I have a term of endearment for my two sons: "the locusts."
They have the ability to absolutely decimate any food put in front of them. Wrappers, carcasses and crumbs are all that remain after five minutes. So when I recently talked with New Orleans chef John Besh about his new cookbook, My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking (Andrews McMeel, $35), we commiserated over keeping our children fed in a healthful way.
Besh (who recently was a judge on a Top Chef Texas episode set in Dallas) is a former Marine who has seven restaurants in and around New Orleans, as well as one in Texas, Lüke San Antonio. He was instrumental in keeping displaced residents and emergency workers fed after Hurricane Katrina. So he knows how to feed the masses.
Besh has four sons, from ages 7 to 15. Their crazy schedules, along with witnessing too many families eating fast food at sports practices, got Besh to thinking about the rarity of families cooking and eating together during the week.
I have a 16-year-old high school wrestler and a 19-year-old college freshman, so the holidays will be about keeping the pantry filled. My question is, how can I get "the locusts" fed and still keep my sanity? Besh's cookbook, which came out in November, has solutions.
"The genesis [of My Family Table] began three years ago when I made the mistake of questioning what [wife] Jenifer fed the boys," laments Besh. "In her recovering attorney-speak, she turned it around on me and asked me 'What was I going to do about it?'"
Besh says the "a-ha" moment came when Jenifer asked if he was making sure his family was eating as well as his customers. "My truest calling is that of husband and father. Secondary is that of chef."
He thought back to the lavish Sunday suppers that he enjoyed as a kid. The memories "made me happy," he says.
So Besh took his culinary knowledge and applied it to the household. His priorities are:
Keep the boys fed.
Entice people back in the kitchen.
Make it easy. Get the fast food out of their hands. "In our generation," Besh says, "french fries were a special occasion."
Try to eat together as much as possible. "If it's only once a week, like it is with my family, make sure you cook enough so that you can get more mileage out of the cooking all week long."
The chapters that speak to me about keeping my "locusts" fed are Sunday Suppers, School Nights, Dinner From a Cast Iron Pot and Breakfast With My Boys. There is much more than that in the book, such as the wonderful How To Cook a Fish chapter, but those four chapters address our shared priorities.
(As an aside, I think the chapter on How To Cook a Fish is genius. Besh lives near Lake Pontchartrain and spent a lot of his youth fishing. Nowadays, his sons do the same. Days lazing on the river, catching fish and cooking your dinner, well -- it's self-sufficiency at its best. The chapter also includes how to bone a fish, with photos to guide you.)
Keep the boys fed
Besh's son Brendan is a linebacker on his high school football team. Since he started working out twice a day, Besh says, Brendan's intake has quadrupled.
Likewise, my younger son is in the middle of wrestling season. He needs to eat right to keep up his strength and to keep his weight consistent. My son doesn't get home until 7 or 7:30 p.m., but he has a little window between end of school and practice and has to eat something then to sustain him.
Besh's sons eat lunch extraordinarily early, something like 10:30 a.m. So he and Jenifer make sure that their dinner is set for 4 or 4:30 p.m., before soccer practices. They are famished when they get home.
This was a true revelation for me: Feed them dinner early!
I love the Crock-Pot, and it works as a solution. My husband can eat before he goes to his job in the evening. I, too, have several nights a week away from home, and this has been my way to make sure whoever is home can eat when they want.
One hearty entree I love is the cauliflower macaroni and cheese. This is just the ticket for our famished sons. It comes together fast. Besh says there is one trick though: "Be sure to add the cheese to the sauce at the last minute and then immediately remove the pan from the heat. If you continue to cook the sauce after adding the cheese, the fats will separate from the proteins and the cheese will become gritty."
Besh suggests that while the kitchen is still a mess from Sunday meals, go ahead and make up some meaty ragout. Keep a jar of it fresh in the fridge or frozen. Then boil up some artisanal pasta (which costs a little more) and voilá: You've got dinner for Thursday night.
Back to home cooking
In the Sunday Suppers chapter, Besh puts forth the idea of cooking one day of the week, then incorporating the leftovers into recipes from the School Nights or Dinner From a Cast Iron Pot chapters the rest of the week.
I'm looking forward to trying the coq au vin recipe when my oldest gets home from college for winter break. We will have a little more time to spend in the kitchen, like we would on a Sunday.
The Breakfast With My Boys chapter features a recipe for stuffed French toast with the hazelnut spread Nutella. My 16-year-old has recently discovered this treat; in fact, I have caught him with the jar and a spoon in his room.
As a chef, Besh is rarely home from his restaurant at nights. So his time together with Luke, Jack, Andrew and Brendan is in the morning, at the breakfast table. Research shows that those who start the day by eating breakfast tend to do better in school, too.
I lamented to Besh about my inability to keep milk stocked in the refrigerator; Besh says his boys are crazy for satsuma orange juice. Satsumas are bright Japanese mandarin oranges. The juice is sweet and slightly sour. Like all other citrus fruits, a satsuma is an excellent source of vitamin C and is enriched with fiber and folate. Besh says they go through 3 or 4 gallons of fresh-squeezed juice a week.
Also, farm-raised fresh eggs are a cornerstone of Besh's breakfasts. Easy to scramble, cook sunny side up or, even better, whip into a frittata, the egg is a great solution to keeping kids fed.
