Something about the work of family dinner.

When it’s hard to imagine what my life was like a decade or so ago, I scroll back through early blog posts. In those days, getting a grip on daily chores, including family dinner preparation, was a constant challenge.

One of the things I did in response to that challenge was to prepare weekly menus and shopping lists, which I posted on Saturday mornings, along with a (usually short) musing or story. That habit didn’t last long — 18 months or so, and I thought the reason I shifted was that I grew bored, that my attention wouldn’t hold long enough to see the idea through.

That may be true. But what is also true is that life changed as my children grew older. The daily chores, including family dinner, changed too.

What brought this reflection to mind was a conversation I had last week with a young mother of young children. The stress and challenge she described were similar to what I felt, all those years ago.

It’s an area worth exploring, I think. So here and there, in the days ahead, as we near the 10th anniversary of launching this blog, we’ll explore.

Here are two examples, to get things started. Also: 2013? That feels like an entire lifetime ago, in so very many ways.

farm field

(Originally posted with the title “Whan that Aprille” in April 2013)

Before I conjure a tale of a silly daddy, wrong assumptions, finding your strengths, and (of course) dinner, I’d like to offer a warm welcome to new followers and gratitude to the WordPress team for my second Freshly Pressed nod. Howdy and thanks!

Now, full steam ahead.

In my growing-up house the division of labor between my parents was pretty clear. My mother, an English major with a Master of Arts in communication who owned a children’s clothing store, was responsible for helping with reading, writing, and training bra shopping. For math, science and jungle gym assembly, my sister and I turned to our UVa engineer dad who worked as a general contractor. There was very little crossover or competition, although my mother did once tackle the math lesson of sets and subsets, using oranges, apples and lemons, because my father wasn’t very visual and didn’t understand the need for lesson props.

So imagine my surprise one night at dinner when I was telling my mother we’d started reading Canterbury Tales and Daddy busted out (technical term) with a sing-song:

Whan that Aprill-y with his sure-ah SOOT-ah

The DRUCCCHHTT of March hath pear-said TOE the ROTE-AH!

He continued, his delivery as dramatic as a man channeling a demon spirit. He was delighted with himself both for his sharp recollection of the words and for his colorful performance.

Until that point I really didn’t think Daddy, the math and science guy, had read anything other than Ian Fleming. But before he was a misbehaving Cavalier, my father was a misbehaving teenager dispatched to boarding school in Bell Buckle, TN. In keeping with the school’s mission to educate “accurate scholars,” the curriculum included required memorization of many verses, the prologue to Canterbury Tales among them. (Apparently Canterbury Tales was a big hit with Daddy and his mates because they were all clever enough to recognize the gross and dirty parts even written in Middle English. Boys.)

After the Canterbury Tales debut, Margaret and I saw a new dimension to our parents’ divided buckets of expertise, even if we didn’t realize it consciously. Daddy became the go-to tutor for memorization tests, including the ones in English class. Mama evolved into the expert on interpretation and perspective, often required for science assignments.

Sometimes to see your strengths, or those of other people, you have to look through a different prism. A year ago Bernard, for example, would have told you he was a terrible cook, that culinary wizardry was my purview. I can open the pantry and freezer, take a quick inventory, and create dinner from (in his view) thin air. He cannot. He is, however, exceedingly good at following directions. If a preparation calls for precision, Bernard’s actually your guy, which is why he prepares the meal when I want to test a new recipe. So he is a good cook, just in a different way.

How about you, traveler? As you dust off the vestiges of this long cold winter, why not take a fresh look at yourself, maybe from a new angle? What special talents do others seek out in you? What are your true strengths? Find them, and maybe they’ll take you on a journey you didn’t expect. Make them into a good tale and you might even win a free meal, you Canterbury pilgrim you.

Happy week.


flowers make the meal complete

Farmers Market, you’re just around the corner. I CANNOT WAIT until your gates reopen so we can have fresh spinach and peas. Alas for now, we’ll continue to go Krogering….

In the spirit of honoring strengths, this week features four tried-and-true favorites that I can make without thinking and a new recipe for creamy leek soup. Both the spinach/potato/chicken and the flank steak/wild rice meals are easy to make in larger quantities if you’re the leftovers-for-lunch kind of family.

