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.

2. Breakfast for Dinner.  I love eating breakfast for dinner.  And if we ate Sunday dinner in my family growing up, it was always breakfast food.  We came home from church and my father, sister and I would head for the plant room, where we’d soak up some sun and read the Sunday paper.  My mom would heat up the waffle iron and start to work on making two different batters… one for waffles and another for pancakes.  (My sister only ate waffles and my father preferred pancakes. I’d go either way, especially if I could eat the crunchy overflow from the waffles and make the pancakes in the shapes of my initials.)  On a good day we’d also have sausage or bacon, sometimes both.  Poor mom.  I do not plan to be this accommodating with my children.  

We will have pancakes since I don’t own a waffle iron.  (Don’t ask me why, but I refused to register for one when I got married.  It just seemed like a storage problem.)  And we may try some kind of “healthy” bacon.  My girls haven’t eaten much bacon so they won’t notice the difference and my husband and I are still trying to lose “the baby weight” we’ve gained in the past couple of years.  I usually use the pancake recipe listed on the back of the Bisquick box and it works for me.  Some day I may try a homemade version, but I’ve never had much luck with that, so experimentation will have to wait until I’m getting 8 hours of sleep a night.  

3. Mini Frittatas.  I’ve clipped a couple of recipes for mini frittatas in the past month (some kind of mini frittata vibe in the air?) and they seem promising for three reasons.  Number one- my oldest daughter will try almost anything “tiny”, even though she says she hates scrambled eggs.  Number two- the cook really quickly and are easy to make in batches, unlike traditional omelets, which I love.  I’m not putting these in the “breakfast for dinner” category because I plan to serve them with a salad.  Number three- you can put ham in them.  Now this may seem strange, but as I’ve mentioned, I’ve got a stash of country ham in my freezer and I’ll use any excuse to eat it.  

This is as good a time as any to launch into a digression on my father’s country ham.  They are the most delicious edible substances in this world.  My dad got the recipe from his Uncle Elwood, who used to run a grocery store and butcher shop, and they’re fantastic.   Every year, my dad cures 5 or 6 hams in his basement and we eat them for major holidays.  I only get to go home once a year, which means I would only get to eat one ham a year if my father didn’t take pity on me and bring me a ham when he comes to visit me.  He takes great pleasure in pulling out the “examined by TSA” flyer that always ends up in his checked bag that carries the ham.  I don’t know why ham looks suspicious on x-ray, but the bag is always searched.  

Country hams are great because they require no refrigeration to survive a cross-country flight and can provide a number of meals once cooked.  This is great when you have a lot of people to feed over a long period of time.  Just pull the ham out of the fridge whenever you need a quick lunch.  Of course, this requires that you have a family of country-ham eaters.  And I do, for the most part.  My husband gets a little sketchy with a 2 year-old ham because they can be pretty salty and chewy.  (For readers unfamiliar with country hams, you should know that they’re aged for at least 6 months in a sweet, salty, peppery brine and the longer they sit the saltier they get.)  

I watched an episode of “Good Eats” last night in which Alton Brown suggests soaking a country ham in water for TWO DAYS before cooking it.  While this would certainly make the ham less salty and less chewy, but it would also dilute the essential “hamness” of a lovingly home-cured two-year old ham.  Don’t do it.  Of course, if you don’t already know this, you probably can’t get your hands on a two-year old home-cured country ham anyway, so this nugget of wisdom is useless to you.  And if my husband is a test case for people who discover country ham in their adulthood, you wouldn’t like it anyway.  Enough about hams.  For now.  I’ll write another article just about the hams and include Uncle Elwood’s recipe, with my father’s notations, when I have time to dig it out of the filing cabinet.

4. Meatloaf with Glazed Carrots.  I don’t know why the idea of meatloaf appeals to me so much, except that it’s old-school and easy.  And good for leftovers.  I can chop up the meatloaf and carrots into tiny bites that my one year-old won’t choke on and I have some hope that I’ll convince the three year-old to try a carrot if it has enough sugar on it.  (I’m not proud.  I’m practical.)  I have a recipe for a turkey meatloaf I love, but it makes a 5 pound meatloaf, which is a little much for four people.  I also found an intriguing recipe for lamb meatloaf, but that might be a challenge for the toddler palate, so I’ll save that for later in the experiment.  I’m hoping that making meatloaf will appeal to my girls, who love to make a mess.

5. Pink Fish Sticks.  A little weird?  You bet. And probably not the most delicious thing you’ve ever eaten if you’re an adult with any kind of taste buds.  But if the name convinces my daughter to eat salmon, bring it on.  And the recipe is exactly what you think it would be.  Sometimes I make sautéed or baked salmon for my husband and myself at the same time, but sometimes we eat the “pink fish sticks” served with a sesame ginger soy sauce.  My daughter likes to help make them and it’s easy.  I don’t really have a recipe yet, but here’s what we do.  Strip the skin from the salmon and cut into ¾-inch wide strips.  (It’s ideal if they are about the same thickness.)  Cut into one-inch wide strips, sprinkle with salt and pepper and saute them in a skillet in a few tablespoons of canola oil.  Turn the salmon fingers after 1 to 2 minutes to brown all four sides and remove from pan.  (Timing will be dependent on thickness of salmon fingers.)  Let cool slightly before eating and serve with desired sauce.  We’ve been using a bottled marinade, but try anything that appeals to you.  My daughter likes them straight-up.

6.  Spaghetti and Meatballs.  Another classic Sunday dinner meal, especially in Italian families.  I have several recipes for meatballs and "sauce", as my Italian friends refer to it.  My friend Jena never cooks her meatballs before dropping them in the sauce because that's how her mother always did it and I'm looking forward to trying out this method.

7.  Roast Chicken.  Making a roasted chicken is one thing I know how to do after much trial and error.  I don't have a real "recipe", but I follow the general guidelines of the incomparable Julia Child.  In brief, I make a paste of approximately 5 tablespoons of butter and a handful of whatever herbs I have growing in the garden, usually a mixture of parsley and tyme.  I stuff this mixture under the skin of the breast and rub whatever I can't stuff inside all over the skin of the bird, especially on the wings.  I make a ring of aluminum foil and place the chicken on top of the "O" in a small roasting pan, breast side up.  I cook at 450 degrees for 20 minutes and if I don't get distracted by the smoke alarm going off, flip the bird and cook another 20 minutes.  Then I turn the heat down to 375 degrees and continue cooking until the juices run clear.  The total amount of cooking time will depend on the size of the bird and whether or not you let it adjust to room temperature before putting it in the oven.

These are my top seven choices at the moment and I’ll attach recipes when I work them out.

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