Dinnertime while I was growing up was a chaotic time filled with laughter, lively discussions and an occasional food fight with our favorite weapon, green peas.
Mom always wanted to know how we were doing in school, our grades and homework. Dad wanted to know if any boys were hanging around his two daughters.
"If he can't walk up the steps and knock on the front door of this house like a man," my dad would say when told to be quiet about one of our boyfriends or our "so-called" love lives, "he isn't good enough to be dating one of my daughters."
It was a different time and, in our house at least, the rules were simple and reinforced every night.
Some of the most important "life lessons" I ever learned were taught at our dinner table:
* Don't drink until you're 21, and, if you do, don't drink till you are stupid or drive yourself to your own funeral,
* Don't smoke cigarettes until you're old enough to buy them for yourself. You can kill yourself with your own money,
* Don't swear like a drunken sailor, it only shows you are ignorant,
* Trust your judgment because we have taught you wrong from right, but remember that one day you will be judged by the same rules you apply to others, and
* Treat everyone you meet with dignity, respect and courtesy. In the future, you never know who will become your boss some day.
Some of the rules have stuck with both my sister and myself throughout the years and we've shared them with our children.
And, to be truthful, we have danced around the edges of a few. Although we aren't quite cussing like drunken sailors, we've swabbed a poop deck or two in our time.
Whatever the reason for it, dinnertime was special then.
Fast forward 30 years and I rarely hear other people talk about dinnertime with their loved ones anymore.
Because life is hectic, fast food restaurants are thriving, our waistlines are growing and the quality time for families to communicate over dinner is lost.
Both parents are probably working late, the children participate in at least 10 different activities and, even if the family unit is home, computers, television, game systems, cell phones and all other types of gadgets lure individuals away from each other.
My family is very busy, but we make it a point twice a week, and definitely on the weekends, to sit down together for a meal and talk. Usually, we also work together on these nights to cook the meal.
The odd thing is, after doing this for about a month, even on the days when all of us couldn't be together at the same time, I discovered my children would seek me out. It is so wonderful when your teenager wants to talk, and they choose to talk to you. My heart flutters a little each time it happens.
Life is hectic for everyone. It's hard to drag yourself in the door after working all day and immediately be hit with, "I need help with math. Can you do this? I need to go get school supplies for a project due tomorrow, and can you help me do it tonight?"
And then have it all topped off with, "I'm hungry. When are you cooking dinner?"
Many times I've fought back the urge to become a drunken sailor and inform whomever that they can cook dinner for themselves.
This is where Crock-Pots come into play.
Walking into a house filled with aromatic knowledge that you don't have to cook is an incredible feeling after a hectic day.
One favorite at my house is a "no peek" hearty beef casserole that cooks all day, and only needs to have rice or store bought noodles cooked when I get home.
With two teenagers, if I'm not going to be home when they are hungry, they can start cooking the rice or noodles when I call to tell them I'm on the way home.
Another wonderful thing about cooking with a Crock-Pot is if you don't have time in the morning to put it all together to cook all day, do it the night before and store it in the refrigerator until ready to start cooking. (NOTE: Let the refrigerated pot warm up while sitting out on the counter for a few minutes before putting it in the heating unit.)
No more excuses, let's get cooking:
Coat the inside of your 2- or 3-quart pot with butter or cooking spray. Place back into the unit and turn it to the low setting.
Place in the pot two or three pounds of stew beef (cut into 1-inch pieces), two thinly sliced medium size onions (one red, one yellow), one sliced green pepper (NOTE: My grandparents called them mangos, so I might slip up and misidentify them from time to time.), two roughly shredded carrots, 1-cup of chopped celery, and approximately 2-cups of fresh mushrooms. Put the lid on pot while mixing the liquid.
Mix one package of dry onion soup mix together with a 1/2-cup of red wine (try beer for a different flavor), one tablespoon of soy sauce and a 10 1/2-ounce can of cream of mushroom soup until blended, and then pour over contents in the pot.
Replace the lid and don't open it again for at least eight hours.
Some Crock-Pot units might need a little longer, but try not to leave it cooking longer than 10 hours.
If I have to work an afternoon shift, or if my teenagers plan on having a group of friends coming over after school, I use my Crock-Pot to cook "tasty dogs."
Use cooking spray to coat the pot before placing it in the heating unit.
Drop two or three packages of frozen hot dogs (or any other type of frozen polish, knockwurst or bratwurst sausages will also work) and in the pot before covering with the lid.
For a little extra taste, we have coated the dogs with a thin layer of mustard, BBQ sauce or Italian dressing before placing them inside the pot and used a longer cooking time to make sure the coating doesn't burn.
What time your family is going to eat is important for the heat setting in this recipe. The dogs cook in their own juices and brown wherever touching the pot, so you don't want to over cook them.
Cook on high for one or two hours if you're in a hurry and know your family will be home during that time span to eat dinner. If they won't be, turn to medium for three to four hours cooking time or low for four to six hours.
A few minutes before serving, we warm up the hot dog buns in the pot (with the lid on).
Another variation on this recipe is to pour a large can of baked beans (sauerkraut also works) in a tall, heat-resistant glass or metal container that will fit inside the pot and leave enough room to stand the dogs around the wall of the pot.