A Fall Menu – Meals this Week

Family Dinner

People often ask how we manage our houshold with a lot of very little children. Do we have help? How do we organize the day? How do we manage meals? Everyone needs to eat and I like to cook the majority of our food from scratch. One big help is menu planning for at least a week at a time. I cannot simply run out for unplanned trips to the grocery store; four children need help with diapers and potty, shoes, jackets, buckling, and strollers. Along with menu planning, I always stock staples for a few quick and easy meals in the pantry and freezer in case life derails my cooking or grocery plans. Another trick is trying to cook what I can at convenient times rather than right at the hectic dinner hour. I tend to prepare a lot at once so one cooking session covers multiple nights and produces a freezer meal or two.

I love to experiment with new recipes, stir up French sauces, or throw together multiple complimentary dishes but this is just not the stage of life for extra hours at the stove. My first goal is to serve nourishing, filling, flavorful meals. If there’s a lot of time I might make something extra. If there’s not, I don’t feel guilty if it’s all in one dish and reheated from the night before. I know everyone has been fed with good homemade food. Time for complicated recipes and cooking extravaganzas will return soon enough; kids get more independent, and infants’ sleep routines become more predictable. This week’s menu is a good example of how these principles work for our family.

Breakfast for Dinner We were very short on ingredients because I prepared dinner while Carl was out picking up the week’s groceries. I pulled out the last couple strips of bacon from the fridge plus some sausage from the freezer and cooked it half an hour ahead, then set the meat aside to be reheated on the frying pan when were ready to eat. I stirred up my standard whole grain pancake batter while Carl and the kids were out and set it aside for half an hour so we could unpack and stow groceries before frying up the cakes. Apples, butter, and maple syrup rounded out the table. These pancakes actually turned out better than ever before – so perfectly light and fluffy. I think leaving the batter sit made the difference? This is a good example of a pantry meal I can almost always pull together from ingredients on hand. It’s also a good example of a meal prepped just a bit ahead during a quiet lull to reduce pressure right at the dinner hour.

Butternut squash soup with 30 minute dinner rolls The soup is from this staple fall recipe. I doubled it so we’d have a couple of nights’ dinner plus a couple freezer meals. I roasted the squash when I got up in the morning. In the evening I just had to assemble everything. I packed up the freezer half without the added milk as dairy products don’t always freeze well. This soup is always delicious and the kids loved it, even though I forgot to add dollops of sour cream. I served it with these 30 Minute Yeast Rolls, substituting honey for sugar. It was a disappointing bread recipe. The rolls felt flavorless with a borderline cake consistency. I won’t make them again, but it was nice to smell fresh bread baking for the first time since the new baby came home.

Pot Roast I followed my usual recipe, more or less, doubled so we’d have two or three nights’ dinners plus a couple frozen meals. This is another meal I had prepped and into a 300 degree oven by 7:30 in the morning. That allowed plenty of time for a three hour low and slow roast for perfect falling-apart meat. It guaranteed we’d have dinner in a busy work day no matter what happened or how hectic the afternoon became as I juggled small children.  This pot roast is a great food to make in large quantitites because the flavors deepen and marry as they sit on the fridge. A lot of roasts don’t freeze well, but this one can be pulled apart into more of a stew and freezes nicely. The kids loved the meat, though they were more hesitant with the veggies. I’d considered a side of salad, fresh bread, or potatoes, but in the end bowlfuls of rich broth and veggies with savory hunks of meat were more than satisfying.

Goat cheese and red pepper frittata I found this recipe in a Williams-Sonoma vegetarian cookbook I borrowed from th library. We haven’t tried it yet but it looks tasty. I expect this to only make enough for one meal (reheated eggs aren’t great…). We will eat it with salad or raw veggies for balance.

On Sundays we usually eat dinner at our small group leaders’ home so I only plan six dinners a week. Breakfasts and lunches are pretty simple and routine.


