Eat Two Things

Supper, or dinner — no matter how many people are in your family, or how elegant or plain the fare, the evening meal is important in the life of your family.

Sociologists have long told us that. We get to converse with those we love most about our days and share laughter. Families bond over meals. The modern family that doesn’t sit down together for dinner loses out on an eating-together-relationship that can’t be replaced by other activities.

Yet how do we make time for cooking dinner when we work and get home tired and unorganized; or have to pick up the kids and take them to practice; or have evening meetings, classes, or homework; or…fill in the blank here.

Maybe our standards are just too high… Where is it written and how did it come to be that a good dinner includes salad, meat, potatoes, another vegetable, bread, and dessert? Restaurants who are trying to make money? Oh yes, throw in an appetizer there too. Few of us cook meals like that at home for family. And we shouldn’t. It’s wasteful; it’s too much food; and we’re all too fat anyway…But that’s the ideal, isn’t it? Little feasts as everyday dinners. More is better.

Lately I’ve been reading about the Rule of St. Benedict — medieval rules for monastery life. Not because I want to become a monk and not because I believe rules are inherently good for us, but because I’m interested in simplicity. I’ve been trying to simplify my life for at least five years now, and I’ve only partially succeeded. One of the intriguing rules of simplicity from the Benedictines is Eat Two Things. Bread and soup. Soup and salad. Rice and vegetables. Oatmeal and fruit. Cheese and fruit. Eggs and vegetable. Rice and beans. They are lovely duos, aren’t they? (Surely salad and dessert fits in here somewhere too?)

This intrigued me because I had just been considering the fact that when I made three things for dinner, I felt that I could call it a Nice Dinner. But just two? I was usually mildly guilty — as if I could have done better. Not that we were still hungry. We weren’t. But call it what you like — American society, Western food habits, Restaurant-itis, Foodie culture — two dishes didn’t look like a real meal to me. My go-to thoughts were not of gratitude, but guilt — that I didn’t make that salad, or those brownies, or the extra vegetable. And can I just say that we don’t usually go hungry at the cottage?

So for the rest of May, we will be trying this for our dinners. Two things. For the sake of intentional eating. Simplicity. Health. Gratitude.

*except for Saturday evening when we are having company for dinner and yes, we’re having appetizers, bread, salad, steaks, mushrooms, potatoes, and two desserts. Eight things. For hospitality’s sake…

**just in case you are interested, here are the appropriate words about food from the Rule: (notice the suggestion of vegetarianism for all but the weak and sick…and that indigestion is caused by excess…)
Making allowance for the infirmities of different persons, we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient at all meals; so that he who perchance cannot eat of one, may make his meal of the other. Let two kinds of cooked food, therefore, be sufficient for all the brethren. And if there be fruit or fresh vegetables, a third may be added….
If, however, the work hath been especially hard, it is left to the discretion and power of the Abbot to add something, if he think fit, barring above all things every excess, that a monk be not overtaken by indigestion. For nothing is so contrary to Christians as excess, as our Lord saith: “See that your hearts be not overcharged with surfeiting” (Lk 21:34).
Let the same quantity of food, however, not be served out to young children but less than to older ones, observing measure in all things.
But let all except the very weak and the sick abstain altogether from eating the flesh of four-footed animals.

the lazy person’s guide to growing spinach

Plant seed in the early days of lovely September
when you need a break from canning tomatoes.

Pinch off baby leaves in October, November, December
Stir them with lemon in buttered potatoes.

Mulch with straw and hope for a mild winter.

I have tons of favorite spinach recipes. I was the kid in elementary school who took everyone’s spinach. Remember in 3rd grade when you had to clean your plate and Mrs. Gray checked every tray to make sure it was empty of food? Hmm…. that might be proof that I’m old….

I would rather eat spanakopita than brownies.

I’m a sucker for any meal that ends in Florentine.

When forced to buy greens, whether for cooking or salads, I always choose spinach, because, raw or cooked, chopped or whole, in eggs, on sandwiches, in dips, or just sautéed with onions or mushrooms… It’s always delicious.

