By Larissa Phillips
It was around this time a couple of years ago that I made one of the first New Year's resolutions I have ever kept. Forget all those big ideas about finally getting in shape and organizing the home office. Those never amounted to anything. But a few years ago I decided we would have family dinner as often as possible. It would become the norm in our house.
Before that time, family dinner had been nearly impossible. I had a wild toddler, a picky preschooler and a husband who came home after the children were in bed. We didn't even have a kitchen table; our kitchen is big by city standards, but can still barely accommodate four people, never mind a table. I would feed the children early at the kitchen counter, put them to bed … and then eat a lovely late-night dinner with my husband.
Looking back, it seems so sneaky of us, but we didn't know what else to do. Eating dinner together is a precious ritual my husband and I have enjoyed since we first started dating. Having kids cramped our style a bit, but we still managed. But what about the kids? Here we were eating these incredible meals, while at the same time I was regularly giving in to my son's standing request for macaroni and cheese. After my husband changed jobs and started coming home earlier, I saw my opening. I crammed a table into the kitchen, put some candles on it and announced the new resolution. We began eating dinner together as a family, almost every night.
It was rocky at first, but almost immediately there were fantastic rewards. I stopped accommodating my children's picky preferences, for one thing. No way was I cooking two dinners at one time! Directly exposed to a wider array of food, and forced to consider it (since there was nothing else) they began, tentatively, almost imperceptibly, to branch out. Now, two years later, they regularly eat salad, brown rice, fresh mozzarella, roast chicken, burritos, fish, tofu and more.
We also bonded as a family. I'm not going to pretend we don't have difficult nights. When my kids come to the table after snacking all afternoon, they are more interested in making trouble than in eating. We have had dinners more memorable for timeouts and punishments than for the food we ate. But we've also had splendid meals together, talking and laughing and telling stories by candlelight. My 7-year-old especially loves to hear stories about my husband's and my childhoods. And he is beginning to bring stories of his own to the table. Every now and then he comments that he loves how we eat together.
If there's one resolution you make this year, make it about family dinner - either to start practicing it, or to keep cherishing it. Most of us don't need to hear statistics about higher SAT scores or lower drug rates among families who dine together. The benefits are obvious. Make sure your kids are getting them.
Roast Chicken: What's Not to Love?
A good friend told me once that she didn't know how to roast a chicken, and it just about broke my heart. With its crisp skin and juicy meat, roast chicken is perhaps the most delicious, warming, perfect meal I know. It's also about the easiest meal to prepare, and affordable: an $8 or $9 free-range, organic chicken should feed a family of four, with leftovers for making chicken soup the next night. As my grandmother would say, "what's not to love?"
- 3-lb. organically raised, free-range chicken
- 1/2 onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 Tbsp. paprika
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 2 lbs. of potatoes, such as fingerlings or Yukon gold
1. Preheat oven to 450°.
2. Chop potatoes into small cubes. Scatter evenly on the bottom of a roasting pan.
3. Remove giblets packet, if there is one, from the cavity of the chicken, and discard, unless using for another recipe. Rinse the chicken inside and out. (Julia Child used hot water, and so do I.) Pat dry with paper towels.
4. Place the chicken in the pan, on top of the potatoes. You can use kitchen string to tie the bird into a neat package, but lazy or rushed cooks can skip this step. (Theoretically, binding the bird causes it to roast more evenly, but I have found that it isn't necessary.) Place the onion and the garlic clove inside the cavity. Squeeze the lemon inside, and place the half-lemon inside as well.
Sprinkle the paprika, salt and pepper liberally across the skin, and rub in a bit.
5. Place in the hot oven. Roast for about 1 hour. Make a salad while the bird roasts.
6. When you think the chicken is done, wiggle a drumstick; if the joint feels loose, the chicken may be done. If it feels like the joint is still intact, it's not quite ready. Another way to tell is to slice through the skin. If the juices run clear, the chicken is ready. The final way to tell is to take the chicken out of the oven, and slice deeply into the meat between the drumstick and the breast. That's the last place to cook, so if it's done there, the whole thing should be done.
7. Let the chicken sit for 5 to 10 minutes to let the juices settle. The easiest way to carve a chicken is by holding the end of a drumstick and probing into the joint with a knife. Eventually, you will be able to guess with excellent accuracy. Cut off the drumsticks and the wings. Slice the breast into thin slivers. Place on a serving tray with the potatoes. Serve with a salad.
Scroll down for salad dressing tips and to learn what to do with the leftover chicken. (Hint: It comes in liquid form and is renowned for healing colds and flu.)