Simplifying Family Breakfast

My parents always gathered us for breakfast together before starting work or school. On weekends, Mom cooked a treat like pancakes, waffles, or french toast. The Man and I eat breakfast long before the kids are awake on workdays, but on Saturdays we also eat a special family breakfast all together. Sitting as a family in our sunny kitchen with nothing on the schedule is one of my favorite parts of the week. The only downside is that waffles or pancakes can only be made so many at a time. It’s hard to immerse in the quality time when you’re popping up and down like a Jack in the Box to pour the next waffle.

photo (3)

Well, there’s a simple solution and I feel silly for not thinking of this years ago. Odds are you’ve already thought of it yourself, but on the off-chance you’re running back and forth too: Move the waffle maker to the table. Last week I set our waffle maker on a cutting board to prevent heat damage and drips and enjoyed sitting through my meal with the kids and my husband. If you have an electric griddle the same could be done for pancakes.


Makes 5 on our waffle maker, just right for two adults and two toddlers. This batter is for regular thin waffles, not Belgian waffles.

  • 1 cup flour (can substitute up to 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour for part of the white flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup buttermilk (I almost always use 1 cup milk soured with a tablespoon or two of vinegar)
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil (or melted butter)

1. Preheat waffle iron

2. Whisk together flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

3. Stir together beaten eggs, buttermilk, and vegetable oil with a fork or whisk. Pour wet ingredients into the flour mixture. Mix until moistened, but do not overmix.

4. Pour batter into waffle iron, using about 1/2 cup per waffle (this will vary based on your waffle maker). Enjoy hot with butter and maple syrup, honey, or fresh fruit.

Variation: If desired, chop and toast pecans and add them with the dry ingredients for pecan waffles.


Cooking Notes – June 2014

He approves of being fed

He approves of being fed

So far it appears to be the month of Jamie Oliver and Pasta…not a bad month to have, if you must pick a theme.

Marcella Hazan’s Rice and Smothered Cabbage Soup Simple and delicious. A friend who’s an excellent cook shared the recipe – her recommendations never send us wrong. Served with a salad of sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic.

Fresh Tomato, Basil, and Brie Pasta An old favorite from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Made for our church small group’s wrap up dinner and served with salad, Jamie Oliver’s Yogurt Salad Dressing, and bread, plus this cheesecake from the Joy of Cooking (we always skip the sour cream topping, which we don’t like), and a sauce made of raspberries cooked down with sugar and a smidge of water and corn starch.

Pasta with Lemon Cream and Prosciutto Everyone from babies to adults loved this dish – a banner day since the Man usually doesn’t like dishes with citrus flavorings. I only followed the recipe loosely based on what we had in the house. 1 shallot (though more wouldn’t hurt), no orange peel, fresh baby spinach instead of peas, no mint, whole wheat pasta. Sauteed sliced chicken with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and a squeeze of lemon at the end and put a few pieces on each pasta serving. Only used 1 slice diced prosciutto (about right – more would make it too rich in my opinion). Nice balance of fresh, creamy, and spicy. Could substitute other lemon-friendly veggies for variety.

Mini Shell Pasta With A Creamy Smoked Bacon and Pea Sauce by Jamie Oliver. No, we didn’t eat all these pastas in a row. I threw this together for a quick dinner after returning from vacation. It was good, but the first Jamie Oliver recipe I haven’t fallen head over heels for. The kids didn’t particularly like it at first try, though I’m sure they would after repeat exposures.

Chicken Fajitas, another from Jamie Oliver. Tasty with lots of nice fresh veggies. I ended up using a pre-made guacamole from the grocery store deli, but much prefer homemade. This dish was primarily memorable for the epic cleanup required on the griddle – my husband is a saint. Both kids liked the meat, and Annie enjoyed chowing down on the peppers as well.

Asian Chicken Noodle Broth from, you guessed it, Jamie Oliver. This dish has become a staple in our home over the last half year. We have it about once a month, varying the technique and ingredients every time. It’s a great way to use up leftover bits of veggie or nice scraps of meat. I use vermicelli noodles made from brown rice for a bit of a healthy boost, and we both like to squirt a bit of hoisin sauce on when serving. Just the noodles on their own, cooked as they are with ginger, broth, and chile, are very nice. This dish is a touch spicy for the kids so far, but they’re working up to it with pieces of meat and veggie from our bowls.

