Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Club for Sunday Dinner

This past Sunday my husband and I hosted book club for the first time since our youngest daughter was born.  Normally, hosting book club wouldn't be a big deal, but I have to admit that I felt a little out of practice in the hosting department.  Sensing my angst, my friend Lisa volunteered to bring a quiche and a pie for dessert.  So far so good.  I went to the farmer's market like I do most Saturdays and bought stuff for a salad and a half-flat of strawberries.  I tried out a new "healthy quiche" recipe a few days ahead of time and decided it would be better with a little sauteed country ham than with the proscuitto the recipe called for or the sun-dried tomatoes I'd used when I tested it.  And I was right.  My book club friends, especially Stephanie, are big fans of my father's country hams and I was happy I had a little left over from my parents' visit a few weeks back.

It was the perfect addition to an otherwise perfectly middle of the road faux-quiche, which to the credit of Cooking Light Magazine, was actually called a tart.  The quiche/tart was pretty good for a "healthy" recipe and I promised to send the recipe to a couple of book club members.  Unfortunately, my life (and memory) being what they are at the moment, I've forgotten who asked for it.  So here it is for anyone who wants to try it.  Cooking Light Italian Tomato Tart  In spite of it's name, it doesn't seem very Italian to me, but it's pretty good.  I'd love to hear what you think of it if you try it...

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Bad Day for Carrots

 I went to the farmer's market on Saturday and bought special red carrots for the salad I was making for book club and when I started to cut them up... BLAH!!... woody stems.  So I threw them away and started over.  I pulled out a 5 pound bag of carrots I bought at the grocery store (hey- at least they weren't those horrible carrot nubs) and wondered how I could make them look a little more special.  Viola!  The fancy little knife my aunt just bought me.  It seemed like a good idea, but I don't think this knife was made for carrots.  They just ended up looking weird.  (Maybe next time I'll try using the knife on a cucumber...)

I went back to the farmer's market the following week and asked the vendor about the crazy woody carrots.  She admitted that they were "tougher" than regular carrots and she liked them best when roasted, not eaten raw.  And she gave me a free bunch to try again.  I did.  And they weren't bad.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pizza and Loquats

We harvested our second crop of loquats today and the girls enjoyed it just as much as they did the first time.  We've been eating loquats directly off the tree for several weeks now, but I was surprised that there were so many left.  (This is my first experience with loquats, so it's all a mystery to me.)  

Our backyard continues to be a source of fun and excitement for the girls, which is the best part about our recent move.  When we picked this house we vaguely noticed that the backyard was full of various kinds of fruit trees, but it didn't occur to me that these trees would lead to our girls' first introduction to real crop production.  We started a little vegetable garden plot when we first moved in, but it was late summer and nothing did too well... we harvested two worm-eaten tomatoes and threw away a row of barren squash plants.  The broccoli did pretty well and watching my girls beg to eat tiny florettes of raw broccoli definitely gave me hope for the spring planning.  Now we're really starting to have fun.

When Tim first suggested harvesting loquats I supportively said, "Why?  What are we going to do with them?"

His response: "I don't know.  I think we should make jam."

Me: "Are you serious?  Those things are tiny.  That's way too much work!  But I'll be happy to take the girls out and pick them with you."

While we collected loquats I secretly started to plan my afternoon nap...

I figured Tim's enthusiasm would have dissipated by the time I woke up to start making pizza for Sunday dinner, but to my surprise, Tim presented me with a sink full of loquats and a batch of loquat preserves on the stove.  Tim had spent about an hour and half peeling and seeding loquats while the girls and I slept and he was so proud of his work that I couldn't resist offering to make him a loquat cobbler.  It was pretty good, but loquats are not the juiciest of fruits and they have a pretty low acid content, so I think our next cobbler would benefit from the addition of a cup of strawberries.  (When I reheated the leftover cobbler the next day I added some strawberries to the mix and although a little weird in texture, it had a great flavor.)

Tim seemed really pleased with the results of both  the cobbler and the preserves, which we ate on toast the next morning, and I was glad that his labor hadn't been in vain.  I even stashed half of the peeled and seeded loquats in the freezer so I can try again when loquat season is over.

In the midst of the loquat shenanigans, we also made pizza with the girls.  Everyone loves spreading out the pizza dough and eating cheese out of a bowl while pretending to top the pizza with it.  This used to irritate me, especially since so much of the cheese ended up on the kitchen floor, but I've decided to start thinking of this as our "appetizer".  We'll put almost anything on a pizza these days, but today we made pesto sausage pizzas and they were delicious, if I do say so myself.

