You're not trying to please these guys. You're making dinner.

10 Recipes Even You Can't Screw Up

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Sarah Kliff has an interview with the authors of that sociology study that I wrote up a couple of weeks back. The authors continue to sound like they are performing their analysis from some alien planet, perhaps the world where food processors film their commercials. That would explain why they seem to view as their task as describing, cataloging and remedying reality's surprising departure from the normal standard of glowing, clean-scrubbed children merrily asking for seconds while a trim, impeccably coiffed mother relaxes with a glass of wine.

That said, there is something that niggles about haute food writing, isn't there? I love Mark Bittman, and everyone struggling to get that nightly meal on the table should read his latest article, which perfectly sums up my own cooking philosophy. But then there's this recent Times gem, which urges people to make dinner. Here's the idea that the Times offers to get you started:

Imagine a chicken smothered in gravy, cooked on the stove top, served with white rice and steamed green beans with a pat of butter. It is as pleasant a meal as a September night can offer, and simple to prepare.

The shopping is a breeze. Go to the market for a chicken of moderate size. Get an organic one because it will taste better. Ask the butcher to take out the backbone if you're nervous about doing that yourself. This isn't a time for more courage than is called for in the preparation of a midweek meal. (A bird with its backbone removed has been "spatchcocked," and you can lay it out flat in a pan. If you want to know how to do that yourself, there is a short instructional video and other tips on cooking techniques atnytimes.com/video/cooking-techniques.

. . .

Sometimes the easiest way is the best.

First, select a pan in which to cook. Claiborne believed a cast-iron skillet to be essential to the dish's success, probably in part for nostalgic reasons and absolutely because cast iron conducts heat so evenly and well. But any heavy-bottomed pan large enough to hold the chicken will do. Set it over medium heat, and add a couple of tablespoons of butter. As it melts and starts to foam, salt and pepper the chicken. Then add it to the pan, skin side down, and turn the heat to low.

Now, a technique straight out of Claiborne's mother's playbook: Put an inverted plate on top of the chicken and weight it down with a full can of tomatoes or beans, a foil-wrapped brick or a small dumbbell -- something heavy enough to press the skin of the chicken into the heated surface.

Cooking is patience. Cooking is trust. The low heat of the stove combined with the butter and the rendering fat of the chicken will slowly turn the skin golden brown and crisp, so that it releases easily from the pan. At which point you will turn the chicken over, carefully, and cook it some more. (Use the downtime to make rice and prepare your green beans.) Then, the smothering. When the chicken has cooked through, take it out of the pan and pour off all but a couple of tablespoons of the fat in the pan, and make a quick gravy.

There is no need to panic at that command. Simply sprinkle a few tablespoons of flour into the hot fat and stir it around with a whisk for a few minutes, allowing the raw taste of the flour to diminish. Then hit the resulting roux with a cup or so of chicken stock, whisking until it thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Return the chicken to the pan with the gravy and allow it to cook yet a little while longer, until it is ridiculously tender, almost coming off the bones. Then remove to a cutting board, hack into pieces and place on a platter. Spoon some of the gravy over the top and serve the rest on the side, with the rice and vegetables.

Keep in mind that the proposed audience for this article is people who aren't currently cooking dinner. And certainly won't be anytime soon, if this is the standard to which they are supposed to aspire.

Where does one even start? Perhaps with the fact that most of us shop at a boring megamarket, where a request to spatchcock a chicken is likely to be met with something between puzzlement and an incredulous stare. Then there's the recipe itself. There are about a zillion ways that an infrequent cook can screw this up and produce something burned or otherwise inedible.

Might I try this recipe? Sure. But I already cook dinner six or seven nights a week. I'm not the target of these exhortations.

If you want to encourage people to cook, you need to offer people actual recipes that are 1) good and 2) can be made by someone with at best a modicum of interest and experience.

Luckily, I happen to have a few right here ...

