As a preteen in rural North Carolina, I subscribed to Bon Apétit and Gourmet alongside Teen Vogue and Seventeen, aspirationally poring over complex recipes in the same way I did the glamorous clothes I couldn’t afford. How did one pronounce "roux"? Where was I going to find lemongrass in my small town? Did lemons grow in grass? Now in my third decade, I still can’t afford the clothes, but I can whip together dinner for four in under an hour.
Much of this has to do with cheats I build in for myself in advance. (True life: My freezer looks like I’m prepping for the apocalypse.) It admittedly requires a bit of forethought, but if you double your recipes—whether it be components or full meals—when you’re feeling inspired or have the extra time in the kitchen, your exhausted weeknight self will have a lot less to do. I can’t tell you the joy of finding a homemade pre-portioned lasagna for one when you're scrounging around in the freezer at the end of a long day.
Now that you’re a bonafide, bill-paying adult, it’s time to master a few basic recipes to make when you need to feed yourself or a crowd over for dinner. Who knows? You may even find meditation in the chopping and blissful smells that fill the room. Or maybe you’ll dread it—but wait! Before you order that pizza, take a look at the 15 basic and delicious recipes below. We’ve included our go-to shortcuts for when no one’s watching to make your life even easier.
A roast chicken is a hallmark of wholesomeness. Every continent has a version of perfectly crisped skin against a succulent bird within. I'm a devotee of the famous Zuni Café Chicken Recipe with the accompanying are-you-sure-this-is-healthy bread salad. It takes a couple of days of forethought, but the payoff is worth it. Come cooking time, this recipe takes half as much time as a standard roast chicken, due to the smaller bird and high temperature.
The cheat: If you don’t have time or fridge space to dry the skin out for multiple days, salt the chicken and place it in front of a fan for an hour while the oven is preheating. Save the carcass and any leftover meat for stock, soup (below), or chicken pot pie (also below!).
Chicken Pot Pie
When I was sick as a kid, one of the defaults in my house was a Marie Calendar chicken pot pie. Imagine my delight upon learning that something I already loved was so much better homemade. The bouillon cubes added to the homemade stock in the recipe below add an extra punch of saltiness and umami without having to wait for the stock to reduce.
The cheat: Instead of a homemade pie crust as a top crust, use store-bought frozen puff pastry.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
No need to reinvent the wheel here, folks. Of the dozens of chocolate chip cookie recipes I’ve tried over the years, I always come back this one—the classic. If you want to kick it up a notch, use chocolate discs rather than chips and sprinkle the dough with a flaky sea salt like Maldon before going in the oven.
The cheat: No cheat for the present, but if you want to treat your future self, freeze the dough. While your cookies are baking, portion out excess dough onto a sheet pan. Roll each scoop into a ball with your hands and flatten each slightly into a puck shape, placing each one onto the pan so that they are not touching. Once frozen, place into a freezer bag.
I’m a southerner, so perfecting a pie crust was one of my earliest culinary goals. People feel very strongly about this—just look at this deep dive on Food52! I’ve tried shortening and butter, vodka and water, a pastry cutter and a food processor. About a million pies, quiches, and galettes later, I’ve found two things: Simpler is better, and it’s all in the technique. Flour, salted butter, water. All very cold. Move fast. I prefer a to use a food processor because I have a dishwasher, but a pastry cutter works great and requires less clean up.
The cheat: If you are going the store-bought route rather than making your own, use puff pastry rather than a frozen pie crust. It’ll have that flakiness we all aspire to, while most frozen pie crusts are crumbly and too sweet.
A Pan-Seared Steak
This is a perfect special-occasion meal, whether it be a date night in with your sweetie or a Real Housewives reunion with your own damn self. Though basting the steaks will likely splatter you a bit, an apron and some oven mitts will protect you from the hot oil.
The cheat: The only cheat here is on your diet.
In my tiny apartment with seriously subpar heat, a Sunday sauce that requires leaving the oven on for hours and hours is in regular rotation throughout the long New York winters. In the oven? Yep, after scorching too many pots from too-intermittent stirring, I started to wonder if I had to make the sauce on the stovetop at all or if roasting the whole pot in the oven could achieve the same desired effect. A bit of googling revealed that chef and food writer Kenji Lopez-Alt himself was already all over that technique.
I’ve never looked back.
The cheat: Make a huge batch at once and freeze in gallon freezer bags stacked horizontally; it’ll feed you all winter.