I was pretty frazzled by the time we finished cooking, even though this was supposed to be an easy dinner.  But Tim was so excited about having a loquat cobbler for dessert that I couldn't help being glad that I'd made the extra effort.  As expected, Annabel loved the cobbler and Violet wouldn't go near it.  Par for the course around here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Things I Make for Sunday Dinner

This article is somewhat theoretical because I haven’t cooked anything for an “official” Sunday dinner… yet.  I have made lots of meals for family and friends over the years and many of these meals have been served on Sundays.  But this is the first time I’ve thought about menu planning for the new Sunday dinner campaign.  Following the guidelines from my Sunday Dinner Manifesto (cook something that doesn’t require too many ingredients, take too long to prepare, or create too many dirty dishes), I’ve decided to make a list of meals to try for my family’s future Sunday dinners.  The campaign officially started last week, but it was also My Aunt Alice’s birthday, which took precedence over Sunday dinner.  We had a great meal of pork roast, brown rice, roasted asparagus, and strawberry pie.  This could certainly make a wonderful Sunday dinner meal, but frankly, it’s a little too much work for me at this stage.  (My mom did most of the cooking and when you have lots of extended family around to help, I say go for it.  I’ll include these recipes when I decide I can handle this meal on my own, but for now, I’m taking a pass.)

Sunday Dinner Fare for the Lazy and Untested
1. Pizza.  This is a no-brainer and the meal I’m choosing for our Sunday dinner this week.  The major advantage to serving pizza is that everyone in my family loves it and I want to start the Sunday dinner campaign off with a bang.  It’s also something that everyone can help make and customize to suit their finicky taste-buds.  Since the main goal of this project is to have an enjoyable family meal that doesn’t make me crazy, I’ll admit that I’m planning on using refrigerated dough for the crust.  I know this is heresy in some circles, but hey, I have two kids under the age of 4 and I’ve misplaced all the pizza dough recipes we’ve been trying out in the past year.  Is this intentional?  Who knows, but we did move to a new house six months ago and lots of things have gone missing since then.  (Sometime I’ll write an article about how to organize a small kitchen into  “zones” so I can find things quickly and create spaces where several people can work in the kitchen at the same time.)  

We’ve tried lots of pizza dough recipes, including Barbara Kingsolver’s very healthy whole-wheat crust, which was too crunchy for the crust-haters in the family, although I liked it.  Our favorite so far was one for a pizza dough you make a day ahead and let rise in the refrigerator.  My husband was out of town when we made this and in the chaos of the week he was gone, it went missing.  

I’m going to keep looking for a dough that can be made ahead of time and maybe even try to adapt one of my favorite bread-dough recipes for the purpose, but for now, it’s refrigerated dough for us.  I think I have some homemade tomato sauce in the freezer, so I’ll dig that out and my dad brought us a country ham on his last visit so that will be the star ingredient of the “adult” pizzas.  We’ll have to see what else I have festering in the fridge come Sunday.  Of course, that’s the other main advantage of pizza… you can use up little bits of food you have left-over in the fridge.  Almost anything takes good on a slab of crunchy bread.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Our First Official Sunday Dinner

On Friday my husband and I decided that our family would start eating weekly Sunday dinner and guess what?...  This past Sunday came and went without a single thought of Sunday dinner.  Not that we didn't eat Sunday dinner.  We did, in a way.  Sunday was my Aunt Alice's birthday and we had a lovely Sunday dinner to celebrate the occasion.  She requested pork roast, asparagus, boiled new potatoes, and a strawberry pie for dessert.  We even put a candle in a homemade brownie because my daughter doesn't think it's a birthday unless we sing the "Happy Birthday" song and somebody blows out a candle... with her help, of course.  No photos were taken to commemorate the occasion and there was no mention of the importance or meaning of the event.  We had a leisurely family meal without caring if anyone else knew about it or could see a record of what happened later.  I guess it was the perfect Sunday dinner after all.

Friday, April 9, 2010

How to Host a Family Dinner Party Without Driving Yourself Crazy

Family dinner parties are great, and important, but they can end up driving you crazy.  And when I say “you”, I mean “me”.  If you’re the person who’s always in charge of family meals at your house, then you know what I mean.  It’s wonderful to see friends and family gathered around the table enjoying a meal together, but often the host or hostess has no fun at all.  My grandmother was this person, my mom is this person, and I see that this is the person I have become.  So I’m going to try to buck tradition and find a way to make family meals less taxing and dare I say, enjoyable for all concerned. 

