I love food.
Who doesn’t, right?
For me, though, food is about more than three square meals. Dinner time means family. There’s an unspoken open-door policy at our table. Welcome friends. Welcome hungry stragglers. Welcome neighbor kid who smells garlic and wants a meatball or two. Eating together means opening up a bottle of vino, and taking a moment out of the craziness of our lives to be grateful.
Growing up, my mother made dinner time a priority. She planned meals around everyone’s schedules, making sure that we broke bread together. There were baseball games and high school musical practices to compete with, but family meals came first. My mother always made the table an attractive place to be too, with homemade food that suited the seasons and quenched our cravings. Chili and soups in the fall. Roasts in the winter. Pasta on Sundays, no matter what time of year it was. And always a salad – with the absolute best homemade dressing. My friends used to pop in at dinner just for my mom’s salad. Weird, but true.
My grandparents lived with us, so oftentimes, Nana cooked with Mom. Some of our favorite days were the ones when Nana broke into the mood to make homemade gnocchi or even just sauce. My brother and I would come through the front door from school, begging for a piece of sauce bread before we even said hello. And Nana never disappointed. She’d remove the lid from her signature silver sauce-pot and ladle warm, thick goodness over a slice of soft bread.
Best. After school snack. Ever.
I’ll admit it, cooking comes easy to me now. Growing up as a first-generation Italian probably has something to do with that. For Italians, food is life, and I’m no exception to that rule. For four years, I ran a successful in-home catering business. I cooked for big wedding celebrations as well as small get-togethers, like neighborhood jewelry parties. I made simple and delicious food for people who just didn’t have the time, and they were so thankful. For me, planning meals is fun. I have to admit – I don’t always enjoy preparing them at my kitchen island, amidst a crew of whiners who don’t want to do their math homework, but that’s part of my job description. So, I deal. We all do.
When my husband complains about the menu or his daily dish-duty, I threaten to stop cooking. He always laughs and calls my bluff. He knows that, for me, cooking for my family and even for myself is an outlet, something that inspires me. Even in this fast-paced society, where a protein shake and a half-caff soy latte can suffice for lunch for most of my friends, you’ll find me in my kitchen around noon, tossing a salad with crunchy romaine, chick peas, tomatoes, onions and some chicken from last night’s dinner. I dress it with my mom’s oil and vinegar magic, and I have a healthy lunch to enjoy while I answer e-mails or brainstorm the next chapter of whatever I’m working on.
Maybe it’s just that I’m the mom now, but these days it seems more and more difficult to keep families together at the dinner table. Activities seem more demanding. Homework seems endless. Kids are distracted by technology, their heads buried in Instagram and Twitter accounts, their communication more active in their Minecraft pseudo-worlds than in the real one. Still, this is where we are. This is what we have to compete with. So, we up the ante.
No more hamburger helper, people. There’s a better way to lure your kids to the dinner table. And, it’s not as hard as you think it is. I’m here to help.
I’m going to share some of my easy and sought-after “recipes” here on the blog. I use quotes, because these are just easy things that my mom and Nanas used to make for my family. No one ever wrote recipes for them until I started my catering business and had to compile them for my employees. These dinners are so simple to throw together on a school night when you have to get the kids to soccer and piano practice and then study for a science test. I’ll post these once a week for you, and I’ll include a vegetable, a starch, and a protein – just like my mom always did!
For my first food post, I am going to share the ever-famous Jackie’s salad dressing. For all of you who have eaten this a zillion times and gone gaga over my salad, you will laugh at how easy it is! I told you so. I’m also going to share a family and friend favorite, my go-to helping hands meal. I love to make my mom’s Chicken Verona, a.k.a. lemon chicken, and take it to a friend who is under the weather and needs a meal delivery. This was my number one seller when I ran Chez Vous, my in-home catering business, and several customers asked me for the recipe. I always gave it to them. Last, I’ll post a recipe for my award-winning tomato casserole. When I say award-winning, I mean this recipe took the Catalpa Place block party first prize for the main dish category. Serious business, y’all. Honestly, though, everyone loves our tomato casserole. And, if you hate the word casserole, just call it provincial tomato bake. That’s what I called it on the Chez Vous menu. Sounds prettier.
These are three things that are easy to make. Your kids will eat them, and they don’t require crazy ingredients that you have to buy at the ethnic food or gourmet store. Have fun with these, and let me know how they go over at your table. Now, mangia!
8-10 boneless chicken breasts
1C Italian breadcrumbs
1C Parmesan cheese
1 stick of butter
Juice of 1 lemon
1 T garlic powder
Toss breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Coat chicken breasts in parmesan and breadcrumb mixture and lay in a baking pan.
In a microwavable bowl or Pyrex glass measuring cup, place the butter, the lemon juice and the garlic powder. Melt together in the microwave for 2 minutes then pour over the chicken.
Bake at 375 for 45 minutes.
2 C Croutons – any flavor works
3 large tomatoes or 4 medium sized ones, sliced thickly into rounds
1 bag shredded mozzarella or Italian blend cheese
1 1/4 C oily Italian dressing (my favorite is Ken’s Steakhouse Caesar or a balsamic vinaigrette)
Cover bottom of 8x11 casserole dish with croutons
Top croutons with a layer of sliced tomatoes
Top with a layer of cheese
Add another layer of tomatoes
Add another layer of cheese
Drizzle dressing all over the top
Bake at 350 for 40 min. or until cheese is golden brown.
1 head of Romaine or leaf lettuce
Some Tomatoes – grape or sliced
1 sliced Onion
¼ can chick peas
½ C Olive oil
¼ C Red wine or balsamic vinegar
1 tsp Salt
3/4 tsp Pepper
3/4 tsp Garlic powder
Directions – Place the veggies in a bowl. Atop the salad, sprinkle the spices. Add the oil first then the vinegar. Toss. Don’t mix the dressing first in a jar. For whatever reason, it makes it taste different. Still good, but different!
NOTE – please add anything you like to this salad! Cheeses, proteins, nuts, berries. I love grilling veggies in summer when I have more time and tossing them into the salad with gorgonzola cheese or adding some store-bought rotisserie chicken and croutons. Even a fried egg is awesome on a salad. Try it. You’ll be surprised!