Picnic, Take One

Here is our week:

Monday: school picnic

Tuesday: piano and baseball

Wednesday: other school picnic

Thursday: baseball

How am I supposed to get dinner together amidst this chaos? Unclear. Tonight I made the executive decision that we would eat before the picnic. For three years I have run around like crazy, picking up pizza, packing sandwiches, you name it, only to get to the picnic and have my kids run away and play. I don’t see them again until the picnic is over, and then they announce that they are starving. At bedtime.

Instead I made grilled chicken sandwiches tonight before we left. I even went through the trouble to put lettuce and tomato on the sandwiches, which were delicious. Sometimes, as in fashion, accessories are the key to turning a sandwich into dinner.

I packed some fruit, cookies and drinks, which was super easy. So we felt like we were picnicking, but really we were standing around gossiping.

At least that is what the moms did. Speaking of which, I want to give props to the canoodling mom and younger boyfriend.

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It’s been a long time.

I knew I was in trouble when my mother mentioned, ever so gently, that I hadn’t blogged in a while. It is true, I have totally ignored this blog. I am still writing, just on a work blog (it is about law and ethics; most of this audience could care less).  I am still cooking too. My lack of attention to this blog springs from my overall stress level. 2012 is a banner year; one of those times in life where every aspect is popping at once.  My son had a First Communion, my sister and mom both had big birthdays that will involve a trip, I have been asked to develop a new class at work in a ridiculously short time, I have been asked to learn a bunch of new technology for work, I had to go to Provo, UT for work (this could be an entire blog by itself — imagine me with a bunch of mini-Mitt Romney people), I am supposed to be helping plan my 20th high school reunion, I am on an ethics committee for the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Team. And these are all my “extras,” above and beyond a full time job and a husband and kids. I am not complaining. I guess I am justifying. My mantra for 2012 is: “My life is full.”  It is true. I am blessed in every way, from family, friends, career, activities, and charity work. It just sucks when it all hits in one six month period.

Now that I have demonstrated that I have learned the art of excuses from my undergraduates, let me get back to food. Our dinners have run the gamut from pasta with jarred sauce to seared halibut with shallot butter sauce. Most of the time, we split the difference. Now that it has warmed up I am grilling more. Last week, in one of my most popular dinners in a while, I made BLT’s. Don’t laugh, BLT’s have protein, whole grains (whole wheat bread), and veggies. It was a strangely satisfying, easy, and summery meal.

One new meal I tried out recently were these Asian noodles with beef from Cooking Light. Here is their picture:

I used thicker noodles from the Asian food aisle, but I can’t remember what they were called. This was a tasty meal with unique flavors, but was made approachable by the noodles. Noodles make everything better in my house. The recipe calls for lots of different spices and sesame seeds. I didn’t have them all, so I improvised a bit. The beef was good, but you could easy make this with shrimp or chicken.

Last night we had artichokes, pork loin and roasted potatoes. Fairly boring, but my husband is such a meat and potatoes guy that he nearly cried with joy. My daughter ate only her artichoke. She had a ton of cake at a birthday party that afternoon. Just funny that she picks the vegetable to eat (albeit one that involves dipping in butter). Artichokes scare a lot of people, but I grew up eating them and continue to do so all the time. Last night I just steamed the artichokes, but I have a great slow cooker recipe that I discovered a few months ago. Try this. It is so easy and delicious. The only caveat with artichokes is that you really need good looking, fresh artichokes to be happy with the end product.

Kind of like a husband.

Making it up.

The reason I can’t bake is that I find it impossible to follow a recipe. I know, it should be so easy, but precision is not my strong suit. I am much better at winging it. Eating a lot is a good way to be a good cook, because if you pay attention to what you eat, you can take those ideas and reproduce them in your own kitchen.

