"The dinner hour is a sacred, happy time when everyone should be together and relaxed.” - Julia Child
Your dinner table is a magical place; did you know? Whether it’s a weathered family heirloom, a valuable antique, a card table from a discount store, or a Goodwill find, your table adds incredible value to your home. How? By bringing together, for at least a few short minutes each day, the people you care most about.
As Julia said in the quote above, dinnertime should be a cheerful, relaxed time for families of any size to be able to talk over what happened in the course of the day. It’s a great place to plan what might be coming in the future, say an upcoming family vacation, or even just to sit quietly together. The key word is “together."
The dinner table is a place for traditions to be made, even if the tradition is as simple as spaghetti and meatballs on Monday nights, or pizza on Friday nights. The meal isn’t as important as the people who are sitting there together, certainly, but it can be something to add to your family’s memories. And when I say family, I am not just thinking of parents with children, but anyone who lives under a roof together; retired couples, roommates, newlyweds, pet parents, or anyone else you might live with from day-to-day. Everyone can benefit from some relaxed time breaking bread together.
The problem we seem to have these days, unfortunately, is getting people to sit still. Some of the issue is, obviously, how busy everyone seems to be. From after school sports and band practices to jobs, volunteering and other activities, we seem to be even busier now than when I was growing up in the ‘80s. Not only that, but because screens of all kinds….television, phone, laptop and tablet screens…seem to take much of our attention, even when we do manage to get together.
I am just as guilty as anyone of this, as I love to learn and write and explore the world, which the internet and tv allow us to do. Devices with screens are so helpful and interesting in some respects. So what do we do?
Well, we have to agree to set some boundaries, for ourselves and for the people who live with us. Start with something simple, like saying,“guys, this school year, no phones at the dinner table.” And that goes for adults as well as kids. We have to set the example. If they protest, and say “why now?” simply say that you are sorry you never thought of the idea before, but you have now, and you believe it will be a good thing for your family. And stick to it.
Adults, if your habit is to stare at a tv while your family is eating, you are missing a fabulous opportunity to connect with your people. Those days together are going to be gone before you know it, so take advantage of your time together by talking and laughing together. You will have plenty of time to watch television or look at a phone when your kids have moved away (which I have experienced) or your spouse is gone. The dinner table is a great place to connect. Don’t miss it.
When you do manage to get your people together, whether there are two of you or 12 of you, you have a decision to make. What will you feed them? I hope you can avoid junk food as often as possible and, instead, cook something simple and delicious. If you can get them involved in the meal prep, even better!
I am happy to help with this part. Following are some recipes that you might enjoy trying out that don’t take long to make and that your family will enjoy.
Steph's plum-perfect pork chops
1 pound to 1 1/2 pounds thin pork chops (or use a pork tenderloin, sliced thin)
4 fresh red plums, quartered
1 jalapeno (seeded if you don't want heat, or omit it if you prefer)
1 large red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup balsamic or red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Salt and pepper both sides of the pork chops. Heat oil and butter in pan over medium to medium-high heat in large skillet. Add the pork, and brown on both sides. Remove to a platter.
2. Add the sliced onion, jalapeno, and quartered plums to the pan, and turn heat down to low-medium. Now you're going to caramelize the fruit and vegetables; the key is "low and slow." You can't let the pan get too hot, or it'll burn the sugars in the plums. Keep temperature closer to low than to medium, and push things around frequently with a spatula to avoid scorching.
3. After about 15 minutes, add the vinegar to the pan, and bring to a simmer. Add the meat back into the pan and allow it to heat through.
4. When ready to serve, consider using creamy cooked grits, as they are a great accompaniment to this. I'd place the meat right on the grits, then add some onion and plum mixture. You can do this with rice or mashed potatoes, too, of course. Enjoy!
Mediterranean Chicken and pasta
(This recipe is by my friend Les Ellsworth, who serves it at his restaurant, The Potpourri House. I love it and wanted to share it with you.)
Marinate Chicken breast in olive oil and Greek seasoning for about an hour and then grill or saute. (If time prohibits that, pick up a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store instead)
1 1/4 cup of artichokes, quartered
1/4 cup of black olives sliced
1 tablespoon of capers (optional)
1/4 cup of sun-dried tomatoes julienne cut
1/2 cup of good olive oil
2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon of fresh minced garlic
1 tablespoon of Greek seasoning
4 tablespoons of Parmesan cheese, for topping
Dice cooked chicken to bite-size pieces and set aside.
Cook enough pasta for family of four (about 10 ounces dry pasta); drain and toss with a tablespoon of olive oil. Keep warm.
Place olive oil in a large skillet with deep sides, and set over medium-high heat. Add the artichokes, olives, capers, and tomatoes, and saute until vegetables are softened. Add the chicken, basil, garlic and Greek seasoning. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan, and toss well. Add the cooked pasta to the pan, tossing until the pasta is completely integrated into the other ingredients. Serve sprinkled with more Parmesan and with a nice salad on the side, if you like.
Pan-roasted chicken thighs with spicy blueberry sauce
4 to 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (I use these since they cook a lot faster than bone-in, skin-on thighs. If you're using those, you will need to cook longer)
olive oil for pan
salt and pepper
For the sauce:
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/2 to 1 full teaspoon red pepper flake, for the kick!
2 Tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
Chopped parsley and grated Asiago or Parmesan, for topping, optional
First, make the sauce: Combine all sauce ingredients in a saucepan, and set over medium heat, stirring frequently. Bring to a boil, stir well, then turn down to a simmer, stirring frequently, and allow to cook down for 20 to 30 minutes. Sauce will thicken as it simmers.
For the chicken: Pour a couple of tablespoons of oil in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Let pan get hot (not to smoking point; keep an eye on it!) and then add thighs to the pan. Sprinkle each with poultry seasoning, and salt and pepper. Allow to brown for about 3 minutes, then turn.
Sprinkle the other side with seasonings, turn heat down to medium, and cook chicken until no longer pink in center. For my boneless/skinless thighs, this took about 8 minutes.
To serve: Place the chicken thighs on a platter. Drizzle several tablespoons of the sauce over them, then sprinkle with grated cheese and parsley. Place on the dinner table alongside your favorite sides (seasoned rice, and garlicky green beans, perhaps) and enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.