Cooked Turnip Greens with Cornbread, both recipes from Joy of Cooking. I grabbed the greens at the farmers market, cooked them low and slow with some leftover ham from the freezer as well as bacon, and served with hunks of cornbread for dipping in the sauce. Delicious. I’ve never really liked most “mess o’ greens” dishes we’ve had in the South, but I think the problem has been cooking method (too short, resulting in chewy bitter greens). These were melt in your mouth and delicious.

Crock Pot Yogurt Not a dinner, but my first attempt at homemade yogurt. I’d never realized you could make it in a crock pot until Sarah at The Provincial Homemaker posted about it. Very easy, very delicious, and very inexpensive. I used 1/4 cup of Stoneyfield plain whole milk yogurt and 1/4 cup of Greek Gods Plain Greek Yogurt for starter. Even with organic milk, making this yogurt at home worked out to about $1.25 per 32 oz container compared to $3.79/$4.00 for the storebought stuff. I chilled the whole crock pot insert full of yogurt in the fridge for 6 hours at the end of the process for a little extra thickening. Next time I may try straining through cheesecloth for a greek yogurt texture.

Fried Rice using a recipe from the Man’s step mother. I used up leftover pork from a church pig roast (delicious!) plus egg and odds and ends of veggies like broccoli, scallions, onions, garlic, etc. Used a mix of low sodium soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and sriracha sauce for seasoning. This was a treat for the Man for Father’s Day. Jack loved it, while Annie was initially hesitant but ate most of it in the end.

Cooked Beet Greens with Cornbread, both recipes from Joy of Cooking. I hadn’t intended to make greens twice in two weeks, but a friend gave us a bunch of lovely beet greens when cleaning out her fridge for a move. I cooked these a bit less long than the turnip greens since beets are more delicate.

Flatbread Pizzas using naan and this shortcut recipe from Jacques Pepin (look for “Lavash Pizza” halfway down the page). Great, and loved by everyone from adults to toddler. I sauteed diced portobello mushrooms, sprinkled them over the oiled naan, layered with very thinly sliced tomatoes and shredded basil from the garden, then topped with shredded parmesan and thinly sliced fresh mozzarella. The only problem is that it’s a bit soft in the middle due to all the layers. Next time I might cook the oiled naan for four or so minutes first to crisp it before adding the toppings. Also, fresh mozzarella has more moisture than the regular grocery store variety.

Roasted New Potatoes with Portobello Mushrooms and Rosemary, Baked Zucchini with Parmesan This was such a nice summery meal, all from local farmers except the mushrooms. I scrubbed the potatoes (halving or quartering any bigger than an inch or so, parboiled them about 10 minutes in salted water, then tossed them in a baking dish with cleaned portobello mushrooms. Sprinkled everything with sea salt, pepper, diced garlic, diced rosemary from the garden and a bit of olive oil, then tossed. Roasted at 425 for 25 minutes with a stir in the middle. At the same time I thinly sliced yellow and green zucchini, arranged them in a thin layer in a pan, sprinkled with salt and pepper, topped with shredded parmesan, and drizzled with olive oil. Popped them in alongside the potatoes for 20-25 minutes. After liking zucchini all winter the kids are on strike. Ah well, the adults loved it.

Chicken Nuggets An easy-peasy recipe from childhood. Cut chicken thighs or breasts into 3/4 inch chunks. Roll until well coated in a flour/salt/pepper/paprika mix. Fry until browned in olive oil. Served with barbecue sauce and a bowl of cumin mixed with mayo for dipping sauce (curry mixed with mayo is also nice), and a side of cucumbers from the Farmer’s Market.

Perfect Roast Chicken from Jamie Oliver’s recipe, served with the roasted veggies, bread, and sliced seasoned tomatoes.

