Archive for Family Dinner

Family Dinner

Forget Your Perfect Offering: Family Pizza Night

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling Author, Book Club, Family NightI’ve been thinking lately about an old Leonard Cohen poem that warns of the diminishing returns of perfectionism: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

I repeat this phrase over and over to myself as a kind of mantra, which allows me to celebrate family dinner as a journey rather than a destination, a process rather than a result.  This is a survival mechanism, since perfect victories have been few and far between on this road so far.

I’ll be honest: last week was a gong show.  I got the flu, which created a domino effect of no groceries in the house and weakened wills all around.  You know what?  I don’t really want to talk about it.  Nothing good happened.

This week though, we started strong with homemade pizza.  The boys got a kick out of stretching the dough, which was the first time I’d managed to get them involved in dinner preparation, which every book on family dinner insists is key to the overall success of the project.  Here’s the best thing about making pizza:  You can make more than one!  Some people can eat pepperoni pizza, while others may choose to have wheat crust with leeks, field mushrooms, sundried tomatoes and truffle oil (to pick a few ingredients at random).

The crust was too thick, and a little soggy, and the accompanying salad was mostly ignored.  But our youngest son, and most hostile food critic, declared: “We should do this more often.”  We had Songza on in the background – a glorious ‘80s and ‘90s ‘guilty pleasures’ mix – and the kids popped out of their seats every few minutes to bust out some dance moves.  All I can say is that you really haven’t appreciated the pure brilliance of ‘Insane in the Membrane’ until you’ve seen a 6-year old dance to it.

We’ll deal with table manners next year.  That’s how the light gets in.

Family Dinner

Rib Night and Other Disappointments

Kate Hilton, best macaroni and cheese recipeFear not, gentle readers.  I haven’t given up on family dinner, at least not yet.  The journey continues.  This week, however, my blogging energies were consumed by the start of before- and after-school activities, my husband’s eye surgery and a canine houseguest who used my entire house as a toilet.  Not cool.

I started strong, with back-to-back efforts: Rib Night, and the long-awaited Mac & Cheese Night.

My husband was so excited about Rib Night that he left work early to smoke the ribs on the Green Egg.  The results were incredible.  I have to say, if you have a passion for barbecue and some discretionary income burning a hole in your pocket, you might want to consider a Green Egg.  It really is worth the effort.   Three out of four members of my family agree.  The other one wept copiously, ate three slices of cucumber and retired to his room early.

Having worked myself (and my entire family) up for mac & cheese, I was invested in its success.  I decided to buy a little insurance by adding bacon.  I even purchased really thick, expensive bacon from the butcher, and used an amazing recipe from the Kitchen Treaty website: http://www.


  • 8 oz. (1/2 pound or about 1¾ cups) macaroni or other medium tubular pasta (like penne or conchiglie)*
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon dry mustard
  • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon smoked paprika plus more for sprinkling on top
  • 2½ cups 2% milk
  • 3 cups grated medium cheddar cheese*


  1. Boil the pasta until al dente, according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking, and return to the pan you boiled it in. Set aside. (Mix in a little butter to keep the noodles from sticking if it’s going to be awhile before you make the sauce)
  2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  3. Over medium heat, melt the butter.
  4. Add the flour, salt, dry mustard, pepper, and ⅛ teaspoon smoked paprika. Stir constantly over medium heat for about three minutes.
  5. Stir in the milk.
  6. Keeping on medium heat, whisk constantly for about 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens.
  7. Remove from heat, and stir in 2 cups of the cheese, stirring until melted.
  8. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles and toss gently until all noodles are covered.
  9. Add half the noodles to a two quart casserole dish.
  10. Sprinkle on half the cheese.
  11. Add the rest of the noodles.
  12. Sprinkle on the rest of the cheese, and dust lightly with the smoked paprika.
  13. Bake for about 25-30 minutes, until it starts getting a slightly dry and a tiny bit brown on top. Serve, topping individual servings with cooked, chopped bacon if desired.

My husband and I both agree that this is a fantastic mac & cheese recipe.  It’s simple, hearty and not at all dry.  The smoked paprika adds just the right amount of interest.  Our children managed two whole mouthfuls (each), before declaring it ‘slimy’.  They also agreed that thick bacon is even better than everyday bacon. (Incidentally, did you know that there is a website called ‘Bacon Today: Daily News on the World of Sweet, Sweet Bacon’? Check it out at  The internet is one crazy place.)

We finished the week with pork tenderloin.  Or, I should say, I finished the week with pork tenderloin.  It was a very hot day, and after soccer practice in the blazing sun, the slightly more adventurous of my eaters was a basket case.  It was the one thing too many, for all concerned.  Subs were purchased and joyously consumed.  And then I had a quiet dinner by myself.  Paired with stir-fried vegetables, couscous and a crisp glass of white, the tenderloin was delicious.

