Are you in a weeknight dinner rut? I am. It usually happens to me at this dark time of year, when I’m on the far side of the “season of overeating” between Halloween and New Years. For inspiration, I turned to some local chefs to ask how they tackle the fact that, whether they are prepared or not, their families come looking for dinner every night.
Colleen and Peter McCarthy are co-owners of three restaurants, including Za in East Arlington (I am a sucker for their summertime corn, potato and bacon pie). The biggest challenge for these Arlington residents to serve dinner to their kids on the weeknights is that they are often both working. So they employ the "get ahead on the weekend" strategy. A favorite, using a slow cooker, is a sauce with meatballs and sausage that can be used on pasta. When they are eating with their family, they will invest time to make dishes like casseroles, fried chicken or a baked seafood, with enough for other meals later in the week.
Arlington resident Jim Swasey is the Culinary Arts Instructor at the Gifford School, and a Chef Instructor at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. He does the cooking at home too, which he notes is vastly different than cooking professionally because of the equipment and access to ingredients. For quick weeknight meals, he favors Indian curries or Asian noodle dishes for maximum flavor, and fish for its quick cooking time.
Tanya Howard of Medford’s The Homestyle Gourmet has three boys at home to feed. Lately, her favorite weeknight dinner is a flat roast chicken. The chicken cooks faster than a typical roast, but there’s still enough time to get some simple sides together (Tanya’s boys like herbed rice pilaf).
Liza Connolly is a co-founder of Kids Cooking Green, an after-school program based in Lexington. As the parent of two teenagers, Liza relies on hearty soups or pastas on weeknights. She also gets ahead on the weekend, usually by cooking some type of roast. Liza then uses the roast leftovers combined with staples like beans and frozen veggies to make meals later in the week.
I sought inspiration in cookbooks as well. While I am usually skeptical of the celebrity chef cookbook, I like John Besh’s My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking (available at the Robbins Library, as soon as I return it). Besh devotes a chapter to “School Nights” with honestly quick meals for a range of palates.
Over the past two weeks, I have used all these principles to get out of my tired rotation of dinners. A friend recently sent me the recipe for Bo Ssam, a roast pork that cooked all day last Sunday. I made burritos with the leftovers and some frozen mango, and have more pork to use later this week. I have made the flat roast chicken, a pasta with sausage and garlicky broccoli, and a shrimp curry. From my own recipe archives, I rediscovered picadillo, a beef hash that used to be a mainstay in the house. Except for the roast, all of these meals took 30 to 45 minutes to get to the table, and most importantly, none of them had been served at our dinner table in recent memory.
Variety on the weeknights can be found. I just needed to be reminded of the basics: cook large quantities when you can, use staples from the pantry and freezer, rely on a few fresh ingredients for flavor, and most importantly, get recipe ideas from others.
Thanks to the chefs for opening their kitchens to me!