How many dishes can you cook on autopilot?
I’m talking about easy meals that your hands can manage on their own, leaving your mind free to ruminate about your hard day at work or help your kids memorize their multiplication tables.
If the answer is zero, not counting scrambled eggs or pasta with jar sauce, read on.
The more often you can just cook without worrying through a recipe, the freer, easier and more relaxed dinnertime will be. You and your family will be better fed, too.
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You will need to take three steps to get there.
First, you need to learn a few techniques, but not in the time-intensive sense of advanced knife skills or mastering emulsions. Just fundamental skills: roasting, sautéing, broiling. That is, going from raw to cooked.
Second, you need to know the basics of adding flavors: aromatics, spices, herbs. This is entirely subjective. If you love lemon, add the zest as well as the juice. What about garlic, onions, fresh ginger and chilies? Leave them out or pile them on. Use whole spices to add fragrance and texture, and ground spices for their scent alone. Herbs give freshness, brightness and color.
Third, you need to learn to measure by eye or hand. Measuring tools slow you down while you cook and create more mess at the end. This is easily mastered; it’s all about getting to know how your pinch relates to the amount of food at hand.
And for anything you cook, tasting as you go is essential. Add more salt, more vinegar, a dash of hot sauce or a drizzle of olive oil before your guests have a chance to wonder what’s missing on the plate.
To help you along, here are five basic recipes to build on, the kind that are easy to make on your own once you have the hang of them. Once you absorb their fundamental premises, you’ll be able to whip them up without a thought.
Or if you’re feeling creative, you can ad-lib, changing the protein, seasonings and the garnishes until you’d hardly even recognize the dish as something you’ve made before. Take comfort in the familiar or revel in the new: The choice is yours.
For starters, try roasting any fish fillet. That old chestnut about cooking fish for 10 minutes per inch holds true for the most part if you have the oven turned to 400 degrees. Rub down your fillets with oil and salt before roasting and garnish with lemon afterward. You can add some kind of sauce (pesto, vinaigrette, sriracha) or a handful of toasted almonds, or capers, or olives – or leave them in their purest form.
It doesn’t matter what kind of fish you cook. Just keep an eye on it, subtracting a minute or two if you like it on the rare side, or adding time if you prefer it to flake. It’s your dinner; take charge of the outcome.
A similar principle applies to roasted vegetables. Slick them with oil, choosing olive, coconut or peanut if you want to taste it, or safflower or grapeseed if you don’t. Season with salt and pepper and spread out on a rimmed baking sheet.
Roast at higher heat (450 degrees) for vegetables with a high moisture content — peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, broccoli et al. — and slightly lower (425 degrees) for denser roots and squashes. Then top it all with some fried eggs and a dollop of yogurt to make it a meal.
You can also riff on top of the stove. Take some thin meat cutlets (veal, chicken, pork or turkey), sear them in butter and garlic and finish with lemon. The goal here: Brown both the butter and protein at once using high heat, and add a minimum of ingredients that are aromatic enough to carry the dish. The fewer ingredients you use, the faster you can get dinner on the table. Butter, garlic and lemon will get you there.
Or use your skillet for simmering a vegetarian chili made from pantry staples: canned beans and tomatoes, onion and garlic, spices. A bright homemade garnish of onions pickled in lime juice is worth the extra 5 minutes; it gives the dish exuberance and verve.
Mastering the last dish of meatballs does mean memorizing a basic ratio, but a simple one. For every pound of ground protein (beef, veal, pork, turkey, chicken or fish), you’ll need 1 teaspoon salt, 1 egg and a generous handful of breadcrumbs (a half-cup for those who want to measure the first time). Then add what you want to perk them up: ground spices, chopped fresh herbs, a little minced onion or garlic, some Parmesan. Fry or broil.
And with that, dinner is served.
