With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook

With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

For most of my childhood, I believed that my dad knew how to cook. When called upon, he could reliably make pasta bolognese, tacos, and hamburgers without much effort and certainly without a cookbook. I never questioned why these were the only dishes he made, though I did wonder why they were all composed of ground beef (this question remains unanswered). As an adult, I’ve realized that most people don’t study cooking at their grandmother’s elbow, or ever fully learn how to cook at all. Instead, they manage to fool the world with a little creativity and a few adaptable recipes.

There are two ways a recipe becomes nestled in your back pocket forever. Either it’s prepared so many times that it cannot possibly be expelled from your memory, or it’s so simple that you can’t possibly screw it up. Think about the recipes you turn to most often: odds are they can be tweaked so they’re easier to remember, or they’re reduced to a ratio, which you can scale depending on the number of people you’re feeding. If it seems sacreligious to fiddle with a beloved recipe, consider how many “classic” recipes were devised to sell boxes of baking mix, cans of soup, and bags of chocolate chips. Don’t feel bad about tweaking your gammy’s apple crisp to better suit your needs—she’d probably just be happy that you’re making it, and that you’re making the recipe your own!

Here are a few “back-pocket recipes” that I turn to in a pinch, always scaling and adapting to suit my needs at a given time. Maybe they’ll become part of your regular rotation.

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Vinaigrette salad dressing

Vinaigrette salad dressing

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: IriGri8 (iStock)

If you haven’t heard the good news, making vinaigrette dressing is as simple as a 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar. Whisk in emulsifiers like honey, egg yolks, or mustard to keep your oil and vinegar together at least temporarily. Add in salt, seasonings, and something sweet if you care for it.

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Tomato sauce

Tomato sauce

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: Marina Bagrova (iStock)

There are many excellent recipes for sauces depending on your time and level of dedication, and the name Marcella Hazan ought to be mentioned. Rather than adding another recipe to the internet ether, I will just remind you that all you really need is tomatoes (either fresh and peeled, or canned whole, diced, pureed, crushed, etc), an onion, and some fat (butter, olive oil, or any vegetable oil). The proportion doesn’t really matter, though Hazan’s recipe calls for 2 cups of tomatoes (or a 28-oz. can), about a half stick of butter, and one onion.

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Latkes

Latkes

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: Ryzhkov (iStock)

Deb Perelman, the brilliant home cook behind the blog Smitten Kitchen, cracked the code for making perfect, simple latkes. Her recipe calls for one big russet potato, a small onion, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking powder, and ¼ cup flour (or potato starch). The method is simple and straightforward, so read her recipe once and set forth on the rest of your life, the second and better portion of your life in which potato pancakes are always within reach.

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Pickles

Pickles

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: eriksvoboda (iStock)

There are many different types of pickles. Some are fermented while others are simply brined. I make pickles in two different back-pocket ways. The first and simplest method is to sprinkle slices of a water-rich vegetable like onion or cucumber with salt, leave them on the counter for hours, and eat them later with dinner. Before eating, rinse the pickles thoroughly and pat them dry.

A second pickle method requires making a brine that includes salt, vinegar, and sugar in some proportion to each other, cooling the brine, and adding cut vegetables. When I run out of these fridge pickles, I add more vegetables to the brine for a second batch. After two batches, I usually retire the brine and use it for marinade. For sour pickles, here’s a basic recipe: 1 cup water, 2 Tbsp. vinegar, 1 Tbsp. salt. If you want sweet pickles, add about ¼ cup sugar. Experiment with different varieties of vinegar, spices and seasonings, and ratios of salt and sugar. You’ll learn tricks like pickling red onions in red wine vinegar to boost their color, and blanching green vegetables before pickling them to prevent a dingy appearance. Tougher vegetables like beets might need to be par-cooked before pickling.

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Frosting

Frosting

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: baibaz (iStock)

Cream cheese frosting, the only type of vanilla frosting I make, is equal parts cream cheese and butter beaten until smooth. A splash of vanilla and the tiniest bit of salt should be added. Then whisk in powdered sugar until you’ve met your desired consistency and sweetness. Passing the sugar through a mesh sieve prevents developing clumps in the frosting.