Family Dinner

Mac & Cheese, Interrupted

Kate Hilton, Corn on the Cobb, The Hole in the MiddleHere are some facts about mac & cheese that I found in preparation for today’s post:

  1. Kids (not mine) eat an average of 10 lbs of mac & cheese annually.
  2. Mac & cheese is consistently on the list of top ten favourite foods for kids (again, not mine).
  3. The recommended wine to serve with mac & cheese is Burgundy (good to know).

When I walked in the door, however, I was met with howls of despair.  Son #1, attempting some kind of mac & cheese inoculation, had tried a small amount of the food in question at lunch, and learned that it was not merely theoretically disgusting, but disgusting in fact.  Not only that, but he’d had the kind of bad day that only steak could fix.

I would have disbelieved him, except that he had a spot of violently orange powdered cheese on his gym shirt.  And by the time he had finished berating me, I was ready to pass the responsibility for dinner over to my husband.  I called and told him to pick up steaks.

And so it came to pass that we ate individually tailored combinations of steak, asparagus, radicchio (OK, I’m the only one who ate the radicchio) and corn.  Everyone ate the corn.  We talked about the relative merits of tuba and trombone, soccer try-outs and butt chocolate.

And the sun went down on another day.

P.S.  Butt chocolate? Don’t use that expression in French class.  Your teacher won’t like it.

Family Dinner

Family Dinner Part Two: A Shaky Start

Kate Hilton, Keep Calm, Best Selling AuthorI’m drinking a glass a wine as I write this, having just yelled: “Do I need to come in there?”  This should give you a sense of how well family dinner went today.

Tonight was turkey and corn night.  Smoked turkey, to be precise.  I have a lot of it in my freezer at the moment, because my husband and I had a miscommunication over the weekend and we each bought a 20-pound bird for the Labour Day Green Egg turkey-smoking project (we’re Canadian).  In order to work through the great turkey surplus of 2013, I have postponed mac and cheese night.

Incidentally, here is an incredible method for cooking corn that I just learned over the weekend.  It’s a total game-changer.  Put full ears of corn in the microwave on high heat, four minutes per ear of corn (I haven’t tried more than two at a time).  When the time is up, use a sharp knife to cut the thick end off.  Grasp the top of the ear firmly (it will be very hot, so use an oven mitt, or paper towel), and squeeze.  The perfectly cooked cob should slide right out, leaving you holding the husk and silk.  Amazing.  I’ll never boil corn again.

And yes, I digress.  That’s on purpose.  Here’s what happened:  Everyone ate the corn.  One child ate the turkey.  The other steadfastly refused to touch it, and wept until a hot dog was proffered.

Let’s call it a draw.  Onward.

Family Dinner

Operation Family Dinner: The First Forkful

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling AuthorAnyone who thinks that the year starts in January doesn’t have school-age children.  The rest of us understand that September is the month of fresh starts, clean slates and ambitious resolutions.  And this year, I’m tackling family dinner.

My kids are the worst eaters.  Really.  I know people say that, and then it turns out they mean that their kids don’t eat raw sushi, only vegetarian rolls and shrimp.  That’s not what I mean.  I mean that in my house, bacon is a food group.  I mean that my kids don’t eat pasta.  I mean that they only eat pepperoni pizza from one delivery joint.  It’s serious.  Not to mention shameful for an avowed foodie and reasonably serious home cook like me.

So this September, after years of resistance, we are embracing family dinner.  We commenced a negotiation with our children (aged 10 and 6) to arrive at a menu for Week 1.  As a starting point, I pulled out Lucinda Scala Quinn’s cookbook, Mad Hungry.  “I will cook anything in this book,” I declared.

We started with penne and meatballs.  The boys helped me make the meatballs, which were, it must be said, magnificent looking.  Does it matter that the boys looked as though they had been stuck with cattle prods as they choked down the requisite number of bites (two meatballs for one; five pieces of penne for the other)?  Does it matter that we resorted to bribery (“I’ll give you a dollar if you eat five more pieces.” “No, thanks. Not worth it.”)?

No.  What matters is that they both ate a plate of lettuce to avoid eating any more penne and meatballs.  Lettuce!  That’s a win.

Stay tuned.  Macaroni and cheese is coming up next.