Cobb(ish) Salad Leftover roast chicken, diced ham, spring greens, sliced tomatoes, sauteed sliced portobello mushrooms, blue cheese dressing.

Asian Chicken Noodle Broth (again), this time using up the last of the roast chicken.

Cooking with Jamie Oliver

If you must go somewhere when hungry, make it the library not the grocery store. Browsing the grocery store while hungry results in impulse buys. Browsing the library while hungry results in stacks of cookbooks, both currency and calorie free.

On the last library run I picked up Jamie’s Food Revolution by Jamie Oliver. It seemed a safe bet since we’ve enjoyed his Perfect Roast Chicken half a dozen times. Also, who else do you know in this century with quasi-muttonchop whiskers? The book is geared toward new cooks introducing simple (mostly) quick meals. It’s not a complete cooking course, but it seems like a great place to start an uncertain cook, primarily because these recipes are made from fresh, well-balanced, delicious ingredients. Many “Quick Meals” features in magazines or cookbooks rely on unhealthy and unappetizing base ingredients to speed up the process – cans of mushroom soup or frozen meatballs, for example. Alternatively, many recipes that advertize themselves as “simple” are also “simply bland.” After an introductory Twenty-Minute Meals chapter, Oliver moves on to basic, ground up recipes for pastas, stir fries, salads, roasts, and others, all from fresh ingredients or pantry basics (think rice vs. Hamburger Helper). While not comprehensive, the book does a nice job introducing a very basic recipe (e.g., a very simple tomato pasta) and then showing the reader how to vary the recipe, add other touches, or build a more complex dish. It would be a great gift for a student setting up in their first apartment, a friend with small kids who wants to learn to cook, or someone who enjoys good food but works long hours.

Though good for beginners, the recipes are perfectly delicious and well-suited for more experienced cooks, especially on busy evenings. With some modifications based on what we’ve had in the house I made (and loved!) his Chicken and Leek Stroganoff, Asian Chicken Noodle Broth (fantastic! we used leftover chicken/turkey from roasts and passed Hoisin Sauce for seasoning at the table), Aloo Gobhi, and Ground Beef Wellington. The Chicken and Leek Stroganoff is a nice example of his approach for simple but well-combined flavors. It only requires a handful of ingredients (mostly freezer/pantry basics) but uses a few key flavorful items (leeks, mushrooms, white wine, cream, lemon) that counterbalance one another for nuanced flavor. Each recipe was thoughtfully laid out, tasty, relatively quick, and worth making again.

My only beef (har, har) is that vegetables generally play second fiddle in this book, as most of the meals contain some veggies but revolve around meat. It centers around a basic British diet, but does have many well-done international recipes.

Cooking Notes – November 2013

My standard cure for falling into a cooking rut is finding a few interesting cookbooks at the library. A favorite from recent weeks is The New Portuguese Table by David Leite. We’ve enjoyed everything we’ve tried so far. After a few dull weeks in October it’s turning into a pretty good food month around here.

Azorean Kale, Sausage, and Bean Soup: From The New Portuguese Table – a really fantastic soup. We loved it! Have you looked at the Azores on a map lately? They are a very long way from anything, out in the middle of the Atlantic (take a look on Google images, too – what a gorgeous place). However, it turns out they’re home to awesome Portuguese food. I could not find Portuguese dry-smoked chouriço and only found linguiça a week later, so I used regular raw soft Mexican chorizo instead, draining off most of the fat. It was awesome – I might just stick with the Mexican kind because it made a perfect soup. I love that this soup is fresh and healthy yet filling. Pureeing a third of the beans is a nice touch. Served with bread or Whole Wheat Cream Biscuits from The Joy of Cooking.

Dried Cherry Cream Scones: A standard favorite from The Joy of Cooking, prepared for a ladies’ tea hosted by a friend.

Jamie Oliver’s Perfect Roast Chicken. Yes, again. Served with crisp-roasted brussels sprouts.

Chicken Soup: No recipe – just the carcass from the roast chicken plus scraps from the fridge like carrots, celery, onions, garlic, etc.

