Over the next few weeks, we’re thrilled to be welcoming Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, authors of two of our favorite family cookbooks, Keepers and their recent release, The Dinner Plan. They will be sharing tips, ideas, and recipes to make life as the family cook a little easier.
Here’s what dinnertime on a typical Wednesday evening looks like in my household: It’s 6 o’clock and my daughter has just returned home from field hockey practice — tired, famished as a bear at a picnic, and a couple of hours of homework still ahead of her. My son has just left for soccer practice and won’t be home for at least another hour, with maybe enough time for a quick meal and a shower (if I’m lucky), before he gets thrown into bed. My husband is ping-ponging from one practice field to another, dropping and retrieving kids, and I’m trying to make it to a town council meeting, feed the dogs, fold a small mountain of rumpled laundry, and oh yeah, get dinner done. Sound familiar?
On these chaotic nights, I used to lament the days when I could tether a kid to a high chair so that we could all sit down and eat supper in unison, even if part of that meal was flying through the air from a toddler’s hand. As my kids got older, and afternoon activities took over, frequently tumbling into evening hours, I tried to insist that we all still eat together, because sitting down as a family was going to prevent all forms of disfunction and delinquency later in life (at least that’s what I had been led to believe). The result was me cooking at a breakneck speed and a dinner that felt like a forced march ending in whining and indigestion.
One night, instead of setting the table for the usual routine, I decided to change things up and let the evening’s flow dictate when and how we ate dinner, rather than the other way around. I made a pot of black beans, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes for burritos and left it over low heat on the back burner. On the kitchen counter I put out a plate of warm tortillas wrapped in foil, bowls of all the fixings (sour cream, shredded cheese, guacamole), and a stack of plates and napkins. As people came home or before they went out, I fixed them a burrito (or they did it themselves with whatever they liked), and as they sat perched on a stool by the counter, we were able to catch-up on the day, swapping highs and lows, all while devouring a gloriously messy homemade burrito. It was a revelation.
Kitchen Sink Burritos
From The Dinner Plan by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion
¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 sweet potatoes (about 1 pound/455 g total), cut into ½ inch (12-mm) cubes
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon turmeric
2 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce (remove the seeds for a milder effect), minced
One 15-ounce (425-g) can crushed tomatoes
One 15.5-ounce (439-g) can black beans, drained
One 8-ounce (225-g) bag frozen corn
Fresh lime juice
Six 8-inch (20-cm) flour tortillas, warmed
TOPPINGS OF YOUR CHOICE
Shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
Shredded iceberg lettuce
— In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring
occasionally, until the onions start to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the potatoes, season with
salt and pepper, and cook, scraping under the potatoes and tossing often, until they are almost
tender, about 7 minutes.
— Add the cumin and turmeric and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the chiles and tomatoes, fill
the empty tomato can about one-fourth of the way with water, swish it around, and stir it into
the potatoes. Bring the mixture to a simmer and simmer until slightly thickened and the
potatoes are tender, about 3 minutes. Stir in the beans and corn and cook until heated through,
about 2 minutes. Stir a splash of lime juice into the burrito filling, then check the seasonings.
— To assemble the burritos, lay a tortilla on a plate and put a big spoonful of the filling in the
center (but not so much that you can’t fold it). Add the toppings of your choice, then tightly fold
the east and west sides of the tortilla over the filling, followed by the north and south sides, forming a rectangle (folding it tightly makes it easier to pick up). Repeat with the remaining
tortillas and filling.
Staggered: The filling is best hot or warm. It can be left in the skillet, covered, at the back of the
stove for up to 2 hours. Reheat gently as needed, stirring often and adding a splash of water if it
has thickened up. Keep the tortillas and toppings on the counter for everyone to help
Without the stress of attempting a synchronized sit-down meal that didn’t fit anyone’s schedule or appetite, we were able to actually savor a meal that was a little DIY, a little scrappy, but much more relaxed and intimate. Since then, it has become a regular habit to have these kitchen counter dinners, and honestly some of the most soulful and true conversations within my family have happened while devouring a slice of homemade stromboli over the kitchen sink.
Some dishes lend themselves perfectly to this kind of non-dinner-table-dinner:
1. Look for dishes that can linger at room temperature without losing taste or integrity. Like turkey meatballs that can be layered into a pita or baked chicken wings. Or even better, dishes that improve with a bit of a “rest” time, like lasagna or stromboli.
2. Some dishes need to stay warm but not hot, and can be kept on low heat at the back of the stove for self-serving. Think chili, hearty soups like minestrone and pasta e fagioli, or a beef and vegetable stew. Keep some crackers, shredded cheese, and sour cream in small bowls on the side for the chili; or a loaf of of bread and some soft butter on a cutting board for everyone to help themselves.
3. Roasted vegetables are the champion of staggered meals. Keep a couple of trays of your favorites (cauliflower, carrots, eggplant, broccoli) on the counter, perhaps next to a pot of warm grains like couscous or faro, and you can make a gorgeous bowl for dinner. Bonus if you have a jar of ready-made dressing to spoon on top.
4. Large salads with several different toppings are also ideal because everyone can make their own as they like. Set out a bowl of washed lettuce next to an assortment of vegetables like sliced cucumbers and radish, maybe some toasted pumpkin seeds, feta, croutons, shredded rotisserie chicken, and of course, a jar of homemade dressing, and you have the easiest staggered meal of all time.
Now, I don’t want you to think that the only time we have a proper sit-down meal is at Thanksgiving (although a kitchen-counter turkey buffet sounds tempting). We still make an effort to share meals on those blessed weeknights where kismet allows our schedules to align and we remember what it’s like to pass the potatoes. But having Friday night nachos on the couch while arguing over what movie to watch on Netflix also counts as a quality family meal for us.
Because while we may all lament the over-scheduling of our kids’ lives, it doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the true meaning of family dinner, which has nothing to do with a table and time slot; it’s about togetherness, nourishment, and a happy pause in the midst of a chaotic day.
Read more from Kathy and Caroline at their site, KeepersCooks.com and be sure to pick up their fantastic cookbooks, Keepers and The Dinner Plan at your local indie bookstore or our Amazon affiliate to get the rest of the recipes mentioned here. You can also find Kathy and Caroline on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Burrito photos by Maura McEvoy from The Dinner Plan by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, published by ABRAMS c 2017