Back to Basics

Master the Basics With 13 Dishes to Learn by Heart

January 25, 2018

If you are anything like me, you forgo heavy cookbooks in favor of reading recipes on a lighter, more mobile screen. And maybe your laptop has also survived tomato sauce splatters, or your phone has narrowly dodged a dunk in dressing. It’s a challenge to juggle cooking and reading, all while managing to not place my phone near a lit burner.

Some dishes are complicated enough to need a recipe, but more often I simply haven’t familiarized myself with the steps. Do I really need to read instructions to make marinara sauce? Or to cobble together a compote? I don’t think so. In fact, I’m resolving to learn these classics by heart. No more following a recipe for pancakes or fried rice or chicken stock. And (hopefully) no more close calls with my phone in the kitchen. Here's how:

Cheat sheet: Remember the ratio of 1 cup flour : 1 cup milk : 1 egg. Combine wet and dry ingredients, add your favorite mix-ins, cook on medium heat in a skillet until the pancakes are dry around the edges and you can see bubbles forming on the top, flip, cook until golden underneath. Top with syrup to your heart's desire!

Cheat sheet: Season the eggs before whisking, choose an appropriate baking vessel (a nonstick, oven-proof skillet is ideal), select your fillings (herbs, spices, cheese, meats, seafood, and vegetables are good options), mix, pour and bake for approximately 40 minutes at 300°F.

Cheat sheet: Gather your ingredients (chicken bones and skin, or your favorite vegetables and their scraps), combine them in a large pot of salted water, bring to a boil, simmer, partially covered, for an hour or two, then a mesh strainer or a colander to drain your stock. Use for soups galore!

Cheat sheet: For filling, composed salads, combine leaves, something fatty and rich, a myriad of vegetables, protein, something punchy, and something crunchy. Layer or toss, then enjoy.

Cheat sheet: Start by heating a wok over high heat, add bite-sized chopped vegetables (carrots, peas, broccoli, and napa cabbage, to name a few) and cooked meat. Move the heated mixture aside and scramble eggs in the open pan space, then stir in leftover medium- to long-grain cooked rice, soy sauce, and sesame oil and heat until everything is heated through.

Cheat sheet: Make a spice blend (combine oil, a root vegetable, and your main curry base), then chop and brown your aromatics, pick a base for your sauce (tomatoes, yogurt, or coconut milk). Simmer for 15 to 25 minutes to cook down the liquid then add your main protein (beef, mutton, seafood, or vegetables) and cook until the sauce thickens, layer with par-cooked rice, cover and steam the entire dish until heated through.

Cheat sheet: Begin by sautéing some alliums (like leeks, shallots, red onion, scallions, onions, and garlic) in a fat, add liquid and legumes and simmer to combine, then splash in a little acid to deepen and brighten the flavor. Lastly add the greens and simmer until just cooked.

Cheat sheet: Cook some grains, add protein of your choice, something crunchy, something creamy, and something green. Add dressing or vinaigrette then toss!

Pesto cheat sheet: Make a paste out of one clove of garlic and a bit of salt, add toasted nuts (almonds, walnuts, and pine nuts are good choices), grated firm cheese (such as parmesan, asiago, or pecorino) and blend, then add herbs or greens (basil, parsley, mint, arugula, etc.) and purée until you have a thick, green paste, then finish with glugs of olive oil.

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Marinara cheat sheet: Mince and sauté the garlic over low heat, add tomatoes (drain them first, if using canned) and turn up the heat to let the mixture reduce and thicken. Finish with fresh herbs and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Cheat sheet: Begin by preparing your proteins (chicken, fish, tofu, or beans), then make a sauce using sautéed onions or garlic, stock, lemon juice, white wine, and capers, add the protein, and pile over a starch (ideally, pasta).

Cheat sheet: Toss oats and add-ins (such as nuts, seeds, and coconut, but minus any chocolate) into a large bowl, drizzle with a sweeter (brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey), vanilla, and canola or olive oil, mix, then bake on a sheet at 350°F until crispy, golden, and toasty. Serve over yogurt or eat by the handful.

What's your favorite not recipe? Share the meals you've memorized below!

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Katie is a food writer and editor who loves cheesy puns and cheesy cheese.