A staple cookbook of my childhood was Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book. My mom does not at all hate to cook, and I learned how to cook by sous cheffing contentedly at her elbow. But Peg Bracken’s dry wit and realistic take on domestic life — her insistence that a woman (still always a woman) didn’t have to spend her days stuck in the kitchen cooking for her husband and kids — must have been, for women coming of age in the 50s and 60s, like a swipe of vinegar across a cloudy window. Refreshing, sharp, and clarifying.
We learned Crazy Cake from Peg Bracken, we learned Elevator Lady Spice Cookies (which Cassoulet contributor — and my sister — Libby Gruner has written about), and we learned Aunt Bebe’s Bean Bowl, an open-the-cans-and-dump salad with a sweet dressing that was a staple of our church potlucks and picnics. “Don’t be afraid of that three-quarters of a cup of sugar, incidentally, as I was,” Bracken writes. “I thought, ‘This will never work out!’ and I thought, further, “Who is that fond of beans?’ But it did and I was.”
I loved that bean salad, but I cannot bring myself to buy canned green or wax beans these days, and making it without canned beans just seems to defeat the purpose. So here’s my mom to the rescue, with her updated bean salad for today’s kitchens, a whole lot fresher and greener but still just as easy. Don’t be afraid of those raisins, incidentally, as I was; I thought, this will never work out! And, I thought further, who is that fond of beans? But it did, and I am.
Black Bean & Chick Pea Salad
1 cup raisins
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup fresh cilantro or chopped Italian parsley
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Kosher salt and black pepper
15 ounces chick peas
15 ounces black beans
In a small saucepan, combine the raisins, vinegar, oil and sugar and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let cool.
In a large bowl, toss chickpeas and black beans, cilantro (or parsley), scallions & raisin mixture with cumin, plus salt and pepper to taste.
I read a restaurant review recently that mentioned the unusual egg dishes on the dinner menu and the waiter’s shrugging comment, “Chef thinks eggs are not used enough in the evening.”
Well. Perhaps Chef does not live with children who think Breakfast for Dinner is as wonderful a treat as Dessert for Dinner.
However, I do think eggs are not used enough in the afternoon. There’s not much quicker than what I fixed the other day when I faced that yawning gap between lunch and dinner. And by the way? That fork’s a lie because I just picked the whole thing up and ate it in my fingers.
Tuesday night I have a plan: Swedish Meatballs. I take the pork and beef out of the freezer just fine.
Wednesday morning: I realize I have no onion, no potatoes. Kids say they will boycott Swedish meatballs if mashed potatoes aren’t involved. I have no plan B. Resolve to go to store.
Later Wednesday morning: Put off trip to store for onions and potatoes.
Wednesday afternoon: Forget to go to store entirely.
Late Wednesday after, 20 minutes before school pick-up. Rush to store. Buy pre-chopped onion and pre-made mashed potatoes for the first time in my life.
School pickup time: T-1o. Soak bread in milk, dump in egg, meats, salt, nutmeg. No time to sautee onions, dump them in raw. What’s the worst that can happen? Mix ingredients. Cover bowl. Wash hands.
Pick up kids. On time! Drive straight home.
35 minutes before first run to soccer field. Begin making 20-something meatballs. Ten minutes later, our sitter arrives. Turn on slow cooker to “brown/sautee” for the first time. Butter melts. Meatballs brown evenly and quickly in less than 15 minutes. I begin to breathe again.
With help from sitter, kids have found themselves a snack, filled water bottles. Soccer uniforms are on. No one is yelling.
I melt another tablespoon of butter, stir flour, cook for two minutes, then whisk in chicken broth. Gravy comes to a simmer. Meatballs go back in. Slow cooker gets turned to “HIGH” and programmed for 30 minutes, after which time, I hope it kicks back to “warm” setting. I stare at it for a minute, willing it not to let me down.
Leave for soccer with child #1. Child #2 stays home with sitter to do homework and make scarves for her Scandanavian doll, who is largely responsible for the Swedish meatball phase. We are on time for soccer. No one is crying.
