MODERN DAY MARTHA

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    Who Has Time to Cook?

    Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

    Well, everyone and no one is the answer to the title question. I used to cook under the catch phrase, “If it doesn’t take an hour or more, it’s not cooking.”

    I say “used to” because one day I found myself holding a very small child in one arm and wondering “How am I going to chop onions now?” and breaking down in tears. And now with three small girls ruling my life and running my house, the luxury I enjoyed as an under-employed home maker–you know, spending half a day on one meal–has flown out the window and left me searching for ways to make my desire to create in the kitchen mesh with the needs of my young family. It’s a struggle.

    Let me share my vision with you. What is food? Simply, energy for your body. Every body needs basic nutrients everyday to live. What is cooking? To me, cooking is the way we transcend meeting the basic needs of our bodies and create foods that do indeed nourish our traditions and our souls as well as our bodies. What is a meal, then? Every meal is an opportunity to use food to express some aspect of ourselves to those we are feeding. Even if that person is you.

    To this respect, one doesn’t have to master the art of French cooking to be a fine cook. After I had my first child and stood in the kitchen crying about no longer being able to spend two hours on dinner I realized I had to change my idea of what cooking was. For me cooking evolved from mastering exotic cuisine (I have made my own Indian curry blends…grinding seeds and spices by hand for the authentic flavor and textures) to mastering the art of a fresh delicious fast meal. I think the disservice that food television and the lovely glossy magazines and the oh so wonderful food memoirs has done to the home cook is to make us feel like we have to spend hours over a stove or we’re not really cooking. I know that’s exactly how I felt. As working women–be it career wise or mommy wise–can’t be expected to spend as many hours in the kitchen as a professional cook does. Julia Child, as much as I respect the work she did to increase the awareness of good food to Americans, didn’t cook with kids under foot.

    I have turned back to so many home-style basics some of my culinary school classmates would chide me as hopelessly old-fashioned. But they work. And by looking to healthy short cuts and meals that can prepped during nap time then popped in an oven later on or even utilizing a slow cooker I can have a dinner on the table I’m proud to serve and still have a day to spend with my girls doing the things that matter to them.

    In terms of practicality I focus on one large meal a day. As much as I would love to bake muffins and pastries in the morning, I love how late my girls sleep in and relish my late nights with my husband. I am not waking up before six to cook. And so, breakfast is a mostly cold cereal affair. Sometimes we have oatmeal. Sometimes French toast. We do eat it together and take our time. We linger over milk and bananas and coffee instead of hot buttery croissants. It makes us happy and I know the kids are starting off with tummies full and a less stressed mom.

    Lunch is a challenge, as two to three days a week we picnic it and my girls do not eat well with the distraction of friends and fun around them.When we are at home, I serve toddler food. I make a meal in 15 minutes or less because that’s what I’ve got to work with. We have a whole lot of chicken tenders and pasta with butter. I do serve veggies we all love and I again, sit and eat a meal with them. My focus at lunch is to round out nutritional needs and make sure another good meal gets into their systems. I don’t fight or stress over lunch choices. A well stocked freezer and snack pantry is my friend for lunch.

    Dinner is hard. I know it is. But I believe it is important so I make it a goal to cook for my family every night I can. Dinner is the meal I cook for myself and my husband. Dinner is the meal I use to expand palettes. Dinner is also the meal I don’t worry about if it doesn’t get eaten because I’ve tried to meet the needs of the kids throughout the day. So I can enjoy my meal and know that one day my adventurous eater will return because I’ve properly set the stage (this is the mantra that gets me through all the ‘but I don’t like thaaaaat’ whining happening here right now).

    So let’s talk about dinner. Dinner has become the cornerstone of my day. I plan my weeks around dinner and my dinners around my weeks. I make a dinner schedule. I sit down either Friday night with a couple of my favorite cookbooks (I’ll post some titles at the end of this missive) and decide what I want to make based on the weather, how we’re feeling, what we’ve had the previous week and how busy our week is going to be. I have a white board I stick on the fridge with the meal plan written out so I don’t forget what I’m cooking. If I’m using a recipe (I don’t always) I have the cookbook and page number written next to it.

    I use the season and the weather as inspiration. I like to make sure I’m planning a variety of proteins, balancing red meat, pork, chicken and fish and at least one meatless meal throughout the week. And I do find inspiration in food magazines. I love Bon Appetit. They have a few regular features that work for me. I love the “Dinner for Four and Leftovers” which is a kid friendly meal all planned out that uses the leftovers for lunch the next day. And “Fast Easy Fresh” utilizes seasonal ingredients in recipes that take 20-45 minutes to prepare.

    I shop once and (try to) obtain everything I need for a weeks worth of cooking because nothing is more frustrating than staring at a cupboard with no clue as to it’s contents and no idea how to put them together anyway. Like any craft, having the right tools will make your project more fun.

    Food should be fun. I think we as home cooks also lose sight of that simple fact in the rush to get food to the table and the cajoling to get kids to eat or in the balancing act of cooking for one. Food is fun. We could all drink protein shakes and take vitamins and survive. Cooking transforms the cook as well as the food. It builds us up on many levels. It doesn’t have to be tricky. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be done with love.

    I could go on…but maybe I’ll let you all digest this meal. I will recommend this cookbook even thought it’s out of print: The Working Stiff Cookbook

    One great feature is the “Well Stocked Pantry” page with suggestions of basics to keep around for cooking these, and many other, tasty meals. There are also very easy versions of exotic foods that use familiar ingredients and are a good place to begin the introduction of, say, curry to a three-year-old.

    Also check out A Year of Slow Cooking for slow-cooker inspiration. This is my saving grace on days when I know we’re going to be out of the house for most of the day. And honestly, nothing is better than walking into your own home and smelling dinner cooking deliciously away.

    Bite size magic

    Monday, August 24th, 2009

    Jessica’s post about bite size pieces has gotten me thinking. (Have you read it? Go read it!)  You see, I have a penchant for the large gesture. If something’s a good idea, then something bigger and more dramatic must be better, yes?

    As I’ve been thinking about nurturing and making magical moments in my home, I see some of the wonderful things that women around the internet are doing, and I’m incredibly inspired, and almost as incredibly overwhelmed. Start of the school year parties, poetry for each child, hand stamped fabric family projects; I can’t figure out when I’d have the time to even think of the ideas, let alone put in the effort to make them come to pass. OK, so that’s not strictly true. I can think of when I’d have the time to do all of that, but not how to do all of it AND clean my house.

    So where does that leave me?

    With a green straw.

    Let me explain.

    Z,  (my 3 year old), has a sippy cup with a straw that slides out of the top. It’s been lost for the last week or so, (I strongly suspect it’s in the church bag, but keep forgetting to look) and the other day she asked for it at lunchtime. I told her that I couldn’t find it, and offered her another cup, which she took, albeit a little sadly.

    In a flash of inspiration I remembered the box of straws that I knew existed somewhere in the house. They weren’t anywhere I expected them to be- I finally found them with the art supplies in Z’s closet (the organization of my house is the subject of another post entirely)- but find them I did, and I pulled one out quickly and went back out to where Z was eating, and told her to close her eyes.

    She opened them to this.

    100_3926

    Oh the rapture.  Her cup of milk was no longer just milk,

    it was a treat,

    an experience,

    a beverage.

    She used the straw all day.

    It didn’t take tons of planning or preparation, just a moment of squelching the part of me that just wanted to hand her the cup and be done with it, and a couple of minutes to search out a straw. And the payoff? Magic.

    And you know what?

    We discovered yesterday that the only thing better than a green straw is

    a blue straw.