Even though I’ve been cooking for myself for the past 14 years (man, I’m old), I mainly rely on recipes whenever I cook dinners. I enjoy being able to learn new dishes, perfect old ones, and frankly, I’m not great at remembering anything I need to measure.
So, over the past couple years, I have started to work on building a repertoire of simple dishes that I can make without a recipe standing by to help me. Some of these are very simple, and some took years for me to master. Cooking should be something we do because we love it, and it’s a lot easier to love cooking when you’re not chained to cookbooks and recipe cards every day. Sometimes it’s just nice to “whip up” something good.
Here are a few recipes I recommend that people learn to make, and make from memory:
Chicken Noodle (or Rice) Soup:
This one might sound like a no brainer, but any home cook or chef worth a crap knows how to make chicken noodle soup, and make it well. They can be simple (like the one I made above), or painfully complex, but when facing down a cold or flu, any kind of chicken soup is pure magic. Another reason to learn how to make it is that it’s the basis for almost any other kind of soup – a solid broth, sturdy vegetables, whatever meat you prefer (or none at all), and some kind of starchy goodness (rice, quinoa, dumplings, pasta, etc.). Learning to make your own broth isn’t required, but if you can learn to make a good one, you won’t want to go back to store bought ones again (unless you’re really pinched for time). Once you get good at making chicken noodle soup, you can pretty much handle vegetable soup, minestrone, pho (if you can get that broth right!), and a ramen dish that will kill all memories of that brick of salty crap you ate in college. If there is one place to start on your journey to better cooking, I’d start with soup!
(*Sorry for the crap quality photo – it’s the only one I had lying around!)
The version I make is actually a combination of two recipes I used in the past. It’s a simple dish that takes several hours to cook, but is totally worth it. Stews are perfect to make in the winter because they make the house smell amazing, and keep your kitchen nice and toasty. I also find that stews take well to modification – I can thrown in whatever frozen or fresh veggies I have lying around, and once you get the hang of it, they’re almost impossible to mess up. Serve with a side of rice (if you’re like my husband and eat yours that way) or some nice, crusty bread to dip it in. Stews also travel well, store well, and for the most part reheat well.
My version of chili comes from an old Taste of Home cookbook, and originally the recipe is meant to serve 2 people. It’s the perfect amount for 2-4 people, depending on portion sizes (and in most Taste of Home recipes, their idea of a portion is HUGE). I’ve often doubled, or even tripled, this recipe whenever I make it for family and friends, and it’s a big hit! Even my younger nephews liked it, and they’re picky as hell. Most of the ingredients are canned, so it’s easy to remember how to make because there is little to no measuring involved. I love serving mine with homemade cornbread, some cheese and sour cream to top. D likes crushing up crackers to mix in his, so I usually try to have some on hand. It’s another good winter staple, but we eat it pretty much all year!
This came about last year because I wanted something to take for lunch that I didn’t have to heat up, but wasn’t a sandwich (I get tired of them sometimes). Pasta salads are another dish that you can really customize to your tastes – it’s just pasta, whatever else you want to add, and a simple vinaigrette or sauce. Mine always include cheese, whatever odds and ends veggies I have lying around, and my “sauce” is just a splash of Italian dressing and grated Parmesan cheese. There are endless ways to make this (I even like substituting the pasta for tortellini, lentils, buckwheat, or rice), and it’s great for a quick lunch or office party! I think this is a standard everyone should have in their arsenal because it’s so easy to make, travels well, and doesn’t need reheating. It’s the greatest “throw in whatever’s left over” recipe!
Homemade Macaroni and Cheese:
Once you learn to make your own macaroni and cheese, you’ll never go back (well, almost never). This is another recipe I got from the Taste of Home cookbook, and again, it’s meant for only 2 people. However, the recipe is so good I usually have to double it so I can have leftovers (and I usually hate leftover anything). It’s an easy recipe to make because it doesn’t involve the traditional bechamel sauce method – you just mix everything in the casserole dish (cooked pasta, shredded cheese, milk, sour cream, salt and pepper) and bake it until it’s all gooey and amazing. You can also easily modify this recipe by switching up the pasta, adding in veggies (broccoli is a favorite of mine), or using different cheese. It doesn’t reheat well at all, so it’s not a great next-day dish, but I love it!
The photo above is a pork roast before I put it in the oven, and I have to say this has to be the best thing I’ve mastered over the years because it was also one of the hardest. I know that the idea of throwing a bunch of things in the oven, and then pulling out a perfectly done dinner sounds easy, but anyone who has eaten a dry, bland roast knows that it doesn’t take much to screw these up. I don’t own a slow cooker, so I rely on low and slow baking in the oven to get the right temperature and doneness to my roasts – looking up cooking times for various weights and meats is a good place to start. I highly recommend a meat thermometer for this too, since that’s the only way to really tell if things are done. I also like to throw in some potatoes, onions, carrots, and whatever veggies I have on hand that can tolerate long cooking times – it means less work I have to do later for side dishes! I also like roasting chicken breasts, vegetables, and pork ribs whenever I need a hearty dinner, but don’t have time. I love that I can just set it and walk away for a few hours, which is perfect when staring down a pile of papers to grade (or a Downton Abbey marathon). D loves them too, and seems to like coming home to a house that smells to high heaven of pork and carrots.
Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t know this recipe fully by memory, but I’ve made it so often over the years that I’m pretty close! My husband loves eating bananas, but sometimes a couple end up more ripe than he can handle, so he gives them to me. The base recipe is pretty simple (I got it from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook…the one with the red and white checkered cover), and can easily be tweaked to suit your tastes. I’ve made this bread vegan (just omit the egg…it’s not as fluffy, but still tasty), added in chocolate chips, walnuts, or a streusel topping (or all 3). I want to try making it with peanut butter chips, but I fear that would be too good. This also bakes up well as mini loaves or muffins (if you adjust the baking time), and it also travels and freezes really well (if you can keep from eating it all in one day). It makes for a great breakfast, snack, or dessert!
The only type of recipe I haven’t been able to add to my list of “from memory” repertoire is a proper dessert. I don’t have one for two reasons:
1. Any baking requires a recipe – there is too much precision required in most baking!
2. Why stress over making a dessert from scratch, when a bowl of ice cream will do just fine?
I’m sure I left out dozens of things I make from scratch, but these are the main ones that I’ve taken the time to perfect over the years. Hopefully they gave you some ideas of things to make for yourself in the near future (especially all of you out on the east coast, who are eyeballs deep into stew and soup weather!)
What are your favorite foods that you can whip up from memory?