The mother of all dinner strategies
By Lee Svitak Dean
One certainty of life for mothers is this: The kids will be hungry at dinnertime and, well, probably before and after, too. Of course, mothers aren’t the only ones who notice this. And we certainly don’t want to leave dads out of the mealtime equation. Mom can share the pots-and-pans angst, or not.
Katie Workman is trying to take that stress out of the nightly ritual. She’s the author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket” (Workman, $16.95).
“We need to figure out how to capture some joy in the kitchen, because guess what? We get to make dinner just about every night! And we can approach this task as though we are being asked to re-grout our bathtub nightly, or approach it with a certain amount of joie de vivre. We might as well pick that joie thing because ... we have to do it anyway,” she notes in her delightfully opinionated book.
The mother of two sons, ages 10 and 13, thinks it’s too easy to be hard on yourself as a cook, especially when you’re a novice. “Give yourself a break. Dinner doesn’t have to be perfect,” said Workman in an interview.
“Set realistic, doable goals for yourself that make you feel great when you achieve them. Then you’ll feel more like doing this again. Go for the easy wins and build on them,” she said.
Like any cooking mom, she’s busy. “No two dinner nights are alike. I made lasagna the night before. We’re eating at 7 p.m. and it’s lovely. But other times I’m peering into the pantry and it’s a scramble. Or I might be looking at leftovers.”
The difference between her kitchen and the empty one facing many of us?
“Even on nights when I’m scrambling, I have things ready,” Workman said.
That means she preps for meals. And, yes, that means she’s thinking ahead when she reaches for the food processor or a sharp knife on a Sunday afternoon and dices up onions, garlic and parsley she’ll need during the week, peels carrots or readies other ingredients that she will undoubtedly use.
“Sometimes the simplest things will stop you when you’re tired,” she said. If the usual ingredients are ready, she can do a last-minute stir-fry, or make a soup or casserole.
And the best thing about cooking on a regular basis, well, beyond the very pleasurable meals and at least temporarily filled kids?
“You get comfortable with cooking. You understand how to make other dishes. You know that to make a soup, you sauté some member of the onion family, add some liquid and other ingredients, and that’s it. There are no tricks,” said Workman.
But to get to that comfort zone, you need to practice.
“I have some people saying to me, ‘I really don’t cook.’ Or ‘I’m a terrible cook.’ For some, cooking dinner has become the enemy, too huge and overwhelming,” said Workman.
Take a deep breath and reach for a recipe. “Find one,” she said. “Buy the ingredients, follow the directions and make the recipe.”
Workman, like so many others who prepare dinner, is a big fan of big-batch cooking. “If I make a meatloaf recipe that is just the right size, it’s heartbreaking. If it feeds only the four of us, that’s sad. I should make it to feed someone later in the week.”
Maybe that means preparing a meat sauce to use for pasta one night and lasagna the next. Or a big pot of rice with extra to use for fried rice later in the week. If you’re roasting a chicken, why not make two?
“I’m always thinking ahead. There are certain foods that you don’t want a lot of, but plenty that can be repurposed,” said Workman.
Even the experienced cook can pick up a tip or two from her. “We all get stuck in ruts. Maybe we’re stuck in a flavor profile. If you’ve been cooking all Mediterranean flavors, pull out a Thai recipe. We all get palate fatigue. No matter how great your lasagna is, if you’ve been cooking Mediterranean for two weeks running, your family may like to try sesame noodles. Keep yourself fresh by jumping around from cuisine to cuisine.
And make the most of the seasons. “Grab those fiddlehead ferns you see at the farmers market. Take advantage of your skills as a cook.”
Workman, of New York City, earned her author credentials as a cookbook editor for a dozen years; this is her first book, a practical guide to getting dinner on the table. Her past experience working with Pillsbury cookbooks in Minneapolis and as a founding editor-in-chief of Cookstr.com, an online collection of cookbook recipes, may have given her the credentials, but her kids gave her the best reason to write.
They were hungry.
TIPS FOR EXPANDING YOUR CHILD’S PALATE
1. Don’t say, “You’re probably not going to like this,” as you serve something new.
2. Even if your kids don’t like new foods, keep on trying. (The alternative is that in 50 years, senior communities will be filled with people who only nibble on chicken nuggets.)
