Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


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Spring-Break Vegetable-Beef Soup

March is a lovely month to be born, which may be why so many of the people I love best in the world chose to make their terrestrial debuts just about the time when winter begins to fray around the edges. My youngest child, my mom, and my husband share birth dates within 9 days of one another, in the middle of March.  If that has some great cosmic meaning, I don’t know what it is, but it feels significant, don’t you think?

Last week, my little guy turned 4. This week, my big guy turned 38, but there’s no need to fret. Although his chronological age keeps inching steadily upward at a pace conveniently synchronized to my own (even if I did get just the tiniest head start!), he simply refuses to get any older. And I don’t want to complain, but it’s actually kind of annoying. I was cooking away one warm day this past week, and I found myself watching him out the kitchen window as he engaged in his regular workout on the enormous cedar structure he built for his outdoor workouts and the kids’ acrobatic hijinks.

This is what I saw:

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He’s probably going to require me to take this down as soon as he sees it, so get a good look now.

From almost any perspective, that’s not a bad view for a girl to have while she’s fixing dinner for her family. And yet, I couldn’t help wishing he would just gain a few ounces or go a little slack somewhere. I mean, for heaven’s sake, it’s too much pressure, needing to continue looking like someone he might plausibly have married of his own accord not so very many years ago. Any time I say this to him, he points out that he’s graying, and I’m not and insists I’m being too hard on myself. But, really, how many 39-year-old women can keep up with a man who performs chin-ups by the hundreds in pike position, for crying out loud? He’d probably want me to tell you that he works out for all of 20 minutes every other day and almost never uses any piece of equipment beyond “Cedarhenge,” so that you don’t think he’s an insufferable, self-absorbed gym rat. So, there: I’ve told you. He works out in the amount of time that it takes me to fold a load of clothes, and he pretty much always plays with the kids while he’s doing it. But that’s part of the problem, to tell you the truth. When you’re a woman working really hard to hold onto some semblance of her girlish figure, looking out the kitchen window to see your husband engaged so casually in monumental feats of fitness can really only make you feel a little inadequate…and very, very lucky.

So, with that (mock) rant out of the way, let me tell you about what my hunky husband (now, when I call him that, you’ll know why!) requested for his birthday dinner. As I’ve mentioned, the man loves soup, and this one is one of his favorites. Braised and shredded beef makes it taste rich and tiny bit special (given how infrequently we eat beef), and the vegetables simmered in flavorful, tomatoey broth render unnecessary his usual sense of guilty indulgence. This soup is quite traditional, but I give it a little bit of a pick-me-up by stirring in some lemony quinoa in the final minutes. I realize neither lemon nor quinoa shout “manly man,” but did you see that photo? He’s not the sort who shaves his chest, and he just doesn’t care about that sort of thing. He loves lemon and quinoa…and cedar…and me. 🙂

The day that I made this soup happened to be perfectly suited for a nice, hearty vegetable soup: warm in the sun but cold in the wind, jacket weather, sandbox weather, playing-ball-in-the-street weather. Just in case you’re more interested in my family than in what we’re eating (I’m looking at you, Mom!), here’s what my other boys were up to:

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My daughter was too busy obsessing over her first loose tooth (which was actually showing its sharply severed roots) to go out and join in the craziness. Look away if you’re squeamish:

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This photo is for the sake of posterity. It has nothing to do with the soup! She kept it intact for another 24 hours after that and then, within a few days, promptly loosened and pulled the lower incisor on the same side.

By the end of the day, the boys were starving, sandy, and sweaty, and she was terrified to bite into anything, so their daddy’s birthday vegetable soup hit the spot for all involved. (OK, one of our number refused to eat anything except the beef in the soup, but I’ve recently covered that.)

If it’s a blustery spring day at your house or if one of your kiddos is sporting a spectacularly loose tooth or if your husband steadfastly refuses to age…or if you just need a traditional dish for your weekly dinner plans, give this one a try! (Oh, and notice the complete lack of canned vegetables in the soup. I hate it when homemade vegetable soups taste canned instead of homemade, don’t you?)

Vegetable-Beef Soup

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1 tablespoon olive oil

1+ pounds of country-style boneless beef ribs

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced through a press

4 cups beef broth

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1 14.5-oz. can tomatoes (I used tomatoes with basil & oregano because I always think more flavor is better…and because it’s what I had in the pantry)

1/2 head green cabbage, sliced into thin shreds

1 cup skinny green beans, fresh or frozen, cut into halves

1 cup quinoa

2-3 tablespoons lemon juice (1 medium lemon’s worth)

salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat your olive oil over high heat in a large soup pot. Add the beef and brown it on all sides (about 3-4 minutes/side).

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Then remove from the pan and allow it to rest on a plate.

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2. Reduce the heat to medium and add your chopped onions and carrots and minced garlic. Cook until barely tender.

