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A&E >  Food

Spokane families ease the dinner burden by sharing meals

Here’s one way to beat the weeknight dinner dash: Have a meal delivered.

Not by a driver schlepping a cardboard box, but by a friend. That’s what Spokane women Kim Niemi, Jenny Anastasi and Shannon Eaglin have been doing for more than two years.

The women take turns cooking meals for all three families. One night each week, the women whip up meals for everyone and deliver them hot to the doorsteps of the other families. And two other weeknights they sit back and wait for a delivery.

“I love it and I’m hoping it won’t end,” says Niemi.

Anastasi agrees: “If I had to do dinner every night, I don’t know what I’d do.”

When the dinner club started, there was a fourth family in the mix, but the women carried on even after they dropped out. They’ve also had breaks for Christmas and summer vacations and Niemi took a few months off after daughter number four was born this year.

Niemi says when Eaglin pitched the dinner club idea to her friends, she was willing to try anything to make dinners easier.

“At the time, my daughter was 6 months old, she’s my third, and dinner time was awful,” Niemi says. “You know, the baby would cry, the other two would need something and it was just no fun.”

They were resorting to take-out and delivery too often, and she says she felt like she was at the grocery store four and five times a week.

Eaglin says she suggested sharing meals with her friends’ families when she heard a radio story about a similar cooperative dinner effort. So, the women gathered up recipes for dinners they thought they might like to share and met to set a menu. At the time, they talked about whether the dinners should be picked up by each family, but settled on having the cook deliver as well.

They agreed to spend no more than $60 on dinners for everyone.

“Really, now I think on average we’re probably spending more like $25 to $30, unless it’s something like the steak or salmon that we might throw in occasionally,” says Eaglin.

The women meet about once every three months or so to set the menu and they try to bring some new recipes to try each time. They don’t make complicated gourmet meals – just something quick, homey and healthy that everyone enjoys.

They make sure each meal has a protein, starch and a vegetable and strive to keep things from getting too repetitive. They’ve learned to make adjustments for some nut allergies and other family preferences.

Anastasi fills out a spreadsheet so everyone knows what the menu will be and when they’re cooking.

“It is one less thing on my mind … having to think about what I’m cooking for dinner,” Eaglin says.

Niemi adds: “We know three months out what we’re having. It also helps with planning on our off days, to make sure that you don’t make spaghetti because you know that you’re expecting lasagna next week.”

The women say they feel lucky to have been able to maintain the club for two years. Some of the keys to success they say has been staying flexible, living near each other and having families that are pretty close in size. Niemi and her husband have the four girls ages 7, 4, 2 and 7 months; the Anastasis have two boys ages 8 and 6 and a 21/2-year-old daughter; the Eaglins’ children are 14 and 8.

But the women really attribute the success of the dinner club to their ability to be honest with each other about how things turn out.

“Because we knew other well enough we aren’t afraid to say what we really thought of things,” Niemi says. “It’s not personal, we’re just coming with recipes and trying them … but I can say, ‘I had to beg my children, bribe them to eat.’ ”

And some things they’ve had to learn the hard way. They’ve all had to deal with forgotten ingredients, delivery spills and near disasters. But only once in more than two years have they had to call in the backup plan – pizza delivery – when one of them was supposed to be cooking for everyone.

“It was me … I think I was just really, really sick,” Niemi says.

The women say they’ve found great recipes for the dinner exchange in the Taste of Home’s Quick Cooking magazine and from 30-minute meal maven Rachael Ray. They also turn to “Gold ’n’ Delicious” by The Junior League of Spokane and have found good recipes in a cookbook handed out at Costco wholesale.

They throw in a few breakfast dishes that have been popular, including quiche that is served with yogurt parfaits. There are a couple of dishes in the rotation that start with sauces made at local restaurants – such as Niemi’s Chicken Pad Thai, which uses Rock City Grill peanut sauce, and Eaglin’s Chicken Osaka made with sauce she buys at the Mustard Seed.

They’ve also found it’s just better to deliver uncooked hamburgers or steak and let each family grill dinner themselves.

The women started out with disposable dishes, but now have a few that just travel to different families. They also found a couple of extra slow cookers on sale that end up traveling around, especially this time of year when there is more than one crockpot recipe on the menu. And they’ve learned to buy in bulk the things they know they’ll use up for dinner club.

