Back when I cooked only to please myself and one or two other consenting adults, choosing recipes was a breeze. Nothing was off limits. Dishes with olives, stinky cheeses, bitter greens and mushrooms — sometimes all of the above — were on regular rotation. Then I began cooking for kids (picky, omnivorous and otherwise). With them came their nut-allergic friends, vegan guitar teachers and chili-fearing in-laws. Forced to adapt my NC-17 cooking style to a G-rated audience, I paged through cookbooks in search of “crowd pleasers” that proved elusive.
Eventually, I realized that the quest for a perfect recipe that pleases everyone at the table, including oneself, was fruitless.
But in the process, a workaround solution emerged: recipes that could be configured to produce many different dishes at one meal. Like Transformers or fantasy football teams, these meals are both modular and complete, constructed from parts that can be added or subtracted from at whim.
Suddenly, my weeknight repertoire increased exponentially. It’s easier on the cook when the week assumes a familiar pattern – pasta one night, a main-course salad another night, beans on a third – but to prevent boredom, the dishes themselves needn’t be exactly the same. (Unless, of course, the culinary conservative in your household demands otherwise.)
Just like taco night or baked-potato night, the meal starts with a base element: pasta, beans, fluffy greens. After that, it’s about piling on, or politely passing along, the garnishes.
The definition of a garnish may need some stretching: This is not a shy sprinkling of parsley or a scattering of sesame seeds. The garnish that makes a meal must be full-throated and filling. Half of a ripe avocado is a garnish. Likewise, a soft-yolk egg (boiled, poached or fried). Bacon lardons, shredded chicken and diced steak. Crushed chilies and leftover roasted vegetables. With enough garnishes, even the plainest of plain foods — pasta with butter and cheese — can balloon into a lively meal.
Dishes like this are adaptable to many life stages. But the building-block system cannot always be contained in a straightforward recipe: Much of the action happens at the table.
These are my back-pocket dinners that lend themselves to this approach:
▪ Buttered pasta with grated cheese; lemon zest; pine nuts cooked in butter; bits of bacon or pancetta; crushed chilies; parsley.
▪ Vegetarian chili with crumbled queijo fresco or feta; cilantro; toasted tortillas or crushed chips; sour cream; pulled or roasted pork; cooked rice or whole grains; salsa.
▪ Cold sesame noodles with thinly sliced cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, scallions and bell peppers; sriracha or sambal; poached chicken or shrimp; cilantro leaves; crushed peanuts.
▪ Latin-style yellow rice and beans with chorizo; fried eggs; sliced avocado; leftover roasted potatoes, sweet or white; hot sauce mixed with minced scallions.
▪ Minestrone soup with a dollop of pesto; shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano; chopped drained fresh tomatoes; toasted sesame bread for dipping.