Surviving 6 p.m.

Dinner time.

These two words strike fear in the heart of working parents everywhere. I’m sure someone out there has mastered the art of getting a nutritious, inexpensive and quick dinner (that everyone in the family will eat!) on the table every night, but it sure isn’t us. Given our schedule and after-school activities, dinner needs to be more or less prepared by the time we get home; or at the very least, ready within 20 or 30 minutes. The more we can do in advance to prepare, the better.

Here are some of ways to maximize your time with a little bit of planning:

  • if you buy big club packs of meat for the freezer, package your chicken breasts or pork chops in meal-sized portions and add your favourite marinade to the bag (bottled will do)before you freeze it. The meat marinates as it defrosts;
  • whenever possible, cook extra, especially when cooking on the weekend. It takes as long to make two chickens as one, and then you’ve got chicken for the week.
  • use a menu-planning service. We’ve just started using Six O’Clock Scramble.  Having someone else do the shopping list is a lovely perk;
  • as Nathalie suggests, breakfast for dinner is your friend.  Peter makes a big batch of waffles every weekend and freezes them — a couple of those with some sausage and sliced fruit make a perfectly decent dinner.
I’m also always on the lookout for ways to maximize the nutritional punch of anything we cook. Here’s a recipe for a sauce that I made this weekend that does just that.  It’s nothing fancy — just a standard tomato sauce that you can rely on for any number of meals: pasta, chicken parm, or meatball subs.  I feel a bit guilty suggesting that you use canned tomatoes when the stores are full of bushels of beautiful Roma tomatoes just begging to be made into sauce, but such is life. Unlike those homemade tomato sauces, this one can be on the table in just over half an hour.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m guessing it can also be easily doubled or tripled; the proportions should be about right for everything except the oregano. No one needs that much oregano!

Sneaky tomato sauce

1 onion, finely diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine (Technically optional. Skip as your conscience dictates).

3 carrots, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

2-3 Roma tomatoes (optional — when in season)

1 398 ml can low salt tomato sauce

1/2 can tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped, or marjoram if you prefer. You could also use basil, but I despise dried basil, so I don’t)

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and start to take on colour — about 8-10 minutes. You want them on the verge of caramelization, not scorching, so turn down the heat if they go too fast. When the onions are browned and softened, add the wine (if using; if not, skip to next step) and stir until the wine is reduced by half.

Stir in carrots, celery and tomatoes if using.  Reduce heat and cook covered, stirring occasionally until the carrots are softened.  At this point, add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, sugar, and salt and pepper, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the carrots are completely softened.  Remove from heat and let cool for five minutes.

Here’s the sneaky part: at this point, carefully transfer the sauce to your blender, or use an immersion blender to process the sauce until smooth. Once blended, season to taste. The carrots and celery lend a nice sweetness and thicken the sauce so that you don’t have to cook it for hours.  Serve as you would any other tomato sauce.