1. Tomato basil pasta with black pepper and mozzarella

Ingredients:

1 1-lb. box of spaghetti, linguini or fettucine
1 Tbs. salt
2 8-oz. boxes of grape tomatoes OR a pound of fresh tomatoes
1 package of fresh basil from the herb section OR 2 cubes of frozen basil from Dorot (available at Trader Joe's and many normal supermarkets)
3 cloves of garlic OR 2 tsp. Gourmet Gardens garlic (crushed or chunky)
1 Tbs. fresh ground black pepper
1 8-oz. package of the smallest mozzarella balls in water (perlini) OR larger balls cut into quarters OR a package of fresh mozzarella cut into 1/4-inch pieces. Do not use shredded, which is coated with starch and won't melt right.
3 Tbs. butter

Equipment:

Large frying pan
Pasta pot
Garlic crusher (optional)
Knife
Something to stir with
Large bowl

Step 1: Fill the pasta pot with water. Put it on the stove to boil.

Step 2: Cut your grape tomatoes in half lengthwise, or your larger tomatoes into one-inch pieces.

Step 3: Cut up your mozzarella, if necessary.

Step 4: If you are using fresh basil, take the leaves off the stems and rinse them under cold water. Dry by rolling in a couple of paper towels for five minutes. Chop the basil into strips. Don't worry, it won't take long, because you aren't using that much basil. Set the basil aside.

Step 4a: If you do not have a garlic crusher, or a tube of Gourmet Gardens garlic, chop your garlic fine with a knife.

Step 5: Put the frying pan on the stove over medium heat. Melt 2 Tbs. of the butter in the frying pan.

Step 6: When the butter is melted, add the tomatoes and garlic, crushing the garlic with your garlic crusher if you are using fresh and have a garlic crusher. Saute for five minutes, stirring at least once a minute. Remove from the heat, but leave in the pan.

Step 7: When the water comes to a boil, add the salt. Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box.

Step 8: A minute before the pasta is done, put the tomato-garlic mixture back over medium heat (or turn on the burner again, if you are using gas).

Step 9: Drain the pasta. Put it in the large bowl with the remaining 1 Tbs. butter.

Step 10: Put the tomato mixture, basil, black pepper and mozzarella into the bowl. Mix well. Try to make sure that all the cheese is under a top layer of pasta. Let stand for five minutes. Serve.

2. Thomas Keller's recipe for roast chicken. This is what an easy chicken recipe actually looks like.

3. Easy slow-cooker pulled pork

Ingredients:

5 lbs. pork shoulder or pork butt
Commercial rub (available in the spice section of your supermarket or from Amazon) OR a rub made of 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup paprika, 2 Tbs. dried mustard, 2 Tbs. cumin, 2 Tbs. salt, 2 Tbs. garlic powder and some fresh ground black pepper. Aside from the sugar, the salt and the paprika, any of these ingredients can be safely omitted if you do not have them.
1 cup commercial barbecue sauce (I like Sweet Baby Ray's, which is available in the Ultra-Economy Size from Costco)
Apple cider vinegar (optional)
Hamburger rolls

Equipment:

Plastic wrap
A slow cooker

Step 1: The night before, make your rub and slap it liberally all over the pork. For maximum flavor, cut the pork into four pieces so you can get more rub on. But it'll be OK if you don't.

Step 2: Wrap the pork in plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.

Step 3: In the morning, before you leave for work, unwrap the pork. Put it in the slow cooker with the cup of barbecue sauce and a tablespoon of vinegar, if you have some on hand. White wine vinegar can also be substituted, but not distilled white vinegar, which is for cleaning, not cooking. Cook on low nine to 11 hours.

Step 4: When the cooking time is done, take the pork out of the slow cooker. Pour the liquid into a glass or clear plastic measuring cup to let the fat rise to the top; this will take about five minutes.

Step 5: Meanwhile, slice the pork or shred it with two forks. Put in a serving dish.

