Back to School
This year, Back to School is a really big deal. As of today, Jackson- turning 14 next month- is a Freshman at Analy High School. Molly, halfway to 12, had her first day of middle school today.
Laura and Grandma Sally have spent their day sobbing and binge drinking. While I appreciate the significance of the day, I tend to take a more practical approach to the situation; I don’t waste time with the sobbing.
Back to School is exciting and stressful. Gone are the days when dinner could show up at 8 because the kids could sleep in until noon. Breakfast could be a stack of pancakes if Mom was off work, or a bowl of cereal when the kids woke up in time to fend for themselves because mom and dad were at work. Now that school is back in session, things have to be a bit more organized. I have a few suggestions that may help.
Breakfast: It is easy to sit ’em down with a bowl of cereal, takes about 30 seconds to prepare, 45 if you slice some fruit on top. But, as you may guess, I want a little protein for these young bodies at the most important meal of the day. Ham is a great option because it stays juicy if you microwave it instead of pan frying (always a better option). And don’t forget about last night’s leftovers. A couple slices of last night’s steak are great for breakfast. Eggs are also great, and can be wrapped in a tortilla with that ham or steak for a to-go meal if we are running behind schedule (just the days that end in Y).
You know what’s tough to pull off on a busy weekday morning??? Bacon. It makes a mess and takes a while to fry. Fret not, I have the answer! On lazy Sunday, cook an extra pound. Here is how we do it: I like to roast bacon in the oven. Put cake cooling racks in a lipped baking sheet and lay slices of bacon on the rack. Cook the bacon for the weekdays until it about 80% on its way to perfection.
Take it off the rack and mop up the fat with a paper towel or- better yet- a slice of bread. Most people won’t eat a paper towel, even soaked in bacon fat. Lay out a length of paper towels and lay a strip of bacon lengthwise across the short end. Fold the paper over the strip once, lay another strip on the paper towel, fold…you get the idea. Put your bacon dispenser in a Ziploc bag in the fridge and you are ready for the week! Simply unroll a few strips and microwave for about a minute to finish. No muss, no fuss!
Lunch: A few weeks ago I went to a seminar- attended by representatives from all over the country- about getting more locally sourced food into school lunches. Swear to God, it was called the California Chicken Summit. I was invited as a panelist to discuss what it takes to raise truly local, well-raised protein. I was there for about 15 minutes when the topic of budget came up. It was brought up that public schools in California have an average budget of $0.60 per plate for protein and grain. SIXTY CENTS?!?!?! I sell my leftover chicken feet to a raw dog food company for $1.75/lb so I only take a small loss. Why in the world was I here??? That is a blog for another day, but there is a point here.
You can’t count on school lunch to feed your kid every day. For ours, it is a reality that they will hit up the school lunch lady occasionally. But here is a great way to make lunch time healthier and tastier: make your own lunch meat! Want roast beef sandwiches? Take a nice sized Eye of Round (at least 2 pounds) and follow my Prime Rib recipe. I’m not kidding! Once the two and a half hours are up, throw that beef in the freezer for a half our so it is nice and firm and then you can get nice, thin slices.
Freeze off 1lb packs and then you have lunch meat on demand. Chicken is another great lunch item that gets forgotten. I love chicken quarters on the grill. They are equally great for lunch. Wrap ’em in foil and the kids can unwrap them like an ice cream cone. Turns out drumsticks come from chickens, not Nestle. Chicken breasts make great lunch meat and salad. Again, this is an opportunity to cook in volume. I bet if you called your local butcher that only works with local, well raised meats and said “hey Adam, I need a dozen chicken breasts so I can make a bunch of lunch meat. Whatcha got in the freezer that I can get a deal on???” you would get a much better than retail price! Roast those breasts all at once on a couple of cookie sheets, firm them up in the freezer and then chop for salad or slice for lunch meat. Freeze off in packages that suit your family’s needs. Side note: an investment of $200 for a FoodSaver is worth every penny for this kind of cooking/portioning.
Dinner: There are lots of quickie dinners that can be made using good meat. We keep a couple pounds of pork or veal scallopini in the freezer because you can make a great meal in about 45 minutes, including thawing the meat. Cube Steak is another quickie that thaws quickly for those nights that you forgot to plan ahead.
Both of these go great over pasta. Here is a perfect example: let’s say Sunday you are starting to think about the week’s menu. You decide Monday is going to be Spaghetti and Bolognese. Monday rolls around and the gravy makes the whole house smell amazing. It’s time to put the pound of pasta in the boiling water. How about putting in 2 pounds?
Now when Thursday rolls around and you can’t think of a thing to make, and what the heck are you going to do with that left over vermicelli, and HOLY CRAP!!! I can make pork/veal/chicken scallopini in about 45 minutes and make Rachael Ray look as silly as Guy Fieri! See what I did there?
Another pair of great equalizers are the crock pot and pressure cooker. Very different appliances, both highly recommended for your kitchen arsenal which can result in very similar if not identical dishes. The crock pot is all day, the pressure cooker is “I forgot to put the meal in the crock pot this morning”. There are a million crock pot recipes available on the internet.
Here is an important tip: just because you are cooking in liquid does NOT mean you won’t overcook/dry out your meat. This goes for any braised dish. Just like our steaks and roasts, ALL pasture raised meat will cook faster than the recipe you just pulled off Epicurious.com tells you it will. You must adjust accordingly and start checking for doneness about 25% sooner. That said…you can throw a frozen chicken in the crockpot with a cup of white wine, salt and pepper, and sliced onions at 7:30am set on low. As soon as you walk in the door at 5:30, add in some mushrooms, carrots and potatoes. Dinner will be ready at 7- don’t forget to tip the waitstaff.
But let’s say you took out a bunch of lamb shanks the night before to toss in the crock pot before you leave to start your day. It’s about 3pm when that mid-afternoon hunger kicks in and you start thinking about dinner and HOLY CRAP!!! I forgot to put the shanks in the crock pot! Fear not, grasshopper…you listened to Uncle Adam and have a pressure cooker that will shrink that 8 hour cook time it takes to do Lamb shanks in the slow cooker to less than an hour. Here is the recipe….thank me later!
All in all, back to school is a great time of year. You all should be done with vacations and back to your regular shopping schedules, which allows me an extra hour or two of sleep a week. Routines can be comforting as long as they don’t involve an hour of yard time per day and weekly searches of your cell. And feeding your brood great quality and flavor doesn’t have to mean a full time job in your own kitchen. A little preparation and a few backup plans for when life gets in the way and your family will nominate you for best home cook in America. Be sure to thank me when you win. . .