My New Genius, 5-Ingredient Dinner to Make By Heart (Now Tell Me Yours)

January  4, 2017

No matter how much (or how little) you love cooking—we all need more effortless, make-by-heart dinners.

Part of this unquenchable need for quick dinners is, of course, that we’re all busy, and we all need to eat. But it’s also because we see words like “quick & easy” and “weeknight ___” applied in too-broad strokes. I have a hard time filtering out the noise from the true weeknight companions, and I imagine you do, too.

So I have a proposition: I’ll tell you my regulars, if you’ll tell me yours in the comments. These are the dinners that make me feel like a magician instead of a tired dog, and no matter how hard I try, never take more than a half hour to wing together, or dirty more than a few dishes:

  1. Softened onion or garlic + dried chili of some sort + can of diced tomatoes + can of black beans = spicy black bean soup.
  2. Merrill’s steak with arugula + little boiled potatoes, flattened and crisped in the same pan while the steak rests.
  3. Eggs + nearly anything else: that spicy bean soup, rice, lentils, seared radishes and greens.
  4. NEW: Superstar food stylist Victoria Granof's Pasta con Ceci

While pasta with chickpeas, a Southern Italian staple, is always meant to be simple comfort food, I had never found one quite as simple (or as comforting) as Granof's. I make it a lot now, and I bet you will, too. “It's turned into the Monday dinner,” she told me. “Because that's my son's heaviest homework day and it's kind of a tonic to his (and my) shattered nerves—after the homework ordeal.”

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These days, I make sure I always have canned chickpeas, tiny pasta shapes, garlic, tomato paste, and olive oil on hand—because that’s truly all that this takes. No stock, even. It’s astonishing how much comfort you can derive—and how fast—out of ingredients you’ve used a thousand times.

Here are the secrets to its success: First, you'll start with a generous but not crazy amount of olive oil, and you need to use it all—it gives the soup substance and body, carries the other flavors, and makes up for the fact that you’re making soup with water instead of a rich stock. As Granof says in the recipe's headnote, “It’s what’ll make you think you’re on a balcony in Naples when you eat this.”

Second, you’ll cook smashed garlic in the oil until it’s actually browned a bit, not simply softened. This makes the flavor toasty and nutty, and not bitter, despite what nonna might say.

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Top Comment:
“Ours was a white sauce rather than red, and was in a saute pan with pasta, ceci, garlic, a leafy green like spinach or kale, butter and chicken stock. One of my favorite dishes!! One of my go-to dishes for an easy weeknight meal is boneless chicken breasts in a rectangle glass baking dish, cover with a jar of pasta sauce and any kind of cheese, season to taste and bake covered with foil for about an hour. One pan, super easy and everyone likes it.”
— Monica

And third, you'll fry a good amount of tomato paste in the garlicky olive oil to caramelize its soft mass into frizzled, well-dispersed umami. In culinary school, this is called pincé-ing the paste, used to make brown sauces and stocks—but let it be known that fried tomato paste is a flavoring agent we need to put to work more often.*

All that’s left is to dump in the chickpeas, pasta, and boiling water to soak up the flavorful base, till the pasta is cooked and it’s as soupy or stewy as you like. Few dinners could be faster or more soul-soothing—if you have one, let’s hear it.

*Another example of fried tomato paste at work, from Granof: "The inspiration for this originally came from my Sicilian "Auntie" Connie, who makes the most amazing sauce by frying a bunch of sliced garlic in a load of olive oil till brown and then a big plop of tomato paste that gets fried in the garlicky oil with salt, then she dribbles in water, ("quanto basta") until it reaches the right consistency."