Here are a few of the recipes that make a regular appearance on their menus:

Chipotle Cashew Chicken with Rice

From Kim Niemi of Spokane. She adapted a Rachael Ray recipe for the dinner club.

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 large onion (1/4 finely chopped, 3/4 thinly sliced)

2 cups rice

4 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 pounds chicken breasts, cut into pieces

2 tablespoons grill seasoning (McCormick’s steak seasoning blend)

3 tablespoons dark soy sauce

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 red bell pepper (or veggie of choice, I use broccoli)

2 cans sliced water chestnuts

1 cup frozen peas (I use sugar snap peas)

3 tablespoons chipotle peppers in adobe sauce or 1 1/2 tablespoons chipotle powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

3 tablespoons honey

1/2 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley

1 cup raw cashews

In medium pot over medium heat combine olive oil and butter. When melted, add chopped onion. Cook 2 minutes and add rice. Cook another 3 minutes.

Add chicken stock and cover. Raise heat to bring to a rapid boil then reduce to low and let cook, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender, about 20-25 minutes.

While rice is cooking, make chicken. Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add vegetable oil, then chicken. Season chicken with grill seasoning. Brown on both sides then add soy sauce. Push meat off to side of pan.

Add remaining onions, garlic and peppers. Cook 2 to 3 minutes. Then add water chestnuts and peas. Mix veggies and meat together. Add chipotle and cumin, tossing to coat. Glaze mixture with honey and maple syrup.

Turn off heat and add chopped cilantro or parsley and cashews. Top rice with chicken mixture and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Chicken Breast with Apple Cream Sauce

From The Junior League of Spokane’s “Gold ’n’ Delicious”

4 boneless chicken breast halves, skinned

¼ cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup white onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup Granny Smith apple, peeled and julienne sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

½ cup chardonnay or other dry white wine

½ teaspoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons golden raisins

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried

½ cup whipping cream

¼ cup pecans, chopped and toasted

Dredge chicken in flour. Heat oil over medium heat in a heavy skillet with a lid. Brown chicken in oil, about 2 minutes per side. Remove to platter and keep warm.

In the same pan sauté onion, apple and garlic until soft, about 4 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and add wine, lemon juice, raisins, salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes.

Add rosemary and cream to the apple mixture, stirring until blended. Return chicken to the pan, cover and cook for 10 minutes or until chicken is tender and cooked through.

Remove chicken to serving dish and keep warm. Reduce sauce slightly by cooking for an additional 2-3 minutes. Pour sauce over chicken and sprinkle with toasted pecans.

Note: Toasting pecans is easy in a microwave. Simply place them in a microwave-safe dish and cook on high for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring after each minute.

Yield: 4 servings

Taco Soup

Kim Niemi says this easy soup recipe came from a friend.

1 pound hamburger

1 package taco seasoning

1 can corn, drained

1 can pinto beans, drained

1 can stewed tomatoes

1 can diced green chilies, drained

3 cups chicken broth

Brown hamburger in a skillet and season with taco seasoning. Combine meat and remaining ingredients in slow cooker for 4 to 5 hours. Serve with shredded cheddar cheese, tortilla chips and sour cream.

Yield: 4-6 servings

Smothered Chicken

From Taste of Home’s Quick Cooking, July/August 2003

4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves

Garlic powder and seasoned salt, to taste

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 jar (4 1/2 ounces) sliced mushrooms, drained

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Mexican cheese blend

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup bacon bits

Flatten chicken to 1/4-inch thickness. Sprinkle with garlic powder and seasoned salt. In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, brown chicken in oil for 4 minutes; turn. Top with mushrooms, cheese, green onions and bacon. Cover and cook until chicken juices run clear and cheese is melted, about 4 minutes.

Yield: 4 servings

Mom’s Quiche

From Jenny Anastasi of Spokane. She likes to deliver it to the other families in her dinner club with yogurt parfaits made in 8-ounce plastic cups. Anastasi layers equal parts vanilla yogurt, granola cereal and frozen raspberries, strawberries and blueberries to make the parfaits.

2 cups whipping cream

1 cup Bisquick

4 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

12 slices bacon, crumbled

1 cup Swiss cheese

1/3 cup onions

Beat together cream, Bisquick, eggs, salt and pepper. Combine with bacon, cheese and onions. Pour everything into a greased pie pan and bake at 400 degrees for 35 minutes.

Note: You can replace the eggs with an egg substitute; it cooks faster.

Yield: 6-8 servings

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