Thursday’s Dish: At Table with Laura Arnold

I met Laura Arnold a few years ago when she led a Personal Renewal Group (PRG) for moms. I was drawn to her group because she said it was for women working in (or interested in) “arts of the table.” I was going through a stressful transition, preparing to leave the world of full-time work to stay at home with my then 3-year-old daughter, while my husband, who had been staying home, transitioned to corporate life. As a food editor and mom in need of some balance, the group sounded just right.

As you can imagine, we had good conversation and good food in a warm environment. Indeed, I felt renewed. Laura was going through a transition herself at the time, leaving the corporate world and pursuing her dream of helping people “return to the table.” That dream is now a reality with her company, At Table. At her website, you can find workshops, classes and other events geared to invite people to gather round the dining table as a way to connect and relax.

Here, she talks about her vision and offers some advice about family meals, plus shares two of her favorite recipes:

What motivated you to start At Table?

I had always wanted to do something with food, ever since I was a teenager growing up in my mom’s cookware store, Bon Appetit, here in Austin.

I am most passionate about helping people enjoy cooking and encouraging them to connect with each other over good food, gathered around the table. At Table helps me express that through the classes we teach, our website, blog and newsletter.

The art of preparing food and sharing meals together is a vital part of being human, and I believe it is worth preserving in our modern age where it is increasingly difficult to cook at home and eat together with friends and family. Food is one of the most natural ways for us to express ourselves and connect in an easy, comforting way. The mission for At Table is to foster a community to support and sustain that sense of connection through food and sharing meals.

How often do you cook at home?

I usually cook Monday through Thursday during the week, and plan my meals in advance so I know what I will be making and don’t have to stress every day about what I’m going to be making that night.

Friday is usually our night off where we eat out or order in—it’s a good way to wind down the week. Since we love to entertain, we usually get together with friends to cook dinner on Saturday nights. On Sundays, I like to cook a comforting and easy meal at home that gets us centered and grounded for the week.

It can be hard to juggle school, sports, activities, work and everything else in our busy lives and still sit down at the dinner table. But I think it is really important for families to carve time out to share at least some meals together. The simple daily ritual of sharing a meal is a great way to stay connected.

I know it may sound hard to do, but by making it a priority, you can find the time. If you don’t already have a routine, I’ve found it helps to start small and plan to have just a few meals together at the table each week. After it becomes a habit, you won’t want to miss it.

What advice would you give people who want to start cooking for their families more, but don’t have much experience in the kitchen?

My advice is to start with the basics, and master a few simple recipes and techniques that you can use in multiple variations. For example, if you learn how to sauté chicken breasts, you can prepare easy weeknight meals in a flash using this technique and adding variety by preparing different sauces and side dishes. I also recommend trying different recipes and finding a handful that really suit your taste and style. These can be your “go-to” recipes that you are most comfortable with and that you can prepare and serve with ease.

The simplest way to learn to cook is to find a friend or family member who is a good cook, and ask them to help you with the basics. This is the way our mothers and grandmothers learned to cook, and it is still the most meaningful and rewarding.

In addition, most local cooking schools offer classes in basic techniques, or you can teach yourself using excellent “teaching” books such as Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” or the eternal classic “The Joy of Cooking”. I recommend building a cookbook library that reflects your cooking style, or drawing on the vast resources of the web—there are great sites out there to support every kind of cook. My website has a list of my favorites for anyone looking for a place to start.

I also am a big fan of the cooking shows on channels such as the Food Network. Finding shows you like, with hosts you can relate to, can make you excited about cooking and open to trying new things. My other big tip is to not be afraid to make mistakes. The more you cook, the more comfortable you get. And you really can sometimes learn the most from your biggest disasters. We’ve all had them!

Besides running At Table and leading PRGs, you also have a 10-year-old son and you and your husband own two restaurants, ZuZu Handmade Mexican Food (two locations). How do you balance work, family life and time for yourself?

To keep balance in my life, I try to practice some self-care every day to manage my energy and keep my focus on the things that matter most. I also rely a lot on a strong support network, and don’t try to be perfect and do it all.

In the kitchen, I get support from my son, Daniel, who likes to help cook and prep and who has the job of setting the table and clearing dishes. My husband, Russell, is a great griller and sometimes does the cooking when I am not in the mood. The key is to find out what people enjoy doing and what they are good at and enlist their help in those areas.

I also give myself a break if I don’t have time to cook or don’t feel like preparing a full meal. On those nights, we might have sandwiches or an easy pasta. We also keep frozen pizza crust on hand so we can make quick and easy pizzas for a super easy weeknight meal. I’ve learned it is hard, if not impossible, to perfectly balance work, family and self. What works for me is to figure out which is most important at the time and put my energy there, knowing that the other areas will get my focus and energy later.

What’s your favorite food and dessert?

I love food with lots of bright flavor and reliance on good, fresh ingredients. In my pantry and fridge, I always have fresh lemons, olives (such as nicoise, picholine, kalamata), capers, feta cheese, a hunk of parmesano reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, a selection of good vinegars and different shapes of pasta. Food from the Mediterranean is probably my favorite because it tends to make use of all these great ingredients.

This recipe for chicken, lemons and olives (from “Food and Wine”, September 2008) is one of my all time favorites and represents the way I like to cook and eat. It is also easy and quick to prepare, which is always an added bonus. My taste tends to savory over sweet, so I don’t like overly rich or sweet desserts. I do love a good berry crisp like the one below (from “Quick Cuisine” by Ann Clark) or cobbler over ice cream. I like those fresh flavors and the butter topping, and the way it conjures up memories of being a kid.

Sautéed Chicken with Olives and Roasted Lemons

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

2 lemons, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Two 5-ounce bags baby spinachAdvertisement
2 tablespoons plain dry bread crumbs

Four 6-ounce skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

1/4 cup all-purpose flour, for dusting

1/2 cup pitted green Sicilian or Spanish olives, sliced

2 tablespoons drained capers

1 cup chicken stock or low-sodium broth

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small dice

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle olive oil on the parchment, then arrange the lemon slices in a single layer. Drizzle the lemons lightly with oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until the lemons begin to brown around the edges.

Meanwhile, heat a large, deep skillet. Add the spinach and cook over high heat, tossing, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a strainer; press out the liquid. Wipe out the skillet and heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in it. Add the bread crumbs and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until toasted, 2 minutes. Add the spinach, season with salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute.

In a deep medium skillet, heat the remaining 1/4 cup of oil. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dust with the flour, shaking off the excess. Cook the chicken over high heat, turning once, until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the olives, capers and stock and bring to a boil. Cook over high heat until the stock is reduced by about two-thirds, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted lemons, butter and parsley, season with salt and pepper and simmer just until the chicken is cooked through, about 1 minute. Transfer the chicken to plates and spoon the sauce on top. Serve the spinach on the side. Makes 4 servings.

Warm Berry Crisp

4 cups fresh berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or a mixture), quickly rinsed and dried; or 4 cups frozen berries

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons sugar

2/3 cup all purpose flour

2/3 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

Pinch ground allspice

Pinch ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

7 tablespoons unsalted butter

Plain yogurt, heavy cream or vanilla ice cream for serving

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. Mix together the berries, lemon juice and sugar and spread the mixture in the bottom of the pan. In a bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, spices and salt and cut the butter in with a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly.

Cover the berries with the topping and bake for 35 minutes, or until the topping is lightly browned and bubbly. Serve warm with yogurt, cream or ice cream. Makes 8 servings.

Written by: Shannon Oelrich

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