I grew up in the leafy suburbs of the Midwest, where contact with the neighbors was limited to the occasional cross-yard wave from a car window before pulling into the garage.
The idea of sharing food with them on a weekly basis, let alone the infrequent celebration, would have been inconceivable. Block parties, I believed, were just a quaint relic of Americana from a Norman Rockwell painting.
And then we moved to rowhouse Philadelphia, where the kids frolic in the concrete "yard" of our street, the next-door neighbors are our great friends (a good thing, since I smell their meatballs cooking), and the 30-plus houses around us spontaneously combust in block parties seemingly every few weeks. Just name an event - Memorial Day, birthdays, crawfish season, the sudden arrival of cherry blossoms - and we're tapping a keg, firing up the grill, and unfolding tables to celebrate the moment.
We've become so good at eating together, in fact, that three families decided this year to take it to the next level: school nights.
Our Monday night "family meals" - in which each family takes a tri-weekly turn cooking for all three - began as a matter of convenience. We all had kids on the same swim team, and everyone had been arriving home famished at 6:30 with nothing yet begun on the stove. So why not divide the work and cook an easy, reheatable meal on Sunday to share Monday all around?
The debut dinner was a feast of Nana LaRosa's meatballs, an authentic Indianapolis-Sicilian recipe that Joe and Dawn have brought East (where thankfully it acquired a few more garlic cloves).
Duty-bound to protect the honor of family gravy, our neighbors on the other side, Melissa and Doug, then turned out meatballs true to Granny Spinelli's recipe from Sicilian Bucks County.
I'm not getting in the middle of this one - I loved them both! - but each typified the spirit of these meals, a true sharing of family traditions as much as an unspoken (but friendly) competition.
And quickly, after a dozen meals, what began as a Swim Night necessity has become an anticipated ritual on its own, not to mention a subtle bonding between friends that only home-cooked meals can forge. (Swim season ended last week, but we plan on continuing the rotation until summer.)
I have a weakness for weekend cooking projects too grand for my little family, so I'll admit to getting carried away by the opportunity to cook for a big, forgiving audience. But they seemed eager enough to eat my experiments with turkey-chorizo paella and turkey-wild mushroom crepes (two separate post-Thanksgiving wonders!), as well as casseroles of Umbrian lentils with sausage, and herb-marinated grilled chicken breasts with cool quinoa salad.
Then again, I do wonder whether this cooking frenzy has actually helped feed the target audience - our hungry kids - that inspired these dinners to begin with. Considering that we eat the meals separately inside our own homes (the only way this could ever work on a school night), I may never know the truth.
Melissa claims that Monday suppers have exposed her kids to a world of new flavors. At their house, the "family meal" is required eating. Her 5-year-old even phoned me one night to rave about the lentils, and he seemed genuine, though I swear I heard suspicious whispering in the background.
Joe and Dawn's kids, meanwhile, are a tougher crowd, giving me the cold stares of professional poker players when I ask if there's been anything they liked.
"They still won't touch anything with green specks in it," confides Joe. "But they have learned to tolerate new smells in the house!"
Our kids, meanwhile, fall somewhere in the middle. My picky 6-year-old son will cautiously eat half of what's on offer. My 9-year-old daughter, meanwhile, has discovered favorites, including Dawn's hearty chili, Joe's chicken cutlets, and Melissa's deluxe lasagna, to name a few.
One of the biggest surprise hits, though, was Melissa's honey-glazed salmon with fresh basil served over strawberries and salad. For one thing, it's way healthier than anything we'd serve. For another, the recipe came from an unlikely source for G-rated meals: InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook.
"It was a wedding-shower gift gone right," says Melissa, cheerily.
The guys on the block, meanwhile, can only roll their eyes. Doug coughs, cueing Joe to quip: "It must have a delayed effect."
Too much information? Not on our block. After three months of Monday "family meals" and counting, the neighbors have become more a part of our family than this former suburbanite could ever have imagined.
Honey-Glazed Basil Salmon
Makes 4 servings
1 1/3 pound thick salmon fillet
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
Mixed salad greens
Strawberries, hulled, sliced
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Rinse the salmon and pat dry. Set the fillet, skin side down, in a baking dish. Lightly score the flesh in a diamond crosshatch pattern. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover liberally with honey. Arrange a mosaic of whole basil leaves on the fillet.
