HOME cooking and family dining have by no means disappeared from the American scene, in spite of all the surveys that say people are eating in restaurants more and more. Nowhere is this clearer than here in the mid-South, where a catfish or barbecue dinner at a restaurant is a popular and inexpensive way to eat out, but it's by no means a way of life. The family supper is alive and well here.
One who cherishes that tradition of gathering the kin for dinner is Mary Fletcher Worthen of Little Rock, Ark. She lives by herself now, but regularly has a full table of family - children and grandchildren - for the noon meal on Sunday after church.
Two of her three sons live nearby with their families. A third son is in Italy with his family on sabbatical from a job as an art history teacher, but he gets back home for frequent visits. And Mrs. Worthen has five grandaughters.
``Sunday dinner has always been a special family meal since my own growing-up days,'' Mrs. Worthen says. ``This means the main meal is in the middle of the day and the main course must be a roast or something that can be cooking while we're at the morning service.
``It may be chicken, which is easy to cook ahead or to prepare partially so that it doesn't take long to make a gravy or sauce at the last minute,'' she says. ``A perfectly roasted chicken is as fine a dish as anyone can have. It's especially nice for Sunday dinner.
``Some say we've lost the delicate flavor of the old barnyard chicken, but I don't think so, and it's always a favorite with the family.''
Along with the chicken, a typical Sunday dinner with the Worthens might also include asparagus salad, new potatoes, and fresh peaches baked in a crust.
As she serves a tall glass of iced tea with fresh mint leaves and some herb cookies, Mrs. Worthen talks a little about the days when everyone had roast chicken for Sunday dinner all over the country. It was stuffed and roasted, stewed with dumplings, or served with cream gravy. And, of course, herbs from the garden are a big part of making that chicken taste the way it should.
``I use herbs in almost everything I cook,'' says Mrs. Worthen, who lectures on herbs and has written books on their use. ``Tarragon, oregano, and dill are herbs I use often, and they're popular today. Rosemary has been in herb gardens for centuries, and it is wonderfully aromatic. It's good in breads and, yes, in pizza. I like it especially with roast lamb.''
Worthen's advice for beginners is not to grow too many culinary herbs at first. ``Only grow those you think you'll want to use,'' she says. ``Then be sure to use them.
``When you've made tarrgon vinegar or tossed crushed rosemary in with fresh green beans, and after you've had your fill of pasta sauced with some pungent basil pesto, then you'll know what herbs do for a dish. That's the time to decide if you want to add more to your culinary herb garden.''
Her basic advice to beginners in the use of herbs is, ``Don't use too much.'' She recommends ``snippets'' of fennel and dill and suggests chopping horseradish leaves in a salad - they're not as strong as the root.
``For a nice flavor change in cakes, use pineapple sage,'' she advises.
Here are Worthen's recipes for some of the dishes she traditionally serves at Sunday dinner.
Baked Peaches in Crust 4 whole, firm, peaches 1 recipe short pastry 1 egg, optional 2 tablespoons water
Wrap whole, unpeeled, slightly underripe peaches with short pastry. Roll out pastry to thickness of no more than 1/8 inch. Using a sharp knife, cut pastry into 4-inch squares. Keep pastry chilled until ready to use.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Place each peach on a pastry square. To seal thoroughly, bring edges of pastry together, moisten with water, and pinch or press to seal. If desired, mix egg and water and brush pastry with it to encourage browning. Place on baking pan and bake 40 minutes at 400 degrees F., until golden brown.
Serve hot with Rosemary Butterscotch Sauce.
Rosemary Butterscotch Sauce 1/3 cup light brown sugar 1/2 cup white sugar 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup heavy cream (or milk and cream combined) Pinch of rosemary leaves, ground
Combine and heat, stirring to mix well. Cook until thickened to desired consistency, adding more sugar or cream as needed.
Add rosemary leaves that have been ground with mortar and pestle.
Roast Chicken Roasting chicken Fresh tarragon Oil 1/2 teaspoon mustard Salt Pepper
Rub chicken with a little oil and salt, if desired. Place a good-size sprig of fresh tarragon in the cavity and another on top.
Place in a shallow baking pan, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 325 degrees F. for 11/2 to to 2 hours, depending on size of bird. (Because it will be cooking while the family is at church, it will cook at a slightly lower heat than otherwise.)
Remove foil last half hour to allow to brown slightly.
Make gravy with drippings and broth made from neck and giblets. Season with 1/2 teaspoon mustard, and salt and pepper.
Serve with fresh corn, asparagus salad, and new potatoes (recipes follow).
Boil ears of corn slowly for 5 minutes. Serve with butter.
Steam or simmer fresh asparagus in slightly salted water about 5 minutes, more or less, depending on size. Do not overcook. Chill.
Before serving, add a few drops of lemon juice, olive oil, and chopped fresh basil.
Garnish with fresh basil leaves.
Boil new, unpeeled potatoes in slightly salted water until just tender.
Add butter and chopped fresh dill.