As the evenings grow dark earlier here, dinner is becoming a less festive time of day for me, which is a bit of a bummer, because there’s something about the melancholy of autumn I find quite lovely, and because I feel like mother nature affords us a little respite from the grey via the vibrant changing leaves, and all the lovely new fruit and veg the season proffers. I just miss the sun. But I do appreciate all the afore-mentioned goodies…Around here, it’s all about apples and pears, walnuts and chestnuts, potimarrons, butternuts & pumpkins (though the meatier European variety – awful for jack-o-lanterns but lovely for all sorts of edibles).
Autumn and winter food just feels like dinner food for me, because as an American of Anglo-Germanic traditions, dinner is the most comfort-driven meal of the day. It’s the part of the day when I’m typically most hungry (though this is changing as I get older), and it’s definitely the part of the day when I feel I’ve earned a big, hot sit-down meal that fills my belly.
Thing is – that’s often a terrible idea.
One thing US Americans used to get right (maybe Canadians too? I honestly don’t know…) is the time of day we ate dinner. Grandmas, grandpas and little ones tucked in around 5-ish, while the rest of us usually sat down to eat somewhere between 6 and 7. Dinner at 8 was for going out. And yet, the times, alas, are a-changing. We finish work later, we commute to and from further, and dinner quite often starts at a fashionably European hour – 8 or 9 and sometimes even later.
The thing is, Europeans eat a lot less than us at dinnertime. Last year I went on a 4-day excursion with some of my French students to a little island in the English Channel called Guernsey. Some of the kids stayed with us in scout camp-type accommodation, while some stayed in pairs with Anglophone families on the island for a full immersion experience. The kids who stayed with the families came to whine after the first day: Madame, they eat so strangely here! We’re starving at lunchtime and can’t finish our dinners!
It is not unusal for French kids to have two sandwiches, a bag of chips, a fruit, a pot of yogurt and a dessert of some kind (they like sweets around here) for lunch. That is a big lunch by my standards. And don’t forget that they also have goûter – a little mini-meal – at about 4:00. Dinner, however, is often comprised merely of a salad and a piece of meat with some bread, or a bowl of soup with a hunk of cheese, followed of course by yogurt.
What’s the lesson here? There isn’t one really – except that every culture has its own way of consuming calories, and yet ours has kind of gotten screwed up a little, because while we supped earlier once upon a time, thus negating the need for a goûter and necessitating a larger quantity of chow, we now eat much later, and our bodies are not liking the fact that we’re still going for the meat, potoatoes & veg upon which we used to dine. Late dining Stateside has been blamed for a lot of unhappiness, including acid reflux and weight gain.
What’s to be done? Well, I know there are those who are vigilantly opposed to snacking, but if I don’t have a snack at 4:00 when I’m eating at 8:00, I can assure you I will eat too much when I finally do dig in. Also I will be cranky and have an upset stomach. But we should try to eat earlier – aim to finish eating at least 3 hours before we hit the sack. And that means no cheeky bowl of cereal or ice cream an hour before bed, either! Though I’m all about dessert, particularly since I quit smoking. A square (or two) of dark chocolate has become my end-of-dinner ritual.
Of course, no “What’s on Your Plate” would be complete without a recipe, so in light of the season, here’s two squash pasta recipes that are super fast (like 30 minutes tops), healthy and tasty. The first one’s C’s own, although I have to say that he needs reminders every year because he forgets how he makes it. The second one we’ve gotten down to a science between the two of us.