Last night was such a night. I have seen in several cookbooks or magazines recipes for soup with sausage, beans and greens, among other things. I like all of those ingredients, so I decided to give it a whirl. The best part of the whole experience was that my son was in the kitchen, watching me. He found the whole process intriguing, so he decided to help. I know this is not unusual for many eight year old kids, but my son is definitely on the eating, not cooking, side of food. It was truly lovely to have him try slicing the sausage (scary, though), seasoning the soup, and choosing the pasta. And miracle of all miracles, he actually said, “It is fun helping you cook.” 

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Here is how we made the soup: brown sliced sausage and garlic in some olive oil. I used chicken sausage because it is healthier. Throw in a can of rinsed cannellini beans. Pour in chicken broth until your pot is full. Add chopped kale and a handful of small pasta. You actually don’t need the pasta but my kids really like soup with pasta. Let it all simmer. Now this part is key: serve with grated parmesan cheese. It makes all the difference in the world.

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The weird thing about soup is that somehow my kids like things in soup that they would never eat in other forms. For example, Garrett hates all spinach or greens, but will eat about a head of kale in soup. I don’t know why, but it works. We all marveled at Garrett’s efforts, and enjoyed several bowls of soup.

When the cat is away, the mice shall…

…eat pizza?

I am noticing a somewhat pathetic pattern. When my husband is not home for dinner, as he wasn’t last night, we eat crap. Last night it was pizza left over from my son’s birthday party (9 boys plus my daughter, laser tag, arcade games, yes I still have a headache). I also made a few ravioli from the Bronx and a salad. Other nights we have scrambled eggs. Paninis. Soup.

As I was eating this rather unhealthy and unsatisfying meal, I asked myself whether I have devolved into a pathetic 1950′s housewife that cooks only for my husband. I like to consider myself a feminist (don’t even get me started on what these freaking Republicans are trying to do to my reproductive rights), but yet I find myself saying things like, “Daddy isn’t home, so we can eat whatever we want.”  But when I thought about it more broadly, I realized that it is hard to motivate to cook a nice meal when you don’t have another adult to appreciate it. I have seen this with both of my grandmothers as they aged and became widows. They shared with me how hard it is to cook for one, after years of family meals. So much of cooking is sharing your love for others, but if it isn’t reciprocal, like all forms of affection, it is hard to continue.

I am going to try harder to avoid these piecemeal dinners. There are nights, like the one when your head is still pounding from the arcade, where leftovers are good enough. Perhaps I am sentimental this week, as my first baby turns eight, but it won’t be long before the dinner table is less crowded, as the kids are off with their friends and then away at school. Right now I still control my kids’ schedule, and I need to enjoy our family dinners while I can. At least until the next time that everyone spills drinks, refuses to eat, and talks back at the table. Then I am going to morph into Betty Draper and go hide and smoke cigarettes in the kitchen.

Make it special.

I had lunch with a friend today that was dragged by his wife (I assume, since he didn’t go willingly) to a speaker about simplifying your family’s life. As he summarized the expert’s main ideas, it was clear that I struck out on many: limit the number of toys (oops), clothes (have you seen my daughter’s clothes?), and books (my husband told me I had to take a month off from scholastic book orders because I order so many books); eliminate screen time (total loss on that one, our TV is on pretty much 24/7); and limit activities (my kindergartner does drama, piano, gymnastics and basketball, and I wonder why she is cranky). I was pretty much feeling like a loser parent when he mentioned the fourth main idea from the expert: create routines and traditions to make every day special. I am not sure how this simplifies anything, except that kids like routines. An example was to make setting the table something fun by letting them use fancy napkins or put the forks in the wrong place.

I exhaled, relieved that finally I was doing something right! I totally do this. My blog readers can vouch for it. We eat in the dining room on a Tuesday, light candles, make my linen napkins dirty. We have theme nights (remember Taco Tuesday?). Vindication, my friends. So my kids may watch too much TV, have too many toys, books and clothes, and never stay home and play “creatively,” at least we occasionally use linen napkins. Maybe, just maybe, my children will not end up at a therapist’s office.

Tonight our fun took the form of a fortune cookie. I made Teriyaki shrimp, brown rice, and sliced up pineapple. In keeping with the “fun” idea, I threw a couple fortune cookies on the plate.