Why is chicken soup so restorative when you’re not feeling well? This is a recipe I can manage even when I feel awful. Better yet, I am a champion pal and deliver this to someone who is under the weather. The bright notes from the lemon stand up nicely to the extra-fortifying richness of the tempered egg in this Greek-style chicken soup.
The cheat: A store-bought rotisserie chicken and some store-bought broth work well here. Even better, use your own leftover roast chicken.
A Go-To Dinner Party Dessert
When your evasive “what can I bring?” is met with “dessert!” rather than the “wine!” you were hoping for, this cake should be your go-to. It’s not only a fantastic dessert, but it makes a killer breakfast for the host the next day. And while it’s not the most glamorous cake on the block, this rustic beauty shines all the same. The New York Times first published this recipe in 1983—and republished it every year until 1995. It is as simple as it is delicious, the sugar on top providing a crackly contrast to the intensely jammy plums within.
Better yet, it has a built-in shortcut, if you can wait that long. Make the cake a day ahead, and then leave it covered at room temperature (for up to 36 hours). The longer it sits, the more the plum juice will absorb into the cake around it.
The cheat: When plums are out of season, you can substitute with just about anything—berries, cherries, any other stone fruit, even citrus.
Sheet Pan Dinner
The sheet pan supper phenomenon is trending for a reason: It makes so much sense. Endlessly customizable and dead simple with breezy clean-up—what’s not to get behind? While I love chicken thighs, fish and tofu are great options as well. Add any manner of veg to the mix and you have dinner, all hot and ready at the same time.
The cheat: If you’re short on time, cutting everything into smaller pieces will make it cook faster.
A Loaf of Bread
Go ahead, blow your own mind. If the idea of baking bread at home conjures visions of your grandmother’s countertop bread machine or flour-coated bakery staff, know that Jim Leahy changed all that. The owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in NYC developed a technique that requires no kneading, no special equipment, and very little effort—time does all the work here. Simply mix the ingredients well, refrigerate for at least a day, shape, and bake in a dutch oven, which creates a perfect bread-baking environment.
It might be a one-time experiment, but who knows? Maybe you’ll become your own carb queen.
The cheat: Sorry folks, homemade bread doesn’t get any simpler than this.
The Caesar salad is enjoying a highbrow renaissance, and we are HERE FOR IT. Whether you go romaine or kale, as a side or a main, just make sure you make more than you think you need. It won’t last.
The cheat: If you use kale or another hearty green, you can double the recipe and have leftovers the next day.
For someone who cooks as much as I do, I have bombed an embarrassing number of pots of rice. Then I realized that the one-size-fits all recipes I was using were leading me astray. Different varieties of rice require different proportions of water, so check the bag before you get started.
The cheat: If you’ve got the space, buy a rice cooker! Seriously, I hate an extra gadget cluttering my countertop as much as the next apartment-dweller, but mine is worth its weight in gold. (It's light.)
Roasting vegetables is the ideal non-recipe recipe. Cut your vegetable into bite-size, uniform (so they cook at the same rate) pieces, toss them in an oil of your choosing, season, and spread out on a parchment lined sheet pan (for the sake of cleanup), and bake them at around 400º until they look like something you want to eat. Spear one gently to make sure it's cooked through. If you can, spread the pieces out so they are not touching – maximizing the exposure to the dry, hot air gives you the delicious crusty bits.
If your vegetables are crowded, they’ll just steam.
The cheat: For vegetables that take a bit longer to cook, like root vegetables, potatoes, or winter squashes, pierce about five times all over, and microwave for four minutes per vegetable while the oven is pre-heating to par-cook.
Visit Gimme Some Oven for a recipe, but really, you can do this without one.
Making killer risotto isn’t hard, it just takes patience and at least one strong bicep. The good news is that once you open the wine for the recipe, you can pour yourself a glass to fortify yourself for the half hour of stirring that awaits you.
The cheat: Throw it all in an instant pot.
Whole Side of Salmon
A whole side of salmon is a deceptively simple dinner party showstopper. It comes together in a flash and can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. It’s also season-less, so once you get a technique that you love, you can switch it up to match the weather outside.
The cheat: When your guests arrive to find you with a drink in hand, ready to sit down and hang out, they’ll start looking around for any tell of a cheat. But they can snoop for delivery clues all they want; you’re just a newly minted 30-year-old culinary maverick.
This story was originally published on May 27, 2015, and has since been updated.