The other day, before I even poured my morning coffee, I took three minutes to make a shaggy bread dough and set it aside for rising…
Lest you think this is normal behavior, allow me to remind you that I used to shudder at the mention of the word “yeast” in a recipe. I am not a baker and I am certainly not a bread baker. But a funny thing happened recently: my father — a bread-lover of the highest order — is now on a low-sodium diet, and because low-salt versions of his beloved baguettes and boules are so hard to find, I’ve taken it upon myself to bring him a salt-free version of Jim Lahey’s famously easy no-knead bread every time I visit him. I live right near my dad, so that’s a lot of visits… and a lot of bread. In fact, I’ve been making so many loaves that the recipe is now tattooed on my brain, and when I’m baking a loaf for him, I sometimes make one for myself (with salt) at the same time. Economy of scale and all that.
I’m telling you this because the whole thing reminded me that cooking (and baking) becomes so much easier, so much more pleasant, when you don’t have to break out a cookbook or pull up a website. It’s the happiest of cycles: If it’s second nature to make something, you’re going to be more likely to make it. This is especially true of building-block recipes, basic recipes that might not win you any James Beard awards, but will do something better: they’ll make everyday cooking (especially dinner-cooking) more likely to happen.
Here are five recipes, in addition to that bread, that I suggest starting out with:
Here, I’m talking about bone-in chicken breasts, which you can shred and toss with dressing to make chicken salads, or add to green salads, soups, noodles, you name it. And even though they’re roasted, the point is not to have a glazey, crispy skin — it’s to make tender, perfectly cooked chicken shreds.
Recipe: Add four split bone-in chicken breasts to a rimmed cookie sheet and pour in 3 tablespoons of water. Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then tent loosely with foil. Bake at 375°F for 45 minutes. Remove and let cool, then shred the chicken with two forks. You should have about 4 cups of chicken.
All-Purpose Salad Dressing
Maybe you’ve already memorized this from the first time I told you about it, two years ago. Hopefully so, because it’s a fact that when salad is tossed with a good dressing, your entire dinner is somehow going to taste fresher, tastier, and homemade-ier.
Recipe: In a small jar or measuring cup, shake or whisk 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1/4 cup vinegar (red, white, white balsamic, sherry), 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, salt and pepper, fresh chopped herbs (parsley, chives, tarragon, dill, basil). Once mixed, shake or whisk 1/2 cup oil (1/3 cup if you like your dressing more “aggressive”) into jar in steady stream until emulsified.
This salad is great with the dressing, above, and the tofu, below.
Basic Baked Tofu
I recommend this to anyone who is intimidated by preparing tofu, which was me for the longest time. Once I memorized this technique, which relies on a cornstarch toss for easy crispiness, I found myself adding the tofu cubes to so many dishes where I previously added meat, especially in salads like the one you see above, alongside grapes, feta, wheat berries, pistachios, scallions, arugula, carrots, and that salad dressing you’ve already memorized.
Recipe: Preheat oven to 425°F. In a bowl, toss a 15-ounce block of tofu (drained, pressed, and cubed) with 3 tablespoons neutral oil, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1 tablespoon cornstarch, and place on a parchment-paper lined sheet pan. Bake until the tofu is golden and the corners look crispy, 15-20 minutes.
Under-cooked whites, over-cooked whites, greenish-gray edges around the yolk… for something seemingly so simple, a lot can go wrong. Not with the technique below. Once I committed it to memory, it has been nothing but tender whites and sunshine-yellow yolks. I make them by the half-dozen then eat them halved, with a tiny smear of mayo for a snack; or diced and added to a roast asparagus dish; or mashed up with mustard and mayo and minced red onion, then scooped onto good bread. (Extra credit: 7-Minute Eggs, where the yolk is jammier, not hard-cooked, and good for grain bowls and Caesar-ish salads.)
Recipe: Add eggs to a medium pot of water set over high heat. Bring to a boil, then immediately remove the pot from the heat, cover, and set timer for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, remove the eggs to a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Alternately you could strain and run under cold water for 30 seconds to cool down.
This is worthy of memorization for two reasons. The first is that pickled onions are an amazing upgrade to literally everything, including sandwiches and burgers and tacos and straight out of the jar. Second, once you memorize the ingredient ratios here, you’ll end quick-pickling everything — cabbage, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower.
Recipe: In a medium heavy saucepan, bring 2 cups water, 1/4 cup vinegar (any kind, I usually use red wine), 2 tablespoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil over high heat. When the sugar has dissolved, add 1 medium red onion (sliced thin), reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, until they have wilted, about 4 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool to room temp. Do not rinse or drain. You can use immediately. Store leftovers in their pickling liquid.
10 years of memorizing recipes.
What recipes would you recommend memorizing?
P.S. Five-ingredient dinners, and nine family meals we’ve loved to death.
(Salad photo by Christine Han for The Weekday Vegetarians.)