C’s Crazy Delicious Butternut Pasta with Garlic & Rosemary :
- Jamie Oliver-sized glug of olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped (yeah – get crazy…add even more if you fancy)
- 1 average-size butternut squash, peeled & chopped into 1-inch cubes
- Leaves from 1 small-ish sprig rosemary (about a tsp worth), fresh or dry or in-between, depending on what you can get your hands on
- Salt & pepper to taste (we’re pretty liberal here – I’d say 1/2 tsp to a tsp of each)
- Enough pasta of your choice for 4 (we go in for fusilli most often)
Heat olive oil in a big skillet for a minute, then add rosemary and garlic and allow to sizzle for a minute or so, until the garlic just starts to turn golden. Add the squash, salt and pepper, and mix it all in with a wooden spoon or spatula so the squash gets nice and coated in oil, garlic and rosemary. Once that’s going, start and finish your pasta (remember to rinse it with the olive oiled, salted water you cooked it in – much nicer than rinsing it with plain old cold water) and meanwhile keep an eye on the squash and turn it every 4-5 minutes, for about 20-25 minutes in full. When it’s done, the squash will be pretty soft and starting to brown in places, but not all over. You don’t want it turning to mush. Fold in your pasta and serve with parmesan if you fancy.
* AWESOME HINT! If you’re only cooking for 2 or if you go in for smaller portions than do C and I, you can freeze down the other half of your squash thusly: peel and cube it as if you were going to cook it. line a cookie sheet with wax paper and lay out cubes evenly, leave several hours in freezer or over night. Once frozen, dump them in ziplocks and return to the freezer. They cook almost as quickly right out of the freezer!
Courgette/Zucchini Pasta with Tofu, Dill and Capers:
- Jamie Oliver-sized glug of olive oil (in case you missed that link earlier…it’s pretty funny)
- 4 cloves garlic (or more…you get the idea)
- 400 grams extra firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 4 small to medium courgettes (or zucchinis…depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re reading this from), grated
- Salt & pepper to taste
- Dried dill (I’m really liberal on dill because I think it’s amazing…but use as much as you like or none at all – it’s good even without it)
- 2 tbsp capers
- Enough pasta of your choice for 4 (this one’s also nice with spaghetti or penne, but any pasta’s fine)
Heat olive oil in a big skillet for a minute, then add garlic and allow to sizzle for a minute or so, until the garlic just starts to turn golden. Gently drop in tofu so cubes are spread evenly over the skillet. Sprinkle a generous helping of salt, pepper & dill over the top (remember tofu’s more or less tasteless, so you’ll put more than you would on chicken, for example). Then turn the tofu a few times so it’s nice and coated in the oil and garlic, and cover. Leave it to grill for 5-6 minutes while you’re getting your pasta started, then turn it gently with a big, flat spatula so you can see brown on the tops and leave it covered for another 5-6 minutes. This way you can be sure it’s grilled well on at least 2 sides! By this point you can usually add the courgette – I would taste one of the tofu cubes to make sure it’s salted well enough, because the courgette’s greedy and once it’s in, the tofu won’t get anymore of the flavors you add. I turn the tofu one last time, then gently layer half of the courgette over the top, sprinkling 1/2 the salt, pepper and dill I’m adding, then top it off with the last of the courgette and the rest of the seasoning. Then I take a fork and work the seasoning right through the courgette without disturbing the tofu below, which consequently continues to grill, and cover for 4-5 more minutes. You’ll see the courgette diminish in size quite quickly…I tend to just start folding it into the tofu with the spatula as soon as that process starts. Add capers and fold into the mix. At this point you can either fold in your pasta and serve all mixed up, or you can serve it over the top of the pasta and mix it in at the table. Top with shredded cheese of your choice (or none at all for the vegans in the house, because this is seriously delish without it!) and dig in!
A few last thoughts on dinner more generally: if you’re trying to lose weight, this is the worst time to indulge in huge portions or unhealthy grub, so look after yourself. If you’re starving, have a healthy, considered snack before you start preparing so you don’t mindlessly graze until dinnertime. If you know you won’t be able to eat until late, get yourself a goûter and then have a smaller meal later on – consider your dinner split in two. Go in for flavors at dinner rather than big portions – lots of herbs and onions and garlic, for example! When you need nourishing, as I often do come evening, fill up on healthy soups full of veggies (not potatoes). Try to eat not less than 3 hours before bed, and if you get the munchies late at night, go easy – digesting makes it hard to sleep and is best done while waking.
How about you guys? What are your favorite dinnertime comfort foods? What are your tricks for avoiding late night snacking?