As I have noted in the past, I am not accustomed to taking care of my own basic needs for food and shelter or those of my progeny.
Last time my husband left town for work (which was truly one of the first times I had ever needed to be alone with my children and responsible for feeding and watering them), I almost set the house on fire with my attempt to heat up a frozen pizza.
So when he recently left town again for back to back business meetings I was on a quest to not make frozen pizza (or set the house on fire). Here were my challenges:
1) My husband drives by our local grocery store on his way home from work every day and picks up what he will need whip up a quick meal. What he is going to cook is based on a scheme we devised a couple of years ago (because a lack of a scheme meant that even he was too often defaulting to frozen pizza or other pre-made processed foods for dinner) that involves “meatless Monday,” “taco Tuesday,” “wildlife Wednesday,” etc. As a result, we rarely have a meal we haven’t had before and we never have ingredients on hand to do a meal on the fly but he is always able to concoct a reasonably home cooked meal on a nightly basis. And, if I am not on call, I get to prance in whenever my 12 or 14 or 16 hour day is over to a warm meal. I am ravenous after these long days at work. Stopping at a grocery store in such a state would be an utter disaster. Plus, my days are long enough (even when I modify them because my husband won’t be home by 6pm every evening) I don’t really have the time to get into the store and home in time to relieve the sitter. So lack of ingredients was clearly barrier #1.
2) While you might think I don’t cook because my husband is so good at it, the truth is I don’t really know how to cook. My immigrant parents were so into me and my sister being studious that our mother never imparted her amazing cooking skills onto us. (We are honestly both total domestic failures beyond even cooking!) I do think I might enjoy cooking in concept and have tried on occasion to help out with meals say for a party or a holiday event. But, I have a hard time following recipes and, on the rare occasions that when I do attempt to cook, I simply toss things in and see what happens. With the advent of the internet, my go to method for meal prep is googling a meal I am craving and picking and choosing which parts of a series of recipes seem good to me. Sometimes the result is edible. Sometimes not. This failure of a single component of a meal or a spread might be acceptable for a dinner where my mom or my husband or my mother-in-law, or an event where the guests with “an appetizer or dessert of your choice,” make up the difference; but it won’t work if my kids are counting on this meal to fill their gnawing bellies. Absence of even rudimentary culinary skills was a high second.
Here’s what I did:
First, I snuck out of work once to pick up a couple of things at the store that might help me through meal prep. Next, I spent far to much time during the work day contemplating what I might do for dinner. When I got home each night I rummaged through the fridge and pantry to see which of my ambitious dinner plots I could pull off. Finally, when it came to meal time, I made it clear to my kids that they would eat whatever I managed to make without complaining no matter how much it sucked. They were sufficiently frightened by my frenzied state that they dutifully complied.
Day 1: I cube some marinaded chicken, open a bottle of marinara sauce, toss in a shredded vegetable mix that was about to expire in the veggie drawer and cook it all up in a single pot. I find some “vegetable” farfalle that clearly predates our conversion to a low carbohydrate lifestyle and cooked it up as described on the box. I make my older kid shred the block of parmesan (my husband would never have a cheese drawer without a block of high end parm) while I cook hoping she doesn’t shred her phalanges into the mix. She does remarkably well. The result is a pretty edible pasta dish with added protein.
Day 2: We have some eggs in the fridge and some potatoes in the pot drawer (Why, I wonder does my husband keep potatoes there? Why do we even have potatoes in the house. We haven’t had potatoes in over 2 years for any meal? Oh wait, thanksgiving was a week ago and we did have mashed potatoes and lots of other carbs for that occasion.) Okay now that I have gotten beyond the existence of potatoes in my home I move on to “breakfast for dinner.” I look up a few recipes for “breakfast potatoes” online and decide to cube them, toss on a bit of canola oil, sprinkle on a “French blend” I picked up a Penzy’s a while back for no apparent reason and speed cook them in the Advantium oven. I make 3 incredibly variable omelets with 2% American cheese slices as the main dish. I end up tossing in my mom’s left over apple sabzi from Thanksgiving for an added touch (I didn’t make it but it was yummy and I would feel awful if I let it go bad.) The result is a pretty okay but not so pretty breakfast for dinner.
Day 3: This is one of my grocery shopping days. I had picked up McCormick’s stir fry sauce and packaged stir-fry veggies from the produce section. I had grilled chicken left over from my husband’s last taco tuesday and I figured the kids wouldn’t notice any lingering lime marinade. And though I am sure there is a giant vat of basmati somewhere in the house because, well, my mom has been there, I am not sure where it is since rice has been banished along with most grains and pastas. Plus, I am intimidated by raw ingredients that come out of burlap bags that are later turned into purses at Anthropologie so I also bought box of Jasmine rice from the store. So though not quite from scratch I did have to put some work in. I saute up the veggies in the wok with a bit of oil while I cook the rice in a pot (not the crazy two-tier rice cooker/vegetable steamer we registered for 15 years ago and have used 3 times but just a basic Farberware pot). I follow the sauce instructions and mix it and the chicken together with the veggies and boom a dinner is born. This was perhaps the most edible of the meals reviewed here in since I didn’t challenge myself very much. It was more veggies than my kids usually eat to boot. Total win for the chicken teriyaki stir-fry over jasmine rice and I recycle the rice box (though not as a pocketbook!).
