Gather Around: Professional cooks give dinner routine its due

Campanile chef Mark Peel has brought the concept of family dinner night to his restaurant. His new cookbook reflects that idea. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
Campanile chef Mark Peel has brought the concept of family dinner night to his restaurant. His new cookbook reflects that idea. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

We all know the theory: Families who dine together have kids with better grades and healthier outlooks. But we also know the guilty reality. Getting those overbooked kids and overextended parents to the dinner table takes the scheduling skills of an airport control tower these days — and you can forget what's on the plate.

That's where we're going wrong, says Lucinda Scala Quinn, Martha Stewart's food guru and author of the new "Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys." If the aromas emerging from the kitchen smell amazing, there's no power on Earth that will keep a hungry teen away.

Quinn is in good company. Hers is one of three recent cookbooks urging a return to the family dinner table and — more important — offering tips on how to achieve that Rockwellian vision without going nuts.

Adding their voices to the chorus are Mark Peel, executive chef of Los Angeles' celebrated Campanile and recent guest judge on "Top Chef Las Vegas," and Stockton chefs Rima Barkett and Claudia Pruett, whose new book is aimed at novice cooks of both the grown-up and young variety.

What's needed, they say, is not only a slew of delicious, reliable and eminently doable recipes, but a strategic approach to food preparation.

"The return to the dinner table is not so much about cooking as carving out the time, and that's the hard part," says Peel, by phone from his Los Angeles home. "People don't have — if they ever did — the Ozzie and Harriet schedule anymore. I work a lot of nights, but Tuesday nights, I cook at home."

The Campanile chef and father of five bases those meals — and his new cookbook, "New Classic Family Dinners" — on the family-style dinners his famous restaurant began offering 15 years ago. Some were Spanish-themed, others Greek, but the foods he kept coming back to were classic Americana — and some were much maligned. So Peel, a Chez Panisse alum, set out to discover why the Chicken a la King, tuna noodle casseroles and chicken pot pies of his youth had gotten such a bad rap.

"My mother can make about 10 things, and two are tuna noodle casserole and macaroni and cheese," he says. "But it wasn't out of a package and it wasn't mushroom soup."

When chicken pot pie is made from scratch — with shredded, cooked chicken, barely cooked vegetables, a light, broth-based sauce and puff pastry crown — it's sublime. As for mac and cheese, says Peel, "It's not mush folded with goop. It's a great casserole with texture: soft unctuous cheesy center, crispy edges, crunchy top with bread crumbs."

And it's a favorite in the Peel household.

"My daughter, 4 years old, could she be any more finicky? She'll eat the tops of the broccoli, but not the stems," Peel says.

"But there's nobody who doesn't like macaroni and cheese. Adding dried mushrooms and fresh mushrooms, that's gilding the lily. But why not?"

But the convenience of fast food and supermarket rotisseries has affected home kitchens in a major way.

"To a certain extent, a lot of cooking skills have been lost over the last 50 years," says Peel. "And people are intimidated by watching the food cooking shows. (They think) 'Oh, that's fascinating, but I could never do that.' It's not true. It's just as easy to cook well as to cook badly." All it takes, he says, are some good recipes and a sense of adventure — and no Padma Lakshmi telling you, "Time's up! Utensils down!"

Shop, chop, sauté

Of course, it takes more than good intentions to cook well.

Having grown up in cultures where children learned to cook by helping in the kitchen, the Italian-born Barkett and Pruett — who grew up in Saratoga but whose family hails from Italy — are hoping to convert Californians, too, one kid-assisted pasta dish at a time.

Don't be overprotective, say the authors of "Cooking Dinner: Simple Italian Family Recipes Everyone Can Make." Teach your children to use a knife, to handle an oven mitt and make their own focaccia bread.

"To eat together, you have to cook. It's a life skill," says Pruett. "And it's easy, when you work (together) to learn things that have happened during the day."

But if the first time you think about tonight's dinner is while driving someone to soccer practice, chances are you'll be dining on takeout. Or frozen waffles. And, says Quinn, the editorial director of food and entertaining for Martha Stewart Omnimedia, if the people you're cooking for include teenagers, planning is key.

"Once you have more than one hungry male, you have an emergency," says Quinn. "Plan strategically. Know what the next meal is going to be. If you're not prepared, you're going to be broke."

Do the grocery shopping a week at a time. Get them into the kitchen, even if it's just tag-teaming dinner: You do the prep work in the morning, they pop the casserole into the oven and get a salad ready. Teach them to make their favorite things, whether it's spatchcocked chicken — a simple butterflied chicken, flattened and cooked to crispy golden perfection in a cast iron pan — or cheesy, herb-flecked Italian fries.

Even the surliest teen, says Quinn, is helpless to resist that aroma.