Family Dinner, Working Motherhood

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Kate Hilton, The Hole in the Middle, Best Selling AuthorOur guidebook advises that Panzano is the loveliest hill town in Chianti, and we see no reason to disagree.  Perched high above a valley dotted with olive groves and vineyards, Panzano is note-perfect, right down to the clusters of local men who sit in the town square drinking and gossiping all afternoon and rising only occasionally to ring in sales for tourists.  Nevertheless, Panzano’s charm is just gravy on the main attraction: we’re here to see the butcher.

Much has been written about Dario Cecchini, arguably the most famous butcher in the world.  A passionate advocate of forgotten and unappreciated cuts (think beef knees), Cecchini believes in using and enjoying the whole animal.  Thanks to Bill Buford’s memoir Heat, which dedicated several chapters to the charismatic and volatile butcher, the Antica Macelleria Cecchini has become a required stop for North American foodies in Tuscany.

My husband, Rob, has planned our trip so that we can sample the five-course beef tasting menu at Officina della Bistecca, one of the three restaurants that Cecchini operates within steps of his shop.  “The first course is beef tartare,” he tells me.  “The second course is beef tartare that’s been passed near a flame.”  Shortly before we leave for Italy, while trolling Cecchini’s website in anticipation, he realizes that we can do more that just eat in Panzano; we can work at the butcher shop for the day.  “We get a souvenir apron!” Rob tells me.

All travel involves some compromise between spouses.  I, for example, am making Rob rent a car and navigate roundabouts, an activity that nearly ended our marriage a decade ago.  So I’m prepared to accumulate some goodwill at the butcher shop.  I tell Rob to book it.

When we arrive, we meet Cecchini’s wife, Kim, an American who has lived in Italy for 25 years and Cecchini himself. Apparently, very few people sign up for Butcher for a Day, and they seem genuinely delighted to have us there.  Kim gives us our schedule: a tour of the meat locker and the restaurant kitchen, followed by some hard labor making sausages in the shop.

At the meat locker, we are handed off to Liam, an apprentice butcher from Saskatoon, who has a tattoo on his neck of a heart wreathed in sausages: he’s obviously committed to the project. Liam is spending a year in Europe, refining his culinary techniques, and hopes to return home to Canada eventually and open a French restaurant in Montreal.  For now, he takes us into the cold room where four men stand around a table, butchering huge slabs of meat with elegant efficiency.  It’s fascinating, and oddly peaceful to watch.  Liam introduces us, and adds that Orlando, the eldest in the group, has been a butcher for 60 years.  “He taught Dario’s father,” Liam tells us.

Liam asks what brings us here, and I mention Buford’s book.  Orlando (lionized in Heat as ‘the Maestro’) pauses for a moment, raises an eyebrow, and then continues gliding his knife over the filet that is emerging from the carcass on the table.  I think I’ll keep the fact that I’m a writer to myself.  The knives are remarkably sharp.

Next, we stop in at the kitchen to watch Simonetta making olive oil cakes.  Actually, she is making batter for four cakes, each the size of a manhole cover.  Anyone who has slaved over a cake only to watch it collapse knows that you deviate from a baking recipe at your peril.   The ‘recipe’ for this cake, though, is entirely in Simonetta’s head, and begins with 90 eggs, a few macerated oranges and three kilos of sugar.   At one point, she declares that the batter requires an additional kilo of sugar.  When I ask how she knows, she shrugs and tells me she can ‘feel’ it as she whisks.  Then she adds most of a cask of olive oil and something in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a bottle of Italian brandy, and sprinkles a few pine nuts on top: “Not too many; they’re expensive.”  Later, I confide to Kim that I think Simonetta is a genius.  Kim agrees, and tells me the recipe changes every time, but is always delicious.

Now we are deemed ready to make sausages.  We put on our aprons.  Miko, our supervisor, pours two huge bags of ground pork on a marble table along with a considerable amount of minced garlic and indicates that we should start kneading it.  When this is done to his satisfaction, he leads us back to Dario for the preparation of the final ingredient.  Dario pours salt and pepper into a bowl and begins working the mixture with one hand.  After a minute or so, he holds it out for us to smell, and it is astonishing: the heat of the hand-mixing has added a hint of something smokier, more complex.  Are there other ingredients?  Cecchini nods.  “Amore!” he says, “Passione!” We take the magic elixir, and return to our station to stuff and tie the sausages into links.

We lunch at the communal table upstairs, gorging ourselves on porchetta and Tuscan meatloaf, not to mention the spectacular olive oil cake.  As we stop by the shop on our way out, Miko is behind the counter, selling our sausages.  Dario presents us with our aprons, which he signs with a flourish, and embraces us when we tell him what a wonderful day we’ve had.  As we leave, we hear the American tourists behind us negotiating for the purchase of an apron.  “You can’t buy them,” Kim says firmly.  “You have to earn them.”

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