It’s my turn to stay at the field, so an hour later, sitter arrives with child #2, takes home child #1. By all reports the cooker is doing what it is supposed to . My sitter has heated up the potatoes and cooked the broccoli romanesco (she really is amazing).
An hour and half later, it is very dark and very cold. I am shivering and can barely feel my extremities. We drive home. The house is bright. And warm. It smells like Sweden, or at least the pleasant afterglow of a long, successful trip to IKEA, before you’ve begun to assemble anything. My son has eaten something like ten meatballs. My daughter tries to match him, meatball for meatball. I salvage a few for the grownups.
Slow Cooker Swedish Meatballs
2 slices white bread
heavy cream/milk (enough to moisten white bread)
small onion, diced
1 egg beaten
1 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1 tsp salt
dash nutmeg, cardamom, white pepper
2 T butter
1 T flour
1 cup chicken broth
In a medium sized bowl, pour enough cream or milk over the bread to completely moisten both slices.
Dice onion and add to bowl along with meats, egg, salt, and spices. Mix gently until all ingredients are evenly distributed.
Shape mixture into small balls.
With slow cooker on Brown/Sautee setting, fry meatballs in 2T butter until brown on all sides. Remove using a slotted spoon and set aside.
Whisk flour into pan drippings. If need be, add another 1-2 tablespoons butter.
Whisk in broth and simmer until gravy is thick.
Turn slow cooker to “HIGH” and return meatballs to gravy. Cook on for 30 minutes, or until meatballs are cooked through.
On Friday evening, we were on our way for tacos, when all hell broke loose in the car. It was 5:30 pm. My 7-year-old son had just finished an intense 90-minute soccer practice. During this time his sister had been kicking the ball around with a few teammates. It was the end of another 90 degree day. Both kids were hot, sweaty, and my son’s knees were black from turf dirt. They were hungry. They were tired. It was no surprise what happened next: yelling, fighting, tears, complete and utter irrationality.
Normally, this is not the state in which I take kids out to eat. In fact, taking tired, hungry, cranky kids out goes against everything I’ve ever written here about kids and restaurants, summed up here.
But let me back up. The kids are growing like weeds. These days Finn reminds me of a baby giraffe. He’s all lanky arms and spiking legs and careens around on his bike, or skates, or on the field in a headlong way, as if shot from a catapult, always on the verge of falling. Ella is an athlete. She spends long, intense hours at the soccer field and in the pool. To see her in her soccer gear or swimsuit is to see a girl totally at home in her body and its strength. It’s awesome, and we tell her this every day. It’s become clear to her father and me that her body craves this kind of physical outlet just as much as her mind craves the novels she schemes to stay up too late reading. Even Finn, whose sports are less serious will gear up for roller hockey and skate in the car port on days we’re at home. All this means one thing: they need more food. A lot more food. A few weeks ago we made the direct link between between the kids’ moods and their blood sugar levels.
There are distinct danger times: right after school, right before lunch, right before dinner. Snacks have become urgent, no-compromise affairs. I’ve been tempted to show up at school with those little glucose packs cyclists carry. Instead, I’ve become an efficiency expert, whipping up smoothies with milk and fresh fruit or peanut butter, slicing cheese, cutting fruit, freezing yogurt, rolling salami, pouring milk, handing over crackers, defrosting edamame, portioning nuts. Protein has become essential for both of them, pre- and post- practice, and calcium is especially important for Ella in these pre-adolescent years–as it is for all girl athletes.
So that night on the way to tacos (or not) I had two choices: take them home and find something to cook, or soldier on and hope for the best. The first option was not so appealing to any of us. My kitchen was clean. I had nothing prepped. We love tacos. What they needed was food. Fast. So against my better instincts, I drove straight past our house and up the hill to the taqueria, all the while scheming about what healthy, sustaining thing I could get into them fast. Because it was hot, and perhaps because the taste of fresh lime and seafood is still lingering from our San Diego extravaganza, my food brain conjured one word : ceviche.
Before we entered, tears were dry, kids were calm, and they had been read the riot act in my scariest mom voice.