And to drink … an all-purpose home wine list
Just as a meal can generally be cobbled together from ingredients on hand, so, too, should you always have a few versatile wines available that can go with almost anything. A dry but pleasing red like a good cru Beaujolais and a dry white like a St.-Véran or Chablis are essentials that can match up with any of these recipes. You can easily add on, though, to the bare minimum. A Chianti is great if you toss together a dish of pasta and tomato sauce. German spatlese rieslings are wonderful if you call for Chinese food rather than cook. I like to have a fino sherry in the fridge for cheese and nuts, and always have Champagne on hand, just because.
Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour. Servings: 4 to 6.
2-3 pounds root or dense vegetable, peeled if you like and cut into 1-inch chunks or wedges (carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, radishes, rutabaga, winter squashes)
Oil (olive, coconut or grapeseed)
Salt and pepper
Fried eggs and/or plain yogurt
Fresh herbs, torn or chopped
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss vegetables with oil, salt and pepper. Roast, stirring at least once or twice during roasting for even cooking and browning.
2. Serve with fried eggs and/or yogurt, ground black pepper and plenty of torn herbs on top.
You can use 2 pounds high-moisture vegetables instead (eggplant, peppers, zucchini, fennel, onions, brussels sprouts). Slice them and cut into chunks or wedges. Roast at 450 degrees until golden brown all over, 10 to 40 minutes depending on variety and the size of the pieces.
Or use 1 to 2 pounds hardy green vegetables (broccoli raab, snow peas, green beans, kale, collard greens, chard) or cherry tomatoes, trimmed. Roast at 450 degrees for 7 to 15 minutes.
Time: 15 minutes. Servings: 4.
4 fish fillets or steaks of any kind of fish, skin on or off to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt
Lemon wedges, for serving
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Measure fish fillets at the thickest part. Drizzle fish with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and place on a rimmed baking sheet, skin side down if you’ve left the skin on.
Roast fish for 10 minutes per inch of thickness, until the fish is opaque and tender when pierced with a fork but before it starts to flake. Serve with lemon wedges, drizzled with more good olive oil.
Meatballs with Any Meat
Time: 20 minutes. Servings: 4.
1 pound ground meat (pork, beef, veal, chicken, turkey or a combination)
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed
Black pepper and/or ground cumin, curry powder, chili flakes, garam masala, etc., to taste
Minced garlic, onion, scallions or shallot
Chopped parsley, basil or cilantro
Olive oil, for frying (optional)
In a large bowl, gently combine all ingredients. Roll into 1 1/2-inch balls. Transfer to a baking sheet.
Broil until golden and firm, 7 to 10 minutes. Or fry in oil until deeply browned all over. Sprinkle with more salt before serving.
Scaloppine with Any Meat
Time: 10 minutes. Servings: 4.
1 pound any meat cutlets (veal, chicken, turkey, pork), pounded 1/4-inch thick
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 to 2 garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
Lemon or lime wedges
1. Season cutlets with salt and pepper. Melt butter in a large skillet over high heat. Add cutlets and cook quickly, about 1 minute per side. Transfer cutlets to a plate.
2. Return skillet to low heat. Add garlic and cook, swirling the pan, until you can smell it. Squeeze in the lemon or lime juice and season with salt and pepper. Spoon over cutlets and serve.
Vegetarian Skillet Chili
Time: 30 minutes. Servings: 4.
For the Pickled Onions:
1 red onion or shallot, thinly sliced
Salt, as needed
Sugar, as needed
For the Chili:
Olive or grapeseed oil
1 large onion, chopped
Garlic cloves, to taste, minced
2 (15-ounce) cans beans, drained
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
Salt, to taste
Fresh cilantro, diced avocado and sour cream, for garnish (optional)
1. Make the pickled onions: Squeeze the lime juice into a bowl and add the onion or shallot, a large pinch of salt and a small pinch of sugar. Let rest for 20 minutes while you make the chili.
2. Heat a large skillet, then add the oil. When hot, add the onion and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, chili powder and oregano and sauté until fragrant. Add the beans and tomatoes and a few large pinches of salt and let simmer until the tomatoes break down, about 20 minutes.
3. Taste and add more salt, chili and/or oregano to taste. Serve with the pickled onion and any of the garnishes you like.