A kitchen-counter supper.

Dear friends,

Despite my well-known evangelism regarding family suppers, especially those served on “properly set” tables, I thought you ought to know our household regularly shares informal meals around the kitchen island.

To wit, here’s a spread from earlier this week:

counter

There’s marinated, grilled chicken legs; deviled egg pasta salad; sauteed medley of mushrooms, spinach and yellow bell peppers; chocolate-banana cake; and a new dish of my own imagination I’m calling cauliflower panzanella.

Our kitchen island seats four — a bit of kismet since we are a family of the same number — so on nights where we don’t bother to set the table, we plop down around the island, sans linens and flowers, and dig in.

You know I’m unusually devoted to the rituals surrounding family meals. For me, the act of setting the table reflects the value I place on thoughtfully preparing and arranging our sustenance, which is also our best opportunity to connect and share with each other. Still, there’s usually no more than a couple of occasions each week where we gather around a dressed table, no matter how simple, so I also try to be thoughtful about our casual meals.

For me, that includes things like keeping the island clear (just because we’re eating in the kitchen doesn’t mean we have to do so amidst the prep mess); turning off the television (which I tend to watch while cooking) in order to nurture conversation; and maintaining a commitment to culinary variety.

Mr. Mom tends to believe 1 protein + 1 starch = a meal. Me? I like to see no fewer than three dishes, preferably four or five, on our menu. Some might see this as a conflict. I view it as a perfect example of the yin-yang alchemy of our marriage. When he cooks, he gets his way. When I cook, I get mine. As a result, we all get a little variety of both approaches and preparations.

In the end, there are no rules for family meals. But I like to think there are a few standards worth upholding. (Rules are imposed from an outside authority, whereas standards are embraced by choice. I think life could be made a whole lot better by fewer rules and more standards.) My standards include:

  1. Cooking a meal at home, no matter your definition of cooking. Don’t spend an ounce of energy on the argument between “from scratch” cooking and the “meals in a box” variety. Do what you enjoy and have time for, otherwise the whole point is lost in aggravation — and family meals are supposed to ease irritation.
  2. Sitting around a table or a counter together. Don’t be tempted to sit in the living room/den/television viewing area as it kills the opportunity for conversation and decompression. And by all means, don’t watch the news!
  3. Expressing interest in and gratitude for the food on your table and the person who prepared it. It’s just good manners and you might learn something along the way, as well as cultivate a greater understanding of nutrition.

Everything else — dishes and linens and flowers and special menus — is just gravy. And as much as I love me a good gravy, we all know it’s a condiment not an entree.

With gratitude {for the grace of family meals and all they bring},

Joan, who shouted hallelujah when she discovered panzanella because bread salad? Heck yes!

PS: For the curious among you, my cauliflower panzanella was nothing more than cauliflower florets toasted with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a hearty helping of minced garlic, then roasted in a 425 degree oven for 20 minutes, then tossed with day-old Italian bread cubes, sauteed in plenty of butter in a cast-iron skillet until brown and slightly crunchy. You can eat it warm, room temperature, or cold. I’ll eat buttery bread cubes and roasted cauliflower nearly any ol’ way you can serve it, including with my fingers out of a bowl while watching late-night television (not that I did that or anything).

Dine, people!

Dear friends,

I was watching the Food Network Saturday morning (a favorite activity) and had a nails-on-a-chalkboard experience.

A television cook, who shall go nameless because there’s no need to be unkind, finished preparing her meal and said this: Don’t bother setting the table. Just grab a napkin, maybe set up a TV tray, whatever.

Really? You just invested all that time and care to make meatloaf, baked mashed potatoes and sautéed string beans — all from scratch — and you’re willing to just grab a napkin?

How is it we can worship the food like never before but have abandoned the art of dining?

It made me sad. It made me wish I had a television show so I could proselytize:

Set the table! Dine, people!

I have long believed that family meal time is sacred. A home-cooked meal served on a lovely table in the company of loved ones will cure nearly all ills — nutritional, social, and spiritual.   Delicious food and inspiring tablescapes are the perfect combination for mealtime communions that create lasting memories.

My family dines together several times each week. Sunday is our elaborate meal. I typically cook and bake most of the day, and more times than not, my table is dressed with linens and flowers. During the week, our meals are much simpler — whatever Mr. Mom can whip up that’s tried and true on our list (spaghetti with scratch meat sauce, grilled pork chops with roast potatoes, stuffed green peppers, garden salad with grilled chicken, and sesame noodles are staples for us). But whether it’s at our dining table or our kitchen island, we always sit together. We always eat on real plates, even if we use paper napkins. And we often have dessert, either leftover from whatever I’ve baked on Sunday, or from our stash of store-bought cookies and ice cream.

Maybe grab-and-go meals work for some families, but supper for us is when we connect. When we really talk. When we remember what it means to be a family.

I’m kind of a nut about it, but if the number of kids who have gravitated to our home at mealtime over the years is any indication, I must not be too nutty — because we often seem to have a spare kid or three to feed.

And absolutely nothing makes me happier. A cook is most fulfilled when forks are raised by smiling diners.

With gratitude {for a mother and a grandmother who knew how to cook a proper supper and whose meals are the source of my fondest memories},

Joan, who hopes you’ll click here to head over to Domestic Dilettante for photos and recipes of her most recent Sunday Supper, which is so easy you’ll have plenty of time to set the table

If you haven’t yet watched Worst Cooks in America on the Food Network, you must. The shock, the frustration, the cursing . . . who hasn’t been there in the kitchen? On yesterday’s episode, one contestant kept yelling “My TooFoo is not melting! My TooFoo is not melting.” Because, you know, she thought the tofu in her Asian noodles needed to melt. If you need to feel instantly better about your culinary skills (or enjoy peeing your pants), tune into Food Network and watch the best non-scripted comedy to come along in years.