Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A few thoughts about the dinner hour (and a recipe for ginger pork meatballs and coconut rice)

I used to ride the train to commute to downtown LA. At the end of the day, to return to Union Station, I would first catch the metro from Pershing Square. In my experience, anytime after 3:30pm, the metro would be packed with fellow commuters and when the doors would open, a river of us would spill out, flooding the metro platform and the staircases to the train connections. As we dutifully marched, pounding the stairs, the steady rhythm of footfalls seemed to reverberate "Get-Home-Get-Home-Get-Home". I liked, for that brief moment, feeling connected to the strangers around me, all of us sharing a common goal.

When I go to the grocery store during the post-work pre-dinner rush, I get a similar feeling. It's a frenzy as everyone has stopped in to snag whatever is needed to transition from work/school/after school activity to dinner table. No matter our backgrounds and circumstances, we all are engaged with a similar focus: we need to feed ourselves, to feed our families.

I think the weekday dinner presents a particular kind of meal challenge. For the most part, we are fine eating the same breakfast for weeks on end. If you're like me, you actually love the consistency of a breakfast routine. For lunch, a little more variety is appreciated, but no one expects a show: leftovers, lunchables, PB&J, its all acceptable. Then there's dinner- at the end of a day in which we're exhausted and rushed, it taunts us with expectations- to be delicious, to be homemade, to be interesting, to be healthy, to be filling, to be not too inexpensive, to be on-time, etc.

Since moving, I have embraced the dinner hour in a new way. At first it was exciting- I have time to cook! But after two weeks, I realized I was bored with my old standbys and that my weeknight meals had previously relied on eating out and Trader Joes solutions more than I thought. I started to wonder- what do other people eat for dinner? How are other people pulling this off? What can I make that won't put me in the kitchen for three hours? I love cooking with a crockpot, but too many meals in a row and they all start to take on the same texture.

I have learned that when I feel stuck it is an opportunity to embrace my curiosity and love of learning. If I don't know something, I should just learn it. So, over the last several weeks I've made a conscious effort to learn more about making dinner. I thought I would share a few of the resources I have found helpful and one new recipe that I absolutely love.

I would also like to learn from you: what are your favorite weeknight dinner meals? What is your menu planning strategy? What short-cuts do you find helpful? I'd welcome a conversation around the Dinner Hour.

I'd like our conversation to strike the balance of tone between "it's all so easy" and "ugh, cooking is a drag." I suspect, most days, we vacillate somewhere in-between. While I clearly love the internet and food blogging, I worry about a down-side to all the pictures of beautiful food out there. Does it cause us to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves? Recently, I read this article that said Americans are cooking less and less. It really bummed me out:

"...suggests that our fondness for Food TV has inspired us to watch more Food TV, and to want to eat more, but hasn’t increased our desire to cook. In part, Food TV has raised our standards to discouragingly high levels: How many of us really feel confident in our cooking skills after watching Iron Chef?"

I am encouraging myself to engage in daily cooking and setting aside the need, or pressure, to do it perfectly.

Here are some dinner time resources I have found helpful and inspiring lately:

"Dinner: Changing the Game" by Melissa Clark

  • Hands down, the book I am cooking out of most often these days. I borrowed a copy from the local library and have extended my check-out three times. I share one of the recipes below. The big aha for me is how many of the recipes use the broiler to cook dinner. Fast cooking time and hands-off? I'm in. (The book is due back this week at the library and I've been snapping pics with my phone of recipes I still want to try!)
  • Favorite recipes: Vietnamese ginger chicken, ginger pork meatballs (see recipe below), cumin chicken meatballs, fusilli and roasted cauliflower with capers.

"Small Victories" by Julia Turshen

  • The best compliment I can give this book is that it stays on my kitchen counter because I consult it so frequently. Not only are the recipes great but I have picked up tips and techniques  which make me feel smarter and more confident in the kitchen. 
  • Favorite recipes: Julia's Caesar, roasted radishes with kalamata dressing, roasted red cabbage, pickled red onions, "seven things to do with a can of chickpeas", raspberry jam buns with creme fraiche frosting.

"Mad Hungry" by Lucinda Scala Quinn

  • Quote I love: "Sometimes a home cook's challenge isn't just to make homemade food to also make do with what you have on hand." 
  • Favorite recipes: chicken enchiladas salsa verde, spicy indian chickpeas, cucumber yogurt salad 

"Dinner: a Love Story" by Jenny Rosenstrach

  • Published in 2012, I feel like this book sort of kicked off the latest wave of practical cookbooks. It is an ode to the dinner hour, with lots of practical wisdom and recipes included. 
  • Favorite recipes: Confession- I have not yet cooked anything out of this book but I do find it very inspiring to read. I think this totally still counts. 
"Slow Cook Modern" by Liana Krisoff 

  • This book was just released and so I have not yet had a chance to browse it. The recipes are for crockpots and I own another book by Liana Krisoff and really love it. This is at the top of my Christmas Wishlist.