Step 6: The fat should now be a translucent layer on top of your cooking liquid. Spoon off that layer and throw away. Do not put it down your sink drain, as it will turn solid when it hits cold water and clog your drain. It's OK if you don't get every last drop. For that matter, it's OK if you don't remove the fat, as long as you don't mind a fatty sauce. Add vinegar to your cooking liquid to taste. The more vinegar you add, the more it will taste like Carolina-style barbecue. You can also add a teaspoon or so of yellow mustard.

Step 7: Put the sauce and the meat on the table with hamburger buns. Everyone makes a sandwich and eats it.

4. Perfect broiled steaks.

5. Sauteed chicken breasts with pan sauce

Ingredients:

1 package Perdue Fit and Easy Thin-Sliced Boneless, Skinless Chicken breasts
1 1/2 cups flour
2 Tbs. seasoning of choice (Italian seasoning, seasoned salt, Cajun, etc.)
4 Tbs. butter
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
2 Tbs. to 1/4 cup heavy cream, depending on your tolerance for the added calories
1 to 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard

Equipment:

1 gallon-size Ziplock bag OR 1 Tupperware container with lid
Frying pan
Spatula
Whisk
Plate

Step 1: Put the flour into the bag or container with the seasoning.

Step 2: Remove the thin sliced breasts from the package and peel off the paper. Add to the container. Seal the bag or close the lid tightly. Holding it shut, shake for 30 seconds or until the breasts are well-covered in flour.

Step 3: Heat 2 Tbs. butter in your frying pan over medium-high heat. Saute the chicken breasts in the butter until brown and firm, about three minutes to a side. Do not let the chicken cutlets touch each other. If you can't fit them all in your pan at once without touching, sauté in batches, using the rest of the butter. If they are getting black, turn the heat down. Remove cutlets from pan when they are cooked and put on a plate. If you are unsure when they are cooked, cut one open to check.

Step 4: Turn heat to high. Pour the wine into the pan and let it bubble for 30 seconds as you scrape up the browned bits with your whisk; this is called deglazing the pan, which sounds awful fancy, doesn't it?

Step 5: Whisk in the remaining ingredients (mustard to taste) and cook over high heat for a minute. Season with salt and pepper to taste. You can pour the sauce over the chicken on the serving plate, or serve on the side.

Optional additions:

Saute garlic and/or shallots or onions in the butter for five to 10 minutes before you cook the chicken, then remove from pan, and add back to the sauce with the mustard and cream.

Saute mushrooms in another pan and add to the sauce at the end.

Saute capers until slightly crispy and add at the end.

Variations: They're practically endless.

Forgo the pan sauce and instead, when you are done cooking, spread each breast with a spoonful of good tomato sauce and top with a slice of provolone or mozzarella cheese, or, what-the-heck-it's-Friday, both. Put them on a pan and broil in the oven or toaster oven just until the cheese melts. Serve with pasta or on heat-and-eat baguettes as a sandwich.

Instead of pan sauce, put a bit of mustard on each breast, a slice of good-quality ham, and a slice of Swiss cheese; broil until the cheese melts.

Instead of Dijon mustard, use 1 Tbs. frozen lemon juice, 1 to 2 Tbs. tomato paste and 1 tsp. Aleppo pepper OR 1 tsp. paprika and 1/4 tsp. cayenne. Serve over pasta. This sauce is also great on pan-sauteed shrimp; just cook raw, peeled shrimp until they are pinkish white, then remove from pan and proceed as above.

Use red wine instead of white, and instead of the mustard and broth and cream, add 2 Tbs. roasted red peppers, chopped fine, a box of Pomi chopped tomatoes and 1 Tbs. Italian seasoning or herbes de provence; simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes, and serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. (No need to grate it yourself -- just pass the grater and the wedge of Parmesan.)

Those are just some starter suggestions; once you've got chicken cutlets down, you have an endless landscape of possibility in front of you.