But the curly Bloomsdale spinach that you can only get these days by growing your own is far superior to grocery store flat-leaved spinach.

Tonight we are just having it sautéed in olive oil and drizzled with lemon saba and salt and pepper. Simplicity at its finest.

But since you already know how to sauté spinach, I will give you one of my favorite easy recipes to take along somewhere. A potluck, a mom who just had a baby, or an easy meal for everyday — company or not. The next time I make it I’ll be sure to come back and post some pictures; in the meantime you’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s one of the best most hassle-free dinners you can make. Here’s what you need:

  • Spinach
  • Chicken, boneless (I cut boneless breasts in half, thighs I leave whole)
  • some tomatoes (The real recipe calls for sliced Romas, but I have halved cherry tomatoes, sliced regular tomatoes, and even reconstituted and chopped dried tomatoes)
  • your favorite kind of vinaigrette or Italian dressing — not Ranch!
  • parmesan cheese

Fill a 9×13 baking dish with spinach (one bag usually works).

Place chicken pieces on top of spinach. Place tomato slices on top of chicken. Pour some vinaigrette over the whole thing. (The original recipe called for a bottle of dressing, but I never use that much. Just make sure the chicken is nicely slathered  with the vinaigrette.) Sprinkle grated fresh parmesan cheese over all. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 375 until the chicken is done. Uncover it for the last 5 minutes to brown up the cheese a bit. Depending on the size of the chicken cooking times vary — smaller pieces take less time to cook. (Mine usually takes 30-40 minutes, but I always use a meat thermometer to be sure.)

While the chicken is baking, make some rice or cook some pasta or egg noodles because it makes its own lovely sauce that is yummy over rice.

And just in case you get the wrong opinion from this post, I am not a master gardener. I have done Absolutely Nothing in the garden yet this spring, except pick some kale and pick some spinach, and throw in some radish seeds on an 80 degree day in February… Potatoes? Not planted. Onions? Still in bags. Greens? Still in the seed packets. Partly I can blame the rainy weather: we still have a small pond where the onions are supposed to grow. But I got my bales of mulch today, and I’m ready. As soon as it stops raining…

 

Would you like burnt toast with that?

I’m cooking this week for a crowd of high school kids at the Foley Center, the headquarters for the Christian Appalachian Project, in Martin, Kentucky. Really I’m just serving and taking directions from the real cooks who are running the kitchen, and that’s just fine with me. I’m not ready to be in charge of making breakfasts, lunch, and dinner for 60 people, whether they be preschoolers, high-schoolers, or out-of-schoolers.

Yesterday I cooked the pasta; this morning I baked the biscuits, helped with the making of egg casseroles (cracked and beat 9 dozen eggs), and baked a poke cake using ingredients I wouldn’t be caught dead having in my own kitchen. But hey, I’m probably going to try some of it because a little bit of something bad once in awhile isn’t going to kill me.

Okay, so, I try to eat healthy: Buy organic, grow a lot of our own food, and scrutinize ingredients on food boxes at the grocery store. But I’m not a purist. In fact, as I’m writing this post I have a handful of gummy worms by the computer; they were sitting out on the counter in a giant bag, free for anyone. And they taste fun. But this is not going to be a food rant post.

Last night we were baking the garlic toast and getting last minute instructions on how to serve the food. The first batch of twenty-eight pieces of bread got a little, er, dark while we were talking. We had set the timer, but the convection oven cooked them faster than expected. We put them on the bottom of the server, piled the perfectly cooked pieces on top, and hoped we wouldn’t get down to those bottom well done pieces of bread.

But we did. The lady who was slopping food on plates with me jokingly began asking all the kids if they wanted the burnt toast. Of course, no one took any. So I started giving them a choice between dark or light. Suddenly we got some takers. When we called them regular or crunchy, we got more takers.

Now this was not a scientific experiment, but just a lovely lesson on how important words are.

eat your words

Because those burnt words might taste bad going down… but they taste worse when someone throws them back at you.