Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dishes Everyone Should Be Able to Make

I recently read an article listing 10 dishes that people should be able to make by the age of 30. They included a few specific items, such as scrambled eggs and pancakes; a few categories, like soup and stir-fry; and a few really generic items like “a signature cake” and “something vegetarian.” I’m not sure that a list quite this specific is needed. What I think everyone should be able to cook by the age of 30 is a healthy, well-balanced meal; a “nice” meal worthy of guests; some kind of dessert; and a meal that can be adapted to suit various dietary restrictions, be it a nut or shellfish allergy, gluten intolerance, or vegetarian/vegan.

Here’s the thing about cooking, in my mind: Once you know a handful of basic terms and techniques, you can follow most recipes and make a huge variety of foods. Especially in our world of Pinterest and Google, you can easily find substitutions (“What can I use instead of cream to make lobster bisque for my lactose-intolerant guest?” or “How do I make my own buttermilk?”), look up terms you don’t know (“How do I parboil chicken?” “Which is finer, chopped, diced, or minced?”), and find recipes for pretty much anything you can think of.
That said, here are a few of my favorite items that fulfill each of the things I think just about everyone should be able to make.

A Healthy Meal


One of my favorite dishes is salmon, which can be grilled outside in the summer or baked or broiled indoors in the winter. It has a mild flavor that most people like (even my EXTREMELY picky children), and it’s much easier to determine its doneness than steak or pork. I love it with the traditional sides of white rice and green peas, although this particular recipe also works nicely with a green salad with honey mustard dressing and some nice crusty French bread. 


Mustard-Glazed Salmon
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds salmon, cut into approximately 6-ounce portions
In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and salt. Spread the mixture over all sides of each piece of salmon. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a cast iron skillet or other heavy oven-safe pan a few inches below the broiler and preheat for 10 minutes.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and place the salmon skin-side up in the pan. (Depending on the size of your broiler and pan, you may need to cook the fish in batches.) Broil for 2 minutes. Flip and broil for another 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets, until the salmon is just barely translucent at its thickest point. (It will continue cooking off the heat.) Remove from the hot pan immediately.
A Nice Meal for Guests
In my mind, a meal for guests includes one or more appetizers, an entrée with several sides, and a dessert. As a host, I love items that I can prepare at least partway ahead of time, so any recipe that allows me to make it a few hours (or the night) before and throw it in the oven right before my guests arrive is a good one for me. This recipe for stuffed mushrooms can be prepared several hours ahead of time and refrigerated, then broiled immediately before serving.


Artichoke-Stuffed Mushrooms
24 medium cremini (baby bella) or white mushrooms
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup drained marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs, divided
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

1.    Position rack in upper third of oven; preheat broiler to low. Coat a 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray.
2.    Remove and finely chop mushroom stems. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the stems, shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until the liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in artichoke hearts, 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs, Parmesan, mayonnaise and thyme.
3.    Toss the mushroom caps in another bowl with 2 teaspoons oil, salt and pepper. Stuff each with filling and place in the prepared pan. Combine the remaining 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon oil and sprinkle on the mushrooms.
4.    Broil on the upper rack until the mushrooms are soft and the breadcrumbs are golden, 15 to 20 minutes.


Another easy appetizer that I love, but which can’t be made until right before you want to serve it, is to core and thinly slice a few Granny Smith apples, then top them with a scoop of your favorite chicken salad recipe (add any combination of celery, raisins, grapes, dried cranberries, or whatever – or just use chicken and mayonnaise) and add a candied pecan or two as a garnish.

For your main dish, Rachel Ray’s Garlic Roast Chicken with Rosemary and Lemon is easy yet elegant. Another dish that can be prepared partway ahead of time, the actual baking time is only 20 minutes, plus 5 additional minutes resting in the oven. You can “cut corners” a bit by using minced garlic, dried rosemary, and lemon juice from a bottle (don’t bother with the zest), but using real garlic cloves, fresh rosemary, and a whole lemon makes it taste fresher and look more elegant. I’ve made this recipe with both wine and chicken broth, and both versions are delicious, so use whatever you have on hand – but I will admit that the smell wafting from the kitchen when you pour the wine over the chicken is heavenly!


  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 3 large breasts), cut into large chunks
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves stripped from stems
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1 tablespoon grill seasoning blend (Montreal Steak Seasoning is excellent) or, coarse salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken broth
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Arrange chicken in a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Add garlic, rosemary, olive oil, lemon zest and grill seasoning or salt and pepper to the dish. Toss and coat the chicken with all ingredients, then place in oven. Roast 20 minutes. Add wine/broth and lemon juice to the dish and combine with pan juices. Return to oven and turn oven off. Let stand 5 minutes longer then remove chicken from the oven. Place baking dish on trivet and serve, spooning pan juices over the chicken pieces.