Photos by Mark Weinberg

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps a genius dessert? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to Adam Janofsky, Sarah Jampel, and Dinner: A Love Story for this one!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Veronica Potter
    Veronica Potter
  • AngiePanda
  • phip
  • Ann Smyth Horton
    Ann Smyth Horton
  • Kelly Lee Brosky
    Kelly Lee Brosky
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Veronica P. August 23, 2023
My regular that I grew up with is fideo! The simplicity of the soft noodle with the tomato base is my comfort language!
AngiePanda May 14, 2020
I make personal "pizzas" using either naan or pita, homemade is better but store bought is much quicker and easier unless you have a batch frozen. Top with either olive oil and herbs or pizza sauce and whatever you have in the fridge, any meat works here and the veggies are pretty much endless options too...then the cheese...I love muenster for flavor and melty perfection but I've used colby jack, cheddar, Swiss, truly anything goes! Super simple to throw together for a crowd or a single serving and cooks in less than 10 minutes in a 450 oven. Max 20 minutes in the kitchen and that's including grating the cheese.
phip May 13, 2020
In a bind this is how I make my Roman husband his pasta ceci. But. I put some of the ceci through a blender, immersion, to get a thicker and more ceci taste. Pepperoncino and s bit of anchovies filet right after sautéing the garlic makes it all the more like Roman Pasta Ceci.
Ann S. March 11, 2020
I've been meaning to look up recipes to use up my opened tomato paste! Ty!
Danielle May 13, 2020
We had to buy more tomato paste for how much we love this recipe!
AngiePanda May 14, 2020
I put mine in a freezer baggie, press it out flat into a thin layer and freeze it flat. Takes up hardly any space and it's easy to break off as much as you need at a time.
Kelly L. March 11, 2020
Mine is super easy and I almost always have the ingredients on hand. It's just a box of your favorite gnocchi, a box of Pomi tomato sauce, sausage (can use links with the case removed or bulk ground-or omit for a meat-free meal), one small/medium onion chopped, and a container of your favorite mushrooms washed and sliced. Everything, including the gnocchi, is cooked in the same pan and it takes less than 20-minutes. Of course, I add prodigious amounts of basil, oregano, and minced garlic but I know a lot of folks prefer their food blander. I typically serve it with parmesan for topping. Easy, cheap and a meal my husband adores.
Carol May 3, 2018
Ditto on the migas and quesadillas with avocado. I also love fideo, the simple and cheap way my grandmother made it. Sauté 6 oz fine fideo (broken up) in 3-4 tablespoons of hot oil until golden brown. Add 15 oz can tomato sauce and one can of water or enough to cover 1/4 inch above the fideo. Cook on low heat until tender, about 20 minutes. Salt and garlic salt to taste. Pure comfort and I could eat the whole thing myself, but it serves 4.
My other go to is Straccetti con Rucola (beef rags with arugula). Trader Joe's has the required thin sliced beef. Simple, oh so tasty, and fast.
Mary October 7, 2017
Love the pasta al ceci! Our family of four's go-to is a 32oz carton of roasted red bell pepper tomato soup. We toss in shredded rotisserie chicken, a can of rinsed and drained black beans...garnish options include: crushed tortilla chips, sour cream, avocado, cilantro and cheese of your choice.
Christina @. July 6, 2017
I make this, but an even easier version as I always have pasta sauce at the ready in my fridge (my mother was born in Italy, I can't help it). All I do is drain a bit of the pasta water, add the sauce (no meat, please) and throw in some beans (preferably Borlotti)! Dinner is served!
AngiePanda May 14, 2020
I always have pasta sauce frozen in portions as well as pizza sauce in my freezer, all homemade of course
Julia C. May 15, 2017
My quick rescue meal: firm fish filets (cod, snapper, tilapia, salmon-as thick as possible), 1 Tbsp. mayo mixed with siracha, honey mustard or your whimsy per fillet spread to cover, finely chopped shallot or in a pinch, sweeet onion to cover mayo, broil approx. 8 min/inch thickness or until fish flakes. Do not over cook. Serve with rice, green salad, and crusty bread. Dessert is brownie sundaes since you saved so many calories 😘 ,
Anna D. February 16, 2017
My easy, easy, lazy favorite meal: tuna and beans. A can of tuna, a can (I know) of cannellini beans, dressed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and whatever herbs I have around. (I use dried Italian herb mix more often than not.) Served with salad greens and a nice piece of bread.
Christina @. July 6, 2017
So good! I copied a canned version!
beyondcelery February 15, 2017
I do migas too! Or an easy-over fried egg in the center of a cheese quesadilla "sandwich" with avocado in olive oil & balsamic vinegar on the side. But my main staples are casseroles or soups to heat and eat because I work and have a 3 year old: enchiladas, meatloaf, fried rice, baked pasta, corn chowder, potato soup. I also roast pans of veggies to dress up in different ways through the week: honey miso carrots, salt & pepper beets, cauliflower caramelized in a cast iron skillet with tahini dip on the side.
Jeff January 26, 2017
Bachelor Dinner. Get a large saucepan of salted boiling water going. Dump in some pasta (medium/short ones like fusilli, not spaghetti and not orzo)). Cook until it's a couple of minutes short of being done. Dump in some frozen veggies (peas, mixed, something bite size). Cook till the pasta is done and the veggies are warm. Drain pasta/veg mixture. Add some butter or olive oil (or both!) to the saucepan and dump the drained pasta back in and stir to coat. Add some grated cheese of choice. Cheddar works well. Cheddar plus Parmesan perhaps. Something melty and something tasty. Dump in a can of tuna (or fried bacon or kielbasa or whatever). Black pepper. Hot sauce if you desire. Fresh herbs to get fancy. One pot meal! (Thanks for the idea of sharing these....I've copied a few out to break the quick-meal rut!)
