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ONE COOK'S BEST DISH

Dinners with lasting appeal

Aja Jackson (right) makes dinner while her daughter, Jade-Symone, plays. Aja Jackson (right) makes dinner while her daughter, Jade-Symone, plays. (Photos by ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / January 7, 2009
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QUINCY - Ask any parent about the demands of homework, sports, and after-school activities, and you'll hear that the first casualty is the dinner hour. In many cases, that meal is sacrificed to the busy household schedule.

Now ask Aja Jackson. She's both a single mom and a teacher. And she's determined to get a nice dish on the table every night. A social studies teacher at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester, Jackson, 30, brings the same can-do spirit to her kitchen that she uses in the classroom. She also brings years of cooking experience and a true appreciation of the craft.

But her approach has changed since the birth of her daughter, Jade-Symone, 2. "I still love cooking," says Jackson. "But I used to spend a lot more time on it; sometimes I used to make three different meals in one evening." Now on busy weeknights during the school year, her focus is on quicker meals. Becoming a mom has also made her a more nutrition-conscious cook: "Since I've had my daughter, I've gotten more into organic and healthy. I monitor her food a lot more, which indirectly helps me, since I eat what she eats."

This adventurous cook, whose background is Jamaican, grew up in the South End. As a toddler, she sat in front of the TV when Julia Child's programs were on. "I learned techniques from watching her - how to julienne and chop," she says. Over the years, Jackson has ventured into a world of ethnic cooking, from Indian to Mexican and more.

Now, she concentrates on getting wholesome meals on the table on busy weeknights. Her strategy is simple: "The freezer is my friend," she says, opening the door to show a visitor a wealth of homemade meals and versatile ingredients. On this evening, she's preparing a dish her grandmother made frequently - Jamaican curried chicken with rice and peas. It's not exactly a speedy meal, but with proper planning, she can set it on the table quickly, and best of all, it freezes well. Jackson will serve some of it tonight and pack the rest into freezer bags for another night. She has a clever technique for making portions. She folds the filled bag in half, so the thick stew freezes into two pieces that can be thawed separately. That works well for her small household.

As she prepares the spicy curry, and the rice and peas that are the traditional accompaniment, Jackson talks about her grandmother. "She was a community activist, and there were always lots of meetings, lots of people in and out," she recalls. "Rice and peas was a dish that was inexpensive and you could make a lot of at once. It was the most bang for the buck for fund-raisers." There was a huge pot reserved exclusively for serving rice and peas. Jackson remembers the fun of hanging around her grandmother's kitchen, laughing and singing to the reggae music.

Today, the granddaughter has changed the dish and made it her own. She adds sweet potato and omits the coconut because she's allergic to it. She also keeps the spice level down for Jade-Symone's sake, leaving out the scotch bonnet chili pepper that goes into the chicken. Instead, she adds a sauce made from scorching the pepper at the end, after she's removed a portion for her daughter. The finished stew, thick and richly spiced (though not really hot), is a warming dish to come home to.

To turn this into a weeknight supper, Jackson marinates the chicken on one day (it's best left overnight anyway) and cooks it the next. If all the prep work - chopping the vegetables, even measuring the spices - is done the night before, the dish is finished in just over an hour. And the frozen leftovers are money in the bank, as any busy parent knows.

Jackson's schedule allows her to get home between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., and while she's cooking, she's also watching and playing with an active toddler. She doesn't seem to find that prospect particularly daunting. "I like to cook; it's like meditation for me," she says.

This is one household where the family dinner hour is alive - and the participants are eating well.

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