Chocolate ganache is even simpler. Take equal parts chocolate and heavy cream (ex. 12 fluid ounces heavy whipping cream and a 12-ounce bag of chocolate chips) and heat on the stove while stirring to prevent burning. I add a pinch of salt and a pad or two of butter. The butter isn’t really required, though I think it makes the final frosting thicker and more luscious. Once smooth, use the ganache to glaze whatever you wish. It will set as it cools. You can also let the ganache cool to room temperature and then whisk it till a fluffy frosting is achieved.

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Mornay sauce 

Mornay sauce 

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: Richard Villalon (iStock)

Mornay sauce is a great way to use up nubbins of old cheese and souring dairy. You can mix it with pasta for macaroni and cheese, pour it over thinly sliced potatoes and top with more cheese for an au gratin, or add tempered egg yolks, whip the corresponding egg whites to soft peaks, and fold everything together to make a souffle. If you’re a Midwesterner or a German or just an odd duck who’s into that kind of thing, you can turn a cheddar-based mornay sauce into beer cheese soup with the addition of a mild lager-style beer and some stock. Broadly, try to remember for every cup of cream and milk (using just milk doesn’t give a great flavor, but cream alone produces an overly thick sauce, so use whatever you’ve got), use 1 Tbsp. butter, 1 Tbsp. flour, and 1 oz. cheese. The exact amounts don’t really matter, and you can always adjust a thick sauce by adding more milk or bulk up a thin sauce by adding more cheese. Here’s a recipe from Serious Eats that gives specific instructions.

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Quickbread batter

Quickbread batter

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: chengyuzheng (iStock)

To be frank, I am no baker. Words like lean dough, percentages of hydration, and grams of dry ingredients intimidate me! For other non-bakers, here’s an all-purpose batter for quick muffining in a pinch. In minutes and without consulting a recipe, you can use it to pull together banana, zucchini, and pumpkin breads, carrot and spice cakes, and more.

Flour, sugar, and butter fall into a loose 3:2:1 ratio respectively by volume. (Look, I know that a volume-based ratio for measuring a mixture of dry and wet ingredients doesn’t make a ton of sense—regardless, this works for me!) If you’re using a stick of butter (or ½ cup oil), cream it with 1 cup of sugar, and measure 1½ cups of flour. For each stick of butter, add two eggs, ½ tsp. kosher salt, and 1 tsp. baking soda. Depending on what I’m trying to rid from my kitchen, for every stick of butter, I use between ½-1 cup applesauce, mashed bananas, carrot pulp, or shredded zucchini. Warm baking spices, vanilla, nuts, and chocolate are great add-ins. Bake this somewhere around 350-375 degrees Fahrenheit. For healthier muffins, reduce the sugar and add some milled flax seed. Sometimes I substitute ground oats for a bit of the flour. Leftover batter can be thinned with buttermilk, milk, cream, or even kefir and used for sweet crepes.

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Pizza dough

Pizza dough

Illustration for article titled With these recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always know what to cook
Photo: jure (iStock)

When making pizza dough with all-purpose flour, try measuring three parts flour to one part water by volume. Per packet of active dry yeast, I use 6 cups of flour and 2 cups of warm water. The method is simple: bloom the yeast, add a dash of EVOO, a teaspoon of salt, and a pinch of sugar. Add the flour, knead until smooth, and let it rise until it has roughly doubled in size. If you jump the gun, the dough will be dense and chewy (sometimes I like that!). If you wait too long, it might be a little sour as well (sometimes I really like that!). Use this dough for pizza, but also for calzone, stromboli, and simple fry bread for sweet and savory applications. This recipe from King Arthur Flour includes more specific instructions and fixed amounts, if precision is your thing.

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DISCUSSION

winglessvictory
WinglessVictory

Your back pocket is fancier than my back pocket! ;)

My back pocket contains: Thai curry (curries) - which are dead easy and yet seem mysterious to a lot of people; stuffed manicotti, which I have DOWN; stovetop smoked salmon with lemon dill sauce and potatoes - seems fancy, it ain’t; jalapeno cheddar cornbread; mixed greens and fennel Greek salad with a fennel-pollen vinaigrette; and a creamy tomato/carrot or tomato/sweet potato soup with dried galangal. I have other go-tos but those recipes are ones I can whip up with little thought at all and no actual recipe and which seem to impress others.

My mother’s pack pocket was tiny (because she didn’t like to cook), but her crowd pleaser was pepperoni lasagna. I don’t eat pepperoni anymore and I miss that lasagna!