Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In Praise of the Family Meal

This time of year, I fall in love with my kitchen. It's a basic kitchen with none of the fancy appliances so many have taken for granted. But despite the fact that my oven runs too hot or too cold and the electric coils have to be forced back in with the end of a stainless steel spoon every time I turn them on, somehow I manage to cook up some pretty yummy dishes.

The weather has turned cold, the leaves are off the trees and the chill makes me want to bake, cook, saute and stew. Banana chocolate chip muffins, care of Cat Can Cook, have barely made their way into the girls' lunchboxes after being gobbled right out of the oven. I hope that Cat Can Cook won't mind, but I've just substituted pumpkin for the banana in honor of this time of year when opening a can of pumpkin can send me into a suspended state of ecstasy.

But I recently made a dish for dinner that summoned up all my childhood dinners. It had been a long week in which we were dragging ourselves towards the Thanksgiving break. I'd opened and closed the refrigerator at least a dozen times without any idea of what to make.

I went back to my desk to finish up some the day's projects. After working out of the house for the last few years, I'm now happily operating my PR consulting business out of our home. As I closed up my computer dinner inspiration hit me. Tuna patties. Why tuna patties? Well, I was in the mood for something shaped like a burger, but since turkey burgers had recently democratically voted off our menu and we've cut down on our meat intake, I was seeking something tasty and economical. I ran to the pantry. Bingo - four cans of fresh Crown Prince Natural Tongol Tuna.

Every Monday for countless Mondays, my mother made Salmon Patties. In my freewheeling, anti-establishment twenties and thirties, I used to make fun of my mom for the weekday menu she adhered to, but now, as a parent, I completely bow to her culinary organization and strive to do the same. As a child, I relied on that menu for a way of framing my week and my memory has enshrined this menu in the following way:
  • Monday: Salmon Patties
  • Tuesday: Meat Loaf with a hard boiled egg in the middle
  • Wednesday: Chicken and Rice with cream of mushroom soup
  • Thursday: Baked Halibut
  • Friday: Roasted Chicken
I loved all these meals, with the exception of the Baked Halibut. Thursdays I would beg my friends to rescue me from the inedible Baked Halibut cooked in tomato soup with canned green beans. But the rest of the week, I looked forward to them the predetermined meals and gobbled them up. The food was hearty and heart-felt and every night of the week (except for the nights I was able to escape the Baked Halibut), our family ate together. My father would arrive home by 6:30 p.m. and after he'd changed out of his work clothes and washed his hands, we'd sit down together and share our day.

But back to the Tuna Patties. One of my recent goals has been to limit the number of unneccessary trips to the market, a carryover from years in New York City and spontaneous meals. I go to the market once a week and try to make our meals out of that week's shopping, which requires meal planning (back to Mom's weekly meal menu) and limiting the whim-based eating habits of my single days. Sometimes we'll give in to something we really want to have, but I was so damn tired that I couldn't bear the idea of going to the market and besides, I liked the challenge of creating from what I already have. I looked around the kitchen to see what else I had and spotted an acorn squash, rice and garden mix salad greens.

Having never made Tuna Patties, I was a bit lost as to how to begin, so I looked online for Salmon Patties. All the recipes I read online called for fresh salmon and that wasn't going to happen. They also were so busy being something other than the simple fish patties of my youth that I closed my computer and opened up our much used copy of the "Joy of Cooking," page 267. The recipe was refreshingly simple in ingredients and steps. Wanting to keep the simplicity of JofC's salmon cakes, I added a few items to it to account for the substitution of tuna, which tends to be milder in taste. I also needed to make it gluten free, since that is my dietary necessity. Below is my version of Tuna Patties, which will probably change again as my mood and pantry changes:

  • Four cans of low sodium Tongol Tuna, drained and flaked
  • 1/2 - 2/3 cup crushed cornflakes
  • 2 slightly beaten eggs
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Dash of wheat-free soy sauce
  • 1/8 tsp paprika
  • Dash of dill
  • 1/4 tsp curry
  • 1/4 tsp cumin
I drained the tuna, reserving the juice for our three cats, who scurried into the kitchen at the sound of the opening cans. With the juice being lapped up by them, I flaked the tuna and added the crushed corn flakes, eggs, salt, paprika, pepper. I added fresh lemon juice, a dash of wheat-free soy sauce, dill and a touch of curry powder and cumin. It took a little bit more of this and that before the mixture was the right consistency to be formed into patties that would hold. On the electric griddle, I placed the patties and let them brown gently on each side and then popped them into the oven to stay warm.

The acorn squash, cooking away in butter, maple syrup and cinnamon, welcomed the tuna patties into the oven, which today seemed to be cooking a bit on the low side. I tossed the salad with some tomatoes, red onion, avocado, olive oil and balsamic vinegar and made a light tartar sauce. I poured myself and Jack a glass of red wine.

The kids finished their homework and help set the table.

We sat down and before I knew it, all eight patties were gone. Happy customers, as we used to say in the restaurant business.
Don't get me wrong. I don't mean to present our dinner time as some paradise of calm, or of philosophical conversations on the meaning of life. Most of the time, our family meals are loud, silly, full of not so great table manners, eaten too quickly and with too many requests for dessert. But on this particular night, the dinner stars aligned for a simple meal that all of us enjoyed together. And there was much peace in that simple fact.

Perhaps because I'm doing more writing (and editing) these days, I tend to see the day in terms of punctuation. I look at breakfast as a colon, opening up to the demands of school, work, music lessons, and homework. Lunch is the day's semi-colon; a pause in the action, hopefully done at the table and not at my desk. Dinner? Sometimes dinner is a question mark and the accompanying anxiety that occurs at not having an answer.

But this particular night, with four cans of tuna, dinner became a period, a time to take a full stop. This particular night, a simple tuna patty was our period, allowing us to stop and join together for a little while before the day was done. Before we finish our last chores of the day and collapse together in our separate sleeps. One more chance to connect through sustenance. I cherish our family meals and will insist on them as long as I can.

The family meal doesn't need to be an exclamation point, although once in a while that is a terrific thing to do. The family meal just needs to be a period, that's all.

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