Friday, November 2, 2007

How the Mighty Have Fallen, a Culinary Tale

I have always loved good cooking and good food. When I was in high school, I dreamed about becoming a great chef. Of course, this was in the days before the Food Network and rock star chefs like Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and Rachel Ray. So my guidance counselor steered me away from this career path, deeming it a dead end. Instead, I became a graphic designer.

There are many similarities between a chef and a designer. Both take a range of ingredients and combine them in novel ways to create something new. Both are very creative. Good chefs can create their own mini-empires in the kitchen, commanding a staff who works with speed and precision to create masterpieces. A good designer can become a creative director and command a staff who...well, we designers aren't known for speed and precision. Still, we do create masterpieces.

Although I never became the professional chef I wanted to be, I still enjoy cooking very much. There's nothing I like more than spending an entire day preparing a feast for friends and family. In fact, there is a couch next to my kitchen where early arrivals may sit and converse with me while I work out the final details of the meal. And there was a time a couple of years ago when I seriously considered becoming a personal chef, traveling to people's homes and preparing meals for them to be reheated later. (It's a good gig, but the setup costs are daunting.)

I now have two children, and I'm sure you see where this is headed. When Jack and Henry were both young, just starting out on solid foods and before they could refuse it verbally, they'd eat just about anything. The only limitation I put on my cooking was no spicy ingredients--chili powder, jalapeños, raw onions, and the like. And they ate up my cooking like there was no tomorrow. But that was long ago. Now Jack and Henry have become really good at letting me know if the meal is a slam-dunk or a flop. Jack, the two-year-old, sticks with the classic "shoving the dish across the table" move to indicate his dislike of the meal, while five-year-old Henry prefers sampling a couple of molecules then declaring "I tried it but I didn't like it."

I haven't given up entirely on exposing my family to a wide range of cuisines. In fact, Homemade Sushi Night is still pretty popular, with everyone pitching in. However on work nights I don't start cooking until about 6:00. So time-consuming, complicated food prep is out of the question. But I don't just want to heat a frozen dinner or make mac 'n' cheese out of a box. Instead, I have developed a list of weeknight recipes that have all the characteristics of a successful meal:
  • It comes together quickly
  • It tastes good to children and grown-ups
  • It has at least a little nutritional value
  • I'm not embarrassed to admit I've served it to my family
Here are two of my more popular meals. These recipes have become my dependable allies, and I usually will bring them out after a string of flops to keep everyone happy.

WACKY MAC® with Meatballs
WACKY MAC is a colorful pasta that comes in four shapes – wheels, shells, spirals and tubes. I don't know if it's any better than other kinds of pasta, but it has the coolest name!

1/2 c. breadcrumbs, or 2 slices of bread
1 lb. ground turkey, chicken, pork, or beef
1 small onion, chopped
1 egg
1 t. Italian herbs or Herbes du Provence

Ideally, you should use a food processor for this recipe. If you don't, the texture of the meatballs won't be as uniform.

Preheat the oven to 350°.

If you're using bread slices rather than breadcrumbs, put these into the food processor first and pulverize them. Otherwise, put everything into the food processor at once and blend for a minute or two until it is really well mixed.

Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and coat it with cooking spray. Form small meatballs (about 1" in diameter) and arrange them on the cookie sheet. Bake for twenty minutes.

I usually use half the recipe for that night's meal and freeze the other half for later.

Cook one bag of WACKY MAC or other pasta according to directions and drain.

1 jar spaghetti sauce

Heat sauce in saucepan. Add meatballs. Dump on top of WACKY MAC. Ta-da! You are a culinary genius.

If you're feeling guilty because that was too easy and you'll be damned if your family is going to eat bottled pasta sauce and blah, blah, blah, you can add more nutrition by mixing in one or more of the following:
  • 2 puréed carrots (cook the sauce for a while so they'll soften up and not reveal themselves)
  • 1 small zucchini, finely grated (if they ask, tell 'em it's parsley)
  • chopped fresh tomatoes
  • chopped steamed broccoli
  • minced mushrooms, sautéed until all liquid is released before adding sauce
Chicken Chunks
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (enough to feed everybody)
White, creamy salad dressing, such as ranch or Caesar
Panko (a type of Japanese breadcrumbs, available in the international aisle)

Preheat the oven to 350°. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and coat it with cooking spray.

Cut the chicken into chunks and put them into a bowl. Add enough salad dressing to coat the chicken and mix everything up until the dressing covers all the chunks. Put the panko in a separate bowl then add the chicken chunks, tossing to coat.

Put the chicken on the cookie sheet, being careful to space them out. Bake for about 20 minutes. Serve with dressing on the side as a dip.

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