A few days before my 24th birthday, I moved into my first real apartment. It had beige carpet everywhere, even on the small balcony that looked out over a parking lot. It was in that apartment that I learned how to cook for myself. (It was also there that, after shaving my boyfriend's head on the balcony, I learned another important lesson of adulthood: It's hard to remove hair from a deep-pile carpet.)
I'd "borrowed" some cookbooks from my parents — Julia Child's The Way to Cook, a couple of Chez Panisse titles — and in that apartment, Julia and Alice taught me how to cook. I made eggs in all styles, ratatouille, poached fish, and lentil salad. I tried pesto, white beans, and pasta with Brussels sprouts. I learned to cook simply and classically, relying mostly on salt, pepper, olive oil, and garlic for flavor.
It's been a long time since I left that apartment. Ten years ago, I got married. Five years ago, we had a little girl named June. A year ago, he and I separated, and we divorced this spring. It's been hard. But we've worked out a joint custody plan, a 50/50 split, that suits us. I'm back to living alone, at least some of the time. I have a new partner, and we go out a decent amount. But when June is home, I always cook for us, and we eat together.
Cooking requires planning, and it requires even more when you're a single parent. But I'm not disciplined enough to chart out a week's worth of meals in advance. Instead, I've become a believer in the well-stocked pantry, for reasons of both pleasure and survival. I've got to be able to cook quickly and with only half my brain, because there's no one around to entertain June while I'm in the kitchen — no one except her toys or the iPad, the latter for evenings when she's turned into pile of witchy, toxic goo.
I've become a believer in the well-stocked pantry, for reasons of both pleasure and survival.
By "a well-stocked pantry," I mean dry goods and refrigerated ones. I mean dried pasta in a couple of shapes, canned beans, canned tomatoes, peanut butter (Jif Natural FTW!), olive oil, canned tuna, panko, sandwich bread, and cinnamon sugar. I also mean long-keeping perishables like eggs, butter, peanut oil, Parmesan, sharp cheddar, flour, flour tortillas, plain yogurt, milk, store-bought pesto, salami, bouillon, mayonnaise, apples, frozen edamame, frozen peas, a pack of chicken cutlets, cucumbers, and carrots. That's my basic grocery list and the foundation of 95 percent of our meals. I throw in other fruits and vegetables in season, but they're icing.
My Franco-Italian mish-mash cooking style turns out to be made for pantry dinners: pastas, stewy beans, all manner of vegetables and eggs. Scrambled eggs and salad make a fine, even elegant(!), dinner for 5-year-olds and 39-year-olds. Nothing to apologize for. Last night I made tuna salad with mayo, buttered corn on the cob, and some halved-and-olive-oiled cherry tomatoes (although June won't touch them; more for me!). The night before, it was panko-breaded chicken cutlets, buttery long-cooked peas, and more corn on the cob. Tonight it will be Charlie Brigham soup and carrot sticks dunked in vinaigrette, or creamy beans with a seven-minute egg.
A well-stocked pantry also helps me keep costs down because there's little emergency takeout and few packaged foods. But here's the real bonus, the one I couldn't have planned: Because June knows what's always in the pantry, she often suggests the night's dinner menu herself. Maybe, before long, she'll be cooking it too? We'll see about that.
Welcome to Dinner with Kids
This series explores the shifting dynamics of the dinner table when kids are involved. We asked families of all shapes and sizes for their tips for mealtime success. You'll learn a few things, laugh a whole lot, and find that when kids are involved, dinnertime is always a little more eventful.