If you're around me for more than 2 minutes, you'll probably hear me talk about Monday Night Dinner. When we moved up to Bellingham, Wash., 2 years ago, I could foresee a problem. Though we strategically bought a house 4 minutes from my parents, I wondered how often we'd see one another. Coordinating, though I'm good at it, is the bane of my existence. Propose a set of dates and times, fiddle around with who can do what, set a date, remind everyone when the dates gets close, reschedule because someone gets sick, and do the whole thing all over again. Agh!
So I proposed dinner once a week. Weekends? Forget it. Everyone's too busy. Thursday is the new Friday, so Thursdays are out. Everything else seems to be scheduled on a Tuesday or Wednesday so Mondays were the obvious choice. And to say "Every Second and Fourth" or other such nonsense seemed too much to keep track of. And it's not a potluck. No retirees around here. Everyone's coming straight from work.
So were were doing that with my parents for a few months when my father-in-law (who lives 2 minutes away) caught wind of it and started coming. Then my sister-in-law and her family said, "What about us?" Then my father-in-law's partner and her girls said, "What about us?" So we are now 12. I reserve the right to cancel whenever I'm getting home too late or otherwise overwhelmed, so we average about 3 Mondays/month.
As you might imagine, the key here is to keep it simple. Stupidly simple. A dozen people on a weeknight with an 8:30 bedtime for the kids means the following:
- Buffet style. Always.
- I know it should mean paper plates, but it doesn't. I've asked everyone else to do dishes. Cook's privilege, right?
- Nothing too spicy.
- Customizable – endless "build-your-own" menu items like rice bowls, burritos, spring rolls. We have rice and beans a lot.
- Shopping and prep on the weekend. Not too much prep, though, which would break the Stupidly Simple rule.
- Huge batches. Huge. Usually with a seasonal salad (recently it was kale, slivered raw fennel, dried figs, and apple) and some kind of starch in case the kids don't like the main dish. Rice saves the day always.
- No appetizers and no dessert unless someone else decides to show up with them.
And yes, soup. So much soup! This is why it was invented. Beef barley, minestrone, Thai chicken, tortilla. And tomato carrot. I always have canned tomatoes around and about 6 bags of half-finished carrots floating around in my produce drawers. It doesn't matter how dried out they get – they'll still make great soup! Serve this with grilled cheese sandwiches and some bitter greens and everyone will be happy.
And what do I get out of Monday Night Dinners? Besides a teensy bit of exhaustion? A lot. Loretta and her cousin Hazel disappear into the basement and play all night. Wyatt plays indoor hoops with Yancey's dad and hangs around the adults making (very funny) jokes. I don't have to leave my house. I can see almost all my family in one place once a week, which is a miracle. I get lots of thanks and appreciation, and I know the walls of this house soak up the noise, laughter, and cooking steam. Life is way too short not to see the people you love.
Tomato carrot soup
This soup can be made vegan – use water instead of chicken stock and leave out the cream. Or non-dairy – use the chicken stock but leave out the cream. I think the cream gives it a lovely richness, but if you cook the veggies long enough and have a powerful blender, you'll get almost the same creaminess without it.
Big glug of olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced
3 or 4 large carrots (or the equivalent baby carrots), peeled and thinly sliced
1 bay leaf
2 28-ounce cans canned whole tomatoes with juice
Enough chicken stock or water to cover everything by about 2 inches
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 to 1 cup heavy cream (optional)
1. Heat olive oil in a large heavy stockpot. Add onions until getting soft, 7 or 8 minutes, then add garlic, carrots, and bay leaf and sauté for about 5 minutes more.
2. Add tomatoes and chicken stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until everything is soft, about 30 minutes.
3. Purée mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to the pot and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cream if desired and warm. Serve with a swirl of cream on top.