I was thinking about what I am going to make tonight and it got me started musing about how I think differently about cooking in different circumstances. Dinner on a weeknight or even a busy weekend is a very very different affair from dinner on the weekend or even a dinner party and they are both different from a planned cooking project.

An example of a good dinner for a weeknight for me happened last night. I got a call on the way home: everyone was starving and worn out from a busy day. Could I hurry home and hurry up with dinner? I asked for a pot of water to be put on to boil. I remembered that I had baked a slab of Trader Joe’s herbed pizza dough that morning simply for fresh bread to go with the kids’ lunches (ready in 20 minutes in a 450 degree oven – pull it out hot and wrap a hunk in foil). Then when I got home I rifled through the vegetables. Eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini all in need of use in the next couple of days. I sliced the first two up roughly and put them on to fry in olive oil in a covered skillet on high to help them cook fast. The water was boiling so I dropped in some rotini pasta (10 minutes to cook). Then I sliced up some previously cooked chicken pesto sausage and added it to the skillet with a little powdered garlic, herbes de provence and salt. I stirred the pan about every two minutes for the next ten minutes. I put the broiler on high, sliced up the herbed bread, sprinkled with a little grated cheddar cheese and put halved cherry tomatoes on top and put it on to broil. Then I grabbed some sorrel from the yard sliced it in little strips, sliced the zucchini and halved about half a pound more of cherry tomatoes. I poured a splash of red wine into the skillet and turned it down and pulled some washed spinach out of the fridge (already starting to wilt a little I’m afraid). Then I took the bread and cheese and tomatoes out of the broiler, drizzled a tiny bit of olive oil, sprinkled a little salt and spread out the sorrel. In the meantime I had also put the kettle on and three blackcurrant teabags in a bowl. I put lots of ice in a pitcher, poured the boiling water on the tea and let it sit. Called everyone to the table and served up the bread/cheese/tomato/sorrel appetizers. Poured the steeped tea (and teabags into the pitcher, added about a cup of concord grape juice and served blackcurrant-grape iced tea. Drained the pasta and tossed with the skillet sauce, the spinach and the halved cherry tomatoes. tossed in some gated parmesan and about two tablespoons of lemon juice.

So that’s how a nicer weeknight dinner comes together at our house. Elapsed time about half an hour. A more typical dinner might be ground buffalo burgers (preformed and frozen) with orzo pasta made aglio e olio with crushed red pepper and any fresh vegetable sauteed usually with soy sauce and vinegar. That takes longer (lots of garlic to chop).

Nicer meals have more planning. This weekend there is grilling by the pool. That usually means chicken, burgers, sausages and lamb in some combination. The burgers, chicken and lamb will always be different depending on what I can get. Salads, grilled bread, pilau rice (made in the rice cooker), sauces and dips, grilled garden-fresh vegetables, bread and almost any kind of dessert.

Dinner parties get a full day of thought. The guests known preferences are taken into account. So is the weather, what looks really good at the store or the market and what our CSA has delivered unto us. Specialties de maison include indian food, roast leg of lamb, stuffed roast chickens, complex, slow-cooked stews. Then side dishes, appetizers and desserts could be almost anything. My friends tell me it is time to make more puddings again, but I’m liking fruit purees whipped with creme fraiche or mascarpone.

And cooking projects are the most controlled. A dish is thought out completely and time is put aside to make it properly. No rushing.

It doesn’t seem to me that it is quite so chaotic for everyone else. Most non-food people I know just make one of their standard sets of family meals or go eat out. People without kids have less time pressure and fewer constraints. But there are plenty of people I know out there with kids who manage the whole process with grace. What I want to know is…how?