3. Start with small portions. Fall back on a two-bite effort, if necessary.
4. Don’t beg kids to eat something. (They will resist it even more.)
5. Use peer pressure when possible. Another child who is a good eater (or an older child) may have a positive influence simply by eating at the same table.
— Katie Workman
Serves 8 as a side dish, 4 to 6 as a main dish with add-ins.
Note: It took quite a few attempts to get the right balance of flavor and consistency for this perennially popular Asian noodle dish. Success had clearly been attained when my son took a first bite and said, “Put this in the book — I command you.” After a gentle reminder about the best and most appropriate ways to ask people to do something, here it is. You can prepare noodles ahead of time and let them sit for up to three hours, but if you’re using add-ins, toss them in right before serving. From “The Mom 100 Cookbook,” by Katie Workman (Workman Publishing).
For the sesame sauce:
1 (2-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tablespoons rice vinegar or sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons regular or low-sodium soy sauce
½ to 1 teaspoon chili pepper sauce, sauce as Sriracha or Tabasco
3 tablespoons vegetable, peanut or canola oil
2 tablespoons Asian (dark) sesame oil, divided
For the noodles:
Kosher or coarse salt, optional
1 (16-ounce) package dried thin spaghetti, or any pasta you like, such as rotini or linguine
For garnish, pick and choose:
2 green onions, both white and light green parts, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Fresh cilantro leaves
Make the sesame sauce: Place the ginger and garlic in a food processor or blender and run the machine until they are finely minced. Add the brown sugar, peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, chili pepper sauce, vegetable oil and 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil. Process until smooth and reserve the sesame sauce in the food processor.
Prepare the noodles: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add salt and let the water return to a boil. Add the noodles and cook them according to package directions until just tender. Set aside 1 cup of the noodle cooking water, then drain the noodles. Rinse them quickly with warm water and drain them again.
Add the reserved cup of cooking water to the sesame sauce and process to blend. Place the warm drained noodles in a large bowl and toss them with the remaining 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, then add the sesame sauce and mix everything until the noodles are well-coated. Taste for seasoning, adding salt if necessary.
Let the noodles cool to room temperature; they will absorb more sauce as they sit.
Serve the noodles garnished with green onions, sesame seeds and/or cilantro, if desired.
To serve with add-ins: Set out a variety of add-ins for people to customize as they please. Suggestions include: shredded chicken; sliced seedless cucumbers; shredded carrots; cooked broccoli florets; or slivered red, orange or yellow peppers.
Nutrition information per each of 8 servings: Calories, 406; Fat, 15 g; Sodium, 503 mg; Carbohydrates, 55 g; Saturated fat, 3 g; Calcium, 24 mg; Protein, 12 g; Cholesterol, 0 mg; Dietary fiber, 4 g.
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 3 ½ bread/starch, 3 fat.
SOY-GINGER FLANK STEAK
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: The combination of garlic, soy and ginger with a bit of brown sugar is just a complete home run; there’s a simplified teriyaki quality to the whole thing. Serve with generous scoops of rice and roasted asparagus or broccoli or a big green salad. Flank steak is a thin and somewhat chewy cut of meat, so you’ll want to broil or sear it quickly. Skirt steak or London broil will work, too. You also can prepare this steak on a grill or use a grill pan and sear it on top of the stove. From “The Mom 100 Cookbook,” by Katie Workman (Workman Publishing).
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
1 ½ tablespoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce, or ½ cup regular soy sauce and 3 tablespoons water
½ cup lightly packed light or dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
1 (2 ½ to 3 pounds) flank steak
Freshly ground black pepper
Thinly sliced green onions, both white and light green parts, optional for serving
Lime wedges, for serving
Hot cooked rice, for serving
Preheat the broiler and, if you have an adjustable rack, make sure it is as close to the heat source as it can get.
Heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, until you can really smell everything and the garlic turns golden, about 3 minutes. Add the soy sauce, brown sugar and red pepper flakes, if using. Increase the heat to medium-high and let the soy glaze simmer until slightly reduced and syrupy, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Set the glaze aside to cool for about 5 minutes.
