One in an occasional series of stories about people who cook from the heart for the ones they love the most.
Whatever stress the week may have wrought, not even a hint of such can be found hanging around Rebecca Butler's kitchen late on a Sunday afternoon.
All that is present in this sunny space is a blend of laughter and contentment. Oh, and anticipation of a special supper with loved ones, bringing together an intriguing combination of food preferences.
The scene typifies the gathering that Butler and her husband, Craig Paynter, like to create at least once a month in their home a few blocks from Fort Worth's museums. With 9-year-old son Jagger and 5-month-old daughter Daisy in their midst, the couple invite family and friends to join in bringing the weekend to a celebratory end.
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Frequently, dinner guests are pals Sean and Kate McNallie and their kids, Lola, 6, and Sam, 3, all of whom might as well be family; the gathering feels particularly casual when this crew gets together. While the adults work food through preparation stages, kids run back and forth from the living room through the kitchen to the deck in back. The men roam between the backyard smoker and the kitchen. The women fiddle with the sparkling-wine cocktail of the evening until the mixture reaches perfection, before fixing the salad, side dish and dessert items.
The week-ending meal is glue for their busy lives, Butler says.
"Sunday supper lets us commune over a lovely meal with people that we care about. Everyone contributes, and it's a great time to catch up, reconnect," says Butler. "Nothing in life seems impossible when you are surrounded by loved ones over the fellowship of a great meal."
Butler and Paynter celebrate their second wedding anniversary this month, and the past two years have been packed with the complications that life doles out. Butler became the founding teacher at Karmany Yoga, a Fort Worth studio, during that time, while also helping care for her mom, whom she lost in February to ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Meanwhile, their new baby came along, and Paynter learned to juggle a new marriage and fatherhood with a fast-paced job involving travel, as he works as a field landman for Chesapeake Energy.
Meat vs. potatoes
Along with yoga -- Paynter met Butler at a class four years ago, soon after she moved home to Fort Worth from Austin -- good food keeps the family in balance. That bond, however, came on a somewhat serious learning curve for the pair -- Butler has been a vegetarian since her teenage years, and Paynter is a dedicated carnivore.
So, how to merge such divergent eating practices? Butler will eat fish, and Paynter compromised enough to find new respect for fresh, nutrient-rich foods.
"I eat a lot better now. Now I actually ask for salads," he says. "I feel it when I haven't been eating enough green things."
His lesson didn't come easily, either. Though he'd been eating well with Butler, he had a lapse when she traveled out of state on a monthlong yoga training trip. She returned home to find that Paynter had been partying a lot and eating junk -- and consequently had been afflicted with gout. Once he rejoined her super-healthful eating practice, he was cured.
That's not to say that he won't eat meat today: Paynter and Sean McNallie, who, like Paynter, also lived in Austin for many years before moving to Fort Worth, are members of a barbecue team in the capital. They've participated in competitions for 20 years and recently placed ninth with their brisket (in a field of 70 teams) at an Austin rodeo competition.
"I'll grill during the week and smoke on weekends," says Paynter. "I'll do fish for Rebecca, grill vegetables for both of us and smoke a big bone-in rib-eye or bacon-wrapped tenderloin, too."
During the week, Butler drinks a lot of juices she creates at home, blending kale with pineapple, apple, celery or assorted other vegetables, fruits and herbs, explaining that it works well for getting baby weight off and keeping energy levels high. And though her bookshelf bears its share of vegetarian cookbooks, and she makes "a mean vegetarian lasagna," her full meals for family and friends usually include salad, fish and a side.
Having kindred spirits in the McNallies helps, as the couple who introduced Butler and Paynter also love to eat all manner of good foods. The McNallies often grill, too.
"A personal fave is Sean's smoked chicken with a sauce he prepares from scratch. I serve it with grilled veggies or corn on the cob and a big garden salad," says Kate McNallie, who has been cooking since childhood and who loves to make Italian food, too, having spent a year living in Rome during college.
Both moms say that their kids are pretty good eaters, especially because they're offered a wide selection of fresh, healthful foods.
Kate McNallie echoes Butler's sentiments about sharing Sunday supper with friends.
"There is something about gathering together at a table laden with delicious, homemade food. We all relax more than we would at a restaurant. We share stories we might not share in public. We laugh louder. We can eat with our fingers and no one cares," she says.
On this particular evening, everyone uses forks and has a ball, going over the events of the week, sipping wine and digging into food made with love.
Each of these dishes is easy for anyone to make.
