Real Food, Real Dinners – Family Time

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We ate dinner, prepared by my mother, as a family virtually every night of my childhood.  Mom, Dad, little brother, little sister and me. Seated around a table, assuming our family roles, bickering, fidgeting, conversing, engaging and of course, eating. This was a nightly ritual. We almost never ordered in and going out to a restaurant was a treat we savored.

Mom and Dad would regale us with stories about their busy days. Little sister, ever the hyper-competitive baby of the family, spoke seriously about the most recent rankings of the fastest runners in the first grade. Little brother and I argued over who would get to eat the last of the dessert. Looked at from a distance, it’s all pretty banal stuff. But the act of eating home cooked meals day after day, night after night, provided me with some of my fondest memories.

In today’s busy, modern world, where in many families both parents work, it has become increasingly difficult to find the time to prepare meals from scratch. Stop me if this sounds familiar: You wake up at 6 AM, scramble to get breakfast out and enough coffee into your face to even contemplate the next 15 minutes. Everybody has to be somewhere different and you and/or your husband, wife, partner – or, for those single parents out there, NOBODY – has to summon every nerve in your body to keep it together and get everybody out the door on time.

Then you work all day. You get home at six or maybe seven. Your kid(s), husband, wife, partner, whomever, are all hungry and cranky and ready to eat right NOW. So, you either pop open some pre-prepared meals or order take out for the kid(s) so you can get them bathed and in bed on time. You swear to yourself you’re going to stop wasting so much money on take out. You’re going to find the time to learn some simple, quick, healthy dishes to feed your family. But you don’t do it – you order whatever is fast and reasonably priced. You then sit down with your significant other, or alone, and eat your cold food in 15 minutes. You suck down a glass of wine or two and spend the rest of the evening working, watching TV or both. This, my friends, is how too many of us live. Indeed, the biggest victim of the two-income family is the time spent together, eating real food around your own dinner table.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I am a personal chef. I cook for families and provide them with enough dinners to last the better part of the work week so that they can enjoy time together without the stresses of having to figure out what to cook, or where to order from. But this is not the point I’m trying to get at. Most of us cannot afford a personal chef (present company included).

I cook all day long. I run around from my house to clients’ houses or offices. With the exception of the time I spend in my car or on the subway, I am on my feet the entire time.  It’s tiring. But I find a way to get home promptly enough to cook dinner for my wife and daughter every night. OK, I’ve got a leg or two up on you – I’m a chef. I’ve got a database of recipes in my brain and on my iPad. I can prep and cook faster than you. But here’s what I’ve learned in the last few years: if you’ve got 20 minutes, some fresh vegetables, a whole grain (or pasta) and whatever protein your family enjoys, you’ve got dinner!

My two-year-old daughter eats what we eat. This is not a coincidence. If you’re making one meal for your kid(s) and one for yourself, you’re creating extra work and stress. It might take you a minute to acclimate your child to new flavors. However, the earlier they learn to eat real, healthy food, the less likely they are to spend their lives eating junk food.

If you can cook one meal in 20 minutes that everyone can enjoy, it means you can spend more time as a family, breaking bread, communicating and building a lifetime of good habits and memories.

Here’s a recipe for a delicious, quick weeknight meal:

Sautéed Vegetable Medley with Chickpeas & Israeli Couscous

Serves 4

Ingredients:

-1/4 Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil

-2 Small Italian Eggplants, sliced into half-moons or diced

-1/2 lbs Cremini Mushrooms, sliced

-1 Medium Onion, diced

-3 Cloves garlic, minced

-1 Zucchini, sliced into half-moons or diced

-1/4 lbs Asparagus, trimmed

-1/4 lbs Broccolette or Broccoli, trimmed and cut into florets

-1 15oz can Chickpeas, drained and rinsed

-1/2 Cup Whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand

-1/4 Cup Dry white wine (like Pino Grigio)

-2-3 Cups Cooked Israeli couscous (follow package directions)

-1 Tablespoon parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated (optional)

-1 Pinch crushed red chili flakes (optional)

-Sea Salt & Crushed Black Pepper to taste

Procedure:

1.    Bring 2 quarts of cold, salted water to boil in a large sauce pan.

2.    Meanwhile, in a large cast-iron skillet or sauté pan heat oil over medium-high heat, and when shimmering, add eggplant.  Leave them alone until they’re golden on one side (about 2-3 minutes).  Then turn them over.

3.    Add mushrooms to pan, stirring once to insure oil is well incorporated.

4.    When mushrooms begin to brown add onion and season well with salt and pepper.

5.    While onion is sweating, add broccolette or broccoli to boiling water.  Blanche them until they turn bright green (about 1 1/2 minutes).  Remove from pot  and place on cutting board.  Immediately repeat the same step with the asparagus (reserve the water).  Slice both into bite-sized pieces.

6.    Stir in garlic to pan and sauté until fragrant (about 30 seconds).

7.    Add chickpeas and stir a couple of times.

8.    Add zucchini, asparagus and broccolette to pan, stirring well and season again with salt and pepper.

9.    Pour wine into pan and “deglaze”, making sure to scrape up any brown bits sticking to the bottom or sides.  Let wine reduce until it nearly disappears.

10.    Add tomatoes, stir well and then take a ladle, and pour it into the pan.  Bring to a boil and then lower heat to a gentle simmer for 5 minutes or so.  Taste everything and adjust seasoning accordingly.

11.     Serve over couscous and garnish with parmigiano reggiano and crushed red chili flakes.

© David Wallace, www.meinyourkitchen.com, 2013

David is one of the family-friendly chefs on Kitchensurfing, a marketplace that connects chefs of all kinds with people who love to eat. They just launched Kitchensurfing Kids, a selection of family-friendly chefs and menus, from children’s birthday parties and cooking lessons to meal delivery for the whole family (picky eaters included!).

For 15% off of your first booking, enter the code kskids at checkout (valid until July 31, 2013).

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