Friday, July 5, 2013

Any suggestions for no-recipe meals?

Tuesday night marked a big occasion in our household. Not only was it the first time since our marriage that I successfully made both a side dish AND a main dish for dinner—from scratch, no less—but it was also the first time Frank went back for second helpings. I felt like the world champion of wifely cooking after that.

^^The winning meal was chicken alfredo pasta with steamed broccoli on the side. If you look closely at our drinks, you'll see it's gin and tonic on the left, scotch and soda on the right (and Frank's stray loaf of French bread is roaming wild and free beside his plate).

I have a question for you—I know a lot of you have way more cooking experience than I do, including cooking for an entire family with multiple children every night (which sounds like a Herculean feat from my perspective).

I have the basic concepts of cooking down. I can make pasta and rice, I know how to simmer, boil, and stir-fry, I can cook most kinds of meat, and I feel pretty comfortable in the kitchen.

Here's my problem: I don't know how to make many actual meals. I spend a lot of time looking at recipe books, but they just confuse me because they involve too many complicated ingredients and specifics.

So I'm hoping to develop an arsenal of no-recipe meals—dinners that don't require a cookbook or fancy ingredients, but can be easily made from memory with pantry staples I already have on hand. I'm just not quite sure where to start.

So here's my question: what are your family's favorite easy dinners? When you are pulling together a quick but delicious meal, what recipes do you have memorized and can whip up without much advance notice? Even something as simple as "ground beef with tomato sauce over noodles" would be perfect—really, I'm open to all suggestions, and would be happy to hear anything you've got!


  1. I was in high school working the late shift in my parish's reception office, sometimes having to make my own dinner before leaving {due to lack of leftovers from the night before}. My favorite thing to do was make rice, corn, and peas respectively, throw those together in a bowl and add some soy sauce for a make-shift fried rice. When my Mom saw what I did, she turned it into a family meal on another night and added some leftover chicken from a previous dinner. Obviously, fried rice is tastier, but this was simple and nutritious and easy to throw together.

    1. Oh that's clever! I'll have to try it one of these nights. :)

  2. My favorite so far has been stir-fry and rice. It's super easy to toss together beef or chicken with some veggies and any old sauce from the grocery store. Since you know how to make rice, which always seems to be the trickiest part of the package, you're all set for a side dish!

    And by the way, the chicken alfredo looks delicious!!!

    1. Thanks Clare! Oooh, I love stir-fry... and somehow I haven't made it yet. I'll have to remedy that asap!

  3. Cooking for only two people can be difficult since most recipes make enough to feed way more than that. I am still learning about how to handle this myself so I look forward to more blog posts about it. What I found that works for me is to try and center a few meals around the same meat: chicken breast or ground beef. If I didn't live in an apartment I would grill.

    Meals I make with chicken:
    Chicken alfredo or if you want to mix it up you can make penne rosa (like at Noodles and Company) it's just one part alfredo to one part marinara sauce and added red pepper flakes to the right spiciness level
    Grilled chicken over romaine salad with caesar dressing (extra salad can be used as a side dish for upcoming meals.
    Chicken Stir Fry (you can buy extra veggies here to steam for sides of future meals or just buy the bag of stir fry frozen veggies stocked in the freezer)

    Ground beef:
    Tacos - sides can be rice and beans (leftovers can be made into burritos)
    Tater tot hotdish (extra tater tots can be used as a side for future meals like the burgers or patty melt)
    Lasagna (sides can be french bread that you turn into garlic bread, extra bread can go to make sandwiches like meatball subs. Salad is a good side for this.
    Spaghetti and meatballs
    Meatball subs - recommended side is salad
    Hamburgers or patty melts - recommended sides tater tots, salad,steamed veggie, or french fries

    Good luck!

    1. That's so true—every recipe is for 4 or 6 servings, so unless we want to be eating leftovers half the days, it's tough to know what to cook! I love the idea of centering meals around the same meat over a few days. I'm going to start trying to do that this week. Thanks for your great meal suggestions!