Season the flank steak lightly with black pepper. Brush the top side of the steak with some of the soy glaze, then broil it for 4 minutes. Using tongs, turn the steak, then brush the second side with the glaze. Broil the flank steak until it is done to your liking, about 4 minutes longer for medium-rare. Transfer the steak to a cutting board and let it sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the remaining soy glaze to a simmer over low heat.
Thinly slice the flank steak across the grain and brush the slices with some of the reheated soy glaze. Transfer the sliced steak to a platter and scatter the green onions, if using, on top. Arrange the lime wedges on the edge of the platter for people to squeeze over their steak if they like. Put the rest of the soy glaze in a small pitcher or bowl to serve at the table for drizzling over rice.
Nutrition information per each of 8 servings: Calories, 310; Fat, 7 g; Sodium, 770 mg; Carbohydrates, 16 g; Saturated fat, 2 g; Calcium, 22 mg; Protein, 42 g; Cholesterol, 102 mg; Dietary fiber, 0 g.
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 other carb, 6 lean meat.
HOMEMADE CHICKEN TENDERS
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: Here are four versions of chicken tenders (or nuggets or fingers, or whatever you want to call them). One is super simple. The next is a bit crunchier (and only involves adding a couple of eggs). The third, even crunchier, version has some bread crumbs as a final coating. And the fourth is the “Mom, that’s so cool!” showstopper — Chicken Parmesan on a Stick, which we have yet to encounter on a kiddie menu. You’ll need about 10 to 15 wooden skewers if you want to serve the tenders on a stick. From “The Mom 100 Cookbook,” by Katie Workman (Workman Publishing).
For the chicken:
1 pound chicken tenders, or 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
¾ cup flour
1 teaspoon kosher or coarse salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
About 3 tablespoon olive oil, divided
For serving, optional:
Yellow, brown or honey mustard
If using pieces of chicken, not tenders, cut them lengthwise into strips 1 inch thick. There should be between 10 and 15 pieces.
Place the flour, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl and, using a fork, mix them together. Coat the chicken strips in the flour mixture.
Heat about 1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook half of the chicken until lightly browned and cooked through, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer the browned chicken to a plate. Add the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons of olive oil and cook the rest of the chicken strips the same way.
Insert a skewer lengthwise into each of the chicken strips, if desired. Serve the chicken with ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce or whatever other dipping sauces your kids like.
To make the Crispy Chicken Version: Lightly beat 2 eggs in a shallow bowl. After coating the chicken pieces with flour mixture, dip them into the eggs, let the excess drain off, then dip the chicken back into the flour mixture to coat. Proceed with cooking the chicken; you may need a bit more olive oil in the skillet and you will need to cook the chicken strips for 30 seconds to 1 minute longer on each side, 3 ½ to 4 minutes per side.
To make the Crispier Chicken Version: Place ¾ cup of panko (Japanese bread crumbs) in a shallow bowl. Then follow the instructions for the Crispy Chicken Version, but instead of the second dip in the flour mixture after the egg dip, make the final dip in the panko crumbs. You may need a bit more olive oil in the skillet to achieve the crispiest crust for this version, and you will likely need to cook the chicken strips for 4 minutes per side for them to be done through.
Chicken Parmesan on a Stick: You’ll need ½ cup of marinara sauce; ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese, preferably fresh; 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and 10 to 15 wooden skewers. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Make the Crispy Chicken or the Crispier Chicken by cooking it for only 2 minutes per side for Crispy Chicken, 3 minutes per side for Crispier. Insert a skewer lengthwise into each strip of chicken, making sure it’s secure. Place the skewered chicken on a baking sheet with a rim. Spoon a bit of marinara or spaghetti sauce down the center of each strip of chicken. Line up a few pieces of the shredded mozzarella down the center of each strip, on top of the sauce. Evenly sprinkle the Parmesan over the mozzarella. Bake the skewered chicken until the cheese is melted, 4 to 5 minutes.
Nutrition information per each of 6 servings of Crispy Chicken: Calories, 211; Fat, 11 g; Sodium, 255 mg; Carbohydrates, 8 g; Saturated fat, 2 g; Calcium, 16 mg; Protein, 20 g; Cholesterol, 88 mg; Dietary fiber, 0 g.
Diabetic exchanges per serving: ½ bread/starch, 3 lean meat, ½ fat.