6. Grilled honey-lime pork chops

Ingredients:

1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbs. fresh ginger (used the stuff from the supermarket tubes)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or red pepper flakes (optional)
Fresh ground pepper
1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed (you can substitute the prepped stuff in tubes, or 1/2 tsp garlic powder)
Pork chops

Equipment:

Some sort of bowl
A grill or grill pan

Step 1: Whisk together all ingredients, except the pork chops, which do not whisk well. Pour the marinade over the pork chops in the morning before you leave for work, or as soon as you get home, and refrigerate in a covered container. (Longer is better, but never make the perfect the enemy of the adequate.)

Step 2: Grill. Heat your grill to medium-hot and cook until the pork chop releases from the grill, about four minutes. Grill another three to four minutes on the other side. Let sit for five minutes before serving to finish cooking. You can also do this with a grill pan over medium heat, though it may take a bit longer. If you are uncertain as to whether the chops are done, just cut one open to check; no one will care.

7. Marcella Hazan's pesto recipe. You can substitute walnuts for the pine nuts, chop the cheese in the food processor, and soften the butter on the microwave's lowest setting in five-minute bursts. Don't worry overmuch if the butter melts a bit. Can be made in less time than it takes to boil water for pasta.

8. Grilled yogurt-marinated chicken thighs. OK, this is a bit more ambitious, with so many ingredients, but I promise it takes little time, zero cooking skill, and you will make this over and over, because it is the one recipe that every single person I have ever served it to has asked for. Your total active time should be less than 15 minutes, except for grilling. Do not try to make kebabs, which takes forever; just use whole boneless, skinless thighs, or slice the thighs into 1 1/2-inch strips. Slice the chicken the night before and put in a covered bowl, then make the marinade, except for the lemon, in another bowl, and also refrigerate. In the morning, slice one lemon, toss it with everything else in a big bowl, and put it back in the fridge, covered. In the evening, grill, or lay the strips on cookie sheets and bake in a 450-degree oven for 15 to 17 minutes.

9. Baked eggs in tomato sauce. You can do this with any good-quality marinara from the fresh-food section of the supermarket; it doesn't have to be homemade, though this is cheaper. You can do it in one big pan instead of individual ramekins; serve Middle Eastern style with crusty white bread, and let the family dig in (kids love this). You can also do it on the stove top: Heat the sauce over medium heat, then make a little well in the sauce for each egg, and crack the egg in. Cover and cook for five to 10 minutes, until the white is set but the yolk is still runny. The spicy, delicious Middle Eastern version of this is shakshuka, which I make often, though I have to tone down the harissa, because hello, middle age. If you make your tomato sauce from scratch, you can save it in the fridge for at least a week, maybe a week and a half, and have this again.

10. The perfect omelette. Fill with whatever you like in omelettes; I am not going to insult your intelligence by suggesting things. Served with a salad, this is a perfectly honorable dinner that can be prepared in under 15 minutes.

This is obviously not an exhaustive list; it's just a starter group of main dishes that

  • Can be put on the table in under half an hour with very minimal cooking skill;
  • Are really very tasty;
  • Do not involve canned soup, store-bought "Alfredo" sauce or other highly processed products that will make you feel kind of bad after eating them;
  • Shouldn't break the budget; and
  • Are relatively unlikely to make your children screw up their noses in disgust, though one never knows with children, does one?

Only one of them even involves that food processor you got for your wedding and never used. If you can handle a knife without cutting yourself and operate the dials on your range, you can make anything on this list. I'm not saying that Mario Batali will start dropping hints for a dinner invitation. But with any of these recipes, you will be putting a much-better-than-average-quality dinner on the table in very little time.

Every home cook should have a stable of such recipes -- things they know they can do when they don't have much time to do it. I'm hoping that readers will suggest a few of their own in the comments.

  1. There are various other ways to get skinny chicken breasts, but let's leave that for the Master Course.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net