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Chef John Foster: As empty nesters, eating habits change — more veggies, more variety, eating out

At last, peace in the house. Both boys gone to make their way in the world, leaving us (without counting 1 dog and 5 cats) empty nesters. That word evokes such images, propels thoughts to places best reserved for later in life. But it does impact what, and how we eat even to the point of changing the dynamic of our pantry and refrigerator.

Having two young men over 6’ 3” and closing in on 200 lbs. requires a different set of logistics when stocking the kitchen. Bulk is the word, gallons instead of half gallons, boxes instead of packets. It also requires lots of protein as most boys won’t opt for grains and nuts over red meat and chicken.

While our boys are a bit adventurous, these last few years have followed a pretty predictable pattern of meat and three or pasta with chicken and cream sauce. Occasionally there will be green beans, spinach, peas, corn, and tomatoes. Beans and rice had a fling for a while as both boys were working out, and of course, nobody turned down the burritos we made, in fact they sometimes had a second.

Not so these days as the two of us have begun the process of emptying the fridge and cleaning out the freezer. The pantry won’t change much; dried pasta, canned beans, and plum tomatoes, building blocks for s a simple and quick dinner. Cheeses with different names have appeared in our fridge, English cheddars, goat cheese and Manchego. Marinated olives, sundried tomatoes, capers and pickles. The vegetable and fruit drawers are full again, not that they were necessarily empty, but the boys did have their favorites.

The real changes are in the amounts of product and the frequency of trips to the market. Hundreds of dollars and multiple trips have dwindled steadily to a few trips a week and half the cost. Of course, feeding two fewer people is the biggest reason, but so too is the variety of food and the lack of major proteins. Eggs, cheeses, and yogurt are still purchased, in less bulk. Very little chicken and beef, to be replaced by beans, and vegetables. The trade-off is not necessarily because these items cost less, we still buy local, and oftentimes organic, and good cheese and yogurt aren’t cheap. We just don’t eat like we did when all four of us were home. And with the restaurant constantly drawing our time and energy away we aren’t the snackers we used to be.

This is part of the lifestyle change that all empty nesters face at some point, and the methods we use to cope can also be beneficial to the restaurant business. Where the supermarket may lose, the restaurant may gain some in return. We eat out now, not a lot but enough to try some of the places that the boys were not interested in going. Small local places, or spots where we know the owners, are high on our list.

We aren’t discriminating by price, but we aren’t dining at white tablecloth either. We have the freedom of choice, and some days that’s pizza. Being in the business it pays to be out there looking, but sometimes it’s because we can and want to get out and socialize. Chosen wisely and not abused this is a great way to pique some interest in your weekly menus and chase some of the routine away.

As far as menus are concerned, they have become much simpler as well. Dinner sometimes can be a full plated meal, some fresh pasta with homemade sauce and a small salad, or cheese and crackers with some olives and sundried tomatoes. Turns out that we don’t need much to eat, just good food that we enjoy. The compromises you sometimes make with the rest of your family can be very rewarding but limit you in a way. Once that is no longer one of the guiding principles, you’re free to experiment with what fits your style the best.

There is a downside to all this freedom, and that is the lack of two other chairs at the table. At times, family meal could be contentious and fraught with anxiety. But the benefit always outweighs the cost. Conversation, differences of opinion, the growing confidence of a younger voice sprinkled throughout a meal will always enhance the food and create the experience.

Family dinner — then, things change

When we speak of memorable meals, the food is always uppermost in our description, but the story almost always drifts to the circumstances surrounding the meal. A sunny day on the beach, a small café in the square, a quiet restaurant in the East Village all inform the rest of the experience. It’s no different with family meals, which are often duplicated for better or worse around the holidays.

That is the cost of being a parent, having a family, and then letting them find their own way. I prefer to focus now on new experiences, and perhaps the opportunities to travel and taste. Meals may be quieter now, but no less interesting, and I find myself slowing down to enjoy the process of planning the meal and preparing the food.
Fresh fettuccine with tomato caper sauce, shaved parmesan and roasted broccolini

I’ve been toying with my pasta recipe, trying to focus on more of an egg noodle to use with stews and stroganoffs. The crucial element is moisture, enough to blend the flour into dough without making it an actual paste. I start with 2 cups of flour and 3 medium egg yolks which will pull the flour together but leave too much behind. I fold in the flour to the yolks gradually so that I can add a yolk at a time after the initial three. At some point, I can get 5 medium egg yolks into two cups of flour to form a workable dough. From there it’s a matter of rolling, drying and cutting the noodles and then cooking and serving them with the sauce.

For the sauce, we buy a really good can of plum tomatoes, rich with thick juice and full plum tomatoes. For one 35 oz can, I dice ½ small onion and four cloves of garlic. Sweat the garlic and onion in olive oil for 15 minutes and then add the plum tomatoes and all the juice. Simmer for at least 45 minutes adding a sprig of fresh oregano about midway through. When your sauce is close to ready, add 2 tablespoons of drained capers and reduce the heat even more. The warmth of the sauce should bloom the flavor of the capers.

All you need to add is some cracked black pepper. Once you’ve cooked and drained your pasta, pour the sauce over the top, sprinkle with shaved parmesan and serve.

Blanch some broccolini until it is tender, drain thoroughly and dress with olive oil, salt and cracked black pepper. Roast in a 450-degree oven until the florets start to lightly color, serve on the side of the pasta.

Always serve with a good warm bread, and with just the two of you, there will be leftovers!

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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