I swear, this wholesome-looking meal isn’t penance for anything. It’s not a budget-friendly apology for the frenetic unplanned redecorating project or atonement for the fact that I’ve basically only wanted to eat chocolate, peanut butter, bread and pasta for the last 22 weeks. It’s not compensation for the frosting that didn’t make it onto the cake and was eaten instead with a spoon, or the impulsive meringues last weekend. It’s only ever-so-quietly a warning that the next thing coming on this site is so decadent, you might wish to advance yourself some greens, grains and beans.
Several years ago, because we didn’t have a kid yet, didn’t know about things like school break schedules and figured midway through February was as good of a time to escape the snow as any, we decided to get away to someplace warm and winter-free during Presidents’ Day week. We found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a beach resort that had to have easily been 75% children, and the kind that were at that time my worst nightmare of what kids could be [insert yours here, then multiply it as far as you can see] and we decided to both never have kids and never ever go away on Presidents’ Week again.
Last week* I mentioned that we’d been on a big breakfast-for-dinner spree this winter, less out of a noble desire for inexpensive, balanced, wholesome meals and more because scrambling eggs at the last minute allows us to go all the way to 15 minutes before dinner to come up with an idea for it, which is meal-planning equivalent of the heavens opening up and glorifying all of my late-afternoon lethargy at last.
Over the last couple years — a dark time in which I’ve slowly had to accept that my once-tiny baby with fairly simple needs now required real square meals at very specific times of the day, such as dinner, far earlier than we ever do and that he’d likely be looking to me (me!) to provide them or face the hangry consequences — I’ve attempted to increase my repertoire of two things: 1. Dinners that can be made easily in under an hour that I actually want to eat, and 2. Casseroles. No, no, I don’t mean the canned cream of soupiness things. I mean, the idea of taking disparate meal parts and baking them in a big dish until they’re much more than the sum of their ingredients. Plus, they’re dinnertime magic: they reheat well; they make excellent leftovers for as long as you can stretch them; and they rarely require anything more on the side than a green salad (for grownups) or steamed broccoli (for people who haven’t yet come around to salad). Long Live The Casserole Rethought With Minimally Processed Ingredients! is hardly a sexy catchphrase, but there you have it: my new battle cry.
Within the great file of my favorite food category, Things I Can Put On Toast, I dare you to find anything easier to whirl up in the minutes before a party than artichoke-olive crostini, the terribly named but unmatched in Mediterranean deliciousness of feta salsa or walnut pesto. Lightly broil a thinly sliced baguette — and I vote for preparing a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, ready to bake off later, nobody minds — and voila: it’s suddenly a party.
I realize this might not look like much. It probably looks suspiciously like a salad, which means it’s probably going to be the last kid picked for your holiday cooking olympics. It doesn’t taste like ginger, linzer or crushed candy canes. It smacks of January Food, the stuff of resolutions and repentance, and there’s no time for that now. But I need to tell you about it anyway, urgently, because the preoccupation with this salad has hit me so intensely, so wholly, it’s basically the only thing I want to eat, and since I’m ostensibly the grownup here, this is exactly what I’m going to do.
As I do every year, I woke up the morning after Thanksgiving with dueling urges to consume pie for breakfast as well as to repent with an endless sequence of brothy vegetable soups until I no longer dreamed of pumpkin cheesecake, cranberry caramel almond tarts and chocolate silk. I vowed make the wholesome side triumph this year, however, yet somewhere along my righteous path to eating kale salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I remembered that kale salad tastes absolutely nothing like pie and that was basically the end of that. By dinner that night, we were digging into terrifying heaps of spaghetti and meatballs at Carmine’s, followed by overstuffed chocolate cannolis. There wasn’t a ribbon of kale in sight.