Black Olive Risotto: From The New Portuguese Table. This is a great risotto, cream and flavorful and filling. We both really liked it. Served with Broiled Tomatoes with Parmesan. Could switch the chicken broth to vegetable broth to make this a completely vegetarian meal.

Pork Shoulder with Sauerkraut and Apples: Very very tasty – pork, onion, apples, thyme, wine, sauerkraut, brown sugar and caraway seeds cook together into the perfect tender and savory fall meal. This recipe came from another library book I really love, Williams-Sonoma’s Essentials of Slow Cooking. I used pork butt with the fat trimmed because that’s what I had in the freezer – we tend to shop meat sales and stock up when we find them. I also added an extra apple and used whatever varieties we had on hand. I love that this cookbook offers both a crock pot and an oven variation for each slow cooking recipe since I usually prefer the texture of oven-cooked meats. I prepped this up during the kids’ nap and left it in the oven to slow cook all afternoon. I’m not big on sweet with my savory so next time I might cut the brown sugar. Served with hot rolls. Funnily enough, our girl, who has lately been refusing some of her favorite foods like tomatoes and oranges, gobbled down serving after serving of sauerkraut like it was cake. Odd child.

Spicy Korean Chicken with Fresh Cabbage: From, you guessed it, another library book: The Korean Table. A nice mix for warm, cold, spicy, fresh, soft and crunchy. Big hit in our house. Half a head of cabbage makes a lot of cabbage paired with just a pound of chicken. Might want to reduce it a bit and save the rest for something else.

My Mother’s Carrot-Cabbage-Cheddar Soup: A fall classic my mother’s been making for as long as I can remember – a bit of bacon, onions, shredded cabbage and carrots, broth and cheddar cooked together into more than the sum of its parts. Fair warning it does look like puke when finished…pretty sure my siblings and I were each dismissed from the table at least once for asking my mother why she’d served us vomit, so brace yourself if you have any 8-12 year old boys in your house.

Chorizo and Potato Tacos: Very easy and delicious with a little salsa verde and sour cream. Usually I add egg to potato and chorizo tacos but they were very nice without it. I also liked the addition of the chile. Used the leftover chorizo from the Azorean soup above.

Almond Chicken Soup: Fantastic! I roasted butternut squash and a few chicken thighs in advance, and used kale instead of collards. Flavorful and filling.

Sausage and Egg Tortilla:This is a tortilla in the Spanish sense, meaning more of a baked egg dish like a frittata. The recipe came (again) from The New Portuguese Table. Delicious, though a bit salty. Also, I’d never cooked linguica sausage before – beware that it dries out easily. Best eaten with something light and fresh like salad greens.





We had a very pleasant Easter – egg dyeing using thrift-store ties on Saturday, church on Sunday morning, neighbors over for Easter dinner, and a very non-Eastery James Bond Skyfall viewing in the evening after a movie and TV-free Lent. For Easter dinner we had:

  • Glazed ham with homemade mustard sauce
  • Cream cheese mashed potatoes
  • Asparagus broiled with butter and parmesan cheese
  • Shredded carrots in vinaigrette
  • Salad with olive oil and balsamic dressing
  • Hot rolls with butter (I made my life simpler by using frozen Sister Schubert’s yeast rolls)
  • Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (this recipe was fantastic – I doubled the batter, substituted raisins for nuts, and used 1/4 cup applesauce instead of pineapple. I poured the batter into two round cake pans and baked about 25 minutes. The frosting does not need to be doubled)
  • Chocolates
  • Drink options of wine, water, milk, and apple juice (for the kids), followed by coffee with dessert

This was by far the largest number of dishes I’ve ever made for guests. My mother loves to set a beautiful formal table and create elaborate special meals for guests. It’s a gift that she’s perfected into both a hobby and a skill. It took me a few years to realize that following the Biblical command to practice hospitality doesn’t mean I have to follow it in exactly the same way. Everyone has their own hosting style, and what’s fun for her is stressful for me. I love to cook, but the key difference between cooking a meal just for our household vs. for guests is that I’m an introvert. Having guests saps a lot of energy. Having them arrive when I’m already drained from two frenzied hours in the kitchen means I dread their arrival and have a hard time summoning social energy to make them welcome.

