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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sunday Dinner

So, I moved last weekend. From one temporary apartment, to another. By taxi.
(I'm assuming this will be the first, last and only time THAT's ever going to happen.)
Left behind my quirky-kitchen-with-the-giant-Viking-range and traded it in for a small, yet new, ubiquitous-granite-counter-cherry-cabinet model. The range is electric. Sigh.
Not my favorite...(so annoying the way things go on sputtering in the pan, long after you've turned off the burner...)

After getting settled, I decided I would make some dinner. It was Sunday after all.

‘Sunday dinner’ stirs up a mix of memories. My husband’s grandmother, for example, had a cute little wooden sign that said KITCHEN CLOSED ON SUNDAYS. Point taken. A dear friend tells me that Chinese food delivery was her family’s cherished Sunday ritual. When I was a child, Sunday was a day my mother would happily relinquish the kitchen to anyone interested in throwing something together. She’d sit calmly in our Very 70s TV room working on some needlepoint, or knitting a sweater, unperturbed by the mayhem generated by my father’s attempt to create an authentic Beef Burgundy or my brother and I arguing over our Old El Paso taco extravaganza.

Over the years, Sunday Dinner took on a mythical quality for me. Maybe it was a glimpse of a Norman Rockwell painting somewhere? More likely, it was a compilation of Sunday dinner tableaux merged in the imagination of a lifelong reader. I had always pictured Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth sitting down for Sunday Dinner with Marmee at the head of the table, in Little Women. But really, the only cooking in the book was done by Hannah, the servant. Well, and that one meal by Jo, which was disastrous as I recall. Diane Johnson’s books, often set in France, describe Sunday dinner for the French – you go to your mother’s house or your mother-in-law’s house – and you bring flowers. There you eat perfectly roasted chicken. I have witnessed part of this Sunday tradition on trips to Paris…everyone in a hurry, dressed nicely, carrying stunningly arranged bouquets. Watching them always made me feel left out as I vainly searched for an open restaurant.

So, I propose that we bring back Sunday Dinner. Or, umm, maybe we re-introduce it, or just introduce it…whatever. Sunday dinner with friends. Or family. Or without.
The point is…cook something.
Why? Because, Sunday is one of the best days of the week to put together a meal. You've got the luxury of time…sip your coffee, read the papers, and lazily ponder what you’d like to eat for dinner before sauntering to the grocery store. And, you'll have the extra bonus of leftovers, for Monday. There's nothing better than arriving home after a long Monday, to delicious leftovers simply waiting for you, ready to go.

Sundays are also excellent for having people over. Some of the best meals to share are ridiculously easy to put together? (WHY is it that meals for six or eight seem SO much easier to cook?) There’s something cozy and comforting about having friends over on a Sunday. If you live in a chilly climate, there’s nothing more lovely than puttering in a warm kitchen, maybe an old movie, or the radio on in the background, with the aromas of a stew, or something meaty roasting drifting through your home. The idea is to choose something that's mainly doing its work in the oven, while you put your feet up (enjoying the enticing aromas drifting from your kitchen) and read some more of the Sunday paper.

Last weekend, I decided to go with a tried and true Sunday favorite...
Fake Tandoori Chicken.
This is a Laurie Colwin classic which has been in my rotation for years, and it never disappoints. For anyone who hasn't heard of Laurie Colwin, I beg you -- go to the library, to Amazon, wherever, and get one of her books. You'll thank me. The beauty of this dish really is in its simplicity and ease of preparation. Marinate chicken pieces in a yogurt paste overnight, or for the day. Bake in the oven. Voila. Something about the yogurt gives the chicken an almost-velvety texture and it's delicious hot, or cold, making for ideal Monday Leftovers.

Part Two is another favorite: Israeli Couscous Pilaf. I should work on a better name for this dish. Somewhere, I fell in love with this more robust couscous and I've never gone back to the standard version. Maybe because it is more pasta-like? Who knows, but this stuff takes whatever you feel like tossing at it, and always looks sophisticated. Cooked in chicken broth, mixed with any variety of nuts, dried fruit and herbs, then finished off with a kind of vinaigrette, it adapts to any craving you may have. It's this sort of improvisational cooking that makes me feel like a confident, good cook.

And there you have it. You, or you and your friends, will be impressed (any time cooking or entertaining looks this easy, it’s impressive), you will have created your very own Norman-Rockwell-like Sunday dinner, and maybe even a tradition to call your own.

Fake Tandoori Chicken
adapted from an 80's essay by Laurie Colwin in Gourmet magazine

serves 4

4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts, (I usually halve these)
or 6 thigh pieces, or a mix
1 small container of plain yogurt
1 clove of garlic, minced or pressed
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon paprika
several pinches of salt
lemon wedges for garnish

1. Sprinkle salt on the chicken pieces, and layer in a glass baking dish.
2. Mix yogurt, chili powder, paprika and garlic together.
3. Spread paste all over the chicken pieces, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or in the morning.
4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 425 F. degrees.
5. Line a baking pan with foil and arrange chicken pieces. Bake for approx. 40 minutes.
(You may need to pour off some of the juices midway, if you want the chicken to stay crispy on the outside.)
Serve on a platter with lemon wedges.

Israeli Couscous Pilaf
serves 4

1 cup Israeli couscous
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup water

1/2 cup nuts -- sliced almonds are good--toasted, as are pistachios
1/2 cup dried currants, or cranberries, apricots or raisins
1/2 cup chopped parsley, and/or chives

1 tablespoon of olive oil
juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the chicken broth/water mixture in a pan with the couscous. Bring to a brisk simmer and cook for approximately 8 minutes--testing the couscous. Do not overcook -- it gets gummy.

2. Drain and toss with nuts and dried fruit. Replace the lid on the pan and allow everything to sit for three or four minutes.

3. Toss with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper. Stir in fresh herbs and serve.