The best cooking questions I get are from my brother, via an out-of-the-blue phone call. "What's the difference between a scallion and a shallot?" "What's a bomb [yes, bomb] but easy fish recipe?" And recently, "What are some good, easy (see a pattern here?) dinners that my friends and I can make in our Airbnb kitchen when we get off the slopes at 5 and want food on the table by 6:30?"
There's a lot to ponder here. My brother is a pretty basic cook. The thought of riffing on a recipe or "just throwing something together" is not so much an option. This is not a (not)recipe situation (sorry, Food52). He's chained to the list of ingredients. Substitutions are not in his arsenal.
With that in mind, I collected a list of recipes that fall into the following criteria:
- Dinner needs to be ready in under 2 hours.
- Dinner's ingredient list mustn't include obscure or hard-to-find components. I've made assumptions here on what I expect to be available at a basic grocery store in the mountains of Colorado.
- Dinner should involve minimal spices. I am going to suggest that my brother pack plastic baggies of the following spices in his carry-on. (Just his luck! I gave him a custom starter spice collection this Christmas): cumin, chili powder, cayenne, dried thyme, dried oregano, and dried basil. Otherwise, they should be available at the grocery store (or if you're lucky, in your Airbnb!). It's not ideal to have to buy whole jars of new spices, but you can always take them back home and use them.
- Dinner should require only the most basic of kitchen tools. An Airbnb kitchen is always a crap-shoot, so I've kept to the following: a (1) (likely very dull) knife, (1) pot, (1) skillet, (1) baking sheet, and (1) casserole dish. If your kitchen doesn't have any of these, then... good luck. Just kidding. Get creative! Once I tried to make an aioli in the woods of Massachusetts by filling up a used water bottle with the egg yolks, the oil, and some pebbles and shook it as hard as I could for as long as I could. It didn't work.
There are a few ingredients (grapeseed oil, sherry vinegar) that pop up in my chosen recipes that might be a roadblock. I've noted substitutions in those cases and other tips for the uninitiated in the kitchen.
If you're a seasoned cook, the suggestions may seem very basic to you. But this ain't your mama's cooking. It's your brother's.
This recipe requires a bit of chopping, so enlist a few people to help (if there are enough knives). One person can take the onion, one the the garlic, and one the green pepper. The vinegar and sugar are optional (so if your Airbnb kitchen doesn't have them, don't use them). And a universal note on oil: In most cases where the oil is for cooking, not dressing, feel free to use vegetable or canola oil, because it's cheap.
Helloooooo, did you know you can make lasagna in a skillet? I didn't. Well, now I do.
If you can’t find no-boil noodles you can substitute regular lasagna noodles—you’ll just have to cook them first. Keep them very al dente—with a little bite, which might seem underdone to you—because they’ll continue to cook in the sauce. You can also omit the sausage for vegetarians.
Hey, this is vegan! Because someone on the trip might be vegan.
This calls for a poblano pepper, which might be hard to come by in your ski village. Omit it and use more green pepper, or if there's a jalapeño, add one of those, too.
Can't find enchilada sauce? You can make a super easy one with tomato paste, stock, chili powder, oregano, cumin, and flour. Boom. Or I totally won't tell if you use jarred taco sauce instead. Or use a jar of green salsa for green enchiladas.
When you suggest this, someone might go "Ew." Haters gonna hate. After they taste this, there will be no "Ew." Grab a loaf of crusty bread, or serve it with rice.
The only potential snag here is you do need to use olive oil.
So, yes, I know, summer squash and eggplant are likely not in season. But your grocery may still have them. (And don't make a pesto unless you feel like it—you can find a jarred version). If your grocery only carries seasonal veggies, use potato, sweet potato or butternut squash instead. Pretty much any vegetable goes with chicken. If you go that route, I wouldn't use the pesto. You'll survive without it. And if there aren't bone-in chicken thighs at the store, you have my permission to use chicken legs.
No brainer: tacos! Use cayenne instead of the ancho chile or chipotle powder. Plain old white vinegar subs in just fine for cider vinegar. And if tacos aren't tacos to you without cheese, then by all means, add some cheese.
Leave out the coriander—I'll look the other way.
Potato skins can count as dinner. Words that might scare you: grapeseed oil (as previously stated, use any oil you want), fingerling potatoes (Get regular russets instead. Then they'll be dinner-sized!), and white wine vinegar (white vinegar will do). You can absolutely buy a blue cheese dressing, though, to go with these.
If you can't find fennel, roast a sheet pan of cut up potatoes (oil, salt, pepper, at 400°F for 45 minutes). Or use neither and serve over pasta tossed with butter.
Shakshuka? What? It's really good spicy tomato sauce with runny eggs that you can sop up with bread. Harissa may be hard to come by. Pick your favorite hot sauce instead and use a heavy hand. I also really like to add feta, so you should, too (talking to my brother).
It has lettuce on top, so it's well-rounded. You don't have to make the cilantro dressing (but it's really good). If you do decide to make it, you'll likely be without a food processor. Not to worry. Chop the garlic as fine as you can get it (or smush it with the edge of the knife blade) and stir everything together. If you forgo the dressing altogether, dollop on plain sour cream and sprinkle with chopped cilantro if you can find it.
There you go, little bro. Venture forth knowing that I'm only a phone call away.
Do you have ideas for how to adapt these dishes to make them even easier? What are your stand-bys when you're cooking in a less-than-well-equipped rental kitchen? Let me know.
This post originally ran in January 2017. We're promoting it again because it's ski vacation time.
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).Order now