Weeknight Cooking

The 15 Dishes to Know By Heart in 2017

December 26, 2016

If you can cook these 15 dishes by heart, chances are you'll have fewer cookie dinners and all-coffee breakfasts. That's because these are the workhorses of the kitchen: They're the dishes that aren't all that complex to make but bend and flip into other dishes. That means they won't take that much time to prep and they'll stretch all week, if you know their ropes.

Here's how to master each of them (without a recipe, because who has a recipe memorized?):

Salad can be a meal: Take this to the grain salad that's coming up, or any lettuce, or any vegetable.

Put any odds and ends you have in your fridge right here. With bubbling cheese and pasta involved, it's hard for this dish to be anything but comforting and soul soothing.

What can't a roast chicken be? It can go into baked pasta, eggs, burritos, tacos, salad, eaten on its own. Its bones are the start of stock (see below).

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More: The search for the perfect roast chicken recipe. (Hint: There isn't one!)

It's good to have a source of protein a form that's ready to pop, no cutting necessary. Meatballs can be made with all sorts of meats and bend to what flavors you have in mind for your week of meals. Add em to soup, pasta, grains, kale salads, and so on.

The key to making nearly every dish taste a little better, a little more homey? Homemade chicken stock. And since you're making roast chicken already, stock completes the loop.

Never know another sad desk lunch.

More: More lunch inspiration.

Greens can make friends with many main dishes (hey, roast chicken, again), but they can also be folded into other dishes: tacos, frittatas, pasta (regular or baked). They like to hang out with fried eggs and polenta, and even lentil soup (see below).

Lentil soup is the one soup to have in the fridge all week (sorry, chicken noodle). That's because lentils are super inexpensive and good for you, and a soup made of them can bend to your preferences. Read up to learn more.

When your proteins in the fridge (or the pantry) are looking ho-hum, you need a go-to to give them some pluck—and quick. Enter: piccata.

It's good to know how to make a somewhat impressive dish. For guests that show up at last minute, or for when you need to apologize to people, or show them you love them.

I won't pretend that I don't come home from a day's work, ravenous, and need something to eat, like now. Here's that answer. It's one more ingredient than toast, but much more satisfying.

By the same token, just because you're making a quesadilla for dinner doesn't mean you should settle for soggy—or burnt—renditions. Make it the best you can be; you deserve it.

In the same vein, sometimes you need breakfasts to come together quickly—but you also want breakfasts that are more like brunches for the weekend, snazzy and really really filling. An egg sandwich bends to your needs (and this one has instructions for keeping all the parts in the sandwich, instead of on your lap).

You already know that yogurt can bend and twist to your sweet and savory desires, but did you know that making your own results in unbelievably creamy yogurt? You will also feel great about yourself for DIYing something that would cost so much more at the store.

This is the workhorse of life. It keeps forever, can be spiffed up every morning with new toppings (or not), and takes five minutes to put together. If you have a bowl of muesli every morning, there's no way your day won't be a little better.

Tell us: What dishes can't you live without?

This article originally appeared on January 4, 2016. We're re-running it because, well, it's almost 2017.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nancy
  • Mary Raynor
    Mary Raynor
Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.


Nancy January 5, 2016
This is such a good idea! Not only will knowing how to make "ten dishes by heart" prevent the cereal & milk dinner, it helps immeasurably when you are shopping. You can imagine dishes, and - if you roughly know what you have at home - know what to pick up from the market.
To your list I would add or sub in minestrone for the lentil soup (just my preference).
And then a good basic chocolate cake.
But it that's too special or focussed, I would have people learn a good bread pudding or lokshen (noodle) pudding. Then, with a couple handfuls of bread or pasta, a few eggs, milk, vanilla & some fruit on hand, you have an elegant dessert that puffs up grand for hot serving and lives in the fridge a few more days.
Mary R. January 6, 2016
Or a good fruit galette. Good ideas!