Blog-o! Notes from

Mon, 20 Aug 2012

A friend of mine recently asked what I do about dinner, since I somehow manage to work (during school months, at least) and do lots of volunteer crap and also feed my family reasonably well. She wanted some meal ideas.

There's no real trick to cooking half-decent (quarter-decent on bad days) meals, just a series of habits which I've developed over the years.

Meal Plan

Once a week I make a meal plan. "Meal plan" is actually too grandiose; I write down five dinner ideas. I don't like to spend more than an hour preparing dinner (apparently pretty typical) which limits the weekday dinner repertoire, but we still have a pretty good list to choose from.

After we (I usually solicit ideas and opinions from the rest of the family) pick the five dinner ideas I make a shopping list based on those meals. We typically do one big shop on the weekend and then an auxilliary shop mid-week for milk and other perishables.

With the meal list in hand I also decide which dinner we're having which day, based on what ingredients will spoil first, which days are rushed, when we're having company, etc. Knowing what meal I'm preparing each day also tells me when I'm making something which requires prep earlier in the day, like a crock pot meal or roast.

Other Meal Habits

Most days we eat at 6:00, which means I try to be home and cooking at 5:00. (It usually doesn't actually take an hour of work to make dinner, but I started giving myself an hour when the kids were small to allow for interruptions, and now I just like to have the time if I need it.) Knowing we eat at 6:00 and I cook at 5:00 helps me make decisions about playdates and activities; i.e., we don't schedule them for those times if possible. (As the girls get older and their activities are more "serious" I find it's harder to control what time they're at, but I try.)

If I know I won't be able to be in the kitchen at 5:00, I plan a crock-pot or other make-ahead meal and "borrow" that hour from earlier in the day.

Some Meal Ideas

Here are seven of our favourite meals, with ingredients and instructions.

Bean Burritos: tortillas, can of black or red beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, sour cream, rice.

Drain the beans and put them in a pot with some water (enough to barely come to the top of the beans) and a generous pinch of garlic powder. Throw in a teaspoon of chicken boullion powder. Let it all simmer for twenty minutes or more, mashing the beans occasionally. Serve in a nice bowl.

(Optional classy version: use chopped fresh garlic, and chicken broth instead of water and boullion.)

Meanwhile cook the rice, chop up the lettuce and tomatoes, and grate some cheese. Warm the tortillas on a plate in the oven or wrapped in a clean tea towel in the microwave. Get a kid to set the table, put out all the food and let everyone assemble their own burritos.

Chicken and Salsa: skinless chicken parts (thighs are nice), salsa, rice, salad or crudites.

Either throw the chicken and the salsa in the crockpot around 2:00 and cook on high for the rest of the afternoon, or throw them in a dutch oven-type pot at 5:00 and cook at 350°F for about 45 minutes with the lid on. Serve over rice.

Serve with salad or crudites. (Bagged salad is just fine.)

Big Salad: lettuce, baby tomatoes, cheese, deli meat, eggs, cucumber, green onion, baguette.

Boil the eggs. Cut up the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and green onion. Grate the cheese, slice the deli meat into little strips. Once the eggs have cooled, quarter them.

Either put the lettuce in a bowl and arrange everything on top, or serve everything separately in little bowls and let everyone assemble their own (perfect for picky eaters, but make sure everyone eats something from all the food groups). Serve with a good dressing, like Renee's (or homemade dressing), and chunks of baguette and butter.

Macaroni and Cheese: macaroni, milk, butter, flour, sharp cheddar cheese (we buy the cheap stuff you can get in great big slabs).

Cook macaroni.

While it's cooking melt about two tablespoons of butter in your favourite sauce pan. Add about the same amount of flour and whisk them together. Cook over medium heat until it smells like shortbread. Add a little bit of milk and whisk together — don't panic as it turns into a lumpy mess. Add a bit more milk, whisk together, warm gently until it gets all lumpy again. Repeat until you've added about two cups of milk. (I don't know if you really have to mess about with all the adding and mixing, but it's kind of fun.) Heat until hot, then remove from heat and add a little salt and pepper and whisk in some mustard powder. Stir in two or more cups of grated cheese.