Farmer's market, January 2013

Garlic Spinach | Roasted New Potatoes | Grilled Chicken

I know it’s heresy, but I prefer making garlic spinach with frozen spinach (thawed). While the spinach is thawing (microwave or stove top), warm some crushed garlic in a bit of olive oil (I sometimes add red pepper flakes, too). Add the thawed spinach and stir. For a heartier dish, add a beaten egg to the spinach, stirring constantly as you pour the egg into the greens. Salt to taste. Top with grated Parmesan. Spinach can sit on the stove or counter until everything else is ready. For the potatoes, just halve or quarter, toss in olive oil, salt and a pinch of herbs (Herbes de Provence, or just some plain rosemary) and roast at 380 degrees until they’re brown and crisp on the edges. While the potatoes are roasting, grill a couple of chicken breasts, which are always better if marinated beforehand but just fine with a little salt and pepper if you’re having a disorganized day.

Planked Salmon with Coconut Rice | Bibb Lettuce

The only trick to this simple recipe from Epicurious is soaking the cedar plank in advance – do it before you leave for work if you can’t come home for lunch. Other than that, it’s an easy weeknight dinner and quite tasty. A buttery lettuce salad on the side, with lemon juice and olive oil for dressing, is the perfect complement for the meal.

Risotto Primavera | Watercress Salad

If you’ve been reading here for a while then you know that I’m not a devout recipe follower. When I make a spring risotto I typically use whatever I’m in the mood for, which almost always includes green peas and prosciutto. This recipe from Bon Appétit, which I was happy to find on Epicurious because the cut-out in my aging recipe journal didn’t include the original source, is a good one if you don’t want to wing it. You can use canned artichokes instead of preparing them yourself. The directions in the recipe are really good and clear, though, if you’ve always wanted to tackle a real artichoke but have been afraid to try. Fresh watercress was one of the few joys for me associated with having to spend every weekend of my youth in a cabin on the Spring River where snakes and brown recluse spiders roam free. If you can’t find watercress yet (it’s just coming into season), you can substitute arugula or any other young peppery green to counter the sweet risotto. If you do luck upon it, here’s a simple recipe for preparing.

the mint

Creamy Potato Leek Soup | Berries with Mint

No, my people probably won’t eat this, although I do have new hope since Bernard was so fond of the celery soup a couple of months ago. This recipe is actually pretty similar to that one. I’ll serve with some fresh berries tossed in a pinch of sugar and chopped mint from the yard (yes, the mint is already up and about, but the picture is from last summer).

Flank Steak with Chimichurri Sauce | Wild Rice | Green Salad

Flank steak (or skirt steak, if you can’t find flank) is not an expensive cut of meat, and it’s easy to prepare. Pat it dry, rub with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper and let rest at room temp for about 30 minutes before you grill it. While the steak is doing its thing, put a bunch of parsley, some fresh oregano (I actually prefer parsley/cilantro/mint to parsley/oregano, but parsley/oregano is traditional), garlic cloves, vinegar, olive oil and salt in a food processor or blender and mash them all together. If you need more specific directions (Bernard), there are literally hundreds of chimichurri recipes online. Once you make it a few times you’ll know what mix and ratio of ingredients suit you, and you’ll probably keep a jar of chimichurri on hand in the refrigerator for everything. I’ll make wild rice and a salad just to round out the plate, but the steak and the chimichurri are all I really want from this meal.

(Originally posted on 4/15/13 with the title “Weekly Menu 4.15.13)

Funky chicken, National Ornamental Metal Museum

I learned this week that if you Google “blog mom’s perfect lives fake and superficial,” you’ll find links to three of my posts in the five suggested links the search engine returns. They’re not THE top search result (reserved for the actual post with that exact title, written by another blogger), but they’re close. As if I could make that up.

So I thought it might be a good time to clarify a few things about this blog and its writer:

This blog is written by a woman who played an entire mother-daughter tennis round robin last night with her shirt on inside out.

This blog is written by a woman who started today by cleaning up after a sick dog (no, not the new dog) and then drove to Starbucks in her nightgown.

And, for some longer term perspective, this blog is written by a woman who once dropped her car at the mechanic’s on a pretty spring day and walked back to work amid honks, whistles and cat calls from passing drivers. Feeling swell, she arrived at her destination to discover that her skirt was tucked into her underpants.

Yes, friends, this blogging mom is G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S, and don’t you forget it.

And now let’s talk about food.

With the farmers’ markets opening around here last weekend, there was lots of talk about organic versus local. Are locally grown blueberries better or worse than organic ones imported from Chile? Are local greens better or worse than organic ones trucked in from California.

Here’s my opinion: stress is bad for you. So make a decision about what and how you want to eat, and then move on. Eat local, eat organic, eat a bit of both, or eat neither. But don’t waste your time and energy fretting over it, because you’ve got better things to do.

Keep in mind, this advice comes from a woman who once walked six blocks in a Boston suburb with her skirt tucked into her underpants.

Happy week.

Whats for dinner week of April 15 2013

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