Day 4: During my previous trip to the store I had picked up some tricolor tortellini. The kids love ravioli and I thought the shape of the tortellini would tickle them. I know, yet another moment of weakness for my otherwise low-carb life (we literally stopped eating pasta at home in 2011 and haven’t looked back) but I’d been on a carb bender all week so what was there to lose? Turns out that I had used the last jar of pasta sauce on Day #1. What?!? What the hell kind of yuppie American household doesn’t have multiple jars of Newman’s Own Marinara in reserve in the pantry! Argh. I am already ravenous. My mind is set on the tortellini. I have no time to leave home and go back to store lest I buy its entire contents due to my hungry state. So I find a can of tomato paste and some milk and some cream that have yet to expire (if my husband were he home these would have otherwise been in his coffee). I dump them together in a pot while the older child puts her shredding skills to work yet again. I look in the spice drawer and toss in some dried oregano and garlic and later I mix in the cheese in an attempt to make some sort of a tomato cream sauce. I slice the remaining taco tuesday chicken and serve them a really, truly, awful chicken with a side of tortellini in a tomato cream sauce. Luckily, my kids are so pumped by the overdose of carbs that they ignore the hideous taste of the sauce.
Day 5: A weaker woman might have lost steam after day 4 but not me. I am determined. So I bounce back intent to use the ready made pie crusts that are still in the fridge from Thanksgiving. We caved at the last minute and bought an apple pie so the crusts remained. According to the packaging these unopened crusts should have already been frozen but like expiration dates on meds I don’t take this too seriously. And, for some reason (probably because I hate broccoli more than any other vegetable in the world) my husband has left 2 giant bags of broccoli florets in the vegetable drawer. There is also a half cut white onion. There are still a couple of eggs left and the open carton of egg whites only expired 48 hours previously. No biggie. And of course we have parmesan. I spend all day contemplating a quiche. I google a few recipes. There a many options but essentially eggs, cheese, dairy, flour, +/- crust, heat and voila a quiche is born. But should a crustless quiche be cooked for as long as one with a crust? Will a glass or metal pie pan make a difference? I quickly sort through this. I settle on 25 minutes in the Advantium in the Pyrex pie plate. I let my little guy whip together the two eggs with the egg whites and the place is not a total mess. The older one is on parmesan duty again. I reach into the kitchen for the gallon of milk that I swear was half full when I left that morning and it’s gone. I send the other kid to the garage fridge, no back up milk. What!? No dairy for my quiche. Dammit but I really want quiche! Luckily there is also a soon to expire half empty carton of non-fat plain Greek yogurt. I just toss caution to the culinary wind and go for it. I mix the eggs with diced onions and broccoli that I sauteed with a touch of olive oil in the wok that is my new best friend and add in the yogurt, a cup of shredded parm, and two tablespoons of quick mixing/gravy thickening floor. I am not sure if this is or isn’t the same as the all-purpose flour noted on multiple recipes I consulted but I don’t bother finding out. I am too flustered by the dairy debacle. My kids no never to drink the last of the skim milk ever again. 25 minutes later there is a sort of watery mess in the center of my pie plate but after cooling for a bit it hardens up. My older one’s only complaint is that the onion pieces were too big. My little one says he hates cheese and refuses to eat it. He went to be hungry that night. I proceeded to have quiche for lunch for 3 additional days. I really loved it. I think it was the yogurt.
Day 6: I am craving Indian food. This is the one thing my husband hasn’t tried to tackle but my ego is getting the best of me after 5 days of being super mom. All the dishes were done and the kitchen was spotless after each of these previous meals. Each was consumed with the three of us at the table (often I take my meals on the chaise where I eat in a half crumpled, totally exhausted state while the kids have typically already eaten or are still finishing up at the table) actually interacting. I am reminded of my youth and the family meals of my mother and I am set on Indian food. I have freeze dried chana masala and I have canned chick peas. I opt for the latter because, you know, I am feeling like a total badass by now. How to make the sauce I wonder? I don’t bother to look it up. I have no sauce ingredients and my kids won’t like anything spicy. I find another half onion in a different part of the fridge. There are also these miniature bell peppers strewn about the bottom of the vegetable drawer. I chop them all up. I once again pull out my trusty wok and saute it all up with a bit of olive oil and several pinches of spices that smell Indian when I open the jars then I toss in the chick peas and a can of Campbell’s Plain tomato soup. While I am doing this I mix up from whole wheat flour, oil, and warm water as suggested by a googled recipe to make dough for rotis. I apparently add in too much water and it becomes a gross tacky mess. There is no more whole wheat flour and my hands are covered. I ask my little guy to help get some all-purpose flour (of course, now I find it!) mixed into my sticky mess of dough. He proceeds create a snow scape on our kitchen island but we finally get to the point where texture of the dough sort of reminds me of when I used to beg my mom to help roll out rotis as a kid. Now my own child is begging to help me do that same but I think she must have failed geometry because clearly she does not know what a circle is. So I take out the flat pan that my mom clearly put in my pot drawer for roti making and proceed to make a series of rorschach test rotis for accompany the bizzaro tomato soup chana. I also made some jasmine rice again which was a piece of cake compared to everything else. The kitchen looks like a storm came through and this whole process takes me a full 90 minutes. The result is reasonably tasty rotis, a decent mild chick pea something that is decidedly not chana masala and, well, thank god for that box of rice.
Day 7: And on the 7th day I was brimming with pride but exhausted. So I sat on my chaise nursing a sea salt dark chocolate caramel and let my 11yo set the house on fire with the frozen pizza.