Edible Basics: Sunday Dinners

Photos by Michael Piazza / Styled by Catrine Kelty

When my husband, Chris, was in college, his best friend Alex invited him home every so often for Sunday Dinner. This was a foreign concept to Chris: Sure, his family shared evening meals together, and holiday spreads in the Blackburn house are legendary, but a regular Sunday feast just wasn’t something they did. Alex’s family, on the other hand—Greek Orthodox and first generation immigrants to Troy, New York—took the Sunday Dinner concept quite seriously. Sunday was a day off from work, a day to cook and eat and celebrate traditional foods and, in the process, fill the fridge with leftovers to eat during the busy week ahead.

The table would be filled with enough food for an army, certainly more than the five diners could ever eat in one sitting. Alex’s dad would man the grill, where multiple chickens, a leg of lamb and usually a fish of some kind would sizzle with lemon, garlic and lots of melted butter. His mother, working diligently in the kitchen, produced umpteen sides, making both traditional Greek recipes and American classics. At least four different potato dishes—boiled, mashed, scalloped, or fried—sat alongside dressed salads of cucumbers, olives, tomato and feta; there was grilled corn, green beans, peas, sometimes asparagus; sweet, fluffy, eggy bread from a local bakery; cheesy baked Greek pastas, orzo salads and rice. These were epic feasts, any college boy’s dream. It’s no wonder Chris remembers these days, and these dishes, so fondly.

But does anyone have a regular Sunday Dinner anymore, or do we only serve big feasts like this on holidays? As we gear up for Easter and Passover, arriving simultaneously in early April this year, even secular families will prepare a special meal and toast one another over vases of tulips and lilies. I’m sure there was a time when people sat down for a weekly mid-afternoon meal, but it’s fairly distant in my own memory. Nowadays, the rigors of modern life can get in the way of leisure at the table, but, with a little planning, we can change that.

There’s something wonderful and nostalgic about a Sunday Dinner, and it doesn’t have to be hard to make, nor as gloriously plentiful as Alex’s. It’s a meal best served in the dining room if you have one, the table dressed up for the season. The menu can be very simple—a centerpiece roast and some vegetable sides are a good beginning. A hearty lasagna, mushroom stew or even a platter of roasted root vegetables can make a vegetarian feast worthy of this special setting. Most importantly, though: You should make enough food to ensure there will be leftovers for the upcoming week. Cook a big enough main course while you have the time on Sunday, and you can re-hash it into new dishes all week long.

The following recipes will serve double- and even triple-duty. If you make the pork shoulder roast for Easter dinner and serve only a portion of it, on Monday you can stack sliced pork with Swiss cheese and yellow mustard for griddled Cuban sandwiches. Or finely chop the meat and simmer with onion, white wine, and milk for Bolognese-style ragù over fresh pasta. By Wednesday, green chili-tomatillo tacos may be calling your name, and anything left on Thursday can be shredded, crisped up with hoisin sauce, and perched on top of a steaming ramen noodle soup.

If you make brisket for your Passover Seder, cook an extra big one and use a bit of the leftovers for a delicious beef-and-potato hash topped with eggs the next morning. Another day, sauté diced brisket with rich spices and black beans for a Mexican chili, topped with chopped cilantro and avocado. Or shred leftover beef and stir into its leek-and-carrot gravy; add pureed tomato, a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, and top with peas to use as the base of a cottage pie, wonderfully bubbly under a cheesy mashed potato crust.

For either holiday, a vegetarian main course of roasted vegetables and dressed grains can be used in innumerable ways in the days following. Add some charred onions and a light broth to the veggies and grains, and you have an easy soup. Or toss with bottled chili sauce, some Mexican spices and a good melting cheese, then fold into corn tortillas smothered with more sauce for enchiladas. Even just reheating the original dish and topping it with poached eggs and a squeeze of Sriracha can make a great weeknight meal.

Whether or not you celebrate a springtime holiday, why not try bringing back the Sunday Dinner once a month? Clear the afternoon, dress up the table a bit and sit back and relax over a leisurely meal. You’ll reconnect with friends and family, and, in the end, your fridge will be filled with the basis of many weeknight meals to come. It’s a win-win.

This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue.