Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Suppertime with Shirley Bassey

I've found another terrific parenting/cookbook!  

(Actually, my sister discovered it.  She had borrowed it from the library then loaned it to me.  I've since signed it out again in my name and renewed it twice... I'm just not ready to give it up yet!  This statement may be interpreted as a suggestion for a Christmas/birthday gift.)

Dinner: A Love Story, evolved from a website, written by former magazine food writer and editor, and mom of two, Jenny Rosenstrach, and it is a pure pleasure to read.

Although it is filled with simple, healthy, quick family dinner recipes, what I really love about this book is that it's not so much a cookbook, but a working mom's memoir about her commitment to preparing healthy meals and have dinner together as a family.

I knew right away that I could relate to Jenny Rosenstrach when she wrote about her meal log - her 'dinner diary'.  She has faithfully recorded every dinner cooked and/or eaten since 1998!   A little obsessive, perhaps, but definitely organised.  As many working moms have learned, she further proves that being organised about meal planning is very helpful in conserving whatever shred of  sanity that we can save.

Her story begins in the pre-children phase, when she and her husband began establishing their "rituals, relationships, and repertoires".   Learning recipes; supplying the cupboards, shelves and drawers with the essential tools and cookbooks; gaining appreciation for quality ingredients;  hosting easy and inexpensive dinner parties, and all-in-all, getting comfortable in the kitchen and laying the ground work for the soon-to-be family love affair with dinner.  

Some great 'back-pocket' recipes are introduced here, such as pasta with herbs and bread crumbs, black bean burritos, and oh, the wonderful chicken pot pie.   I wish I had taken a photo of the chicken pot pie... it was not only scrumptious, but beautiful.  (Note to self: put this on the meal plan again for next week.)

The story continues with discussions of her techniques and strategies for surviving new parenthood while still having decent and healthy meals. Her talk about having 2 children under 2 obviously resonated strongly with me (I even got to extend this crazy period of life to having 3 under 3 1/2... a lot of which is a blur) and brought back many memories: 
  • eating meals in shifts
  • trips to the grocery store being a special outing
  • walking through the day caring for young kids in a foggy, sleep-deprived haze, and
  • the extreme importance of successfully dividing and conquering the roles and responsibilities involved in running a household while parenting little children
Reading this chapter also made me recall how proud I felt on those days when we successfully prepared a decent meal and had all the clean up done before I collapsed into bed.   It was always such an accomplishment.  I have no real recollection of the meals that we ate.  Alas, I didn't keep a dinner diary.

I chuckled out loud reading about her 'onion trick'.  My mom always used to say the same thing... as soon as you start sauteing an onion, the kitchen smells like something good is cooking.

From this section, I tried the apricot-mustard baked chicken, chicken with bacon-y brussel sprouts, spinach tomato and feta frittata, and fish presents.  All delicious and well-received!

Spinach, tomato and feta fritatta

Apricot-mustard baked chicken with roasted vegetables

Chicken with bacon-y brussel sprouts
(My photographs do not do the meals any real justice; the photographs in the book , both of the meals and of everyday life, are outstanding.)

As her children grew from being toddlers to little kids, the author promises that there is a light at the end of the tunnel - the milestone of preparing and sitting down to family dinners without too much stress, fuss or fighting is upon us.   That glorious moment when you realise that your children are playing happily and you can sneak away to start preparing dinner.   I am coming to really appreciate the kids programming on TV after we get home from school so that I can have a few moments of relative peace to pour myself a glass of wine and start cooking.
With wine in hand is how I found myself preparing the recipes for royal salmon with yogurt-mustard dill sauce, and mustardy pork chops with apples and onions. 

Since dinner preparation is usually only begins at about 5:45 at our house, the primary criteria for recipe selection is preparation time.  Besides being made from fresh ingredients, it's important to point out that most of the recipes in this book take less than 40 minutes to prepare.  And most importantly - the preparation time written for the recipe is accurate!  Including vegetable chopping-, and trip-upstairs-to-help-the-2-year-old-wipe-her-bum-and-wash-hands time!

Whether fictitious or not, I laughed at the correspondence between husband and wife about barbecuing fears and responsibilities; I too, am not only fearful of the using grill itself, but afraid of stepping into my husband's territory!

I also loved Jenny's parenting philosophies and her interpretation of creating habits and routines as an example of laziness.  But in a good way.   When rituals are in place for getting ready for school, dinnertime, bedtime, etc., we as parents don't need to think too much.  We can resort to autopilot, which is kind of what we need at the end of a long day.

Aside from some great recipes, there are also many gems of ideas in this book:
  • chalkboard painting of tried and true family recipes to the inside of a kitchen cupboard
  • a make-shift miniature 'dollhouse' created with magazine photographs on the inside of a kitchen cupboard
  • a list of essential items and cookbooks for every kitchen
  • the 'conversation starters' for children at the dinner table
  • an exact schedule and menu for hosting a grown-up dinner party with children 'underfoot'
I don't read a lot of cookbooks, so I don't know whether her approach is unique or not.  But I certainly enjoyed the way that the recipes were interspersed with little explanations and personal stories of their relevance in her life.  It was the personal anecdotes of familiar situtations which made the book so enjoyable, and also encouraged me to believe that creating healthy family meals with young children is possible.  Definitely not easy, but certainly doable.

Now you can see why I've been so reluctant to return Dinner: A Love Story to the library.   It's due back on Friday.  I promise to return it so someone else can enjoy it as much as me.

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