The Perfect Back-to-School Meal for Your Family

Rodale BooksMy kids start school in about a week (hooray!) and that means dinner, along with life in general, will be taking a more structured form. We'll be eating earlier, together, indoors, sans bathing suits. And hotdogs will not be on the menu. The transition from summer mealtime to fall requires some thought and I don't know about you, but it takes me a little while to jump-start my mom brain after the lazy days. Especially when it comes to preparing food (we literally grilled everything this summer). Enter the brand-new cookbook "Keepers" by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, two busy moms and home cooks who know their way around good food (they met while working at Saveur). For years they traded recipes and tips and finally decided to share their "keepers" with the rest of us (those "brag-worthy, reliable, crowd-pleasing recipes that you can confidently turn to again and again"). Yes, please! 

Rodale BooksFull disclosure: Caroline and I worked together at Glamour for years and I think she's fantastic. So it's no wonder I love this book. It's written for people exactly like me who aspire to put good, homemade food on the family table every night but don't always have the time—or the inspiration. The recipes are easy to follow (no instructions take up more than one page—love that!), there's no fancy equipment required, no Top Chef-worthy techniques to learn but the finished product is classic and delicious. "We were thinking of real moms and dads while we wrote it," says Caroline. "We'd ask ourselves 'would they make this? Would they like it? Would their kids eat it?' I'd even call my friend, a mother of four boys and ask, 'Would you make this on a Tuesday night?'"

I've tried a bunch of recipes and not one has let me down. Last week I made the angel-hair pasta with spicy tomato cream sauce (which is not too spicy at all!) and it's not only a keeper, it's a winner. My kids loved it, my husband devoured it, the prep was nearly non-existent, and yet it still felt special. So I'll be making it next week as a night-before-the-first-day-of-school meal. Even if your kids are already back in action as I know many of my southern friends' kids are (lucky ducks!), add this to your weeknight repertoire. You won't be disappointed.

ANGEL HAIR PASTA WITH SPICY TOMATO-CREAM SAUCE

SERVES 4 TO 6

NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS: There's something about the combination of this light cream sauce and delicate angel hair pasta that makes us swoon, but the sauce marries well with other types of pasta, too. If you don't like heat, omit the crushed red pepper flakes.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, minced

Very large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (note: the red chili flakes add more of a warm heat—a flavor booster—rather than a scorcher heat. Also, you can reduce or add more depending on the tolerance of your family.)

  • One 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • Salt
  • 1 pound angel hair pasta
  • Large handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • Freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, in a large high-sided sauté pan, heat the oil, garlic, pepper flakes, and 2 large pinches of salt over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant and just starting to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing the tomatoes with your hands or a potato masher. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until you can draw a line through it with a wooden spoon and it doesn't fill in immediately, 5 to 7 minutes. The sauce should be light and fresh tasting, so don't let it cook down too much. Stir in the cream and bring to a simmer. Check the seasonings (it should taste a little salty) and set aside.

2. When the water boils, season it generously with salt; it should taste like seawater. When it returns to a boil, add the pasta, quickly stir to separate the noodles, then cover the pot. When the water returns to a boil again, uncover and boil the pasta until al dente, stirring occasionally.

3. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, then pour the noodles on top of the tomato sauce. Add the parsley and a large splash of the cooking water and toss to combine over medium heat. If the pasta looks dry, add some more of the cooking water. Check the seasonings and serve with the cheese.

Easy, right? When I whipped it up for my family, I served it with chicken Milanese (recipe below) and a big tossed salad. Though it certainly works on its own. When it comes to weeknight, back-to-school cooking you want something that feels special but doesn't take a whole lot of prep time so that you can actually chat with your kids about, say, what happened on the bus. This dish fits the bill. Plus, who doesn't love pasta? The sauce is so simple you won't believe you've never made it before—and you will make it again and again. And once you've committed it to memory (it's that easy) you'll never have to use jarred sauce again.

Good luck sending your kids back to school and happy cooking and eating! I leave you with some of the Keepers secrets to happiness in the kitchen:

* Let the kids set the table as soon as they're steady on their feet.

* Wear shoes when you cook.

* Clean as you go. Even just washing the cutting board and wiping down the counter lessens the end-of-the-meal mess-and that sinking feeling when you see it.

* Do your best to feed yourself and others with the most natural ingredients, the least fuss, and the most pleasure.

* Perfection is way overrated, especially at 6 p.m. when everyone is tired and hungry and you are the only one trying to figure out what to cook for dinner.

Rodale BooksCHICKEN MILANESE TOPPED WITH FENNEL SALAD

SERVES 4

NOTE FROM THE AUTHORS: This isn't a novel preparation, but it's a good one and can stand alone as a meal. Mounding the salad on top of the chicken, with its crispy, featherweight crust, results in a wonderful combination of textures, temperatures, and flavors.

The fennel adds crunch and an anise note, but if you don't care for it, leave it out and use extra lettuce--or top the chicken with your favorite salad instead.

We also like to squeeze some extra lemon juice on the sautéed cutlets before adding the greens.

  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for pan-frying
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • Fresh lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 fennel bulb, outer leaves removed, cored, and thinly sliced
  • 4 large handfuls of lettuce, such as red leaf or butter, torn into bite-size pieces
  • Handful of fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2 cups dried breadcrumbs
  • 8 chicken cutlets (each about 1/3 inch thick, 11/4 pounds total), patted dry

1. In a large bowl, combine the oil, vinegar, and shallots. Season with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Top—but don't toss—with the fennel, lettuce, and herbs, then set aside. (You will toss the salad just before serving.)

2. Put the flour on a large plate. In a shallow bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. Put the breadcrumbs in a deep dish.

3. Season the cutlets with salt and pepper. Dredge one in the flour, coating completely, then shake off any excess. Dip it in the egg mixture, letting any excess drip off, then coat with the breadcrumbs, gently pressing it into breadcrumbs so they stick. Put the breaded cutlet on a plate large enough to fit all of them without crowding and repeat with the remaining cutlets.

4. In a large skillet, heat 1/4 inch oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Working in batches, if needed, add the cutlets and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip the pieces over and cook until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer the cutlets to a paper towel-lined platter, sprinkle with salt, and tent with foil to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining cutlets.

5. Transfer the cutlets to plates. Toss the salad with the dressing, check the seasonings, then mound on top of the cutlets and serve.

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