Asian on Bunting
This pinkish drink, named for a neighborhood street, is tart and just barely sweet, perfect for spring.
3 ounces chilled sparkling wine
1 ounce chilled ginger beer
1 ounce chilled sake
1 ounce chilled cranberry juice
Mandarin blood orange slice, for garnish
Combine wine, beer, sake and juice in a champagne flute. Garnish with orange slice.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 106 calories, trace fat, 16 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 2 percent of calories from fat.
Kate's strawberry shortcake
This dessert is Kate McNallie 's celebration of the bounty of strawberries this spring.
1 quart strawberries, hulled and quartered
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons plus 8 teaspoons sugar, divided
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter, cold and cubed
2/3 cup plus 1/4 cup half-and-half
Sweetened whipped cream
Fresh mint sprigs, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium mixing bowl, toss the strawberries with 1/4 cup sugar. Set aside.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse together flour, baking powder, salt and 3 tablespoons sugar. Pulse in cold butter cubes until a coarse meal is formed.
3. Turn flour mixture out into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in 2/3 cup half-and-half and gently mix it in with a rubber spatula or fork; be careful not to overmix the dough or the biscuits will be tough.
4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and fold it over itself a couple of times until it just holds together. Pat the dough out to 3/4-inch thickness and cut out 8 round 3-inch biscuits.
5. Transfer the biscuits to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Brush the tops of each biscuit with the remaining half-and-half and sprinkle each with 1 teaspoon sugar. Bake in a preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes or until the biscuits have risen and are a light golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before serving with a dollop of whipped cream, a heaping spoonful of strawberries, a sprig of mint and a sprinkle of sugar on top.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 333 calories, 15 grams fat, 46 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 41 milligrams cholesterol, 446 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 41 percent of calories from fat.
Mashed miso potatoes
These potatoes are made without butter, but you'll never miss it. They're rich and addictive, with an Asian twist.
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons coconut oil
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons instant miso soup (see note)
1 tablespoon liquid aminos (see note)
1. Boil potatoes in enough water to cover, 15 to 20 minutes or until tender. Drain water.
2. Mash potatoes in the pan with remaining ingredients until just smooth.
Notes: Instant miso soup mix is sold in the Asian foods aisle at the grocery store. The brand used here was Sushi Now!, and the flavor was Asian Curry. Liquid aminos, a soy alternative, is sold at Whole Foods, Central Market and health-food stores. The brand used here was Bragg.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 195 calories, 15 grams fat, 13 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 223 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 69 percent of calories from fat.
Light but lush, this salad can be thrown together at the last minute.
6 cups (loosely packed) arugula leaves
2 bok choy leaves, sliced
4 ounces wild mushroom mixture
8 green onions, mostly white portion, chopped
Half an avocado, chopped
Half a lemon
For the dressing:
1 to 2 tablespoons Korean sweet-spicy sauce (see note)
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons liquid aminos (see note)
1/4 to 1/3 cup olive oil
4 ounces wild mushroom mixture
1. Combine salad ingredients in bowl.
2. Combine all dressing ingredients in a large enough jar to accommodate everything. Shake well and drizzle over salad.
Notes: Korean sweet-spicy sauce is available in the Asian aisle at the grocery store; the brand used here was Annie Chun's Go-Chu-Jang. Liquid aminos, a soy alternative, is sold at Whole Foods, Central Market and health-food stores. The brand used here was Bragg.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 236 calories, 5 grams fat, 50 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, no cholesterol, 191 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber, 15 percent of calories from fat.
Smoked wasabi tuna
Paynter uses hickory wood chunks with a little applewood.
For the marinade:
1 tablespoon wasabi paste
1 tablespoon chile paste
2 tablespoons stone ground mustard
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups Nama Shoyu (soy sauce)
3 tablespoons minced white onion
2 minced serrano chiles, seeded
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon miso powder
For the fish:
2 pounds tuna fillet
1. Combine marinade ingredients in a large bowl, whisking well. Add tuna to the marinade, cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the smoker: Soak hickory chunks in water about 2 hours before cooking begins. About 45 minutes before you begin cooking, warm coals in the grill at 250 degrees and add wood chunks to the smoke box.
3. Remove tuna from marinade, reserving the liquid for basting. Place tuna in the grill's smoker section and cook for 45 minutes at 250 degrees. During smoking time, baste the tuna three times, about every 12 minutes. Serve tuna warm on a platter.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 262 calories, 10 grams fat, 5 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams protein, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 1,526 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 35 percent of calories from fat.