I’m a working mother and my daughter Mimi just soaks up the attention during a meal. Can you help me to “feel” more able to provide my family with more of that as she grows?

Janet asked Lauren:

Dear Lauren,

The world definitely needs your family message . . . Can you maybe suggest we busy ones cook on weekends and freeze 5 packets for Mon. – Friday? It’s not easy doing all this and work and kids…..But I know that it certainly IS important. My daughter Mimi just soaks up the attention during a meal…..and I would really love to feel able to provide her with more of that, as she grows.

Lauren says:

You said something “telling” in your question, Janet. You said you’d like to “feel” able to make more shared, home cooked meals fit into your life with your family. Well, “being” able and “feeling” able are two very different things. Barring a physical disability that would literally prevent you from cooking, you certainly are able to do this. To feel able, though, you need to first come to the conclusion that creating and sustaining a certain level of quality for your meals (together) at home is a “lifestyle priority.” You’ve already said, in your note to me, that this dimension is an important one for your daughter’s quality of life and also, for your relationship with her. So, you’ve already accomplished this first very important step! Now, let’s talk about how to make this dimension happen in a way that makes you all “feel” happy.

Personally, I don’t think that frozen packets of Monday-to-Friday concoctions will give you what you’re looking for.

Interestingly, when we’re the most tired and stressed is when we all benefit the most from living amidst the dimension given to a family, gotten by using newly “put together” ingredients. And, the healing experience gained is magnified enormously, when you add to the mix, the sensory stimulation that’s generated simply by breathing in the savory scents that are as easy to create as searing a nicely seasoned piece of raw meat, chicken or fish in a hot skillet, or by pushing some chopped onions and olive oil around in a hot sauté pan or by simmering some canned crushed, pureed and/or cut up whole tomatoes with lots of chopped garlic and torn basil leaves. In addition, doesn’t it just make sense that the better the food smells while cooking, the quicker the family will run to the table, excited to be together, eating and talking? Yes, choosing to cook “big” and freeze are all fabulous aids in helping to provide a nurturing meal at the end of a work day, but truthfully, unless you have a huge freezer, containing lots of different things to choose from, you’re not likely to, in the same week, keep going back for the same soup or stew. Having a well-stocked pantry is another great way to be able to easily embellish a salad or to quickly assemble a piquant marinara sauce to help bring more diversity of taste, texture and aroma to your meals without requiring any last minute muscle.

There are lots of “things” you can do on weekends, to make your Monday-to-Friday mealtime scenario more delicious and nurturing.

Think aroma! Of all the ingredients we cooks have to play with, onions and garlic are certainly two of the most aromatic, thus enticing. Remember that creating the anticipation for great flavor, through aroma, is one of the best (surest) ways to get kids to come to the table happily and to help you and a spouse to feel truly happy to be home, at the end of a long day. But, because peeling garlic and chopping onions, when tired, can feel like a chore, they’re usually left out of weeknight cooking. But, you can certainly do these things in advance. On a Sunday, while watching listening to music or watching a movie with the kids, why not peel several heads of garlic and store the cloves (alone) in a pint or quart-size jar. Stick the jar in the refrigerator and the next time you want to cook something savory, all you’ll need to do is open the jar, grab a handful of garlic cloves and chop them up. You could also use a garlic press, to flavor olive oil that’s meant to season vegetables, meats, fish or poultry. This is an easy way to “feel” able (and willing) to add more garlic to your cooking, which is not only a delicious choice, but garlic is also scientifically documented to be incredibly healthful.

To peel garlic for storage: When peeling garlic to be stored, for best longevity, you’ll need to be gentle. Most important is to not bruise the garlic or you’ll release its volatile oils, which will cause the clove to develop an “off” taste and smell, after being stored for several days. Place the garlic clove on its flat side and place either the palm of your hand or the flat side of a chef’s knife on top. Press down gently until you hear a soft but audible “crack” which will indicate that the papery skin has separated from the clove of garlic. Then, just peel off the skin.

To chop garlic: First place the peeled garlic clove, flat side down, on your cutting board. Place the flat side of your chef’s knife on top of the garlic and, while securing the knife in place with your working hand on the handle, give the top, flat side, of the blade a good whack with your other hand. Flatten as many cloves as desired, then pile them together and simply mince the cloves into small pieces, using the same knife used to flatten them.

Onions can be chopped a day ahead and kept chilled, well covered. And, to extend their shelf life, just freeze them in doubled, heavy-duty freezer bags. Although I wouldn’t serve frozen onions to be eaten raw, and it’s true that frozen onions won’t brown well, this is not an issue when making dishes containing cooked onions, where browning is not required (like when making a rice pilaf.) As a matter of fact, I keep bags of mixed coarsely cut up aromatic vegetables (onions, carrots, celery and leeks) in the freezer so that I can easily embellish a broth meant to poach ribs or potatoes, before being roasted. This also enables me to, at whim; put together a pot of stock, whether one featuring just beef, chicken, veal or fish. If making a vegetable stock, I would also add freshly cut up and roasted vegetables to the pot containing the raw (fresh or frozen) ones.

Speaking of Vegetables: Blanch, blanch, blanch (and then refresh)!
Weekends are the perfect time to trim, cut and parboil vegetables. This technique is called “blanching” and it means to partially cook vegetables (uncovered) in boiling salted water and, when almost tender, you’ll remove them from the water and immediately plunge them into a big bowl of ice water, using your hands to swish the vegetables around to help facilitate cooling. (This last part is called “refreshing.”) Blanched, refreshed, drained and dried vegetables can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. I keep them in heavy-duty freezer bags, wrapped in paper towels. A great pot to use for blanching vegetables (and for cooking pasta) is one with a built in strainer. Though these come in several sizes, I suggest having the 8-quart one, which is the most versatile.

Just some of the vegetables appropriate for blanching are: Carrots, green beans, asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli. If using the same water to blanch them all, you would cook them in that order. This is to avoid over-flavoring the water with the pungency inherent in those vegetables tagged “cruciferous” which are the smelly, albeit extra-flavorful, ones. The amount of minutes you’ll boil a particular vegetable will depend on its size, age and type (i.e. asparagus take 2 to 5 minutes, depending on their girth, carrots will take 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how thick they’re sliced and on the size of their central core and green beans will take between 4 and 6 minutes, depending on age and type). Blanching time will also depend on “how” you plan to serve each vegetable. For instance, one night, you can serve green beans after sautéing them in a bit of hot fat with minced garlic, and then next night, you can serve them cold, dressed with vinaigrette, instead of the same old leafy salad.

Speaking of salad:
Here’s where your “weekend shopping” can really help to create diversity in your cooking. Your pantry should have jars of roasted peppers, cans of hearts of palm, capers, marinated artichoke hearts, an assortment of beans, olives, vinegars, cold-pressed oils, etc. You can also clean and spin dry your lettuce and keep the dried leaves rolled within paper towels and slipped into a large freezer bag and stored in the refrigerator. Keep the bag open a bit, to allow for air circulation. Dressings can also be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator to be used throughout the week. I make a big batch of one or two and alternate during the week.

So, I hope that I’ve given you some “food for thought” and that you now feel ready and able to make more home cooked meals fit happily into your life. Here’s a family favorite recipe for my Herb & Garlic Scented, Double Rib Lamb Chops, that’s easy to prepare and is sure to bring your family to the table wearing a smile. Enjoy.

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