Jeff January 26, 2017
And save a half cup of the pasta water to add back in case it gets too sticky!
Kelly A. January 24, 2017
Migas! Sauté diced onion, jalapeno, and tomato until soft. Add a handful or slightly crushed tortilla chips, shredded cheddar cheese, and a couple of beaten eggs. Scramble and serve.
LULULAND March 26, 2017
Sounds good, I want to try it!
Jonathan January 17, 2017
Regarding the Pasta con Ceci recipe, my wife has celiac so we use gluten free pasta which tends to release a lot of stickiness in the cooking. So one need to pour off the water and rinse the extra sticky material. If you are doing a dish like this, would it work to cook the everything together, except the pasta. Add the pasta right at the end? Thanks
Danielle May 13, 2020
I think you could. I add the pasta before the water so I can “toast” it like risotto, but if you have to make do, there is SO MUCH flavor from the oil, garlic, and paste.
DoubleNegative January 14, 2017
One Pot Mung Bean Noodles: Saute (diced or julienned) onions, carrots, celery and garlic, grate in some ginger if you have it, and then add any other veggies you have such as cabbage, bok choy, peppers, greens, fennel etc. You can add meat here too, if you like, left overs or sauteed with the veggies. Add in a bundle of mung bean noodles (threads) per person, and add enough stock or water to almost cover noodles, bring to boil. Stir continuously, to separate but not break the noodles. When noodles are nearly done, but still liquid-y (about three to four minutes) stir in a tablespoon or so of soy and another of sesame oil, chile pepper sauce of choice, and 1/4 cup of rice wine vinegar (or some lemon/lime juice, or other light vinegar). Cook, stirring well, 'til most of the liquid is gone but not so much your noodles start to stick to the pan. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serrano or jalepeno pepper slices. Sometimes I add an egg (whipped) if I have no meat, before adding in the soy/sesame/vinegar/chile, ala fried rice. And I'll throw in crispy fried shallots if I have some. Super satisfying, uses up whatever leftovers you have and you only dirty one pot, one knife and a cutting board. I always make extra to take for lunch, these noodle heat well in the microwave with a little added stock or water. I often make these when I'm sick or just too tired to cook. Always have the fixin's in the pantry. Comfort in a bowl.
allisonking January 7, 2019
This is a favorite in our house too. We just toss everything into simmering water without sauteing. Our veggies are usually carrot, broccoli, spinach, bok choy, and scallions, and our add-ins are soy, honey, lime, sriracha, and sometimes nut butter. On the too tired to cook days we just eat it as is, and on others we'll have it topped with shredded crisp lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, fried shallots, and cilantro.
Monica B. January 13, 2017
Also, the sauce from this taco recipe is killer: diced canned chipotle and balsamic. Just cook some chicken, toss with sauce, and wrap around a tortilla and sprinkle with cabbage.
Monica B. January 13, 2017
Sweat a fair bit of sliced onion and sliced bell pepper in olive oil. Add some sliced tomato (roma works well). Saute together to get a little color on the tomato. Don't overstir into a mush. Add one of the following: canned and drained wild salmon (or solid white tuna); chickpeas; or sliced boiled egg. Cook until the proteins have some color and crisp to them. If using fish or egg, don't stir hard, keep the chunks or slices intact. Just gently flip so they brown. Eat over rice or toast. This is what my working mom fed us a few times a week growing up. I still do this myself and often add leftover herbs, and a splash of one of my many spicy condiments.
Ann S. January 10, 2017
Homemade salad dressing: Whatever left-over veggies roasted or grilled are especially good) (make extra on purpose) + a little olive (or avocado) oil + vinegar (balsamic or cider or champagne) + a dab or mustard + honey (optional) + seasonings if needed - magic bullet (or the like) = never going back to store-bought again!
Frederique M. January 10, 2017
HA! My favorite homemade salad dressing is : olive oil, balsamic vinegar, whole grain mustard and maple syrup, salt and pepper. SHAKE! I will definately have to try adding roasted veggies into it and give my food processor a whirl!
girlwithaknife March 23, 2017
This is my favorite dressing! Except I sub honey for the maple syrup.
ErinM724 January 9, 2017
My favorite go to is to make some orzo pasta. During that time, I heat a single smoked turkey sausage link in the microwave, chop up a green onion or 2, and a handful of cherry tomatoes. When the pasta is done, drain it. Put some olive oil in the pan that the pasta was in and add the tomatoes and onions for a minute or 2. Add the orzo back in. Stir in a spoonful of pesto and the turkey sausage, which you have sliced and quartered after it has finished cooking. Makes as much or as little as you want...for me it tends to be one serving! I'll even eat this for breakfast sometimes.
Diane (. January 9, 2017
Diane (DeAnna) Johnson
Fettuccine in Salsa Bianca Prepare fettuccine according to pkg. directions adding ample kosher salt. The water should be as salty as the sea. When pasta is al dente transfer to a saute pan or skillet large enough to hold all of the pasta. add 3/4 cup butter cut into pieces, 1/2 c. cream. Add the butter and cream 1/3 at a time. Gently toss, adding 1-2 Tbsp. of the pasta cooking water. Add 2/3 c, Parmigiano-Reggiano slowly while gently tossing. Generously add freshly ground pepper. Place in serving dish and generously sprinkle additional Parmigiano on top. A nice salad with a vinaigrette goes well with this dish., as does roast chicken. Recipes from A TUSCAN TABLE The Secrets of Three Generations of Tuscan Family Cooking
LULULAND March 26, 2017
Sounds like Fettuccine Alfredo, Yum!