Last Minute Dinner

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Whip Up a Last Minute Dinner
by Charlie Palmer, owner of acclaimed restaurants in New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., and author of Charlie Palmer's Practical Guide to the New American Kitchen

My wife, Lisa, and I have four boys, ages 8 to 12, so it isn't always easy. But dinner doesn't have to be complicated. We eat 90 percent of our meals at a table just a few feet from the stove. It's not a big kitchen. When we have people over, it's pretty crowded. But that makes dinner better. It's cozy. It feels like home.

There aren't a bunch of secrets, but there are a few tricks. One is buying the best, freshest ingredients you can afford, which can make simple dishes spectacular. Another is making sure you have a well-stocked pantry, which gives you the freedom to cook with little planning.

What You're in the Mood For
When we're planning dinner, we start by asking ourselves how we're feeling. Maybe we haven't had steak in a while, or a bowl of good pasta. We might crave something quick and easy, or want to spend time in the kitchen trying a new recipe.

The Well-Stocked Pantry
We always keep cans of tomatoes around because that's something you can make a meal out of. It's worth splurging on specialty items like artisanal pasta; these are the building blocks of dishes. Others are basic supermarket staples used to layer and balance flavors, like capers, Tabasco, and spices. Even anchovy paste: It sounds severe, but just a touch in sauce or vinaigrette gives such depth. My kids eat it all the time, whether they know it or not.

The Last-Minute Purchase
I stop off at the market after work for some fresh fish or a piece of meat, or just a ton of vegetables. If we buy chicken breast, we might cube it and sauté it with tomatoes, fresh herbs, garlic, shallots, olive oil—and in a few minutes we have a great-tasting, healthy sauce for pasta. Or we can roast the chicken and tomatoes. Or make soup!