When the macaroni is cooked, add the cheese sauce and serve. Alternately you can drain the macaroni when it's not quite done, put it in a casserole with the cheese sauce, sprinkle some bread crumbs and grated cheese on top and heat it in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes.

Traditionally we serve this with sliced apple, but go ahead and add your favourite side-vegetable.

Tuna Pasta Salad: short pasta, tuna (2 cans), tomatoes, green onion, mayo or italian dressing.

Cook the pasta. While it's cooking, cut up the tomatoes and green onion. Drain the tuna. Once the pasta is done and drained, mix everything together. Serve warm or chilled.

Spaghetti and meatballs: spaghetti, tomato puree, garlic, onions, homemade or frozen meatballs, salad or crudites.

Here's one that you can spend as much time as you like on, because you can buy the pasta sauce and the meatballs and just throw it all together, or you can hand-make one or both of the sauce and the meatballs.

Here's how to make sauce: chop up the onions and garlic and saute them gently in olive oil — not too high heat or you'll burn the garlic, and there's no recovering from that. Add the tomato puree — either one of those bottles of Italian strained tomato or a can of pureed tomato — and let it simmer gently for at least twenty minutes, or longer if you have time. (Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.) If you're using frozen meatballs, you can add them to the sauce after it's been simmering a while to cook them — follow the instructions!

You can also make meatballs yourself. I like to make square meatballs, which is just meatloaf cooked in a lasagna dish (so it's really shallow and flat) and cut into little squares.

"Moroccan" beef and cous cous: stewing beef, onions, garlic, a dozen dried apricots, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, canned diced tomatoes, cous cous, plain yogurt.

Chop up and brown the onions in your favourite cooking fat; add to crock pot or dutch oven. Brown the beef, add them to the onions. Halve the apricots and add them to the pot along with the garlic, apricots, cinnamon (1 tsp), cumin (1 tsp), cayenne (1/2 tsp), and tomatoes, and some black pepper. (There's probably enough salt in the tomatoes but add some more if you like.)

Cook in the crock pot all day on low (check it mid-afternoon -- if it's really done-looking turn to "keep warm") or in the dutch oven at 350 for... I guess an hour, hour and a half? (I don't think I've ever made it in the oven.)

Serve over cous cous with yogurt on the side, and your favourite side veg.

(I call it "Moroccan" because it seems Moroccan to me but I actually have no idea if this is the kind of thing they eat in Morocco. Probably not.)

So that's how I bastardize the cuisines of the world; I expect this post will drive away any snobs who might read this blog. I hope these ideas are useful for the rest of you! While you're here, why don't you add your favourite quick dinner to the comments below?

[Posted at 21:27 by Amy Brown] link
Mon, 06 Aug 2012

As I get older I expect less from my birthdays. As a child I was doted on and showered with presents, all of which I loved. (I think kids love presents more because they can't buy anything for themselves, so any material things seem wonderful.) Now that I'm older and more averse to stuff, particularly not the very specific stuff I want — in a 1200 square foot house there's no room for things that are lovely but not quite right — getting stuff is not as thrilling as it was.

But I still like that feeling of being special and adored, and fortunately my family is good at providing that. Yesterday was my thirty-seventh birthday, and we all took the day off to enjoy it.

After breakfast the girls and I walked to the grocery store for a newspaper and a bouquet of flowers. (I don't know why I don't buy myself flowers more often — they were only $10.) Then I took my paper and went off for a pedicure in preparation for Kat's wedding, while Blake and the girls baked me a cake.

