We still laugh about a standing dinnertime tradition when I was growing up. Mom would do the cooking and the serving and the washing up, but it was up to us to pour our own drinks. More often than not, only one of us would go to all the “trouble” it took to pour a drink, so hearing “please pass the corn…and the milk” was not uncommon. Mom would shrug but wouldn’t share the iced tea she poured for herself! If we girls wanted to drink from the same glass, oh well. The important thing was that we sat around that old kitchen table together nearly every night while I was growing up. I didn’t realize how many memories we made there until I had my own family.
I call it “supper,” and I put up with the teasing from my California-native friends. In my family, it isn’t dinner unless it’s Sunday at the dining room table or it is eaten out at a nice restaurant. Call it what you will, the evening meal is precious family time at our house. It is also the time of day that I find myself running low on energy, and if I haven’t planned in advance, we’re all in trouble. Part of my morning routine is to know what’s for supper by 10 am. That gives me time to thaw the meat (or make the reservations).
My friend Betty Williams is Canyon Lake’s resident expert on solving dinnertime dilemmas (or ‘suppertime stalemates’ for us Midwestern girls?). Her website www.realmenusforrealmoms.com offers fresh and easy ideas that are realistic and kid-friendly. Betty is a busy mom of three who found herself often staring blankly into the fridge at 5 pm (oh, have I been there!), and decided to do something about it. Encouragement from friends led to the start of her website, and she currently offers 6 and 12 month subscriptions that provide yummy, family-friendly recipes. Many clients keep their subscriptions for a year or two while they learn the ropes, then feel inspired and prepared to go solo. “My menus get them jumpstarted. It’s a ministry for me because I can help people do what I had trouble doing on my own,” says Betty.
Here are some of Betty’s tips for planning fast, healthy and affordable family meals:
• Do your prep work early. Even cutting up onions the night before saves you a step.
• Plan your meals around the store’s “loss leaders” (those low priced items retailers advertise to lure shoppers in).
• Check out cookbooks and those pricy cooking magazines from the library for free.
• Whip up a salad bar at home and offer an assortment of toppings like dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, shredded cheese, green onions, and croutons (Betty says these are worth their weight in gold when it comes to getting kids to eat salad!).
• Have friends over for a cooking party where everyone chips in ingredients for lasagna or a casserole. It’s a fun get-together and everyone goes home with a low-cost dinner.
My favorite weapon in the battle to preserve the family dinner hour is my slow cooker. A few minutes of chopping and prep work and I’m done. It is such a boost for me to know it will be ready when we are, and it makes the house smell great all day. If I power up the bread machine, I have a dynamic dinnertime duo (or a ‘super suppertime set’?). One of our family favorites is simple and easy: a 3 pound pork shoulder trimmed of extra fat goes into the slow cooker with ¼ cup apple cider vinegar. Cook on low for 6 hours and then shred with two forks, mix in some barbeque sauce, and serve on rolls.
I suspect that I might have a cookbook addiction. If the words “fast,” “easy,” or “simple” are in the title, it will end up on my bookshelf. I own both of my grandmothers’ extensive recipe collections, so this fascination with recipes is clearly a genetic problem in our family. I read cookbooks like novels, I dog-ear pages I want to remember, and then only the tried-and-true recipes get recorded by hand in the personal cookbook I hope to pass on to my own granddaughter someday. Lately, I have become obsessed with sneaking pureed vegetables into my family’s food, and Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious is my handbook. So far, my family has been relatively accepting of the fact that my chocolate chip cookies will most likely contain chickpeas and the spaghetti sauce will usually be laced with a generous amount of pureed carrots.
I dream of that Normal Rockwell image of the family dinner hour, but it never goes that smoothly at my house. I doubt that smiling, apron-clad mom drove the carpool, made the PTA meeting, sat through 90 minutes of soccer practice, and still had time to whip up that turkey she serves so proudly! Still, I dream, and I try because something special happens when my family sits down to dinner together and the conversation begins to flow. It connects us after a long day and it’s the perfect time to share the little things that happened while we were apart. Besides, getting the kids talking distracts them from the spinach I slipped into the brownies. As one of my favorite cookbook authors says, “That’s a good thing!”
Isabel’s Simply Delicious Chicken
Serves 4 to 6
½ lb. sliced bacon, diced
1 chicken cut up (or 4 lbs. chicken legs and thighs)
½ cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
8 oz. small white mushrooms
1 cup frozen small white (pearl) onions, thawed
6 garlic cloves, chopped
3 sprigs fresh rosemary (or 1 Tbsp. dried)
1 tsp. kosher salt
¼ cup water
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
Cook bacon in a large skillet until crisp. With a slotted spoon, transfer to a slow cooker. Pour off all but a light coating of fat from the skillet. Add the chicken and brown over medium-high heat; transfer to slow cooker. Pour the wine into the skillet, scraping up any browned bits and add to the slow cooker. Add mushrooms, onions, garlic, rosemary, and salt. Cover and cook on low heat for 6 hours or high for 3. Transfer the chicken, bacon, and veggies to a platter and keep warm. Pour the sauce from the slow cooker into a small saucepan. Combine the water and cornstarch and stir into saucepan. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 4 minutes. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.