    2. What about using leftovers for lunch? It breaks up the monotony of usual lunches,

  4. Here's an easy Pasta salad type meal. Its quite delish for summer since it is served chilled.
    -Macaroni noodles (boil to cook)
    -Olive oil to taste
    -Balsamic Vinegar to taste (essentially to create a oil and vinegar dressing)
    -can of beans (I use black beans)
    -fresh tomatoes
    -fresh basil
    -red pepper flakes
    -anything else in your pantry that looks appealing. I just use what I have on hand, so every time I make it its a little bit different. After mixing the ingredients together, put in the fridge to cool, and once chilled, serve with love and a glass of wine. ;) A good side dish with it might be green beans or an Italian sausage. Bon appetit! :)

    1. Mmm, sounds delicious. Thanks for sharing!

  5. 'Shoe-leather pork chops'; not a very appetizing name, but they're quite good. Just throw the chops in the pan, season to taste, and fry until they're done. Whammy.

  6. some of these are going to sound weird, weird, WEIRD to you... but you asked, so I'm tellin'. the weirdest things I cook, by far, are ones taught to me by my depression era great-grandma, Rose. all are very very frugal. :)

    -ketchup spaghetti. we do whole wheat spaghetti noodles, boiled in salt as usual. then, add a few tablespoons of pastured butter to a hot frying pan, toss the cooked noodles into the pan, pour a few big globs of ketchup atop, and toss again. the noodles should be coated in "sauce". serve with grated cheddar cheese and try to forget about how horrified Italians and foodies alike would be at this bastardization. it's delicious and kid approved.
    -a big pot of beans, boiled with a ham hock and onion... just divide into bowls, top with cotija cheese, fresh salsa, and avocado if you have it. goes great with homemade tortillas. (which are just flour, lard/butter/shortening, and water). the leftover beans can be frozen in individual sized containers for quick meals, or used again later in the week for the below recipe.
    -ground beef tacos. just brown ground beef or turkey with a bit of diced yellow onion, season with salt/pepper/cumin/chili powder to taste, and serve in fried or steamed corn tortillas. we like to use beans to make the meat stretch. top with good salsa, cheese, and/or avocado. yum.
    -pasta primavera. basically just whatever pasta you have, tossed with olive oil and whatever veggies you have, topped with pecorino romano.
    -brinner! never be ashamed of a good brinner. pancakes, french toast, french toast casserole, dutch babies...
    -quinoa salads. we are quinoa lovers around here, and we usually cook up a huge pot of it at the beginning of the week so that we can then toss whatever into it and call it "lunch" or "dinner". popular add-ins: olives, bell peppers, diced red onion, fresh herbs (cilantro or basil or mint), feta, beans (garbanzo or black). a simple dressing of lemon/lime juice and olive oil suits us just fine.
    -if we've had roast chicken earlier in the week, I make chicken and dumplings with the leftovers later. pick the meat off of the carcass and boil it with a bit of onion, carrots, and celery for a super delicious and cheap stock. (in summer time I do this in the crock pot)... heat that broth up in a medium saucepan and toss floured dumplings (flour + baking powder + shortening + milk) into it while it simmers and thickens. add the meat back into it to heat it through. bam.
    -shepherd's pie: layer ground beef, a bit of beef stock, Worcestershire sauce, and basic veggeies in a casserole dish. top with potatoes that have been boiled and mashed with a bit of butter. scrape the top of the potatoes with the tines of a fork to create lovely waves that will brown in the oven. pop in the oven, maybe 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. towards the end of the cooking period, you could top with a bit of sharp cheddar and toss it back in the oven to brown.
    -pizza. we eat pizza twice a week usually... mostly because we love it, but also because the dough can easily be made ahead of time and tossed into the freezer for quick meals. I use the "Amazing Whole Wheat Pizza Crust" recipe on Allrecipes most of the time, but I've also used my bread machine to churn out dough quickly and easily. then it's just a matter of choosing delicious toppings/sauces and dinner is done in less than twenty minutes. we like barbecue chicken pizza; white pizza with prosciutto, goat cheese, and arugula; and plain ol' Margherita.
    -Heidi Swanson's blog, 101 Cookbooks, has an amazing and simple "five minute tomato sauce" recipe that I use a lot for either pasta or pizza.

    I find winter much easier for cheap, healthy, "quick" meals because I utilize my crock pot A LOT for stews and soups, then use my bread machine to make fresh bread as a side. Easy, easy.