Cake baked and nails painted, we fancied ourselves up for an early afternoon tea. Delphine is still good at putting together outfits; she wore a black twill skirt with rickrack trim, and a tropical print top with ruched bodice and puffed sleeves. She topped-and-bottomed it with silver ballerina flats and her new black trilby with sparkly trim.

The rest of us looked pretty good too.

Tea was at the Windsor Arms. (We've tried the teas at the King Edward and the Royal York.) Apparently if you want to get seats inside you have to call weeks in advance. I called last Friday, so we sat outside; if you know Blake, you know what a sacrifice that is. I had to make sure, when I called, that there would be shade and that they haven't been having trouble with wasps. They seated us at a fairly shady table; I took the sunniest spot, and the sun soon moved behind a tree. (We had one black-and-yellow visitor, but we all remained studiously calm and he soon moved on.)

Tea was delicious. We started with a tiny goat cheese quiche, then pillowy white scones with clotted cream and jam. The middle plate was a selection of tiny sandwiches, rolled sushi-style: smoked salmon, chicken, and cream cheese with sundried tomato. Finally, four miniature desserts, and just when we thought we couldn't stuff in another bite, the waiter brought round little pots of strawberries and cream.

If I could offer advice on not overstuffing oneself, I would say eat only one scone, or maybe even half a scone — they're huge and filling, and also very easy to take home. I was too full to really enjoy the desserts. (Or I suppose you could eat the desserts first.)

The girls had mango and apple tea, iced; I had darjeeling and Blake had oolong. All delicious.

After tea we walked up to Bloor and window-shopped in Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma. I thought about getting some new tea towels at Williams-Sonoma, but I can't spend $38 on a pair of tea towels. I also had a good laugh at their "found" pottery table; crap from garage sales comically marked up. There was a four-ounce dish with some old brand name on it for $78, and a nondescript brown half-glazed pot for $237.

Then we went to the Body Shop and I took advantage of the birthday goodwill to get some new makeup: powder since I have gone all greasy lately (the weather? some kind of hormonal change?) and bronzing powder to fill in the gaps in my tan for Kat's wedding. (Their #01 bronzing powder is uncannily identical to my tanned colour.) I also got some lip glosses, because you can't have too many lip glosses.

Then Delphine had a little meltdown because it's not fair that I get to get all this stuff I want and she can't get anything because she doesn't have any money because we haven't given her allowance for ages. She's right about the last part — all of us, kids included, are very lackadaisical about their weekly allowance, and we probably owe them about $20 each at this point. So I gave her a tenner and promised that we'd come up with a system to make sure they get paid every week from now on.

After we had had a little rest in the coolth of the Manulife Centre we walked up to the Reference Library, which the kids haven't been into before and I haven't been into since they built the new entrance. We went all the way to the top and admired the view, then walked down the stairs. Delphine and I planned to come back when she's older: she will study and I will work.

Then home, where I spent some time on the couch while Blake cleaned the kitchen (oh bliss). At 7:00 we finally decided to get my traditional birthday KFC, although Blake and I weren't really hungry. (In retrospect, high tea and KFC in the same day was excessive.) After the dirty chicken we had a thin slice of birthday cake each and then all went to bed.

I don't have any profound thoughts on being thirty-seven, except that I don't have that usual sense of panic about how I'm getting old and I haven't done anything interesting with my life, I'm a failure aaaaah. It's nice. I like my job, I like my kids, I like my husband and the rest of my family, and my friends. I don't really like my house much, but I don't hate it and it's certainly more and better house than I have any right to expect, considering the global average. So I'm grateful for that, when I remember to be.

Thirty-seven seems kind of old; I've joked about being old on past birthdays, but this year I'm not really joking. (I will look back and laugh when I turn fifty-seven or seventy-seven, inshallah.) Thirty-seven is not an age for moping about your life, for complaining that things aren't working out or that the world is unfair; it's an age for getting on with it, for figuring things out and doing them. It's a grown-up age.

[Posted at 14:39 by Amy Brown] link