Make it easy
Besh says the time to think about dinner is not at 6 p.m. It's the night before or the Sunday before. I have found that a roast chicken is one of the best and easiest ways to get your week started (see the herb-roasted chicken recipe in the book). You can cook the chicken, better yet two, and have a beautiful sit-down meal with your family. Then, take the extra chicken off the carcass and keep that on hand for heat-and-serve chili. Besh recommends braised veal brisket to go in the chili, but I've tried roast chicken with great success.
Also, those chicken carcasses are gold -- boiled with vegetables and sieved, you can freeze the stock in ice cube trays, then put the cubes in zippered plastic bags so you have chicken stock ready to go for soups, stews and rice dishes. That's the planning-ahead part.
Heat-and-serve chili is one of those dishes that tastes even better the next day or two. It's so easy to make because the meat is already roasted and the beans are already cooked. Just put the ingredients together and it is ready to serve.
Eating together more
According to research, when families dine together, they tend to eat more vegetables and fruits -- and fewer fried foods, soda and foods with trans fats. When younger kids eat dinner with their families, they are less likely to be overweight than other children. That tends to change in the teenage years, when they are less likely to eat at home.
Besh says he tries to make sure that his family eats together Sundays. They cook together, eat, play hard and create lasting memories. He also tries to have breakfast with them every day.
My family's schedule allows one evening together -- Thursday. And I try to do a big cooking session at least once a week.
My son will have friends over for dinner, and I so enjoy cooking for them because it is a good time to sit down and find out what is going on with them. And despite what teens may say, statistics indicate that they like family mealtimes.
My older son returns from college this week -- oh, joy! This time, I am prepared to feed him and his brother-locust.
Cauliflower mac and cheese
The best thing about this yummy dish is that it comes together so fast. There’s only one trick: Be sure to add the cheese to the sauce at the last minute and then immediately remove the pan from the heat. If you continue to cook the sauce after adding the cheese, the fats will separate from the proteins and the cheese will become gritty.
1 pound penne pasta
4 tablespoons butter
¼ cup flour
1 quart milk
1 pinch nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1/3 cup shredded Swiss cheese
¾ cup shredded white cheddar cheese
1 cup or so cooked cauliflower, (such as the olive oil-roasted cauliflower in the book)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the pasta for 12 minutes, uncovered, then drain in a colander.
2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for about a minute, then stir in the milk and bring to a boil. Keep stirring and when the white sauce is well mixed, reduce the heat to simmer. Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper.
3. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the ricotta cheese. Add the pasta and toss well, then stir in the Swiss cheese and half of the cheddar.
4. Scatter the cauliflower in an ovenproof dish and spoon the pasta and cheesy sauce on top. Smooth the top with a spatula and sprinkle on the remaining cheddar. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the cheese is nicely browned.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 446 calories, 17 grams fat, 52 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams protein, 56 milligrams cholesterol, 226 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 35 percent of calories from fat.
Stuffed French toast
Nutella is a chocolate hazelnut spread in a jar, created in Italy in the 1940s. When we were living in Europe, we became hooked on it. But the truth is, I’ll stuff French toast with anything, from peanut butter and honey to apricot preserves, and it’s always a hit.
1 13-ounce jar Nutella
16 slices good white bread (or 2 slices per person)
6 eggs, beaten
1 cup milk
½ cup sugar
¼ cup orange juice
4 tablespoons butter, melted
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 pinch salt
¼ cup canola oil
1. Spread 1 tablespoon of Nutella between 2 slices of bread, forming 8 sandwiches. Use the dull edge of a large water glass to cut one clean circle out of each sandwich, cutting off the crusts and sealing the sandwich.
2. Mix together the eggs, milk, sugar, orange juice, butter, vanilla and salt in a large, shallow bowl. Dip the sandwiches in the egg mixture until they are well covered. Do this in small batches, because you will cook the French toast immediately after each egg dip.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil on a griddle or in a large skillet over medium heat. Add half the sandwiches and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides. Repeat with the remaining oil and sandwiches. Serve immediately.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 599 calories, 32 grams fat, 68 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, 159 milligrams cholesterol, 446 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 47 percent of calories from fat.
Heat & serve chili
You can use pretty much any roast meat in this chili. Besides brisket, we especially like roast turkey or pork. The beans are interchangeable, too. Cooked lima beans, navy beans and/or cannellini beans will all work equally well; use what you have. What’s important is not to overcook the chili. The meat has been roasted and the beans are ready to go, so think of this as a simple heat-and-serve dish.
¼ cup olive oil
2 onions, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups cooked white beans
2 cups roughly chopped cooked meat, such as from braised veal brisket
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons ground chipotle pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 green onions, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place the jalapeño on a baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap. When the pepper has cooled, peel away the skin and cut the pepper in half lengthwise. Carefully scrape out the seeds and chop one half. Save the other half for another use.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, then add the celery and garlic and cook for 5 more minutes. Add the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer.
3. Add the chopped jalapeño, beans, meat, carrots, chipotle and cumin and return to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the chili is heated through. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Serve in bowls with green onions scattered on top.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 213 calories, 10 grams fat, 16 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 250 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 37 percent of calories from fat.
Recipes from "My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking," John Besh