It's 6 p.m. Your troops are starved after a day of school, homework, soccer practice and ballet lessons. They don't care that you worked through lunch, have a PTA meeting at 7: 30 and don't feel like cooking. They want dinner, and they want it now.
This is no time for hot dogging. To avert a mutiny, you need a sound strategy. That, some simple recipes plus a few key items in the pantry and refrigerator. These are the weapons of the stalwart family cooks I quizzed recently. Call for a pizza delivery? They'd sooner sleep with the enemy.
"I usually make my dinner in the morning," says Karin Walsh, mother of two and president of the PTA at Atholton Elementary School in Columbia. "I don't know how people do it if they're not organized."
Walsh, who runs a licensed day-care center in her home three days weekly, is one of those cooks who actually plots out a menu and shops once a week. How else could she juggle her schedule and those of her children, Michelle, 9, and Michael, 6?
Walsh does what the pros recommend. On weeknights, she sticks with what she knows. One night weekly, she purposely cooks too much, to ensure a dinner of leftovers a day or two later. Thursday, her cleaning day, she takes a night off from the kitchen. Her husband Mike makes pizza and salad, the only dinner in his repertoire.
To cooks pinned in a corner on a busy weeknight, Walsh recommends these staples: a jar of spaghetti sauce, some grated, packaged Cheddar cheese and a frozen entree that your kids like. (In her case, it's Hot Pockets sandwiches.)
Amy Legg, a mother of three in Timonium, operates more liberally. When pinched for time, she sometimes makes breakfast for dinner. Her kids, Taylor, 9, Victoria, 6, and Hunter, 21 months, occasionally get treated to French toast as an evening meal.
"Sure, it's great made with challah bread," Legg says, "but if it's midweek, we're talking, 'Do I have bread?' "
Legg, who will gladly spend hours in her kitchen baking, confesses to being much less enthusiastic about preparing meals to suit the developing taste buds of her children. Yes, she buys the occasional roasted chicken at the Giant. She pairs it with healthful side dishes her kids will eat -- a baked potato and tossed salad.
Kathy Vaselkiv, a mother of three in Bolton Hill, prepares her family's favorites repeatedly. One of her star performers is a boiled chicken dinner recipe from her mother-in-law. The leftover chicken and cooking broth make a great chicken soup for the next night. Vaselkiv also keeps tortellini, peeled, cooked shrimp (from BJ's) and pesto in her freezer for especially busy nights.
From some pros, here are two more good tips.
Lee Russell, a former caterer who lives in Owings Mills, ranks TC good salad dressing tops in a cook's arsenal. Grab a bottle of Vidalia onion vinaigrette, pour it over chicken breasts in the morning and let them marinate in the refrigerator all day, she suggests. Fire up the grill or broiler when you get home for a great dinner that night.
And Mel Walsh, whose "Guerrilla Cooking," (St. Martin's Press, 1996), is devoted to overcoming the "arsenic hour," offers this fundamental: Stick to recipes with no more than eight ingredients.
The first two recipes are from "Guerrilla Cooking."
Cheating vegetable pasta
1 large pot boiling water
1 pound rigatoni or your favorite pasta
10-ounce package frozen peas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
Bring water to boil. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. About 2 minutes before the pasta is done, dump in the peas and let them cook with the pasta. Drain. Toss with salt, pepper and a bit of oil. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
1 pound large pasta shells
2 tablespoons capers
6-ounce can water-packed tuna, with liquid
6-ounce can chopped black olives, drained
2-ounce jar chopped pimentos, drained
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
salt and pepper to taste
Place shells in boiling water, stirring occasionally. In separate saucepan, mix capers, tuna, olives, pimentos and seasonings. Drain pasta, and pour tuna mix on top. Optional garnish: a tablespoon of fresh oregano or lemon thyme.
The next three recipes are from Russell.
Baked chicken piccata
1/8 cup olive oil
juice of one lemon
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast cutlets
1-2 tablespoons dry white wine (optional)
Combine olive oil and lemon juice. Pour over chicken breasts, and bake in 375-degree oven for 15 minutes, turning halfway through. Drizzle with white wine during last 3 minutes of baking if desired.
'Stuffed' pork chops
1/4 cup margarine or butter
1 apple, finely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup minced onion or 1 teaspoon onion flakes
2 to 3 cups croutons or dry stuffing
1/3 cup chicken broth (if necessary)
4 boneless, 1/2 -inch-thick pork chops