Putting together a meal at the end of a hard day on the job is never, as the gastronomic metaphor would have it, a piece of cake. It's late, and well-earned fatigue cries out for soothing. Specifically, it cries out for soothing via food and drink prepared by others.
But there it is. For many of us, much of the time, family needs and financial considerations prevail. Dinner will be at home, assembled and served by someone fresh -- or, rather, unfresh -- from eight hours at the grindstone, not to mention commuting time.
It is, like so many of life's challenges, less hard on the efficient. Those who have done a week's shopping in advance without forgetting that there's no more salad oil in the house are better off than those who haven't. However, even for the person who must do a full supermarket run as well as cook before anybody gets anything to eat, the quick-fix after-work dinner can be a satisfaction to all concerned.
Don't overlook the positive aspect. It's true about tensions dissolving in the rhythm of the knife that chops the parsley. If you were in a restaurant at this moment, you'd be nervously popping peanuts over a drink or eating bread and wondering why the waiter was so slow.
The secret is to recognize the limits the time factor does and doesn't impose. Limited time doesn't, for example, have to mean limiting the menu to hamburger, steaks, chops, hot dogs and frozen vegetables.
It is well not to start manicuring shrimps or roasting a haunch of venison at half past six. But fish fillets cook almost instantly. Cut-up chicken parts can be on the table in half an hour. And the flexibility of sausage, ground beef, pasta, eggs and chicken livers is endless.
Furthermore, many fresh vegetables are just about as quick and easy to prepare as frozen ones. They are also, in most cases, infinitely more interesting to eat.
A bunch of fresh broccoli calls for only about two minutes on the cutting board before stems are peeled and sliced and flower tops cut into manageable sizes. Slicing cabbage for a stir-fry takes about as long. The same goes for all the zucchini and yellow squashes.
Spinach, kale and mustard greens no longer need the multiple washings required by the sand quotients of yesteryear. Enjoy them and wait for weekends to give brussels sprouts, string beans and fresh limas the kitchen attentions they require.
When the dessert issue comes up, don't let time pressures persuade you that there are no alternatives to ice cream and store-bought cookies. Any number of fruit concoctions offer comparable pleasure with little more effort and fewer calories.
Here are a few possibilities -- for main dishes, for vegetables and for happy endings to the after-work food impresario's dinner.
SAUSAGE AND CHICKEN LIVER GALA (4 servings) 1/2 pound hot sausage meat 1 bunch scallions 1/4 pound mushrooms 2 stalks celery 1 pound chicken livers 2 tablespoons sherry or cognac 1 teaspoon soy sauce 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley Break up sausage meat into small pieces and saute' until there is a discernible amount of melted fat in the skillet. Meanwhile, mince scallions, mushrooms and celery. Saute' lightly and add chicken livers. Stir over hot fire until mostly cooked, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add sherry or cognac and soy sauce to pan juices. Lower flame and stir 5 minutes. Serve over hot rice, garnished with parsley.
CATCH-ALL FRITTATA (4 servings) 1 bunch scallions, minced 1 green pepper, chopped 1 slice country ham (or other ham), cubed 1 zucchini or yellow summer squash 2 tablespoons salad oil A few fresh basil leaves (optional) 8 eggs, slightly beaten 2 tablespoons parmesan-style cheese, grated
Saute' scallions, pepper, ham and zucchini or squash in oil with basil leaves until barely tender, about 3 minutes. Pour on eggs and sprinkle with cheese. Cook until set.
The variations are, of course, innumerable. A little leftover spinach, a nibble of pepperoni, any cheese morsels or fresh herbs -- let availability make the decisions. Almost any combination works in a frittata. It's particularly good served with fresh tomatoes.
FISH WITH ANCHOVY LEMON SAUCE (4 servings) 4 fillets any fresh fish 2 tablespoons butter 1 clove garlic 1 bay leaf 1/4 cup dry white wine Juice and grated rind 1/2 lemon 1 anchovy fillet 1 egg 1 tablespoon minced parsley
Saute' fish fillets in butter with garlic and bay leaf until barely tender and opaque, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove to serving platter and set aside in a warm place. Add wine, lemon juice and rind and anchovy to pan juices and bring to a boil. Whizz in blender with egg. Pour over fish and serve topped with minced parsley.
STIR-FRIED CABBAGE AND WATERCRESS (4 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 head cabbage (7- or 8-inch diameter), sliced 1 bunch scallions, minced Salt and pepper to taste 1 bunch watercress, coarsely chopped
Melt butter in large frying pan or wok. Place all ingredients in pan and stir-fry 3 to 5 minutes or until cabbage is barely tender.
BROCCOLI, CARROTS AND BLACK OLIVES (4 servings) 1 bunch broccoli, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces 1 clove garlic, minced Salt 2 carrots, shredded 1/2 cup pitted black olives, preferably Greek 1 tablespoon olive oil
Simmer broccoli and garlic in boiling salted water 5 minutes or until broccoli is barely tender. Add shredded carrots, bring to a boil again, remove from fire and drain. Add olives and olive oil, mixing well.
POTATOES, CARROTS AND SCALLIONS (4 servings) 4 medium-sized potatoes, unpeeled Salt 2 tablespoons butter 1 bunch scallions, minced 2 carrots, shredded
Slice potatoes 1/4-inch-thick and simmer in salted water until barely tender. Melt butter in skillet and saute' scallions and shredded carrots 5 minutes. Drain potatoes and add, stirring well.
PEACHES WITH PEACH CREAM (4 servings) 2 tablespoons honey 1 tablespoon cottage cheese 1/2 cup heavy cream 6 ripe peaches, peeled and sliced
Whirl honey, cottage cheese, cream and 1/2 cup sliced peaches in blender or food processor. Pour over sliced peaches.
INSTANT APPLESAUCE PUDDING 3 cups applesauce, canned or homemade 1 apple, peeled, cored and sliced 3 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon cinnamon 3 slices white bread, quartered Cream or yogurt
Heat applesauce with sliced apples and set aside. Melt butter with cinnamon and fry bread on both sides until golden brown and crisp. Place squares of fried cinnamon bread on top of each of 4 portions of applesauce mixture. Serve with cream or yogurt.
MELON AND GRAPES (4 servings) 2 medium-sized melons or 1 large 1 bunch seedless green grapes 1 lime, sliced
Cut melons in halves or quarters, according to size. Remove seeds. Garnish with grapes and lime slices.