Someone is always walking in with a big bowl of mash potatoes to compliment my braised veal breast or I throw together a salad after Kian across the hall roasts a chicken. We end up sharing tables together in different combinations of people four sometimes five times a week and we usually congregate here. We’ve found through some trial and error that the kids can run around like loons in our apartment while we adults sip wine and chat and everyone seems to be able to digest their food while the kids (anywhere from two to five kids, ages 1 ½ to 5) are climbing over us and scurrying under the tables, grabbing bites off of forks, screeching like dolphins and doing “animal twists” off the end of the couch into the giant bean bag on the floor.
It’s super casual, but there’s no special grill cheese orders or Annie’s Mac and Cheese coming out of the kitchen. The kids eat what we eat and sit with us for awhile at the table, but we don’t ask them to sit like statues ad nauseum or force them to glaze over while we discuss brioche or Obama.
That said, I suspect that occasionally our neighbors without kids would like to have a meal here that doesn’t include Edie spitting her partially-chewed food out onto the table or Lucy wearing nothing but pink beads and a tiara trying to do a cartwheel just inches from the dinner table. They might long to finish a story, get to the punchline of a joke or have a whole conversation without Lucy interrupting them with her long-winded analysis of why "Sahara the horse" could not be tamed by anyone but Princess Jasmine.
"Um...um...she has a...um...horse...Sahara...and, and, and, and she, um....jumps around and um...she, she, she, she, she...won't go anywhere..and Jasmine...Princess Jasmine washed her hair." This takes several minutes and everyone loses their train of thought.
Then, this story triggers the desire to actually ride a horse, so Lucy and the neighbor children beg David to get down on all fours and carry them around the living room floor pretending to be Sahara, while they mercilessly pile on top of him and lead him around by the neck with the red satin sash from my prom dress (from 1983) and cut off the circulation in his carotid artery. They also get very demanding and say things like "Giddy App, Horsey! Go faster, you old slowpoke!" and kick his sides with their socking feet to make him go faster.
This pretty much halts all dinner table conversation.
And we never host a dinner that doesn't involve fighting. Quite predictably, one kid finds the "pinky umbrella" or some other pink object of great value and the other kids want it and no one seems to care or notice that the purple umbrella is exactly the same umbrella, only a different color, but the color thing is CRUCIAL and no one wants to concede, so whatever we were talking about must stop because somewhere in the house, a child is shrieking as if she were being burned with lit cigarettes and there is screaming, tears and an open call to any parents that might be paying attention.
And so conversation stops again and the parents all look at each other over their food to see which one is due a turn and they'll stop eating and go into the toy room and try to broker a deal. The negotiation that ensues rivals the mid-East peace talks and a temporary (read: 6 minute) peace is brokered, as one kid gets to control the Gaza Strip and the other settles to wait her turn with the less desired purple umbrella. Oh, there's some sulking and the long pitiful faces come out, but then, it’s all forgotten for a few minutes and the kids pile under the bunk bed to pretend they are bats in a cave and maybe that parent can pop back out to the table and finish his dinner before the treaty is discarded, the bats come flying out of the cave and another parent is dispatched.
It’s pretty much always like this, but people keep coming back for more, so obviously we're enjoying it, although I don't remember ever finishing a conversation with anyone in like 3 years. The night before last when the gang was all here, I made this Tuscan Bean Stew with Sausage from Cook’s Illustrated and it’s a keeper.
As a rule, I am always scared to adapt any recipe from Cooks Illustrated because well, these people are super-anal (Hey, Tammy at Food on the Food...You're one of them, aren't you?) and they live in that little test kitchen of theirs like sequestered mice and test and re-test and re-test all those recipes, so who am I to re-jigger what is probably perfect?
But re-jigger I did. The CI folks call for soaked beans, which are ideal, but I was making this dish on the fly and didn’t have time to soak. Really, sometimes I’m cooking from The French Laundry Cookbook and sometimes I’m just lucky not to spill boiling oil down the front of me, so I adapted the recipe for canned beans. So sue me, Christopher Kimball.
I made this dish in about 20 minutes active time and it was bubbly and comforting and addictive. The neighbors devoured it. I suggest making this now before the warmth of spring takes you over and you feel the need to move on to lighter fare. It’s well worth it.
Tuscan Bean Stew with Sausage and Cabbage (adapted from Cooks Illustrated for people with minimal time to fritter around with dried beans)
2 large tins of good quality cannelini beans
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (plus extra for drizzling)
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage
1/2 medium head
1 dash of fresh or dried oregano to taste
1 large onion, chopped medium (1 1/2 cups)
2 medium celery ribs, cut ingo 1/2 inch pieces (3/4 cup)
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch pieces (1 cup)
8 medium garlic cloves peeled and crushed
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (I didn’t have chicken stock, so I used home-made beef stock from the freezer. Still fantastic.)
3 cups water
2 bay leaves
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes drained and rinsed (optional: see asterisk and note below)
Ground black pepper
8 slices country white bread, each 1 1/4 inches thick, broiled until golden brown on both sides and rubbed with garlic clove (optional)
1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Cut up sausage into bites and cook in olive oil until it nearly loses its raw color, about 8 minutes. Transfer sausage to paper towel-lined plate. Add onion, celery, and carrots to pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened and lightly browned, 10 to 16 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in broth, water, bay leaves and beans. Increase heat to high and bring to simmer. Add sausage. Transfer pot to oven, and cook about 30 minutes, until bubbling hot.
2. Remove pot from oven and stir in cabbage*, oregano and tomatoes*.
* I was supposed to add the cabbage, but there were six hungry faces staring at me from the table and I got flustered and forgot it. No one noticed. Or cared. Use it or lose it - either way, it’s still a pretty great recipe.
*Honestly, I omitted the tomatoes because David told me on New Years Eve that he didn’t like beans and tomatoes together, but then while we were eating this dish, he told me that he didn’t remember saying that to me and that he did, in fact, like beans and tomatoes together. Go figure. But this dish is pretty wonderful without the tomatoes. When I do this dish again, I plan to leave out the tomatoes again.
3. Discard bay leaves and season stew with salt and pepper to taste. If desired, use back of spoon to press some beans against side of pot to thicken stew, but most likely you won’t need to. Serve over toasted bread, if desired, and drizzle with olive oil.
PS Thanks to the boys at The Bitten Word for allowing me to flat out steal their photo of this stew, which is much nicer than CI's. If you have too much time on your hands and you want to make this recipe with the soaked beans as recommended by CI, you can check out the Feb. 26th post of The
Bitten Word for the complete recipe.