I find cooking around the holidays to be relaxing and fun. I tend to get a bit more elaborate (i.e. a few "fancy" dishes) because I have more time to spend in the kitchen and an appreciative audience. Along with visions of sugar plums, I have visions of myself cooking healthy, delicious, fresh food all year long for my family. It's only January 10th and those visions are already getting a bit fuzzy.
Not only does cooking for a family every night take time and energy (especially after a day's work in or out of the home), it takes motivation and stamina. It's the most Sisyphean of tasks - as soon as one meai is done, it's time to start thinking about the next one. I actually enjoy cooking, but find my enthusiasm for daily meal prep ebbs and flows. Right now, fresh off the holidays, it's flowing, but I know that ebb is coming so I need a plan and I need tools.
Obstacles to cooking are different for everyone. Some people just don't enjoy cooking. Period. Others work long and late hours. And, perhaps the biggest obstacle, for dinner at least, is that parents are usually making it at the time of day when we're the most tired and our kids are the most cranky (and vice versa). I spent some time this past weekend thinking about my strategy and my allies for getting dinner on the table this year and here's what I came up with:
I wish I were the kind of cook who looked at a fridge and cabinet of ingredients and improvised (ala Sally Sneider) and this is definitely something I'd like to improve at, but I like the guidance of a recipe. I especially love it when I find a recipe and make it so many times that it becomes my own or I know it by heart. I've recently added a few cookbooks to my shelf with daily cooking inspiration in mind.
Time for Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration, and Recipes for Family Meals Every Night Of the Week by Editors Pilar Guzmán, Jenny Rosenstrach and Alanna Stang. (Chronicle Books, 2010)
There has been a slew of books in the past few years aimed at getting families around the dinner table together for homecooked meals. Many of them are very good, but Time for Dinner really speaks to me. And by speak I mean that it shouts encouragement in one ear and useful, practical, based-in-reality advice in the other. The authors are busy mothers who also struggle to feed their families and they just plain get it. There are some great recipes here (like maple-glazed plank salmon done in the oven with coconut rice), but the real utility of the book is the wise advice and general tips that any family can apply. The chapter titles alone give you a good sense that these women know what they're talking about. I particularly like: "I Want To Have A Family Dinner Where We All Eat The Same Meal (Even If Our Plates Each Look Kinda Different)" and "I Want To Use What I Already Have." My favorite chapter begins like this, "Imagine a weekly meal plan that takes into account the fact that your day, well, sucked, and that the idea of turning on the stove to brown and braise that chicken you had such high hopes for when you bought it two days ago has lost all its appeal. In our minds, the only meal plan to have is the one that takes moods, kids, and real life into account. For starters, don't pretend for a second that you're going to cook from scratch every night, all week long. (Don't you know by now that just sets you up for failure?) Instead, set your sights on cooking through Wednesday." See? They're speaking my language. Our friends at The Kitchn also reviewed the book and ran the recipe for One-Pot Coconut Chicken Curry.
The Sauce Book: 300 World Sauces Made Simple by Paul Gaylor (Kyle Books, 2009)
I think the best way to stay motivated to cook is to cook things you like to eat and I like sauces. This book, which I renewed over and over from the library before requesting for my birthday, is filled with sauces from around the globe including many I love to order in restaurants and can now make myself. My favorites are those to pair with a protein so if the flavors aren't to my son's liking he can just have his protein plain. The sauces run the gamut from chutneys to bologneses to French classics and few aren't practical for a weekday.
Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë Francois (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007)
I wrote about this book two years ago after my son was born and I'm still using it to bake bread frequently. Having homemade bread around is a treat, but I've also found it to be a great motivator to cook things to go with it. Sometimes homemade bread begets homemade soup! I recently received Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads by Nancy Baggett (Wiley, 2009) but haven't had a chance to try it yet.
Leftovers and Big Batch Cooking
Here are two things I know: 1. Few meals won't taste just as good a few days later from the fridge (many will even taste better) or even weeks and months later from the freezer and 2. It doesn't take that much more time or effort to cook more (sometimes much more) of the same thing. To date, making enough food to ensure a second meal later in the week or cooking in big batches has been the most successful strategy in my home for getting a good dinner on the table.
Sure, there are some meals that should be eaten right away (like my beloved carbonara), but I'd much rather cook once, eat twice. And with big batch cooking you can eat a lot more than twice. My husband made chili last weekend - enough to freeze seven extra portions. He also makes a mean bolognese and never less than five or six servings to put in the freezer.
I've had a crockpot, or slow cooker, for a few years and would say we're still just acquaintances. Two of my favorite things to use it for are to cook a combination of hot and sweet Italian sausage with tomato sauce which really transforms their texture to something I find much more appealing and to cook pork butt which we use for tacos, pulled pork, quesadillas, etc. Both of these are delicious and freeze really well. If you've never cooked a pork butt/shoulder before, put it on your list! It's easy, tasty and economical. There are some great instructions on The Kitchn for doing it in a dutch oven with instructions for using a crockpost as well.
My goal is to find five more things I love to make in my crockpot this year. Stephanie O'Dea used hers every day in 2008 so her blog, A Year of Slow Cooking, is a great place to start looking for more ideas.
So there you go: my tools for getting dinner on my family's table. Will it happen every night? No. You'll also find us getting slices at Francesco's probably once a week. But that's what Friday nights are for, right?
Share your successes and let me know what has worked for you in the comments. I'm all ears!