Eventually I realized that I needed to create my own style of hospitality – something that would enable us to freely and frequently welcome guests with bounty but simplicity.  We set a goal for the number of times we’d like to welcome guests into our home each month, and went from there. Usually I cook a simple but homemade meal that works no matter how crazy the day. Often that means a big pot of soup, a salad, and bread, along with a quick tidy of the kitchen. Sometimes I mentally plan what to serve, then deliberately cut out one dish. More often than not dessert is just chocolates, if anything. The nice thing about a generation raised with terrible fast food and frozen dinners is that guests are delighted to have plentiful home-cooked meals. Once, we knew we wanted to invite a large group of neighbors over. However, the house badly needed a cleaning after busy work weeks for both of us, nd I didn’t have time to cook for that many. Instead, we had an after-dinner ice-cream social on the back porch: I whipped up a pan of brownies, brewed a pot of coffee, and guests made themselves sundaes with brownies, ice cream, and a few no-prep toppings like berries, nuts, and fudge sauce. It was fun and relaxing for guests and hosts alike.

All that to say, a meal like this is not the norm when hosting guests, but it worked. Our neighbors graciously had us over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when Carl worked both holidays this year. We wanted to create something truly special, both for Easter and in thanks to them. We prepped everything we could the night before and I wrote out a quick timetable since three different foods needed three different oven temperatures. Once the cold foods were prepared and everything else was boiling and baking I still had time to sit and read with the kids on the couch before guests arrived. After doing the dishes, I think Carl prefers the simpler three-dish dinners though!

What hosting tactics work for your household and personality?

Edited to add: learning to feed guests hasn’t been a perfectly smooth process. There was the episode of greasy ham and too-dry cornbread, the burned soup where we should’ve just ordered a pizza, and a few meals where I didn’t make enough and had to scramble. Practice makes progress.

Haferflocken? Nein Danke

Six weeks ago Jack started rice cereal on his doctor’s orders due to severe reflux. Initially, he hated it. The food tasted different. It felt different. The spoon was not a bottle. You can see his original reaction here.

Somewhat earlier in the training process, or, "painting the baby with oatmeal."

Somewhat earlier in the training process, or, “painting the baby with oatmeal.”

However, after lots of varied but persistent introductions he’s more than delighted whenever we buckle him into his booster seat for a meal these days. At six months he opens his mouth wide, cleans each mouthful off the spoon, barely dribbles, and neatly keeps his hands in his lap without struggling (anymore…). While we plan to have him feed himself as well, so far we’ve found that starting with a puree of food helps because it first lets him adjust to the taste of a new thing before introducing a new texture. One new factor at a time seems to be the magic key with our boy.

His twin sister, however, is less excited about solids. In part, it’s just because she cares less about food in general while he could eat all.day.long. She’s progressed from spitting everything out, but it’s hard to hit her sweet spot between “hungry enough to try something” and “too full from that delicious bottle to care about food.” The mechanics of eating from a spoon haven’t quite come together for her yet. She politely mouths things, swallows about 40% of her meal, and smiles a lot. Sometimes she tries to swallow but accidentally squishes the food out her lips. Sometimes she just sputters for the fun of it as oatmeal or sweet potato droplets fly across the kitchen. She does like the taste and will eagerly wait for an approaching spoon. However, rather than opening her mouth for the spoon when she sees it she sticks out a hopeful tongue. Like any baby the majority of her nutrition comes from her liquid feedings so we’re in no rush. We have plenty of time to let her figure things out, and for the most part she enjoys the process. Except, that is, for this morning when she’d had her fill, saw the oatmeal-laden spoon coming her way, and began to wail an irritated “Nein! Nein! Nein!” Her English is non-existent, but her German is coming along nicely.

(Last week Jack looked up and yelled “Damn!” while peacefully playing on his back. Perhaps we should redirect him toward German too.)