Brighten Up Your Salad Dressing
I love it when I go to other people's houses and they have complex, crazy salads, with seeds and roasted mushrooms and about 10 different kinds of greens, topped with some crazy creamy dressing. I always think, I love this! I should make this! Then I go home and I keep right on making the same two, simple, pure salads I have been making for the last 15 years.
I make my vinaigrette with a mortar and pestle. If you don't have one of these fantastic, ancient kitchen tools, you should think about getting one, even if it's just to put your kids to work. They love to pound!
Basic Vinaigrette I (Lemon)
This is a bright, acidic dressing, perfect for delicate greens like arugula, mesclun or any of the soft leafy lettuces that children usually prefer.
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt (Fine salt is OK, but I think the coarse salt helps break down the garlic.)
- 1 tsp. mustard
- 1/2 lemon
- 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Smash the garlic and the salt together into the mortar. Squeeze in the lemon and mash it all into a fine paste. Let sit for at least 5 minutes, to temper the garlic. Use the mortar to swirl the paste around, almost as if you were whisking it, while pouring in the olive oil in a steady stream. Do this until it has emulsified into one smooth dressing. Toss into washed and dried greens.
Basic Vinaigrette II (Vinegar)
This is a more acidic, more robust dressing. I use it on raw dandelion greens, roasted leeks, asparagus and another favorite for kids, romaine. If you are of the vinegar-loving persuasion, look for sherry vinegar. It has a more complex flavor than red wine vinegar, and is fantastic in this dressing.
- 1 clove of garlic, peeled
- 1 anchovy
- 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
- 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Smash the garlic and the anchovy together into the mortar. Add the vinegar and mash it all into a fine paste. Let it set for at least 5 minutes, to temper the garlic. Use the mortar to swirl the paste around, almost as if you were whisking it, while pouring in the olive oil in a steady stream. Do this until it has emulsified into one smooth dressing. Toss into washed and dried greens.
Chicken Soup for … Your Tastebuds!
The great thing about making chicken soup is that the process is very forgiving. All you need is a leftover chicken carcass, some olive oil and some vegetables. After that, it's up to you to add your own touch. Do you like noodles or rice? Spinach or parsley? Rosemary or cilantro? The choices are endless. Here is the most basic recipe, with options at the end.
- 1 chicken carcass
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 stalk of celery or fennel, chopped
- 2 - 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 bay leaf
- Sea salt, to taste
1. Cut off as much chicken meat as you can and chop it into bite-size pieces. Cover the meat and refrigerate. (If there is no meat, that's OK.)
2. Place the chicken carcass into a large, deep pot of cold fresh water. Turn the heat on medium high. As the water begins to simmer, use a slotted spoon to skim off the foam and fat that rise to the top. When the foam stops rising, partially cover the pot and let simmer very gently for 1 to 4 hours. (The longer it simmers, the more intense the broth.) 3. Pour the stock through a strainer. If you have time, refrigerate the stock and, when it is cold, skim off the fat that rises to the surface. At this point you have homemade chicken stock that can be frozen, refrigerated for a day or two, or used immediately.
4. To make soup, pour the olive oil into a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Turn the flame to medium and add the aromatic vegetables: the onion, carrot, celery (or fennel). Add the bay leaf. Sauté gently until the onion is translucent and everything is soft.
5. Add the stock and the reserved chicken to the aromatic vegetables. Cover and heat gently for about 30 minutes while you decide what else to add. Add salt to taste.
From this starting point, the possibilities really are endless. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Vegetables - Diced zucchini or freshly chopped tomatoes, added for the last 20 minutes of cooking, give a fresh, bright taste to a chicken soup. Finely chopped spinach or kale make a healthier soup. Diced potatoes or parsnips, cooked in soup for 30 minutes, or until tender, make a hearty winter soup.
- Herbs - Chopped parsley and a squeezed lemon added at the last minute make a bright, cheerful soup. Fresh thyme, rosemary or sage, added in the last 30 minutes, add aromatic depth.
- Vietnamese - Add cooked rice noodles, and a few dashes of fish sauce and lime juice at the last minute. (Add and taste, until proportions are as you like.) Serve with extra limes and a mixture of chopped chilies and fish sauce on the side for grown-ups.
- Mexican - Before serving, add finely chopped cilantro and chopped avocado, and squeeze a lime into the soup. Serve with freshly fried and salted strips of tortillas lying on top of the soup in each bowl.
- Italian - Add a can of drained cannellini beans, and a head of washed and chopped escarole. Add a can of chopped plum tomatoes, if you like. Cook for 15 more minutes.
- American version - Add cooked egg noodles (or rice or alphabet noodles) and finely chopped parsley.
Larissa Phillips is the contributing food editor for Parenthood.com and Dominion Parenting Media.