The Food Lover's Guide to Super Simple Cooking

Our tricks, tips, and recipes for getting spectacular results with a minimum of fuss. Fish, seafood, pasta, sandwiches, and more.

Super Simple Cooking Guide

Photo: Iain Bagwell

Super Simple Cooking

Simple food, for its own sake, can be a snooze. The holy grail is simple food that has an essential, aha! deliciousness that gets to the soul of the ingredients and the dish. Some cooks have a gift for it. But the gift can be learned. Not everything is about shortcuts: Sometimes a special splurge is the key. Not everything is about speed: Sometimes careful prep makes a dish sing. Here are 25 tricks for successful simplicity.

1. The Seasoning Secret

Photo: Randy Mayor

1. The Seasoning Secret

Don't over-complicate things; have the confidence to season simply. A whole roasting chicken will be delicious with salt, pepper, and lemon rind. Summer tomatoes sparkle with a bit of oil and salt. Play with the idea of simplicity and restraint. Let the ingredients sing.

2. The Standout Strategy

Photo:Iain Bagwell

2. The Standout Strategy

Build a meal around one star dish, not several. This tomato stack salad, for example, can be a star, allowing you to pair it with a very basic piece of chicken. Again, it hinges on ingredients.

View Recipe: Tomato Stack Salad

3. The Bread Blessing

Photo: Randy Mayor

3. The Bread Blessing

Bread can be far more than the starch of a meal—it can be a star. A standout loaf may require a side trip to a great bakery, but it's always worth it.

4. The Visualization Tactic

4. The Visualization Tactic

Flavor and texture can be compromised if the cooking doesn't come together smoothly. Picture your progress through the steps of a recipe. Become a mental game planner.

5. The Let-Others-Do-It Ploy

Photo: Nigel Cox

5. The Let-Others-Do-It Ploy

Too few cooks take advantage of help at the store. Have the butcher cut, bone, or skin meat, and have the fishmonger skin or fillet the fish. Buy precut veggies, too, if you need to save more time.

View Recipe: Steak Sandwich with Pickled Onion and Herb Aioli

6. The Explorer's Route

Photo: Randy Mayor

6. The Explorer's Route

Specialty markets are full of ingredients that give dishes more punch, such as fresh and dried noodles, sauces, and spices. Asian stores have frozen Indian flatbreads that heat in seconds: Add a simmering sauce—voilà, you've got a great meal.

7. The Splurge

Photo: Nigel Cox

7. The Splurge

Spend a little more at those specialty stores. Buy beautiful pasta, artisanal cheese, gorgeous finishing salts, or luxury items to keep in the freezer—a nub of pancetta or a tub of demi-glace to make the tasty sauce.

View Reciple: Sablefish with Mild Mustard Glace  

8. The Convenience Play

Photo: Oxmoor

8. The Convenience Play

Keep these on hand for easy pull-together meals: low-sodium marinara, precooked grains (brown rice, farro), fresh pizza dough.

9. The Cook Once, Eat Twice Habit

Photo: John Autry

9. The Cook Once, Eat Twice Habit

If you're planning to grill four chicken breasts, grill eight. When roasting veggies, do a giant batch—it adds little time. Use extras for salads, pizzas, tacos.

10. The Weekend Warrior Approach

Photo: Nigel Cox

10. The Weekend Warrior Approach

On a lazy Sunday, make versatile, high-flavor components to simplify cooking on a downstream night: roasted tomatoes, toasted breadcrumbs, roasted garlic. Super-slow-cooked caramelized onions sweeten the zucchini quiche recipe below.

View Recipe: Zucchini and Caramelized Onion Quiche

11. The Freezer Pleaser

Photo: Randy Mayor

11. The Freezer Pleaser

Label and store extra portions of sauces, sides, and entrées. That extra cup of pasta sauce would be great for pizza, meatball hoagies, even soup.

12. The Veg-Ahead Tactic

Photo: Randy Mayor

12. The Veg-Ahead Tactic

Blanch veggies ahead of time. Trim and boil green beans, cauliflower, butternut squash, and broccoli for a few minutes just to get them softened. Drain and shock in ice water; then drain and store for the week. Or chop ahead. In a few minutes of downtime, you can get those onions, carrots, cauliflower, or broccoli prepped and ready to go. Store in zip-top bags in the fridge.

