The Food Lover's Guide to Super Simple Cooking
By: Text: Ann Taylor Pittman
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Keep these on hand for easy pull-together meals: low-sodium marinara, precooked grains (brown rice, farro), fresh pizza dough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Use a kitchen scale for measuring ingredients like flour or cheese. It's simpler than spooning into cups and leveling off.
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.
Use gadgets that deliver the textural variety that makes simple food special: julienne peelers, mandolines, and Microplane-style graters.
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.