2. Bake at 450 until cooked through, about 15 minutes, or 10 minutes per inch of thickness. In the last 5 minutes, spoon the honey caramelizing in the pan over the fillet.
3. Serve the fish on mixed salad greens. Garnish with sliced strawberries. Drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette.
(Terrace Publishing, 1997)
Nana LaRosa's Sauce and Meatballs
Makes 10 to 12 servings
For the sauce:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
6 to 8 cloves garlic, chopped
2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
1 (16-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (16-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon each: chopped basil and oregano
Salt, pepper & sugar to taste
1 pound Italian sausage (hot or sweet), in 2-inch chunks
For the meatballs:
2 pounds ground chuck beef
3 large eggs, beaten
11/2 cups soft bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated parmesan or romano cheese
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 to 1 cup warm water
1. For the sauce: In a large pot, heat the oil. Saute the onion and garlic until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste, sauce, crushed tomatoes, 4 cups (two 16-ounce cans) water, bay, basil, oregano, salt, pepper and sugar, to taste, and the sausage. Bring to a simmer; cook gently, uncovered, to desired thickness, about 2 hours. Adjust the seasonings, to taste.
2. For the meatballs: Meanwhile, by hand, mix the ground beef, eggs, crumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic powder and salt and pepper, to taste, until well blended. Gradually add 1/2 cup water or a little more if needed. The mixture should be soft enough to roll, but not sticky on the hands. (To test the seasoning, make a small meat patty, fry it and taste. Adjust seasoning as desired with more salt or parsley.)
3. With moist hands, gently pat and roll the remaining meat mixture into golf-ball-size spheres and drop directly into the sauce after the first hour of cooking. Cook the meatballs for at least 1 hour.
Note: The sauce always tastes better made a day ahead.
Per serving: 487 calories, 27 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 130 milligrams cholesterol, 964 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Craig LaBan's Lentils and Sausage
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 large onion, peeled, halved
10 whole cloves
2 carrots, roughly chopped
2 ribs celery, cut in chunks
6 cloves garlic, whole
4 bay leaves
1/2 bunch parsley, stems tied
1/2 bunch thyme, stems tied
1 pound good lentils (French du Puy, Umbrian or beluga), rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
6 to 8 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 pounds Italian sausage (mixed hot and sweet)
2 leeks, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
2/3 cup celery root, diced
1 rib celery, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
1. For the broth, stud the onion halves with the cloves.
2. To a large pot of cold, salted water (about 3 quarts), add the onion, carrots, celery chunks, whole garlic cloves, bay, and bunches of parsley and thyme; bring to a boil.
3. Remove from heat; let vegetables steep for 5 minutes.
4. Return to heat. Add the lentils and cook until they are tender but still whole and firm. Timing varies by brand; start checking after 15 to 20 minutes. When the lentils are cooked, strain and reserve the broth. Pick and remove all the poached vegetables, herbs and garlic from the lentils. Season lentils with salt and pepper, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and the sherry vinegar; set aside.
5. To finish, heat the oven to 425 degrees. Brush the sausage with oil and roast until done, 15 to 20 minutes, flipping the links after 8 to 10 minutes for even cooking.
6. Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil and saute the diced leeks, carrots, celery (root and rib), and garlic until it turns translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the reserved cooked lentils to the pan and mix well. Add the parsley, salt and pepper to taste, 2 more tablespoons of olive oil, and about 1/2 cup of the broth.
7. Transfer the lentil mixture to a baking dish with just enough broth so it is moist but not soupy. Top with the sausage links, dust with bread crumbs and grated cheese, if desired, and broil until the crumbs are lightly browned.
Note: This can be made a day ahead (up to the crumbs and browning). I prefer reheating it in the baking dish at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, but it can be reheated more quickly on the stovetop or (last resort) in the microwave.
Per serving: 1,006 calories, 45 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 63 grams fat, 118 milligrams cholesterol, 1,281 milligrams sodium, 26 grams dietary fiber.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.