Quick Meals for a Weekend Summer Staycation

Growing up across the street from a city beach in Boston, I learned very early in life from my mom, my aunts, and our neighbors how to make the most of every precious sunny summer day. Most weekdays, this tight knit group of stay-at-home wives and mothers got up early, dispatched with breakfast and housework before mid morning, packed a picnic lunch, rounded up the neighborhood kids, and headed for the beach.Scan

The lunches were pretty standard fare – ham and cheese, tuna salad, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with fruit and some “store-bought” cookies for dessert. Sometimes the adults got a little creative. On a day when a chilly wind blew in from the ocean, they would fill a wide-mouthed thermos with hot water, drop in a few steamed frankfurters, pack some rolls and mustard, and treat us to a hot lunch. How we savored the little unpretentious meal that warmed our insides as our teeth chattered and we shivered beneath the big shabby bath towels our moms thought most appropriate for the sand, seaweed, and grit  of our local beach.

lateJunebouquetpgNow more than half a century later, I still incorporate the strategies I learned in my childhood concerning how to appreciate the gift of a beautiful summer day. If one has to  work and can’t get away to the ocean or a lake, one can usually manage to step outdoors, look at the blue sky, breathe deeply, listen to the sounds of summer, and maybe even pick a bouquet of whatever is around to take home as a reminder of a lovely day.

This past weekend was one of the most beautiful in recent memory, with nearly cloudless skies, low humidity, warm breezes, and the late sunsets of early summer. I was unable to get away to the beach, drive to the mountains, or even to leave my own backyard.What I could do, however, was to follow the lead of my mom and her friends and give myself a few days off. I took a little staycation, spending as much time outdoors as possible, puttering around the garden, reading the Sunday papers and sipping iced tea on the deck, and preparing easy meals with what I had on hand.

When I heard the rosy weather forecast on Saturday morning, I spent about an hour in the kitchen after breakfast preparing in advance for some quick meals for the rest of the weekend. I baked a batch of brownies, sliced up some fruit, washed and dried some mixed lettuce, hard boiled a half dozen eggs, and made some concentrate for iced tea by steeping five teabags in a small cup of water for about 45 minutes.

For dinner on Saturday night, we had ham steaks, pineapple rings, and zucchini halves, all cooked on the outdoor grill, a tossed salad, fruit and brownies for dessert, and iced tea. Prep time took about thirty minutes.

Sunday brunch consisted of orange juice, scrambled eggs and bacon, English muffins with blueberry jam, sliced fruit, and coffee.

deviled eggsFor supper on Sunday evening, I made good use of the leftovers from Saturday’s cookout as well as those hard-boiled eggs by fixing ham salad sandwiches and deviled eggs. To round out the meal, I served sliced tomatoes with an oil and vinegar dressing topped with chopped basil from the garden. I had enough leftover brownies, fruit, and iced tea for the finish.  Following are my recipes for the ham salad and deviled eggs.

                                    Leftover Ham Salad

1 cup of cubed ham,  1/2 cup of chopped grilled pineapple rings, 1/4 cup of chopped green onions,  1/4 cup of chopped green pepper, and mayonnaise.

Place all the ingredients except the mayonnaise into the bowl of a food processor and

pulse until all are finely chopped and of uniform size. Empty contents into a small bowl

and add mayonnaise a tablespoon at a time until it reaches the desired consistency.

Spread on toasted whole wheat bread or rolls lined with lettuce.  Enough filling to make 4

sandwiches.

Deviled Eggs (adapted from James Beard’s American Cookery, 1972)

6 hard boiled eggs, shells removed, 1 tsp of Dijon mustard, 1/8 tsp hot sauce,  1/8 tsp of salt or to taste, 1/4 tsp ground black pepper, 1/2 tablespoon of minced chives or grated onion, mayonnaise, and paprika or chopped parsley for garnish

Slice the eggs carefully lengthwise, place whites on a plate, and mash yolks in a small bowl.

Add the next five ingredients and mix well.

Add the mayonnaise a spoonful at a time until the mixture forms a firm paste.