During my bachelorette days, my friends were my only “family” within 3,000 miles and I had a close circle of friends who helped me celebrate all the important occasions in my life, including birthdays and holidays.  Even a good tv show was enough for me to invite friends over for a weekly dinner party that ran as long as the new episodes held out.  I also hosted an annual Christmas party, which was always a crowd-pleaser, if I do say so myself.  I tried to cultivate an air of festive elegance at these events, laced with 1950’s cocktail party insanity. Hanky-panky, anyone?  Yes, I did say this to each of my guests when I was single, passing around a platter of hot, spicy appetizers named, you guessed it, “hanky pankies” (recipe courtesy of my mother’s 1970’s era recipe file.)  I loved hosting these parties and my friends still tell me they think about my annual Christmas party longingly when the holiday season rolls around.  I had one last party after I got married, but after I started having babies, the Christmas party was too much to handle.  Just thinking about the days of food preparation made my head spin.  (When should I slice my dad’s country ham?  Are one hundred homemade rolls enough?  Should I turn the crock-pot of sweet and sour meatballs on at 4 pm or 5 pm?  These thoughts still make me sweat a little bit.) 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Country Ham Delivery!

My parents brought me a ham!  And it came at the perfect time.  We were so busy with birthday celebrations this week that we hardly had time to think about other meals, much less cook them.  This ham, which you see moments after I pulled it out of the pot, fed my family for a week.

As usual, dad was excited to find the "INSPECTED BY TSA" flyer in the suitcase with the ham when he arrived at our house.  I don't know why a country ham looks suspicious on x-ray, but when he flies out to see me with a ham in his suitcase, the bag is always "inspected".  My mom has started writing "Country Ham" on the outside of the ham's wrapper, which I think is funny because if they're reading the note it means they've already decided to inspect the bag.  I guess she's afraid they'll confiscate it or come grab them off the plane for suspicious activity.  Maybe carrying a ham 3,000 miles is suspicious, but it's definitely worth doing.  At least from my perspective... 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Sunday and Then Some...

Easter Sunday was a big day around our house this year.  My parents and Aunt Alice were visiting from Virginia and we had three family birthdays within a week and a half so we decided to celebrate with one big backyard party.  Although we had a country ham stashed in the fridge, we decided to make life easy and host an Easter Brunch instead of a traditional Sunday dinner.  (Better for the kids' schedules and faster to pull together.)  So I sent my husband off to Noah's Bagels for coffee, bagels, smear, and balloons, while I popped the sausage and egg casseroles into the oven and hulled the strawberries we'd bought at the farmer's market the day before.

My mother and I baked a three tiered cake for my youngest daughter's first birthday and a miniature version for my husband.  (My aunt had a birthday the following Sunday, which we celebrated with a strawberry pie at her request.)  We had sixteen people helping us celebrate the day... including my cousin Walter, my husband's mother Jane, his brother Damian, some family friends, and our guest of honor, my daughter's best friend Maya.
My husband spent over an hour filling plastic eggs with chocolate and jelly beans at midnight the previous night so we could have two Easter egg hunts the next morning.  Since we didn't want to have the Easter egg hunt without Maya, we needed an excuse to keep our girls from hunting down all the Easter eggs in the yard while they were waiting for guests to arrive.  So we did what any insane parents would do.  We had TWO Easter egg hunts.   The first Easter egg hunt was "to find everything that the Easter Bunny left" for our girls.  They got their Easter baskets and raced around the yard searching for treats.  We told Violet that we wanted to have a special Easter egg hunt with Maya, then we whipped out a second bag of chocolate-laden eggs and let her help hide them.  This turned out to be a great idea and all three girls had a great time... until the "pink heart egg incident".  Someone (I'm still not sure who) found an egg with a row of tiny pink hearts encircling it.  And the other big girl wanted it.  So she took it.  Then someone took it back.  And on and on until an adult accidentally interrupted a stealth retrieval mission.  Eventually someone ended up crying in the bushes.  I'm not saying who.

As we tried in vain to lure one girl into loving the Elmo egg as much as the pink heart egg, I took solace in the fact that there was still a country ham awaiting us when things quieted down.  Maybe not on Easter Sunday, but sometime soon.  In my house, a country ham is a cause for celebration in and of itself and I looked forward to sharing my love for this ham with my daughter Annabel for the first time.  Today was not that day.  There was too much craziness and I didn't want the experience dulled by too much sun and slightly melted Easter chocolate. But that's a story for another day.  In the end, a golden egg offered the necessary solace for the girl without the pink heart egg and all three girls were gloriously distracted by the ring of multi-colored peeps on Annabel's first birthday cake.  When it was all over, I hardly remembered the party, but I'm pretty sure Annabel was unaware of the controversy and had a great first birthday, surrounded by people who love her.