Circumstance writes menu each night

November 06, 1996|By Rob Kasper

A NAGGING question plaguing many American households is "What's for supper?"

Every evening you have to come up with an answer. And each answer is supposed to be different, but not too different, from the answer you came up with on a previous night. Answering it is a complex undertaking, part ritual, part experimentation. Recently I analyzed how our family of four coped with one night's answer to the "what's for supper" question.

Our answer had a lot to do with an answer to a prior question, "What's defrosted?" Early that morning, in a move that my wife and I thought demonstrated extreme foresight, we pulled a chicken out of the freezer. The plan was to let nature take its course, to let the chicken thaw. By supper time, the once-rigid bird would be soft and supple, ready for roasting.

Next, in another rare demonstration of planning, my wife and I discussed how the bird was going to be cooked, and who was going to do the cooking. I looked at the option of smoking the bird in our kettle barbecue cooker. I had to give up this idea when I discovered I didn't have the right kind of wood chips to toss on the coals. I wanted maple chips or hickory chips but had used up my supplies. I didn't want to embark on a time-consuming shopping trip. All I had were mesquite chips, which would have given the bird a flavor best described as all-smoke and no-chicken. This is not a flavor the household likes.

When the outdoor-cooking option went up in smoke, my wife said she would stuff small pieces of lemon under the chicken's skin and roast the bird in the oven. This lemon chicken dish had a proven track record in the household.

Late in the afternoon, however, we had a poultry problem. When the bird was frozen, it looked like a whole chicken. When it thawed we saw that the meat was actually several breasts that had somehow been pushed together to resemble a whole chicken. Strange things happen to foods in a family freezer.

When you are talking philosophy, the whole may be the sum of its parts. But this is not the case when you are cooking a chicken for supper. The lemon-stuffing routine worked on a whole chicken, not with its parts.

Our family has several chicken part dishes, such as chicken parts with peanuts and chicken parts with barbecue sauce, but we were missing several of the key ingredients for these recipes.

So the parts went into the refrigerator and the search for a substitute supper began. Once again my wife checked the freezer. She found an old friend, ground beef. Thinking quickly she posited that ground beef could be transformed into meat sauce, the main ingredient in spaghetti and meat sauce, a family favorite.

The hamburger was defrosted in the microwave oven. Defrosting the hamburger in the microwave changes the texture of meat, but it is faster that letting warm air defrost the meat. It was an hour before feeding time and speed was more important than texture.

Onions and carrots were chopped and tossed in the bottom of a pot covered with sizzling olive oil. In went the meat, a little white wine, and a can of plum tomatoes. Then the mixture bubbled, on a low heat. The longer and slower this sauce gets to bubble, the better it tastes. Luckily the switch from chicken to spaghetti had been made soon enough to let the sauce cook for a little over an hour.

Another factor in the "what's-for-supper?" equation is what do we have a lot of.

The other day I had returned home from the Farmers' Market in downtown Baltimore with two bags of fancy salad greens. That night we had a fancy salad for supper. The salad was a partial success. My wife and I liked the flavor of the arugula and the mixture of other greens coated with a vinegar and oil dressing. But the flavor of the salad was too bitter for our boys, 15 and 11. They took a few bites and abandoned the greens. They said they preferred the taste of the Caesar salad with croutons. That had been a few nights earlier, when we had a lot of romaine lettuce and plenty of day-old bread.

We also had a lot of apples, so we had an apple crisp for dessert.

The kids liked the apple crisp and the spaghetti with meat sauce. They complimented the chef, mom. Their compliments showed me the kids had recognized another component in the "what's for supper" dynamic. If you tell the cook you like the grub, you're likely to get that grub again.

Another supper was finished. Parts of it, the leftover salad and the meat sauce, would show up at ensuing meals. The apple crisp had been wiped out. It would not be part of the answer to the next "what's for supper" question. But those defrosted chicken parts certainly would.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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