Advice from a magical kitchen to yours.
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Dear Kitchen Witch,
We’re busy people and get into a rut with meals. What are five weeknight kid-friendly dinners that work for your family that use staples or basic groceries and kitchen equipment/techniques?
—Stuck in a Rut
Okay, you asked for five, so I’ll do my five lightning-round-style. Ready, steady, GO:
1. Pasta carbonara.
This is the favorite meal of my children and something I usually have the ingredients for. I make it from memory, based on the now-twenty-year-old recipe in Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat. Basically: boil water, add pasta. While it cooks, saute bacon, lardons, or cut-up pancetta (uh it’s almost always bacon at my house because that is what is in the freezer, but if you are fancier than I am pancetta is delicious and if you are truly fancy guanciale is the most traditional) in its own fat and/or a little olive oil. When it’s brownish, pour in marsala or, in a pinch, white wine and cook it down to syrupiness. While this happens, beat 3-4 eggs with a bunch of grated parmesan, some pepper, and a little nutmeg. Dump the cooked pasta with a little pasta water into the hot bacon pan, turn off the heat, and stir in the egg mixture until the pasta is coated. Eat. I will be honest: I, as a middle-aged woman who likes food and lives in a size-obsessed American society, try not to eat a dinner that is essentially simple carbs coated in several delicious fats on a particularly regular basis. However! My children love it so much, and it’s so easy, that it happens. If I want to healthy it up a little and feel ambitious, I roast some cauliflower in a very hot oven and sub that out for half the pasta. I also serve my own on a very large bed of arugula.
2. Soup with white beans and greens.
I add some olive oil toast alongside. I believe I have sung the praises of canned beans as a pantry staple in this space before, and I usually have canned white beans in my pantry and a bunch of greens (chard or kale are my faves here) in either the fridge or the garden. Saute a little garlic, dump in chicken or vegetable broth, simmer the greens until done, stir in parmesan and the drained white beans and heat through. Salt and pepper to taste. Meanwhile, brush leftover bread with olive oil and broil until golden brown. Done.
3. My mom’s stir-fry formula.
If I have a flank steak or some boneless skinless chicken thighs (my go-to protein) in the freezer, I defrost them most of the way, slice or dice (easier to cut them when they’re still a tad frozen), and marinate with soy sauce, cornstarch, and crushed garlic. One of my unpopular food opinions is that sometimes pressing garlic is Good. I kept my mom’s cast-aluminum garlic press when she died. It’s Swiss, the brand is Susi, and it has tiny holes and is very well designed, and she got it when she got married in 1967. It finally gave out after about 48 years of heavy use and I tracked down the same brand on eBay. It smashes the garlic just perfectly, especially for this extremely simple recipe. Anyway, leave the meat to tenderize with the soy and cornstarch for a while, then cook over high heat and throw in whatever veggies you have at the end to cook lightly. (I love this with mushrooms but I quarter those and cook them until reeeaaaally brown before I add the meat, for better flavor.) I don’t really bother to do a sauce here in the stir-fry—I like it super simple and my kids are always happy with this dinner.
4. Caramelized tofu.
I like to keep a couple of packs of firm tofu in the fridge because they last and are easy to turn into dinner. What I usually do is press them, cut into little batons (so satisfying the way the tofu all stays in a block until it’s all cut and then separates neatly), saute with some sliced shallots if I have them, and sprinkle with a little bit of brown sugar to get it to brown and crisp. Add green beans to soften or whatever other veg you like, lime juice, a little fish sauce or soy sauce if you don’t have fish sauce, and serve with rice noodles or over rice. I like to add fresh herbs (cilantro or basil) if I have them. This has been my go-to (or maybe my go-tofu???) for a while, but recently I heard the good news about the shaking tofu from Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen, which was recently the Edible Cookbook Club pick, and it might have a new convert. In any case, add rice and you’ve got dinner.
5. Lettuce wraps.
Speaking of Vietnamese Food Any Day, I recently tried a recipe from it that is already in the rotation for those “oh, god, what am I going to do with this pound of ground beef” which do happen: curry-scented beef lettuce wraps. (For other solutions, see also: tacos, chili, “meatzza”—basically meatloaf baked flat with tomato sauce and cheese on top, which blew my children’s tiny minds.) The basic principle is of them that you mix a little curry powder and some chopped peanuts in with ground beef for little patties. These caused my nine-year-old to spontaneously say, “Mom, these are really good!” the night I made them. I didn’t really have the right kind of lettuce so I served them as sliders, sort of a twist on banh mi. I love a lettuce wrap, though, and the kind where the beef gets cooked up with soy and sesame oil and a little bean sauce and combined with something crunchy (water chestnuts, peanuts again, whatever you’ve got) are also a hit at my house.
Don’t forget: it’s also okay to cop out.
There’s five, with a few bonus ideas thrown in, but my parting words would be: do not forget omelets, grilled cheese sandwiches when you’re really wrung out, or the lowly quesadilla. Will these feel like a little bit of a cop-out? You bet! But in a world where children wish to eat every single night and dinner—and with it a chance to cook something more interesting—will always come around again tomorrow, sometimes a copout is the best way to get everyone fed and move on to the really important part of the evening: bedtime.