I just wanted to write a column about the preparation of a simple supper than can be produced in less than 30 minutes without a lot of fancy ingredients. But “No!” its not that simple…first we need to consider what “supper” constitutes as one of a number of daily meals we consume.
We all know what breakfast is…don’t we? Breaking one’s fast is the first “meal” or at least the first eats of the day. In many cultures, including ours, it usually includes bread in one form or another, and some sort of beverage like fruit juice, coffee or tea.
It may be a quick snack on the way out the door (toast or an English muffin with peanut butter or jam, or a breakfast sandwich where you pick up your coffee), or a complete sit down meal. At our house, breakfast is a homemade whole grain cereal with fruit or nuts, flax seed oil (for omega-3s) and coffee. An Irish breakfast can include eggs, rashers of bacon, hash browned potatoes, white sausage (boudin blanc), blood sausage (boudin noir), baked beans, fried tomatoes, toast, butter, marmalade and maybe a kipper (smoked herring) on the side. In Italy we went to a pasticceria for cappuccino and dolci, the sweet pastries, like croissants, that were still warm from the oven in the back. Lumberjacks and truckers wolf down steak and eggs with toast, butter and preserves, pancakes and waffles with maple syrup, corned beef hash and fried potatoes; all washed down with steaming pots of coffee. So breakfast is all over the place as to its quantity of food consumed and the pace and setting where it is consumed.
There are myriad patterns on the daily meal cycle. In former times where the men went off to work and the women tended the home, a big breakfast was required as the men might not eat again until the evening. Although in most cultures a mid-day repast, even if just a hunk of bread with a piece of cheese, constitutes what we refer to as lunch.
In today’s busy world, a three-meal pattern predominates in the breakfast, lunch and supper scenario. Breakfast should be fairly substantial as the body hasn’t been fed for 10 hours or more, and it needs some energy to get up and get going. Lunch, also known as “dinner” in most parts of the country (not to be confused with “supper” which is the evening meal), is usually a soup, sandwich, salad or combination of these three, which is meant to sustain one until supper. In Italy they have la merenda, a work stoppage where bread, salami, cheese and wine are consumed; in England, the “elevens” when tea and crumpets may be served at 11:00 AM.
And then some time in the evening, from as early as 5 PM in some households to 9:00 PM or even later in others, we have supper, considered the main meal of the day. Supper is the largest meal and traditionally includes a protein (meat, chicken, or fish), a starch (potato, pasta or rice) and a vegetable, be it cooked or raw as in a salad. There may be bread also served and perhaps a desert. Milk is often served, particularly if children are eating, but also water, wine or (heaven forbid) soda pop!
Now the challenge for weight and health conscious Americans is to eat a good balance of foods including grains, fruits, vegetables and protein while limiting our caloric intake to 2,000 – 2,500 calories or so for the average person. Candies, sodas, French fries and processed “junk foods” are our caloric enemies, and add inches to our waists while providing only a transitory pleasure.
In our household we are not Atkins’ fans (did you know he weighed over 270 lbs when he fell on the ice and died from a head injury), but we do not eat too much starch (i.e. carbohydrates) with our supper. Pasta based meals are the exception, of course, but we keep our pasta meals down to one or two a week as a rule.
Most weekdays, particularly at this time of the year, we eat a piece of fish, chicken or beef with a cold salad that includes a variety of local lettuces. We’ve had mesclun mix, Bibb, Tom Thumb lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, Romaine and red leaf lettuces from area farm stands and farmers’ markets so far this spring. Thinly sliced radishes and carrots (I use a Japanese mandolin for slicing vegetables) are included in the salad along with some sort of cheese, crumbled or cubed, toasted pumpkin or sunflower seeds, sprouts if we have them, and perhaps a sauted Vidalia onion or some sweet red pepper, skinned and seeded. Recently we’ve included some small asparagus spears thinly sliced on the bias and some new English peas that I couldn’t resist even though they came from down country. Our basil plants are starting to produce, so a few leaves help liven up the salad, particularly when we include some Long Wind tomatoes, which we usually have on hand. And homemade garlic, parmesan croutons are always a welcome addition. I make them in a hot oven (425 degrees) with staling Red Hen Bakery loaves, crusts removed. I toss cubed bread with olive oil, salt, pepper, minced garlic and grated parmesan cheese and bake on a parchment paper lined sheet pan, turning after 10 minutes. Watch they don’t burn! Remove when golden brown and store at room temperature.
I usually dress the salad with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar unless I make a quick vinaigrette which can include a teaspoon and a half of mustard (I like grainy Dijon), some minced shallot or garlic, red wine or balsamic vinegar whipped up while extra virgin olive oil is drizzled in, some fresh herbs from the garden, and maybe a touch of maple syrup with salt and pepper. The mustard acts as an emulsifier to bind the oil and vinegar, but it won’t stay combined over time, so put it in a squeeze bottle if you don’t use it all the first day so you can shake it up next time you need it.
Along with this meal-in-itself salad, we have a piece of broiled or baked fish or chicken, or a grilled steak or burger, keeping the protein in the 3 to 6 oz serving size. You’ll get all the protein you need from this small serving, but if you need more, add a piece of good bread.