Once Upon a Chef: Weeknight/Weekend
One atypical evening last year, when I was in the thick of writing this cookbook and the country was in the beginning of a pandemic, my family was sitting around the kitchen table after dinner. The plates had all been cleared, but much to my surprise, Zach and Anna, my two teenagers, had not bolted upstairs to finish their homework or escape our nosy questions; rather, they were lingering at the table discussing their crazy new normal: missing their friends, kids dozing off during Zoom class, and how bored they were being stuck at home 24/7 with us. One conversation rolled seamlessly into the next, and soon we were talking about politics and world events. My husband, Michael, and I looked at each other in astonishment—here were two bright kids with their own thoughtful points of view, engaging in meaningful conversation at the dinner table. This was new!
In 2020, family dinner—and breakfast and lunch, for that matter—took on a whole new meaning. Life slowed to a crawl. All the kids’ extracurriculars were erased from our schedule. Michael was working from home, literally in the next room. Suddenly my family was sitting together around the kitchen table several times a day. It was a ton of cooking, even for me, but the silver lining was having more time to cook and connect over family meals.
When I first started collecting recipes as a new mom, years before I started my website Once Upon a Chef
, I kept them in a giant three-ring binder divided into two main sections: Weeknight and Weekend. That binder is long gone—it eventually became my blog—but to this day, it’s how I think about cooking. Like most everyone else, I need lots of quick and delicious weeknight dinners, but I don’t always want to rush around the kitchen—sometimes, I want to find joy in it.
With everyone suddenly working or “schooling” from home, I relied heavily on those easy weeknight recipes to get meals on the table without stress or fuss because, let’s face it, we all have had enough of that in our lives already! On the flip side, with endless time at home and lots of nervous energy to expend, my leisurely weekend recipes served not only as a calming activity but also as a welcome source of comfort food.
I know I wasn’t the only one experiencing the upside of cooking all of our meals. My sister-in-law, Sheryl, whose kids are 17, 21, and 23, told me that for the first time ever, her family was sitting down together for dinner every single night. My dear friend Dana assigned each of her kids dinner
duty one night a week—everything from planning, to cooking, to cleaning up—not only to keep them occupied but also to teach them how to cook. My readers learned to bake their own artisan breads, planted herb gardens with their kids, and cooked dinner with faraway family over Zoom. Though difficult in so many ways, the time at home was a reminder that cooking and sharing food is one of the best ways to create wonderful memories and strong family bonds.
When I think back to my own childhood, the first image that pops into my mind is sitting around the kitchen island eating dinner, listening to my parents share stories about work. My mom didn’t love to cook, to say the least—she jokes now that she would have made UberEats an instant success, had it been around in the seventies—but she made family dinner a priority, and what she cooked, she cooked well. One of my most treasured possessions is her old green tin recipe box, filled with splattered index cards written in her distinctive cursive, and faded magazine clippings that tell the story of my childhood and show how much she cared.
This cookbook is filled with recipes that make up my family’s memories. It’s the food I make on weeknights and weekends, birthdays and holidays, crazy days and lazy days. It’s old family favorites that fill the house with familiar aromas and warmth—and new recipes, too, because kids grow up, palates change, and we all get tired of the same ol’ same.
It’s the Strawberries & Cream Layer Cake (page 252) that I make every year for my husband’s June birthday, the Eastern Shore Crab Soup (page 25) we discovered on the Chesapeake Bay, and the “Lucky” Sausage & Cheddar Drop Biscuits (page 216) I bake on the mornings my kids have to fuel up for a big test or game.
It’s the Baked Ziti with Sausage (page 104) I make on Friday nights when my parents come over because it’s my dad’s favorite. It’s loads of just-plain-delicious and kid-friendly weeknight dinners that have earned a spot in our rotation, like Saucy Sesame–Ginger Meatballs (page 119) and Pecorino & Rosemary–Crusted Chicken (page 131). And, finally, it’s “cheffy” recipes, like Dijon & Panko–Crusted Rack of Lamb (page 167) or Arugula, Crispy Feta & Watermelon Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette (page 37), because sometimes there are good things to celebrate and the chef in me needs to eat, too.
My hope is that the recipes in this book bring the people you care about around the table, and that they help you find joy in cooking, too. At the end of the day, sometimes we cook because we have to and sometimes because we love to, but either way, the reward is the same. My motivation during the week centers on my family getting the nourishment and face-to-face time we all need—and I love how busy nights prove our ability to get through the storm and anchor ourselves at the table. On the weekends, I find comfort digging my hands into pillowy dough or tending a slow-cooking stew that fills the house with delicious anticipation, and I feel a sense of satisfaction when I’ve created something delicious that can be shared with family or friends.
Finally, since cooking is more fun when recipes turn out as promised, know that I have thoroughly tested every recipe in this book in my home kitchen. I’m also lucky enough to have hundreds of volunteer recipe testers—avid home cooks, retired home economics teachers, and even some aspiring teenage chefs—who helped me ensure that the recipes are foolproof and family-approved. I hope that with each recipe completed, you feel more confident in the kitchen. And remember, I’m just an email or DM (if you’re an Instagram or Facebook person!) away if you ever have any questions. Drop me a line through my website—I’d love to hear from you!