlic, cumin, cayenne, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a food processor or blender until smooth. Transfer to a small heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over moderate heat, stirring, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, 1 minute. This sauce will keep, covered, at room temperature until you are read to use it.
  3. Heat grill to high, then lower heat to medium and place wings evenly on grill. Grill for about 10 minutes, then turn over and grill for about 10 more minutes, until wings are nearly cooked through.
  4. Brush 1/4 cup sauce on cooked wings and grill 2 to 3 minutes. Turn wings, and brush with 1/4 cup sauce again, and grill 2-3 minutes. Turn wings over and brush with another 1/4 cup sauce. Grill for another 2-3 minutes. Repeat the basting & turning until the wings are deeply browned and fully cooked through. I find wings (like lots of bone-in chicken) can be tricky on the grill. I go for slow and lower heat, to ensure even and thorough cooking without charring the skin.
  5. Brush with remaining sauce before serving.

Lemon Citrus Spaghetti

By Lisa

This, a few tablespoons of butter, a pack of spaghetti gets you dinner for 4.

I had a tabula rasa moment on Tuesday night.  Dinner needed to be on the table quickly, but I nothing ready to cook. I had planned on making something a little more complicated, but we had been a long time picking up our kitten at the vet, and it was too late for the original plan.  We had just had the omelete so eggs were out of rotation.  We had also just finished a pot of black beans with quesidillas, so tacos were out, too.   I had no cream for Fettucine Alfredo, didn’t want just cheese and butter on pasta, had no bacon defrosted for a quick carbonara, and had seasonal fatigue for the tomato/black bean saffron thing.   I wasn’t even sure I had time to boil pasta water before the kids detonated, so tomato sauce was out of the question, but it did seem pasta was my only option.  Also? I had very little milk left.  Then I had a one of those inspired moments, and decided I could make a quick variation on this Winter Citrus Pasta that was ready in the time it took to boil water.

I had prepped some green chard earlier in the day (which I very often do)–smashing the garlic, tossing it in a pan with olive oil, washing and chopping the chard, sprinkling it with salt, and covering it up with a lid. At dinner time, I just turn on the burner and sautee.  5 minutes to food rather than 10. Less mess to clean up, too.  I put the water on to boil, sauteed the chard, whipped up a couple of tomato surprises, plopped a few carrots into bowls and sat the kids at the counter to work on their rainbow vegetable appetizer and a small slice of fresh italian bread.

Of course, they watched while I cooked the pasta, which was risky, since it was new to them. Lemon in pasta? Have we had this before? Yes, and no. They were slightly crestfallen but didn’t protest too much.  Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to give the kids brand new things at the last minute on a school night, but I forged ahead bravely.    The result was a big hit, and Finn even remembered that he had eaten something like it before. It’s a rich and creamy dish, with a nice zing of lemon flavor.  A perfect–& fast–fall dish.

Lemon Citrus Spaghetti

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1 lemon (zest only)
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2-3/4 cup grated cheese
  • 1 lb spaghetti
  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil.
  2. While waiting for the water to boil, pour the milk and butter into a saucepan large enough to contain the cooked spaghetti. Zest the lemon into the milk/butter.  Turn on the heat and melt the butter, simmer until the mixture blends and slightly thickens, 3 minutes or so. Turn off heat.
  3. In the mixing cup you used for the milk, beat the egg and set aside.
  4. When the water boils, cook the pasta until al dente, about 9 minutes.
  5. Drain pasta and add it to the milk/butter/zest in the pan. On low heat, quickly stir in the beaten egg, then the cheese. Serve immediately.

Nicoise for Kids

by Lisa

When I was in high school, my boyfriend and I went to Manhattan to see some show or other, but before that, we went to a classic French bistro for lunch. I suppose I ordered onion soup, and he ordered something else, and when we done ordering the server, who was an older, very severe, motherly kind of French woman looked sternly at us an asked with more than a little “And what will you have first?”

“Nothing,” we replied, not really understanding the concept of appetizer (beyond that plate of cheese and stone-wheat crackers we sometimes saw at parties), suburban kids that we were. She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows and seemed absolutely to judge us.  But a few minutes later she returned with two perfectly composed plates of salad.  “You will eat this first,” she said. “It is Salad Nicoise.”  And we did, and we thanked her, and it was delicious, and we understood. Since then, I’ve always loved a good Nicoise (in the style of Nice), which is a classic composed salad: rather than tossing the lot of vegetables together, each is tossed separately and arranged artfully on the plate. Or if you’re a real purist, the vegetables (and sometimes tuna) are arragned artfully and just drizzled with the vinaigrette.  A good composed salad is a meal in itself. The classic ingredients for a Nicoise will vary, but are selected from tomato, green beans, boiled egg, tuna, red pepper, maybe lettuce.   Debate rages about whether or not the vegetables should be cooked.  A purist will say all should be crudite.

Basically, all you need is the following vinaigrette recipe and whatever fresh (or leftover) produce you have on hand.  You can add fresh tuna, canned tuna, the rest of that grilled pork tenderloin you have lying around, that sausage you didn’t eat (see above), steak…or not.

With apologies to the French and the purists, Salad “Nicoise” works beautifully for a family for the following reasons:

  • On a busy night, you can whip up the dressing and toss it with whatever fresh vegetables you have around.
  • You can use up leftover green beans, corn, and all manner of meats swiftly and
  • The pretty plate makes it look like it’s not “leftover night” even though you know better
  • It’s healthy
  • It can be vegetarian or not
  • You can use whatever you have on hand–whatever is seasonal, local, fresh around you
  • You can cook or not cook, depending on your family’s taste
  • Your picky eaters won’t complain about different food touching each other.

The original recipe is here, on Epicurious.

Just the dressing :

  • 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons minced shallot
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste with 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Rounded 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Make dressing:
Whisk together vinegar, shallot, mustard, garlic paste, and anchovy paste in a small bowl until combined well, then add oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Whisk in thyme, basil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Dip

by Lisa

Caroline makes a fine garbage salad, and a long time ago, I started making a kind of garbage cheese dip.   Like so much of what goes on around here, there is no single recipe but rather a set of strategies and tips.  This is what you can do if friends stop in unexpectedly. This is another thing you can do if your kids are starving and dinner isn’t ready. This is what you do if you have too many little hunks of cheese lying around in your cheese bin and you don’t know how to use them.  There are two basic ways to go about mixing up a fast, delicious spread that you can use for snack, appetizer, or even a quick lunch.

The first, and my favorite, is Jacques Pepin style, a technique culled from one of his classic cooking shows.  In a Cuisinart blend together:

  • all your leftover little pieces of cheese–especially a little piece of blue cheese. The more eclectic the mix, the better.
  • a splash or so of white wine
  • one garlic clove

Of course, if kids are going to eat this, you will want to make sure the cheese mixing did not require too much wine–or you can substitute or add some mayonnaise as in the version below for a Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Dip:

  • shredded cheddar cheese
  • mayonnaise
  • a teaspoon or two of mustard
  • a tablespoon or so to taste of horseradish

I like keeping things like this around, because anytime you bring out a pre-dinner snack, everyone slows down, gathers together and your weeknight can feel a little bit more like a weekend.