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.

Salad for Lunch

by Caroline

One of my favorite things, among the many small things that I love about my kids being in school until 2 PM, is that I have time now to make and eat lunch at home.

Last year, when my youngest was in preschool, I left the house at 11:30 AM to pick him up. It was too early to eat before leaving the house, and usually by the time we got home, I was too hungry to do more than warm up some leftovers or make a quesadilla or something else not particularly inspired. A snack might have been a good idea, but then I wouldn’t have been hungry for lunch until 2 PM, which doesn’t work well when you’re living with small people who need dinner at 5:30.

You see the little problem.

Now, I don’t have to leave the house until 1:30. And that gives me the necessary time to work all morning, and then rummage around inside the fridge and pantry and come up with a salad like this. I realize we’ve been posting a lot about salads lately; Lisa’s herby green salad is a staple in our house, too, and garbage salad is a regular in my lunch routine. Earlier in the summer, when I was I reminiscing about our glorious French vacation I posted three new recipes. Because salad can be a great meal for lunch. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it doesn’t need to take any longer to make than to heat up leftovers. But sometimes, the right combination of ingredients doesn’t present itself to you unless you can give it a couple moments of thought. And then maybe the combination, once you see it, seems so obvious it’s hardly worth remarking upon. But if the ingredients are fresh and you have thirty minutes to eat in peace, perhaps with a book by your side, the meal feels like a remarkable gift indeed.

So here it is, today’s fall spinach salad:

Spinach leaves
Halved red grapes
Crumbled goat cheese
Toasted walnuts
Balsamic vinaigrette

Toss and enjoy.

2 Simple Salads: Green Goddess & Country Mustard Potatoes

by Lisa

These salads are so simple that they hardly deserve a post, but they have become very popular in our family this summer, and since we write about all the ways that we eat here–the simple and the fancy–they are getting the attention they deserve.

If you’ve followed me for any time at all, you know I’m a purist. I like food that looks like food–impeccable, fresh, seasonal ingredients, prepared so we can (generally speaking) identify them on our plate. Simply prepared, simply dressed, simply presented. I think this helps kids to know what they’re eating, develop a range of taste, and connect more closely with what their food is and where it comes from.

So most nights our salads are simple–1 green lettuce–dressed with olive oil and a vinegar and maybe  a fancy salt.  But with the abundance of fresh herbs in our garden and at the market–especially basil, mint, chives, and cilantro–I’ve taken to tossing whole and chopped herbs into the salad, basically treating the fresh herbs like another green.  I was inspired by Green Goddess dressing, which is basically a vinaigrette-ish concoction of many different herbs and a creamy avocado.  Why not throw the herbs in whole? or in a fine chiffonade (thin slice) or roughly torn? So I did, and it was terrific–summery and surprising.

A tender butter lettuce works best, and I dress this herb-filled salad it with a simple vinaigrette of 3 parts olive oil to 1 part white balsamic and there you have it–a  fresh, aromatic plate of greens. The kids love it, but if you’re are ways, you can start slowly, with just one herb they love.  You can even add a chopped avocado to make it more closely hew to a true green goddess dressing.  My favorite green goddess dressing is from here, and we use it also to top grilled fish.

This was one of the salads we served on Saturday with the wings. The other was a country potato salad, which suddenly this summer the kids have decided they love.

Country Mustard Potato Salad

  • Potatoes (To serve 8 (we had leftovers) I used 3 red potatoes, and 4 large bintje potatoes–which are exceptionally tender, sweet, and creamy. If you can’t find them, any kind you like will do.)
  • Country mustard
  • White vinegar (rice, white balasamic…or whatever you prefer)
  • Olive oil
  • Mayonnaise
  1. Boil the potatoes whole in a large pot of well-salted water until tender but still holding their shape.
  2. When cool enough to handle, peel.
  3. Cut potatoes into large chunks (about 6-8 pieces per potato).
  4. In a measuring cup mix together 1 T country mustard, 1 T white vinegar, 1/4 cup vegetable oil.
  5. Pour dressing over potatoes and gently toss to coat.
  6. Add 1 large T mayonnaise directly to dressed potatoes. Toss gently to coat.
  7. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Hayes Valley Farm

by Caroline

A lifetime ago, pre-husband and pre-kids, I lived in the not-yet-gentrified Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. My top floor apartment looked out over a vacant lot which had once been shadowed by the 101 freeway off-ramp, but after the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the road, the ramp was torn down and the lot — in all its weedy, broken-asphalt ugliness — was exposed to new light. The weeds started growing denser and scrubby trees started to sprout; the lot was surrounded by chain link fence, but that didn’t stop people from camping in it. I used to sit in my window looking out over the space, wondering if the city would ever pay attention to the lot and make better use of the area.

The rest of the neighborhood started improving; hip shops and cafes moved in, and although I moved away, I’d drive past frequently on my drive to graduate school in Berkeley. Eventually a sign went up on the chain link fence, announcing a condo development, but nothing happened. Then last winter, a new sign went up, and then lots of new signs:

We had to go see it.

We love to visit farms. We tend our own little garden in the backyard and for inspiration we have visited farms on the prairie and on the coast and even one tucked behind a suburban development.

I discovered that when the condo development plans fell victim to the recession, the city opened the site up for “temporary green space use” and the community has taken it from there. On our visit, one group of folks sorted through packets of donated lettuce seed to plant out in flats:

We planted some of it in flats ourselves:

And we admired the healthy salad bar that’s growing from seeds planted earlier in the season:

We saw another group sorting and stacking cardboard, some of the over 80,000 pounds the farmers have used already to create the farm’s “soil” out of layered cardboard, wood chips, and horse manure:

The ingredients for soil (like the seeds) are donated; the community farmers collect the cardboard, wood chips and manure free and with the city’s thanks, from the local waste stream.

These folks are serious about their farming. They are developing dwarf fruit trees that thrive in pots, so that apartment dwellers can harvest their own apples and pears:

They are refining potato columns, which grow in simple, portable chicken wire towers and yield lovely potatoes that my kids couldn’t resist harvesting:

“It’s really not scary to grow food,” commented our tour guide; indeed, for all their innovations here, they are also doing some things in ancient ways, studying the terraced farms of the Incas because San Francisco’s climate mirrors that of the Andes mountains.

The farmers are making it fun, too, hosting volunteer work parties followed by free yoga sessions, movie nights and picnics, plus classes on topics ranging from medicinal plants to soil health to permaculture to emergency preparedness. “The main thing we’re growing is a community,” our guide commented, and it’s growing beautifully. It’s like turning swords into plowshares: the Hayes Valley volunteers are farming the freeway:

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.