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3. Add beef broth, can of tomatoes (with juice), Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings. Return the beef to the pan as well, bring to a simmer, and then simmer the heck out of it. The longer you can cook it, the more tender the meat will become. I prepared it up to this point before lunch and left it cooking on the stovetop all day long.

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4. About half an hour before serving, add the cabbage and green beans. Keep simmering!

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5. In a small saucepan, bring a scant 2 cups of lightly salted water to a boil. Add 1 cup of quinoa and simmer for about 15 minutes. When the water has been fully absorbed, add the freshly squeezed lemon juice, stir, and allow it to stand for another five minutes or so.

6. Add the quinoa to the soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve piping hot.

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The Easiest Macaroni-and-Cheese

In honor of my baby boy’s fourth birthday, I have a confession. (Prepare to be shocked and horrified.)

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My youngest child does not eat vegetables. At all. Ever. Even writing those words, I droop a little. I have failed.

When I was quite new to motherhood, I noted with disapproval a spate of new cookbooks touting the simplicity and practicality of mixing pureed vegetables into every dish you prepared. Prune puree smuggled into the pot roast, creamed cauliflower sneaked into the macaroni, smashed spinach stowed away in the spaghetti sauce. The theory was this:all you need to do is cook the vegetables to death and then puree them into oblivion and, voila, your kids won’t even notice they’re there! Now what kind of magic trick is that? The logical outcome of such a system is obviously that you would raise a whole set of humans who believed they hated vegetables, adults who had never experienced the wonder of a perfectly steamed summer green bean or a tender-crisp roasted brussels sprout. Worse yet, they would never have even seen those wonders acknowledged! What an appalling idea. I rejected the theory outright, feeling certain that if you feed your kids vegetables they can see and taste from the very beginning of their lives, their appreciation for those flavors will no doubt develop as they age, and by the time they reach adulthood, you’ll be sending out into the world a set of robust persons with straight white teeth and a taste for all things healthful. Oh, yes. That is obviously true.

And yet…

My youngest child has passed his first four years in a household that is mostly vegetarian, and I’ve steadfastly refused to prepare him alternative fare–no chicken fingers and frozen french fries for him when the rest of us are eating lentil soup!–and the result of this foolproof system has thus far been that he survives many days on bread, butter, and Craisins. His older siblings tell him that “big kids like vegetables,” and he says, “But I don’t!”

Last week, I told him he couldn’t have dessert unless he ate a one-square-centimeter piece of carrot.  This was a slow-roasted carrot, perfectly tender, lightly caramelized in the bottom of a crock of roasted pork loin. A carrot fit for absolutely any finicky palate. And my child? He chewed up the carrot piece, gagged, swallowed, gagged, and promptly threw up in his plate. Seriously. What am I supposed to do with that?

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Don’t tell him, but it’s a carrot cake! (He only eats the frosting anyway!)

If you have any ideas, please let me know…but whatever your idea is, it had better not involve a bowl of overcooked vegetables and a blender!

In the meantime, I’m ready to make part two of this confession: Besides failing to teach my child to eat vegetables, I have also been known to feed my kids boxed macaroni and cheese…regularly. In my defense, they like itsometimes I buy the organic brand … I’ve quit  I’ve cut way, way back. And the reason I’ve cut way, way back is that I finally stumbled onto a method of making homemade macaroni and cheese that really is (almost) as easy as the boxed kind. The only part that is more burdensome is that you will need to shred your cheese, and I guess you could avoid that by buying the pre-shredded kind.

I have no idea why anyone starts their macaroni-and-cheese recipe by making a white sauce, but I always thought that was necessary in order to end up with a creamy sauce (like you get by mixing together powdered orange-colored cheese-type stuff and milk). I thought only food science could combine the milk and cheese smoothly without the aid of some kind of thickener/emulsifier. But in my kitchen, laziness is the mother of invention, and one day, you know what I did? I cooked some noodles, drained them, added some milk and butter and then stirred in a whole heap of shredded cheese. Know what happened? It turned beautiful and velvety–not gloppy or goopy or stringy. I do not know why. Does everyone already know this?

Just in case you don’t, here’s the recipe. It was the centerpiece of my little guy’s birthday dinner, alongside hot dogs (heaven help me!) and some lovely lemon roasted green beans (which he declined even to taste, saying, “It’s my birthday!).

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1 lb. good-quality pasta

1 cup whole milk

1 tablespoon butter

8 ounces shredded cheddar

1. Cook the pasta in super-salty boiling water until it’s almost done–a minute or two short of al dente. (My package said to cook for 10 minutes, and I cooked it for 8.)

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2. Drain it but do not rinse! Return it to the pan and return the pan to the eye, over low heat.

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3. Add the milk, the butter, and the shredded cheese.

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4. Stir well and cook over low heat until the cheese melts and then the sauce tightens up. Add more milk if you need to.

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Forgive yourself: It’s real food after all! (And if you just have to mix in some cauliflower mush, go ahead…I guess.)

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