I loved novelist Rumaan Alam's recent piece in epicurious about cooking for his family. I'm particularly inspired by how he saves up veggie scraps to freeze for later use in stocks. So clever!

On Instagram, I get inspiration from:
  • In her instagram stories, Mad Hungry author Lucinda Scala Quinn's shares clips of making family dinners and it's all straightforward and unpretentious. I learn just by watching her work.
  • Sarah Carey is the editorial director at Martha Stewart Living and most mornings preps her family's dinner before she leaves for work. On her ig feed she posts a picture and notes about how she puts it together. Again, it's unpretentious and she also shares good ideas for using up leftovers.
  • Deb Perelman with Smitten Kitchen is always inspiring and lately she's started using an instant pot. I'm looking forward to learning from her. (Also, her new cookbook looks like it may also be a good resource for weeknight cooking.)
Finally, I enjoyed this piece in Bon Appetit from The Cut editor Stella Bugbee about how she fits in meal prep time to her day. It was like a little light bulb went off in my brain: oh, just like how I prep for parties in advance, I can actually do prep work within each day to get a jump start on dinner.

ginger pork meatballs with cilantro and fish sauce and coconut rice
from "Dinner: Changing the Game" by Melissa Clark

This dinner was crazy good. It has all the fun stuff going on with a balance of salty, sweet, sour, crunchy, cream and spicy. I served it with a simple side of sliced radishes but you're welcome to put more effort into it. (I think the roasted green beans would do nicely.) My husband and I easily ate through a sheet pan of the meatballs. Next time I make them, I am for sure doubling the recipe and if you're serving more than two people, I'd recommend the same. My favorite part is how easy it is to broil the meatballs.

1 pound ground pork
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1/4 cup finely chopped scallions, white and greens parts
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped (if you're not a fan of heat, I think you could leave out)
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, grated on a microplane or minced
finely grated zest of 1 lime
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce (If you don't have this on-hand, I think it's okay to leave it out)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

dipping sauce
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sriracha or other hot sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon light brown sugar

1) In a large bowl, combine the pork, cilantro, scallions, chile, ginger, garlic, lime zest and juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, and salt. I find it's helpful to use my hands to gently mix it all together and have a small box of food-safe plastic gloves under my kitchen sink for this purpose. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls and arrange in a single layer (not touching) on rimmed baking sheets. At this point, the author notes you can also cover the meatballs well and refrigerate up to overnight.

2) Set the oven rack 4 inches from the broiler and heat the broiler. I used the high setting. Broil the meatballs and use tongs to turn them so they are golden all over and cooked through. The original authors notes said this took 8 to 10 minutes, but it took me more like 12.

3) While the meatballs are broiling, whisk together the dipping sauce ingredients in a separate bowl and set aside.

Coconut Rice 

This is embarrassingly easy to make (just subbing in coconut milk for water) but the payoff is big. Creamy rice is the perfect accompaniment to the salty spicy meatballs but also very good as a side to other dishes. The original recipe doesn't call for adding the toasted coconut but I love the extra crunch and sweetness.

1 13.5 ounce can coconut milk
1 cup white rice, either short or long-grain, rinsed very well
pinch of kosher salt
1/2 cup flake or shredded sweetened coconut

1) Empty the can of coconut milk into a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. If it does not read as measuring 1 7/8 cup, add enough water to equal to there.

2) In a medium sized pot with a good fitting lid, add the coconut milk, rice and salt. With the lid off, bring the mixture to a boil but then cover the pot and reduce heat to a low simmer. Cook for around 17 minutes.

3) Once the 17 minutes are up, remove the pot from the heat and place a super clean dish towel between the rim of the pot and the lid. Let the pot stand like this for 10 minutes to steam.

3) While the rice is cooking, toast coconut: place coconut in a large dry skillet over medium heat. Do not step away from the stove- it goes from zero toastiness to burnt very quickly. Stir the coconut so that it toasts evenly and remove from heat when the flakes are golden brown. Set aside to cool (and valiantly attempt not to snack on it).

4) Alongside the broiled meatballs, serve scoops of the coconut rice with a topping of toasted coconut.

If you should find yourself with extra toasted coconut, along with some shavings of dark chocolate, it makes a lovely sweet snack to top good vanilla ice cream.


  1. I love this post! My life is definitely easier when I get a head start on dinner earlier in the day. I tried a new revile last week and it was so easy and good; Turkey Chili Taco Soup by Skinnytaste. Mine came out as more of a stew than a soup. I will be making it again soon!

    1. That soup sounds so good! Perfect for fall weather too :) I'll definitely check it out.