Just as you stock a pantry with foods you want to have perpetually handy, it’s worthwhile to stock your mind with a few recipes/dish ideas/techniques that ensure you can whip up something tasty consistently without having to think about it. Make it tasty from scratch, and get creative with variations!
Popcorn is surprisingly easy without specialized equipment!
What you need: Kernels, oil and a decent sized pot with a lid. One quarter cup of kernels fills a 6 cup pot nicely.
What you do: Heat the oil in the pot with 3 of the kernels with the lid on, over medium heat. Shake occasionally to prevent burning, if you like. Once you hear 3 pops, the oil is hot enough. Remove the lid, pour in the remaining kernels, and let the popping begin! It’s good to shake occasionally to keep those kernels from burning, and to send the unpopped kernels to the bottom where they have a better chance of popping. When the popping has pretty much stopped, remove from the heat and season how you like it!
Notes: A word about the oil – either use an oil with a higher smoke point (like canola) or mix your lower-smoke-point oil (like olive, or butter) with canola to reduce the chance of burning. Ghee works wonderfully, and has a nice, high smoke point! Consider tossing herbs or spices with your popped kernels – cumin, chili powder and cayenne with a pinch of salt make a tasty Creole popcorn! Avoid water-based additives (juices, soy sauce, vinegars) though – they dissolve the starch of the kernels and leave you with a sodden mess. Oil-based liquids are fine, in moderation.
Salad dressing is easy to pair with your salad when you make your own!
What you need: usually oil and some sort of acid; herbs, aromatics and flavourants; sweeteners (optional); mustard (optional); a jar
What you do: combine the ingredients in a jar, and shake until blended. Taste and adjust flavours as necessary. Shake again.
Notes: The classic ratio for oil and vinegar dressing is 3 parts oil to one part vinegar (or lemon/lime/orange juice), but you can adjust that to whatever suits you best. Also, mustard is an emulsifier – an ingredient that helps water-based liquids mix with oil – so if you want a dressing that doesn’t separate and the flavour suits, consider adding some mustard to the mix. Your dressing may benefit from sitting for an hour or more, to allow the flavours to mingle – just give it another shake before pouring on your salad. Make your dressing match your salad even better by sharing its ingredients – use a bit of grape juice in the dressing for a salad with raisins, for example.
Bechamel is a basic white sauce – a versatile ingredient in a variety of dishes.
What you need: equal parts butter or margarine and flour, milk
What you do: melt the butter in a saucepan, and add the flour. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is a little bubbly. This is known as a roux, and can be combined with other liquids to make other sauces. The longer you cook the roux, the darker and richer it will get. For a white sauce, you want a fairly light roux – so proceed to the next step while the butter/flour mixture is still pale yellow. Slowly pour in splashes of milk, stirring and letting it cook a bit between additions, until you’ve added about a cup of milk for every tablespoon of flour. Depending on what you’re making the sauce for, you may want it thicker or thinner – add less or more milk accordingly. You should now have a pot of white creamy sauce!
Notes: Stir in a pile of grated cheese and mix with cooked noodles and bake for your own baked mac’n’cheese. Stir in herbs, chicken and cooked vegetable and top with a crust before baking for a chicken pot pie. Stir in herbs and pour over vegetables for a tasty side dish. Stir in pureed vegetables and broth for a cream soup. To avoid curdling, make sure you remove the bechamel from the heat before stirring in cheeses, and add broths a bit at a time.
A French Omelette is a quick and versatile meal!
What you need: A flat frying pan, 2-3 eggs per omelette, a solid fat (butter, margarine, or ghee), filling (make sure everything that needs to be is already cooked)
What you do: Melt the fat in the frying pan while you beat the eggs. You can add a little water or milk to the eggs if you like, or not, if you don’t. Pour the eggs into the frying pan and let them cook – don’t stir them, just let them do their thing. If the egg layer is thick and the top is staying runny, you can lift a corner and drain some egg down under the cooked bit, but let it form a big disc. When the top is a little runny but mostly set, it’s time to top. Scatter your filling on one half of the disc, and carefully flip the other side over the filling. Let it cook a little while, then flip the whole thing over so the other side cooks a bit. Slide it onto a plate and enjoy with toast, fruit, or whatever is tasty and goes well.
Notes: This is a very versatile food. It’s usually good with cheese on the inside, along with veg (and/or fruit). Some fillings that I’ve found extra successful include pizza (mozzarella, tomato sauce and pizza toppings), chicken and mushroom, and smoked salmon cream cheese with a bit of dill. You can further enhance flavour by adding herbs to the egg mixture – consider poultry seasoning in the eggs with turkey, cranberry, squash and cheddar for filling – leftover turkey dinner!
Fried Rice is a fun variation on a classic stir-fry, and not much more work!
What you need: oil; cold, cooked leftover rice; egg; stir-fry ingredients; sauces/herbs/other flavourings
What you do: heat your oil over medium/medium-high in a wok, frying pan, or whatever it is you use to make a stir fry. Beat 1 egg for every 1-2 people you’re serving. When the oil is hot and shimmering, pour in the egg and watch it quickly bubble and cook in strands. Feel free to help it along by stirring it a bit. When it’s cooked (should only take a few seconds) drain it on (paper) towel while reserving most of the oil in the pan. Cook your stir fry (I usually put in the aromatics and herbs first – onion, garlic, spice powders – and any raw meat, then the sturdy veg like carrot, then the delicate veg like mushrooms, with a few minutes between each set to allow things to cook), and when your veg is how you like it, toss in the cooked rice. Stir it in, breaking up any lumps, and making sure it gets well integrated and warmed up. Pour on any sauces (soy sauce is traditional, and ketchup adds a pleasant sweet-sour tang) and stir until everything is hot and coated. Just before serving, stir in the egg just until it’s incorporated.
Notes: This is a great way to use up leftover rice, and to dress up a normal stir fry. The egg step isn’t strictly necessary, but it does add a pleasant element to the dish and I like to include it whenever I have an egg to spare. Citrus juices can brighten the rich flavour of this dish.
Stovetop mac’n’cheese is a quick and easy variation on a comfort food classic.
What you need: a deep frying pan, wok, or wide pot; noodles; water; milk; add-ins (including cheese)
What you do: Put 1 part noodle, 1 part water and 1 part milk in the pot/pan/wok and heat over medium – and it’s a good idea to keep an eye on it, and stir it occasionally. As they cook, the starch from the noodles will blend with the water and milk to make a cream sauce. If the liquid reduces before the noodles are fully cooked, add a little water and/or milk. When you’re left with cooked noodles in a creamy liquid, remove from the heat and stir in grated cheese and other add-ins as desired.
Notes: The original version of this, from a Milk calendar of a bygone decade, called for parmesan cheese, ham and peas. It’s just as good with sauteed onion, mushroom, red pepper and chicken, and cheddar cheese. Or mozzarella, pepperoni and tomato sauce. Or whatever you can dream up! You don’t have to make the sauce a cheese sauce – stir in herbs for an unusual variation.
A week doesn’t go by when I don’t use at least one of these! Add them to your repertoire and have fun playing with variations!