My favorite company side dish is risotto – although very simple to make, it is labor-intensive and takes half an hour or so of constant attention, and is best when served immediately. Constant stirring and gradual addition of liquid is the key to tenderness. Once you’ve mastered it, have fun experimenting with different additions: mushrooms, lemon juice, herbs, various meats, asparagus, peas, spinach. 


Lemon Risotto
  • 2-3/4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • Several tablespoons chopped onion
  • 3/4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (if you don’t want to use wine, you can increase the chicken broth to 3-1/4 cups)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel (nice to have, but fine if omitted)
Bring broth to simmer in large saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low; cover to keep warm. (Alternatively, you can heat the broth in a large measuring cup in the microwave.) Melt 1 tablespoon butter with oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and stir until evaporated, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup hot broth; simmer until absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining broth 1/2 cup at a time, allowing broth to be absorbed before adding more and stirring frequently until rice is creamy and tender, about 35 minutes. Stir in cheese and remaining tablespoon butter. Stir in parsley, lemon juice, and lemon peel. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

The tartness of the lemon in both the chicken and the rice is complemented nicely by just a touch of sweetness in an accompanying vegetable dish, so grab whatever vegetables and herbs are in season in your garden or at your local farmstand or grocery store – carrots, zucchini, peas, broccoli, green beans, plus thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, mint – and combine ¼ cup of of honey with a few tablespoons of minced onion, ¼ cup of butter, and some finely chopped herbs, bring to a boil, and simmer for two minutes, then drizzle over the veggies (cooked or raw, however you like them). If you prefer salad as a side, toss together some spring mix or baby spinach, a handful of crumbled feta, some dried cranberries or cherries, and some pecans or slivered almonds, and serve with cranberry or raspberry balsamic dressing.

A company meal isn’t complete without some kind of dessert, of course. One of my favorite desserts, whether I’m at home or out at a restaurant, is crème brulee. Like risotto, it’s not terribly difficult to make, but it looks quite impressive and it always tastes delicious. If you happen to have a torch to caramelize the sugar, great; if not, the broiler is just as functional if not quite as much fun. This dessert MUST be baked a day ahead and refrigerated overnight, then caramelized immediately before serving.


Crème Brulee
4 tbsp sugar
2 cups (1 pint) heavy or light cream or half and half (the lower the fat content, the softer the texture of the final product)
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
Dash salt

Whisk together sugar and cream in microwaveable bowl. Heat for 2 minutes to dissolve sugar. Stir. Whisk egg yolks slightly. Stir into sugar; whisk well. Add vanilla and salt; whisk well. Pour into 6 (ungreased) ramekins. Set in baking or roasting pan. Add hot water to halfway cover. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Center will still be slightly loose – do not overbake! Let cool; refrigerate overnight.
To serve, sprinkle with brown or white sugar; melt with torch or under broiler. Let stand a few minutes and serve.

Adapting for Food Restrictions

Depending on exactly how restrictive your guests’ food restrictions are, adapting your menu can be as simple as omitting or substituting a single ingredient, or as complicated as changing your whole menu or making a separate meal for a guest. It’s always a good idea to have a few recipes on hand that are safe for most common food restrictions: nut-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian. Asking your guest(s) for suggestions is always a good idea – they may be able to tell you about a good brand of gluten-free pasta, or pass along a great vegetarian recipe. Sending a guest a recipe that you plan to make is also a good idea – they may be able to warn you that the barbecue sauce in your pulled pork sandwiches may contain nuts.

One of my favorite hearty meals that can be adapted for a number of food restrictions is basic lentil soup. It is nut-free and gluten-free, and can easily be made dairy-free, vegetarian, or even vegan with a minimum of omissions and substitutions. Several ingredients can be added to individual servings after preparing so not all guests need to omit them.


Lentil Soup
3 tbsp butter (substitute olive oil for dairy-free or vegan)
½ onion, sliced thin
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
6 cups chicken broth (substitute vegetable broth for vegetarian/vegan)
1-1/2 cups carrots, sliced
1-1/2 cups celery, sliced
½ package dried lentils (~1 cup)
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (omit for vegetarian/vegan/pork-free – you can add crumbled bacon to individual servings if desired))
Grated Parmesan-Romano cheese (add to individual servings as desired)

Melt the butter or olive oil in the bottom of a dutch oven or large saucepan. Saute the onions and garlic for a few minutes. Stir in the thyme, cumin, salt, and pepper. Slowly add the chicken or vegetable broth. Stir in the carrots, celery, and lentils. If using, remove the casing of the sausage and crumble into the pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 50 minutes (covered). Sprinkle with cheese before serving.

If you can make all these recipes (and you can!), you and your guests will never go hungry!

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