Dinner in Real Life
June 27, 2013
READERS BEWARE: There' s a ridiculous amount of boring dinner/cooking-type talk ahead. Also an inordinate number of parentheticals, even for me. I tried to make it funny. I tried and I probably failed. In other words, hold onto your butts, and may God have mercy on your souls.
I have to admit I really enjoy rappin' with y'all about the cooking topic — trying to keep a family happy while not losing your mind with boredom over making the same damn recipe over and over and over again, and also trying to expand kids' culinary horizons without a full-on uprising at the dinner table.
I've had a modest string of successes over the past couple weeks, happily enough. (Interspersed with nights when I was like, fuck it, here's mac-and-cheese and fishsticks; Jason, just pick up some sushi on your way home, okay?)
(Last night was one of those nights. Ezra asked to try some tuna sashimi. I was very impressed until he spat it out half-chewed in disgust because DAMN, THAT WAS MY TUNA SASHIMI.)
(Oh, and I also completely borked up something previously tried-and-true: Smitten Kitchen's most excellent chana masala. I overdid the cayenne and had the bright idea to add some potatoes, but didn't think to up the liquid content, which the potatoes completely absorbed. The result was a dry, too-spicy dud of a curry that NO ONE ate. A winner is me.)
Anyway, here are a couple things that did work. They might work for you, too. Or not. I don't know ur life. I don't even know my own life, most of the time.
So...okay. One of my best go-to crowdpleaser meals is Swedish meatballs over egg noodles. Yeah, I know. These rank appallingly low on the "healthy" scale (they are a retro-riffic bonanza of pork, red meat, butter, cream and carbs), but they are so damn delicious and that I simply cannot give that much of a fuck. The kids love them, Jason inhales them, and it's a recipe I can now basically make in my sleep.
(Not to mention they were MY favorite meal as a child and I used to beg my mom to make them constantly, and I grew up okay. Well, mostly. SHADDUP.)
I love Alton Brown's recipe, which you can find here. I use whole wheat bread instead of white, and I do usually swap out the heavy cream for whole milk or half & half and it works just fine. (Though for some reason Alton's instructions omit the need to RAISE THE HEAT to a low boil when you're trying to get the sauce to thicken. You don't want to scald anything, but if you keep the heat too low after adding the stock and milk you're gonna be standing there weeping 20 minutes later because it will NOT thicken. SCIENCE WILL NOT HAPPEN. YOU ARE A FAILURE WHO DESERVES NOTHING.) This is the recipe that prompted me to finally cave and buy a small digital kitchen scale and thus I now have an even deeper affection for it, because that scale has changed mah life in so many ways.
(Translation: I don't fuck up my baking recipes nearly as often, which was previously ALL THE TIME.)
But! Here's the thing about the Swedish meatball recipe: It always leaves me with leftover ground pork and beef. Not enough to make a whole separate batch of meatballs with, and not really enough to do...well, much of anything with. We're talking maaaaybe 1/4 pound of each. One wafer-thin hamburger, perhaps? I know I could up the meatball recipe's output and just freeze the extras, but that would require SO MUCH MATH on upping the other ingredients by a third and fractions are hard and dinner is complicated ENOUGH, okay? God.
So I just end up bagging the remnants up together and shoving them in the freezer. Then I forget I have them, buy two more full packages of ground pork and beef, make Swedish meatballs and then GODDAMNIT. MORE WEIRD RANDOM BAGGIES OF REJECT MEATBLEND.
I finally figured out what to do with them this week, like some kind of GEEEEENIUS.
I decided to make a turkey meatloaf, because I had nothing in the house except for ground turkey and a bunch of stale buns and some random aging vegetables that were otherwise headed to the compost bin if I didn't do something with them THAT VERY SECOND. But I have an admittedly crap record when it comes to turkey meatloaf. I make a kick-ass regular meatloaf, but turkey versions come out out too dry or too wet or AT BEST, thoroughly, completely boring. Jason pokes at it and dreams of the bacon-topped, veal-and-pork-tinged versions of olde; the kids all turn up their noses over the texture because too dry, too wet, etc. I think Ezra once declared it not "meatball-y" enough.
(My kids really, really like meatballs, if you haven't noticed.)
This time, however, I made pretty much the greatest turket meatloaf ever. Or, more accurately, I created it in an underground lab, an unholy union of Alton Brown's Actual Real Non-Turkey Meatloaf combined with a couple turkey meatloaf recipes I randomly Googled. A Frankenloaf, if you well.
