A simple meal for all generations: North Fork Chef

The younger set at poolside during the author’s recent family gathering. (Credit: John Ross)

This was the summer when the relatives came. Nine grandchildren, three sets of parents, a couple of in-laws and three dogs. A wonderful long-awaited gathering months in the making. Feeding this group is a labor of love, but for a chef who cooks from scratch using fresh ingredients it presents a challenge in 2017.

There was a time long ago when we assumed that a meal was an event where everyone sat down at once, a blessing or a toast was said or given and all the adults and children consumed their dinner — everyone eating the same thing at the same time, in the same place, enjoying the conversation and the time spent together. (It still happens in some homes.)

But we are now well into the third generation of the fast food/convenience revolution in America: eating on the run 24/7; drive-thru; eat in/take out; a convenience store every quarter-mile across America. McDonald’s is testing a new app and an in-store kiosk that will shave 10 seconds from the service time.

When one of my grandchildren says he or she is hungry, Mom or Dad has about 60 seconds to produce some food. It is not the kid’s fault and it’s not the parent’s fault; it is this high-energy, consumer-driven environment that is literally consuming us, perceiving time as a void that must be constantly filled — and fast.

Summer 2017: “We are so happy to be here, Grandpa. Just to let you know, my children are picky eaters. Sally only eats plain pasta with nothing on it. Jack will eat cheese slices, but only if they are the yellow ones. Pizza is OK, but Jimmy won’t eat tomato sauce and Jill won’t eat mozzarella cheese. None of them like seafood or vegetables, except for raw carrots (the little ones that come in a bag). But don’t worry too much about the kids, as they won’t be at the table for long.

“Now as far as the adults are concerned, we love the North Fork and all the local food that is so popular. Only Brenda is a vegan, Melissa is gluten-free and George is allergic to shellfish. Charlotte doesn’t eat any dairy and Norm will only eat meat and potatoes. All of us prefer local, organic, sustainable and happy food — as long as it doesn’t take too much time to prepare or cost too much.”

The operative words in dealing with this are that you must offer “options” while not breaking the laws of “convenience,” all the while staying calm.
In the family meal you must cover all bases and realize that a single menu doesn’t cover all. Leading up to the meal you must have food to grab while passing through the kitchen and you must have food to grab shortly after the meal for those who didn’t touch the meal.

It really isn’t all that difficult once you realize that a “meal” is an antiquated concept. “On demand” food is closer to the reality.

(Note: The above names and reflections are fictional. My actual family loves all kinds of food and is a pleasure to serve.)

Here are some “options” that might work:

Kid-friendly: macaroni and cheese. Yellow cheese slices on plain whole-wheat bread. For connoisseurs: grilled cheese on white bread. Pizza, half tomato sauce, half mozzarella cheese.

Seafood: boiled cold shrimp with cocktail sauce and lemon. For connoisseurs, baked cod fillets with fresh corn. For the very adventurous, New England clam chowder.

Vegan: Grilled portabella mushrooms, zucchini, bell peppers and red onions combined with sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil and oregano. Orecchiette pasta boiled with broccoli rabe and tossed with grilled vegetables and basil.

Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian: Ratatouille and grilled polenta.

Meat and potatoes: Hamburger steaks with mashed potatoes.

Dessert: chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting.

Food to grab before dinner: cold cubes of watermelon.

Food to grab after dinner: mild cheddar cheese with saltines.

Primary beverage for children: apple juice.

Beverage to calm down the chef: Gin, lime, tonic.

Note: The above menu can be prepared in its entirety and served as a buffet and will satisfy most culinary issues. What it lacks in creativity it makes up for in variety. Having a summer family get-together is a wonderful experience.

John Ross