 

 

13. The In-Season Policy

Photo: Oxmoor

13. The In-Season Policy

Always start with fresh, peak-season ingredients so they won't need much gussying up: Summer tomatoes are sweet and tangy, as are peaches and plums. When winter comes, commit to acorn squash and Brussels sprouts, and explore easy flavor-enhancing techniques such as roasting.

14. The Double-Duty Blessing

Photo: Randy Mayor

14. The Double-Duty Blessing

Use foods that offer two flavors or components in one. Citrus gives floral essence from zest and tartness from juice. Fennel provides crunchy bulk from the bulb and feathery greenery from the fronds. Capers yield salt and tang. Even Parmesan rind is a flavor-booster for sauces and soups, a smart use once you grate all the cheese.

 

15. The Precooked Proposition

Photo: Manfred Koh

15. The Precooked Proposition

Explore the store for high-quality, no-cook proteins for pasta tosses, salads, pizzas, or sandwiches: jarred sustainable tuna, rotisserie chicken, smoked salmon or trout, or salumi.

16. The High-Flavor Mandate

Photo: Manfred Koh

16. The High-Flavor Mandate

Build a repertoire of bold ingredients from which you can pull to turn up some serious flavor, like smoked paprika, sambal oelek, sherry vinegar, chipotle chiles, truffle oil, sweet Indonesian soy sauce, Indian pickles, and dried porcini mushrooms.

 

 

17. The Special-Sauce Trick

Photo: Randy Mayor

17. The Special-Sauce Trick

Fast-food empires have been built on the power of mayo that's simply jazzed up with a few stir-ins. Secret sauces can make a boring sandwich a signature sandwich and work wonders with chicken or fish.

 

 

18. The Blazing-Hot Pan Principle

Photo: Nigel Cox

18. The Blazing-Hot Pan Principle

Simple cooking often involves stovetop searing of fish or meat and sautéing of vegetables. A good pan, preheated until really hot, delivers the intense flavors you're looking for.

View Recipe: Seared Scallops with Summer Vegetables and Beurre Blanc  

19. The Quick-Reduction Trick

Photo: Randy Mayor

19. The Quick-Reduction Trick

A hot pan also reduces a half-cup of good stock, wine, or orange juice to a glaze, and a bit of butter whisked in yields a master sauce.

20. The Emulsification Proclamation

Photo: Nigel Cox

20. The Emulsification Proclamation

Know how to make a well-blended sauce, which can pull a meal together. For vinaigrette, drizzle in oil as you whisk vigorously. To coat noodles, churn oil into a bit of boiling pasta water, as with the pasta recipe below.

View Recipe: Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic  

21. The Slow-Cooker Scheme

Photo: Randy Mayor

21. The Slow-Cooker Scheme

Learn a few reliable slow-cooker recipes. Time is not the issue for the simple cook: This is hands-free cooking that can take place while you're at work. Check out some of our favorite slow-cooker recipes below.

View Recipes: Slow-Cooker Favorites  

22. The Weighty Matter

Photo: Randy Mayor

22. The Weighty Matter

Use a kitchen scale for measuring ingredients like flour or cheese. It's simpler than spooning into cups and leveling off.

23. The Microwave Maneuver

Photo: Colin Peterson

23. The Microwave Maneuver

Streamline prep, and cut down on the pots and pans you drag out. You can quickly zap parchment-wrapped beets, soften bell peppers you'll stuff, or bring stock to a boil for soup.

24. The Tool Rule

Photo: Randy Mayor

24. The Tool Rule

Use gadgets that deliver the textural variety that makes simple food special: julienne peelers, mandolines, and Microplane-style graters.

25. The Equipment Investment

Photo: Randy Mayor

25. The Equipment Investment

Get some good knives. We've said it before and we'll say it again: You simplify prep greatly when you have sharp, precise knives and hone your knife skills. Simple food, often sautéed, needs to be cut into even pieces; they're prettier, too. It's often much quicker and less messy to hand-cut than to yank out the food processor.

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