Thanks for your input on the previous I'm-feeling-boring post. Here is one of the requests.
Is there anything particularly special about dinners in the summer?
Well, there's a strong incentive not to heat up the house or at least not to fight the air conditioning, so we turn to alternatives. Meals that aren't cooked at all, or things that are cooked outside on a grill; things that cook quickly, or that use appliances smaller than the oven or stove, like the slow cooker and rice cooker and microwave, maybe even the toaster oven. Failing that, I like to make things that finish all their cooking in the morning while it's still cool outside.
Hot food doesn't seem quite as appealing, but I never give it up entirely. I like soup with my sandwiches, for instance, and in certain summery situations I like the flexibility of food-ready-and-waiting-in-the-crockpot. And all that summer produce is beautiful in many cooked dishes and stews.
Still, the summer produce calls for lots more things served raw: fruit finds its way onto the dinner table far more often, sometimes by itself, other times joining other fruits, often in our salads. ( Here is a wonderful list of salads from a year ago that I printed, saved, and keep drawing on all year.)
Let's look at this week's meal plan. What's different about summer?
It's still cool in the morning, so I still frequently make pancakes, waffles, and muffins for breakfast. A major difference: fresh blueberries, not frozen, dot the pancakes and muffins. We probably won't see "banana nut" again till fall.
Hot steel-cut oats is a lot rarer. My children and I have been enjoying our oats European-style: rolled oats with cold milk poured over to moisten. The younger kids like them plain or with maple syrup and maybe bananas. The 9-year-old likes a lot of unsweetened shredded coconut mixed in. Me, I like fresh berries or cherries, a lot of nuts, and a little honey. It's chewy and filling and easy to personalize.
Another thing I like to make for breakfast, especially the day after we shop, are fruit and yogurt parfaits: just like the fast food version. I sweeten plain yogurt with sugar and vanilla, and layer it in a glass (careful; a 4yo needs only a tiny amount) with blueberries and strawberries, and top it with something crunchy. One child likes coconut, another likes raw oats, a third likes Grape-nuts. Or I could crush a granola bar.
Here's an admission: Since we often spend mornings at the park in the summer, I'm often sorely tempted to take the kids out for lunch, or at least to run through the drive-through on the way home. There is a possibility of compromise here: sometimes I'll get them sandwiches only, take the burgers or tacos or whatever home, and serve them with milk and good summer fruit, like berries or melon. Spend a dollar per kid, save a little time, and still get a fries-free, not-too-unbalanced meal.
As for homemade summer lunches, we stay pretty simple around here. The kids love corn on the cob and that's pretty easy to cook without heating up the house -- you do know you can cook a whole pot of corn by steaming it in an inch of water, right? Corn, fruit, and a few cubes of cheese makes everyone happy. Tuna salad sandwiches appear much more often in the summer, replacing grilled cheese, I suppose... but nobody ever tires of quesadillas, it seems, even though they're hot. Nor do we ever get tired of peanut butter. My 3yo daughter invented a snack she calls "babies in cradles..." you know "ants on a log," right, celery stuffed with peanut butter and dotted with raisins? Well, if you make one-inch long logs with only one raisin, you get "babies in cradles," where the raisin is the baby's head, the peanut butter is the swaddling blankets, and the little celery is the rocking cradle. She will happily make these and we will all happily eat them as part of our lunch.
On Thursdays this summer I'll be feeding 9 to 11 children at my house, immediately after returning from a couple of hours at the park. So lunch has to be already made and ready to go. I'd be happy to serve cold lunches every time, but my audience can be a little finicky. So my default, I think, will be something everyone loves, even if it's hot: Emergency Chili (from the crock pot) stretched by serving it with pasta (cooked the night before) or rice (in the rice cooker). One pound of ground beef is enough, believe it or not. Another time, if the stuff goes on sale, I may do a cold platter of summer sausage and crackers. Fruit on the side is always welcome. A third thing that's fairly popular with all those kids: cold olive-oil-dressed pasta, served plain with things on the side they can mix in: canned tuna, black olives, canned or fresh chopped tomatoes, cheap Parmesan-from-a-can, and frozen peas.
Dinners. Let's take a look at my menu plan for this week.
Thursday (yesterday): Salmon filets baked in foil packets (fish cooks quickly, and you could also do this outdoors on a grill). Inside the packet the salmon rests on top of a pile of canned chick peas and is topped with thick slices of fresh tomato, a sprinkling of fresh basil, olive oil, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. We had it with whole-wheat pasta leftover from lunch (I made extra on purpose) and a green salad.
Friday (tonight -- and no, we don't do meatless Fridays at this time): I have a single 14-ounce strip steak defrosting on the counter, which we'll grill very simply and slice thinly, each of us getting only a few slices. I'll serve it with a pile of asparagus, quick-sauteed in olive oil and rosemary; a salad of shredded carrot, olive oil, sunflower seeds, and fresh blueberries; and chunks of fresh watermelon. Maybe I'll have Mark try grilling the watermelon. As for a starchy side dish, I'm just going to put homemade whole wheat bread and butter on the table. Quick, easy, healthful, no cooking. Did I mention cold beer? There will be cold beer.
Saturday is always busy, a chore day. A great day for something I will do all summer long: once-a-week cold sandwich night. There are lots of possibilities; this week it's ordinary deli turkey with green apples and blue cheese (for grownups) or with mustard (for kids). As for the side dish, sometimes it might be salad, but this week I'm going to use my crock-pot to make tomato soup. I really wanted to make bell-pepper soup, but the peppers were too expensive this week: as soon as they go on sale, we'll make a pot (it takes eight big peppers).
Sunday morning I'm going to put a crock of ratatouille -- that wintry-seeming dish that is made of summer vegetables -- in the oven at a fairly low temperature to cook slowly through the morning. I hope to serve it just warm for an early supper, over crock-pot polenta, and topped with parmesan cheese. If the kids hate it they can eat their polenta with maple syrup instead, and there will be more for me.
Monday won't be particularly summery. My 6yo son begged for spaghetti and meatballs, and that's what I'll make. Concession to summer: The meatballs and spaghetti can be cooked in the morning and the meatballs can stay in the crockpot with the sauce, which will hopefully keep from heating the house too much. On the side, we'll try to keep it cool by serving a big fruit salad: melons, grapes, strawberries, and kiwis.
Tuesday I spend the day at Hannah's and will need to make something that goes together quickly after I get home. I'm going to try a new recipe (it's another one from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for beer-glazed black beans. Using canned black beans to save time and heat. I'll have made extra polenta on Sunday, and that polenta will go into a savory pancake batter (another new thing -- I never tried savory pancakes before). We'll put the beans on top of the pancakes, top them with shredded cheese, and eat them with some quickly sauteed greens, probably collards out of my freezer augmented with a small bunch of fresh kale. And some hot sauce. And some more beer straight out of the bottle.
Wednesday is the day we go grocery shopping so I always leave it blank, hoping we can use up leftovers. If there aren't any leftovers we have scrambled eggs for dinner: another quick and easy and not-too-hot option.