This meal follows some of my main tenets, beyond that vague concept of having fun. Take the familiar, and add a twist. Kyra’s favorite food fluctuates between salami and teriyaki chicken (yes, these are odd choices). So I kept the flavor of the teriyaki, and substituting shrimp. I love shrimp because they are so quick to cook, and the frozen shrimp taste pretty good. The pineapple follows my view that you don’t need to have a vegetable as your side dish, fruit is good too. Everyone enjoyed dinner tonight, and were excited to open their fortune cookies. Make dinner about something other than just the food, and your kids will be more willing to sit down to dinner.

Now if I could just clean out all the clutter in my house, I would be the perfect parent. Reminds me of my favorite Mary Poppins song, Practically Perfect.

The “I don’t want to go to the store” dinner.

Because I am a type-A, obsessive-compulsive, overly organized, person, I usually plan all our dinners. I have blogged before about the benefits of planning meals in advance: only one trip to the grocery store, no moment of panic at the end of a long work day. I have no idea how working parents don’t do this. Despite all this OCD behavior, sometimes I just don’t want to go to the store. This week, I had meals planned through Wednesday night, but was supposed to go to the grocery store on Thursday to start all over.

I got lazy. So I thought I would share what type of meal I managed to scrounge (is this a word?) up from what I had laying around.  No surprise, it involved pasta, a staple that I am never, ever without. And one that everyone likes. I also try to keep shrimp in my freezer. Frozen shrimp is pretty much as good as fresh if you are cooking it in sauce, and it cooks in about 4 minutes. Hard to beat that. I also happened to have some fresh green beans. Thus, here is our somewhat unconventional meal:

I had some pesto too, to tie it all together. You know what? My kids ate this up without a complaint. In an unusual occurrence, Kyra asked for extra shrimp. Garrett helped himself to such a big second helping that there wasn’t enough for his dad to eat when he came home (Dad supplemented with leftovers). Sometimes throwing together a bunch of random ingredients works. So much for being Type-A. Before you know it, I am going to be laid back.

Hot Mess.

Sometimes you get a random gift. The recipe we tried on Friday night for curry chicken was such a gift. A couple weeks ago my neighbor called looking for curry powder; she was making a great recipe for curry chicken but alas was out of curry. I have mentioned before how we live in a ridiculously friendly neighborhood where you really do ask your neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar. Well, I guess all of us suburbanites are going ethnic, because we have moved on from sugar to curry powder. I actually didn’t have curry powder, but knew she could make it by mixing some of the spices I did have. I turned them over as long as she promised to share the recipe.

I should probably have asked her before I shared, but here it is:

1 Apple Choppd
1 Small Onion Chopped
2 Stalks Celery Chopped
2TBL Curry Powder
Butter
3 TBL Flour
1 Carton of Chicken Broth
3 Boneless Chicken Breasts
1 Jar Mango Chutney

Boil Chicken Breasts until cooked through (10-20 min).  Melt 2 TBL of Butter into Frying Pan, saute apple, onion and celery until soft.  Add curry powder (more to taste).  Stir into vegetables.  Add flour to vegetables to make a paste.  Whisk in Chicken Broth, stir until thickened over medium heat.  Add more curry, salt & pepper to taste.  Cube chicken and then add to curry mixture.  Let simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Add 2 to 3 TBL of Mango Chutney to mixture.  Serve over rice.

I made it fairly close to the recipe, although I was out of celery. After making it once, I would probably simplify the recipe a bit. I am not sure what boiling does for the chicken, so I might cube the breasts and saute them in the pan instead. Remove and set aside the chicken, then do the veggies in the same pan.

It was really delicious and the kids ate it up: Kyra was silent (those of you who know her know this is a rare, earth-shattering event) and Garrett hummed (he hums when he likes what he is eating. He doesn’t even know he is doing it). It was fairly ugly on the plate, especially because I made roasted cauliflower on the side. So everything was yellow. 

See why I called it a hot mess? But it was really tasty so you should feed it to your kids anyway.



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