Carefully fill each egg white half with the yolk mixture and sprinkle the tops with paprika, and/or chopped parsley.

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Baked Macaroni with Three Cheeses

While Macaroni and Cheese is universally considered to be the ultimate in comfort food and is usually associated with the fall and winter months, it is also a staple of buffet dinners at any time of the year. Since this is the season of celebrations – graduations, reunions, showers, farewell parties, and open houses – I decided to post our family recipe for this well-loved dish.

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I first began to make Macaroni and Cheese from scratch after my aunts, Jessie and Tina, came to take care of our toddler and my live-in mother-in-law when I had our second child. Aunt Jessie, a truly talented cook, checked with me beforehand about meal planning, and we worked out the menus together. Macaroni and Cheese was one of the dishes we selected. It was such a hit that I asked Aunt Jessie for the recipe, and, with a few tweaks, I have been making it ever since.

Jessie and Tina were my father’s two youngest sisters. At the time that they helped us out with caregiving support, they were living together in an apartment not far from the neighborhood where they had grown up and near several other family members. Both were single at the time – Jessie was divorced and Tina was twice widowed. They had faced many challenges throughout their lives beginning with the debilitating illness of their mother, who was stricken with encephalitis lethargica shortly after the birth of her eighth child. She spiraled into total helplessness and was bedridden for nearly eighteen years before passing away a few weeks after the death of her youngest son, a tragic casualty of “friendly fire” during World War II.

Jessie had left high school in the ninth grade to devote full-time to caring for her mother and running the household. Tina was still very young when their mother became ill. She managed to finish high school, an accomplishment which was a source of pride and about which she joked from time to time. She was the comedienne in the family, having learned at an early age how to cope with adversity through humor. With red hair and big eyes, she was delighted when people compared her to Lucille Ball, whom she admired greatly. Jessie was more serious, with soulful brown eyes and soft auburn hair. She had an air of serenity about her as she gracefully went about her daily routines. Jessie’s seven siblings all loved her deeply and were forever grateful for the sacrifices she made for the family.

Aunt Jessie learned to cook out of necessity, developing quite a flair for perfecting the Italian specialities that were the mainstay of her mother’s meals and also for replicating dishes of any type that she tasted at restaurants or enjoyed in the homes of others. She could turn out memorable dinners, such as savory ciambotta (vegetable stew) and liver patties with a bay leaf artfully placed in the middle of each, using the most humble  ingredients.

I make her Macaroni and Cheese frequently these days, because it is my grandson’s favorite. Whenever he is coming to dinner, he invariably  requests it, and I always comply. Who could resist his entreaty? “Please, Mimi, you make the best Macaroni and Cheese in the whole world.”  Thank you Aunt Jessie.

Macaroni and Three Cheeses  *Serves about a dozen as part of a buffet meal. 

Boil 3 cups of elbow macaroni in a large saucepan for 10 minutes and drain well.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter over medium heat and add 6 tablespoons of flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons of dry mustard, and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper stirring with a wooden spoon to make a roux. When bubbly, whisk in 6 cups of milk, bring to a boil over medium high heat, and then reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring frequently, until smooth and thick.

Add 3 cups of mixed cheeses, such as sharp Cheddar and Swiss, shredded or cubed, and stir until melted.

Layer sauce and macaroni in a lasagna dish or two smaller glass casseroles that have been coated with cooking spray or buttered, beginning and ending with the cheese sauce. Finish with a topping of breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, and paprika.

Cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until hot and bubbly. Remove foil and bake a few  minutes longer to allow top to brown.

After removing from the oven, let the casserole rest for a few minutes before serving.

*To serve four, reduce all ingredients by half ( 1 1/2 cups of elbow macaroni, 3 tablespoons of butter and flour, 3/4 teaspoon of salt and dry mustard, 1/8 teaspoon of pepper, 3 cups of milk and 1 1/2 cups of mixed cheeses).

Note: Aunt Jessie always topped the last layer of cheese sauce with a few slices of American cheese, torn into large pieces, before sprinkling with the toping ingredients for added creaminess. Then, of course, the dish would be Macaroni with Four Cheeses 🙂