I haven't been home from the office during the week in time to make a family dinner since, well, since I went back to work when my older child was a year-old toddler. Now 13 and 10, our kids eat with the baby-sitter hours earlier than would be possible if they had to wait for us.
Rejecting any semblance of respect for this particular 1950s ideal has always taken the pressure off everyone at our house. No one complains, least of all me.
So it was with great consternation that I read Jeff and Jodie Morgan's "The Working Parents Cookbook," a paean to the family dinner hour. Guilt started to gnaw at my carefully rationalized approach to dinner from the first page.
The Morgans' new cookbook, their first as a couple, grew out of their family maxim that the dinner hour is sacred. Preserving a time each evening when they can sit down to eat, and talk, with their two teenage daughters is religion to the Morgans.
Good food can be made quickly. Time, or rather the lack of it, doesn't need to be the enemy of the family dinner, according to the Napa Valley couple with careers as a vintner and social worker. (Jeff had a previous life as a wine and food writer, penning "Dean & DeLuca: The Food and Wine Cookbook," published in 2002.)
It's hardly a new idea. And I might have ignored the Morgans' take on it, as I have most everyone else's, if it weren't for their refreshingly down-to-earth approach. Our weekends can be as hectic as the weekdays, and appealing dishes that fall together fast are appreciated at our house.
The Morgans have a knack for creating enticing recipes that can sound as good to a picky 5-year-old as they do to a sophisticated adult. Their recipes are easy to make, probably even for teenage cooks. Take their chicken kebabs marinated in yogurt and spices, a refreshing dish for people who rely on the grill to get meat on the table quickly. Yogurt, fresh ginger, cilantro, garlic, cumin and coriander turn cubes of workaday chicken breast into a Middle Eastern treat.
Our family dinner night is Sunday. So before going to my son's afternoon baseball game, I spent 15 minutes throwing together the marinade, tossed in the chicken and put the whole thing in the fridge. After the game, it took only a couple of minutes to grill the kebabs. The meat retained a pretty sheen from the yogurt glaze, along with a milky moistness that defied the gas grill's tendency to suck the moisture out of chicken.
The couscous salad with tomato and cilantro could have used a little more olive oil and a little less raw red onion. Still, it got us thinking about couscous salads, previously not on our short list. A quick scrounge around in the fridge and we were adding cubes of feta, chunks of avocado and chopped celery to perk it up.
A dish that is as appetizing as the kebabs is the white bean soup with kale. It's a straightforward one-pot meal that's a notch above the typical bean soup melange. The kale retained its structure and bite without being overpowering.
Making it work
It wasn't, however, a 15-minute preparation, as the recipe says. This was a 40-minute chopping project. And even though we had soaked the beans for 24 hours, they were still crunchy after the one hour of cooking dictated in the recipe and needed at least half an hour more cook time. A better idea would have been to make the soup a day ahead and reheat it for dinner, a perfectly reasonable approach to meeting the conflicting schedules of most families. In fact, preparation times and cooking times were underestimated in many of the recipes I tested.
We paired the soup with Poopsie's creamy corn cakes, wildly flavorful treats that elevated garden-variety corn cakes by adding jalapeno chiles, onions and Cheddar cheese. The recipe makes enough corn cakes for an army.
For dessert, we whipped up the flourless chocolate cake, a super-sweet treat that vanished as soon as it was pulled from the oven. For my taste, it was too sweet, so we've adapted the recipe, cutting the sugar from 1 cup to three-fourths cup. But my children loved it as it was.
On the whole, the recipes were good enough and easy enough to cause a pause in my resolve never to rush home to prepare a weekday family dinner.
The momentary madness passed, and then came inspiration: I've asked our baby-sitter to use "The Working Parents Cookbook" to make dinner. Now we're hotfooting it home so we can eat these dishes with the kids.
It's not the '50s ideal, but something tells me the Morgans would approve.
Flourless chocolate cake
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Adapted from "The Working Parents Cookbook."
1 teaspoon plus 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4cup granulated sugar,
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup whipping cream, whipped
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper, then grease with 1 teaspoon butter.