Friday, March 18, 2011

Survival Mode

I believe that cooking is a habit, and that the more you do it, the easier it gets (or, if you don’t actually enjoy cooking, the more you do it the less onerous it becomes). All those years of cooking for myself, then myself and my husband, came in handy when our first child arrived: dinner carried on. The arrival of our second child, though, has thrown the proverbial wrench in the works.

Too late, I realized how much I depended upon naptime to get a jump on dinnertime. But with two kids on different schedules, there is precious little time alone to think about dinner, let alone cook it. Plus the little nippers are home most of the day so they’re wanting breakfast AND lunch from me, too. It’s a constant carousel of cook, feed, clean, repeat. (And yes you, with four kids and a job outside the home with no help inside the home but who still manages to get supper on the table at 6 o’clock you, I am not you. And I’m OK with that).

Our meals have become noticeably less gourmet. On more than one occasion I have served my children “naked burritos” for lunch: a bowl of brown rice (the shelf-stable, precooked stuff from Trader Joes, warmed in the microwave) topped with canned black beans and pre-shredded cheese. Nutritious? Yes. Fun to cook and eat? Not so much. (But the kids ate it anyway).

On top of the time constraints, I’m locked into this CSA/organic/attempting to be healthy thing, which comes with its own set of constraints. But now that I’m into it, it’s really, really hard to think of going back to the regular old grocery store – darned healthy food/CSA/organic addition has turned into a habit, too. (Last week I joined a fish CSA. When I told my husband about it, he looked at me very seriously and said, “Honey, I think you have a problem.”)

So once again, I’m learning to adapt. Here’s how things have changed:

1. Component cooking. I spend some time at the beginning of the week cooking a few things that can be incorporated into a number of dishes. Thus when it comes time for dinner I am not cooking so much as assembling. Burritos, quesadillas, Korean pancakes, and stir-frys of all kinds make a frequent appearance at our table. Note: I do not meal-plan this, so some weeks it works out better than others. One week was an absolute slam dunk, though: roasted butternut squash, heirloom soup beans, sautéed kale and some roasted chicken were combined in various ways to make a great weeks’ worth of meals that ended in an empty fridge (look ma, no waste!). But then the next day I came down with the flu and…there was no food in the fridge. There’s a dark side to everything.

2. Soup. Hallelujah, my boys like to eat soup. Whip up a little dashi or anchovy stock, add some veggies or frozen dumplings, and dinner is ready. Or put the rice cooker to work – a chicken breast, scallions, ginger and water and hit the magic “chicken soup” button. When it’s done, take out the chicken and while it cools enough to shred, add a package of frozen udon noodles to thaw in the broth. And did you know that you can make chicken broth in that rice cooker, too? Put the carcass from a roasted chicken in, add water and aromatics, and hit the magic soup button again. Too easy.

3. Keep it simple, stupid. Hallelujah again, my boys still eat their veggies. So supper can be as simple as broccoli, noodles, and a protein of your choice. CSA steaks get marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, scallions and sugar (say it with me: bul-GO-gi) and seared in the trusty cast-iron skillet. Chicken breast gets roasted in the oven or stewed in the rice cooker. Chicken legs go in the rice cooker too, though sometimes I get fancy and make a sort of stew with carrots and potatoes. Pork chops usually get an adobo treatment. And lamb chops I save for just the hubby and I; I do share the koftas made from ground lamb with the kids, though. Now that I have a fairly predictable list of meats and cuts to choose from, it’s been easier to identify a few simple preparations for the rotation.

4. When you just can’t resist the urge to NOT keep it simple, go back to component cooking. I adore Indian food but sometimes I just don’t have time to wait for the onions to cook properly. So I make an entree or two and a couple of side dishes on the weekend. We eat the freshly prepared stuff that night, and then for the next few days we enjoy the leftovers – along with another dish or two that I make each day. I cook a lot of Korean food this way, too, since the side dishes will usually last in the refrigerator for a few days.

5. And finally, figure out what staples you should have on hand to achieve #s 1 through 4. For me, it’s become: whole milk plain yogurt, cheese, pasta, broccoli, frozen dumplings and udon noodles, dried anchovies and seaweed of various kinds, eggs, rice, and scallions. Oh, and tortillas, too. So the kids don’t ALWAYS have to have their burritos naked.