Take Alton Brown's recipe, which is fantastic and you should make it sometime. If you don't have garlic croutons, just use bread crumbs and add a generous dash of garlic and onion powders. Swap ground turkey for most of the listed meat, then add a bag of frozen reject meatblend. (So about a half-pound of pork/beef; you could also use that meatloaf mix some stores sell. Or sausages with the casings removed. Or leftover hamburger patties. Just add something with some damn fat content, is all. Go on! It's mostly turkey anyway. Plus I can see your bones. You're like a little bird. Eat something already.)
Add about four ounces of fresh mushrooms to Alton's bell pepper/carrot/garlic mixture and pulse in the food processor. (I used a portobello cap.) Combine with the listed spice/crouton mix, the meat and an egg. If it seems too wet (i.e. not meatball-y enough) once you get it all mixed, add another ounce or two of breadcrumbs. Do not skimp on the glaze and do not fear the dash of hot sauce (it'll mellow out to a tang). And cook to a slightly higher internal temperature (160-170).
Serve with a green vegetable and extra ketchup for the children. Bask in the love that can only come from making something deceptively simple that kicks everybody in the face with how awesome it tastes. Microwave for lunch the next day and be like, DAMN I AM GOOD.
Okay, so that's a lot of meat, yes. Time for a break from all the meat. And here's where I'm going to lose about 99% of the two people who are still reading this far.
Last year I bought Mario Batali's Babbo Cookbook for Jason, for kicks. It's one of those books that is so beautiful to look at, so mouthwatering to read, and yet you will never actually make any of the recipes in it. Unless you are the sort who routinely cranks out homemade squid ink pasta on Tuesdays and who always has fresh black truffles and pork cheeks in the fridge. (And no, moldy hot dogs don't count. I checked.)
And yet this week, for whatever reason, I decided to make this:
That's Ziti with Tuscan-Style Cauliflower. Because...sure. If there's anything that the Kids Today are into, it's Tuscan-Style Cauliflower. Can't get enough of it. Far out. Happening. The hula hoop of weekday dinners.
Whatever. I figured they could pick out the cauliflower and just eat the pasta. Or maybe not, because...
LOOK AT THAT PAN. EVERYTHING IN THAT PAN IS BEIGE. THIS IS JUST CRAZY ENOUGH TO WORK.
I altered the recipe enough that I think I can get away with typing out my version — love you, Mario, but I do not apparently love chunks of red onion as much as you do, and I do not own a single pan big enough to contain a pound of pasta AND two heads of cauliflower; one head was MORE than sufficient. Also, I think your instructions add the mint way too soon. Also also, sesame oil + cauliflower = the shit, so I added that too.
ZITI WITH TUSCAN-STYLE CAULIFLOWER, KIND OF
1/4 cup oil — I highly recommend a blend of olive and sesame oils. Sesame oil brings out a nuttiness in the cauliflower that you will die for and swear by and scream at random people down in the street over
1/2 red onion, diced
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 head cauliflower, florets cut into whatever size you think won't freak out Teh Children
1/2 bunch fresh mint leaves, chopped
(No, I don't know what a "bunch" technically is — I just went outside and yanked leaves off our mint plant until a mosquito bit me in the face.)
1 box ziti
Pasta cooking water or stock
Grated Pecorino Romano, for serving
Get some water boiling and add some salt.
Heat the oil in a biiiiig saute pan over high heat and sweat the onions. Reduce heat to medium-high and add the hot pepper and garlic, being very careful not to let them burn. Add the cauliflower and the mint and saute until tender and slightly browned, about seven to 10 minutes.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Mario says to drain completely and then add to the saute pan; I'd recommend keeping just a little bit of of the pasta water and adding that as well to finish steaming the cauliflower all the way through. (We didn't do this and ended up adding a ladle or two of chicken stock, which worked fine too.) Toss everything to together for a minute or two and then serve in bowls with a generous helping of cheese on top, plus some extra pepper flakes for the grown-ups, if they so desire. (I very much so desired.)
The WHOLE TIME I was preparing this recipe, my brain was screaming "I'VE MADE A HUGE MISTAKE." The kids were going to freak over the cauliflower and Jason was going to be completely underwhelmed by the lack of 1) sauce and 2) meat.
None of that happened. This was DELICIOUS. Just...oh my God, so good. Filling and yet light and unusual and familiar, all at the same time. The kids saw a bowl of deceptively plain-looking pasta with cheese and thought all their dreams had come true. I served them strategically so their bites of cauliflower were on the extra-small and crispy side. They ate every bite. Ike had seconds. Jason had thirds.
(These were the leftovers. Very beige, unassuming-looking leftovers. Past-tense leftovers, because I ated them already.)
Okay, your turn. What's for dinner?