Inside, they commandeered the table where they could watch the MLS game (another benefit of taco night out). I stood in line. ordered for all of us, and asked for the ceviche to be brought right away. I had no reason to think they would love it. But I also had no reason to think they wouldn’t. It was cool and fresh and full of citrus and tender white fish. I knew it wouldn’t completely stuff them before their dinners, and I knew it would complement whatever they ended up ordering. I also told them they had no choice in the matter, and so two minutes later, while we waited for carne asada, and tacos al pastor, and a quesadilla, the kids confronted a gorgeous pile of white fish ceviche with fresh avocado and a mountain of fresh chips. Finn dug in first, and then there was no turning back. Not for him, not for Ella, and not for the mood of the night. As quick as they could load a chip, the mood of the night turned. They polished off the ceviche until only scraps of fish were left. Dinner came and they didn’t stop eating. We went home happy and ate ice cream.
The lesson here? Food is fuel. If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s more.
Hotel breakfast (comped because we’d been woken at dawn by construction noise the day before) was a cold buffet of cereals, pastries, and steam table eggs (also fairly cold).
We’d been warned off eating at the American Museum of Natural History’s food court, but we couldn’t avoid it, so lunch, too many hours later, was grabbed quickly and bolted between our timed entries to the Big Dinosaurs exhibit and the planetarium show. Eli found a decent rice and bean taco and Tony and I split a veggie burger, while Ben somehow got away with only a fruit leather and sun chips. It hardly mattered — the museum is so amazing — and with more time maybe we could have done better, but we all just wanted to get back to the exhibits.
Several hours later, we finally emerged blinking into the light of Central Park. We let the kids fortify themselves from a snack cart — a banana, a hot pretzel — but then even that went sour; Ben liked his lime popsicle shots — basically a cup of popsicle gravel (see: saying yes to things on vacation) but Eli (who lately ignores his own preferences in favor of being just like his older brother) ate a couple spoonfuls and then abandoned his fluorescent snack.
Now, I can write off a meal or two, but I don’t really have it in me to shrug and say, “OK, I’ll just eat something delicious tomorrow.” It makes me too sad. Plus, of course, I feel some responsibility to my kids — not just that they eat healthy food (though admittedly I relax this on vacation) but good quality, tasty food. And this day wasn’t offering that. So dinner really needed to be something decent, maybe even something with a vegetable.
I wasn’t optimistic — we were in Central Park, planning to head down to Times Square and then west to the pier to take the boys on a Circle Line tour. We were in a part of Manhattan I don’t know at all, going to one I know less. I figured the boat would offer ballpark fare (hot dogs, popcorn and beer) and didn’t have high hopes for Times Square. I was wishing I could fill them up on hot dogs, roasted nuts, and pretzels, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the energy (or battery life in my phone) to explore mobile food apps. We were like pioneers.
Walking up 8th Avenue, though, we spotted Dean & Deluca in the ground floor of the New York Times building and got excited. But inside, they’d shut down the salad bar already and only had prepared sandwiches available; next door, at Schnippers Quality Kitchen, we found a place reminiscent of our local favorite, Taylor’s Automatic Refresher (aka Gott’s) and a menu listing seven or eight different, interesting tossed salads, hot and cold sandwiches, burgers, even fish tacos and milkshakes. Somehow the boys skipped the milkshakes (it’s not like they can’t read), apparently sensing their own need, after their mediocre lunch, for something healthy and fresh. (Plus, they know we’re going to the Red Rooster soon). Ben ordered the Asian Chop Chop, a crunchy mix of Napa cabbage, edamame, snap peas, tofu, croutons and peanut dressing (he held the scallions and peppers) and Eli had a Caesar.
Tony ate an arugula and roasted tomato sandwich with fresh mozzarella, while I had a fabulous market salad of corn, avocado, beets, tomatoes, slivered almonds, chickpeas and croutons on arugula and chopped romaine, served with a nice piece of multigrain bread.
We augmented with freshly-baked cookies and a pack of rough cut potato chips and ate on the boat, our food day redeemed.