While I was in France with my family, I posted about wanting to be changed permanently in some way by my vacations.
I know better than to think, even for a minute, that I have time to do much of the fancy sort of French cooking. But surely I have time to make my quick meals more civilized? With the good kind of canned tuna that is packed in olive oil? With better cheeses on my salad? With tiny, ice-cold glasses of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice?
Because even the quick things are so very much better here.
Being changed by them, and one hopes for the better: It's really the only way you can "take it with you," back home, in a tangible way.
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So, one thing I noticed that I liked is the serving of meals in courses. Yes, I know that is a totally normal thing to do "over here," but it's nothing we ever do; we tend to put all the serving dishes in the middle of the table and help ourselves to everything at once.
There's nothing wrong with that per se, but I wonder if I could slow us down just a wee bit, and have a first course.
Not make anything extra. I typically have two or more vegetable side dishes at each meal anyway. Just take that salad, or that soup, and put it out ahead of time so we can warm up to the table and to each other before we start snarfing down our meat and carbs.
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I tried this the other day when we were having one of my simplest busy-day meals, an everything-in-the-oven arrangement: baked potatoes and sliced kielbasa roasted on top of a layer of frozen brussels sprouts. (The potatoes go in about an hour ahead of the kielbasa and sprouts, but roast at the same temperature; it's a really easy way to put dinner on the table.) I had some leftover lima beans and just a bit of lettuce, so I decided to make a mustard vinaigrette, with some parsley and minced onion, and marinate the beans with diced carrots.
Before I pulled the other things out of the oven, I plated little portions of salad, a scoop of marinated vegetables atop a few lettuce leaves, and set them out on the table.
I plated the food in a slightly unorthodox, inelegant way. We typically use divided plates for dinner; it's not super elegant, but it's good for portion control and dealing with the children who reject Food That Touches Other Food. I gave the children small "tasting" portions of salad in little ramekins, which I placed on their "regular" plate:
You'll have to imagine the salad.
This doesn't represent an "extra" dish, by the way. They always get their salad in a ramekin anyway.
The bigger kids got larger ramekins (I have some that hold about 8 oz) but otherwise it was the same presentation. As for Mark and me, I just stacked our dinner plates nearby and we had our salad out of normal-sized salad bowls.
Yes, inelegant, but workable for our usual patterns.
"Is this all we get?" wailed the four-year-old when he saw his plate.
"No," explained Mark, "this is your salad course. When we're done with that we will have the rest of the food."
"Do we have to finish it all to get any meat?" asked my 8yo daughter with a worried look on her face.
"No, but you have to practice liking it by taking a couple of bites, and you have to wait till the rest of us have eaten as much as we want."
So Mark and I sat there, and ate our salad, and chatted with each other about our day. Out of the corner of my eye I saw everybody take at least a few nibbles. The 4yo stayed upset, but no out-and-out insubordination occurred.
After Mark and I were finished, I got up, whisked the salad bowls away without commenting on who had or hadn't finished theirs, and carried the platters of potatoes, meat, and vegetables to the table. And we all ate the rest of the meal.
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I noticed that, however unhappy the kids were with the salad, it was still a noticeably more peaceful beginning. Instead of saying grace only to be immediately faced with "Pass this! Pass that! Don't take so much! Yes, you have to put that on your plate!" there was a pause when there wasn't anything to pass and there wasn't anything to ask for.
I doubt it's a panacea, and like most experiments there will probably come a time when I give up altogether because there's too much trouble involved. But it's fun to try, for now.
Tonight, the starter will be bean soup (from a few days ago; yes, it's a leftover) followed by salad and mini meatloaf. I'll let you know how it goes.