    Anyway, I know I make a lot more than that but it's all I can think of at the moment... looking at the list, you can see we LOVE carbs around here. ha. Happy cooking!

    1. Oh my goodness, your great-grandma Rose sounds amazing. I LOVE these ideas (although I'll admit that ketchup spaghetti does sound a little unorthodox!). You've inspired me to want to try making tomato sauce, pizza, chicken and dumplings, and oh... pretty much everything else you mentioned. :) Thank you, thank you, Sarah!

  7. This is a favorite of mine that is no frills but everyone loves!

    You need:
    -whole wheat spaghetti (or any kind of pasta, Japanese soba noodles are a nice twist)
    -store bought pesto (by the tortellini and fresh pasta)
    -sliced red onion, red pepper, and spinach which you cook before adding to the pasta

    Done. And great with a side of easy garlic bread.

    1. Mmm. That sounds perfect, and definitely easy! Thanks for the great tip!

  8. Taco bars--with ground beef or chicken. Taco seasoning, meat, and whatever toppings you want!

    Chili in a crock pot...heck most anything in a crock pot. Meat, I do at least 3 different types of canned beans (including chickpeas), chopped onions, diced tomatoes, chili powder, I like a little cinnamon...any way, see what you have along those lines, throw it in and let it cook! Add cheese, sour cream, etc toppings.

    Homemade pizzas with your favorite toppings. Dough is relatively easy to make (though Pilsbury canned biscuit dough works ok for you gluten eaters!)--flour, egg, water, yeast, and oil, bake at 350 for 15 min, add pizza sauce (jar, canned tomato paste or homemade--add basil and other spices) and put back in the oven for 15 min.

    Enchiladas covered in queso (you can make this crock pot or as a casserole in the oven). Corn/flour tortillas, meat of choice cooked (canned chicken is fine for a recipe like this, fresh is better), shredded cheese, add enchilada sauce (premade or homemade--do it the easy way first!). For oven, make tacos with cheese and meat rolled up and lay side by side until you fill a 13x9 pan. Pour sauce over. Add cheese generously on top. Bake 30min at 350. For crock pot, put a whole jar of enchilada sauce or chunky veggie salsa in the crock pot to cook with the meat. Serve in tortilla and drizzle salsa/enchilada sauce over. Serve with rice--make Spanish rice by adding spices and substituting canned diced to tomatoes for some of the water. (I add lime juice or chilies to just about everything, too!)

    I have a hard time with recipes sometimes (short attention span?? dislike of following directions? probably both). But I love just making meals spontaneously.

    The biggest things for me are being able to look in my pantry and create a meal from what I have (and conversely, to shop for things I know I could/will use in several recipes) and knowing spices.

    This is a big one because it involves tasting and smelling as you go and learning spices that generally go well for an Italian dish, French dish, Asian, Indian, steak, etc. Then you can add each spice to taste, but you have a generally guideline that say basil and thyme go well together!

    xoxo Happy cooking!

    1. Oh this is perfect! So many great ideas! Somehow I've never actually made homemade pizza, but I'm dying to try it—this is good inspiration to finally make it happen. Also, love the tip about the spices; that's something I definitely need to work on. I've also never tried making enchiladas... so much inspiration! Thanks, Molly!!

  9. Also, sometimes I look at a lot of recipes for something first, but just make it sort of my own way when I actually cooking--combining what I have with what I think would taste best (or be healthier).

    I would add to the list above, homemade meatballs for spaghetti are really easy to make and are absolutely delicious. Ground beef mixed with garlic salt, pepper, an egg, and breadcrumbs. (Sometimes I use fresh garlic and regular salt) (Go crazy and add various Italian seasonings, Parmesan, Worcestershire, etc. if you like. But they are delicious plain, too!) Shape into balls and cook on a cookie sheet greased with olive oil for about 12 min at 350. Add to tomato sauce.

  10. Different Pastas and sauces - check out Trader Joe's for more variety. (For a little more variety - chuck cooked pasta and a jar of sauce in a casserole with chopped up cheese (Mozzerella and parm) bake in the oven for 20 mins at 375 - you can add a little fresh basil to make it fancy - and - there you have baked pasta.)

    Never be afraid of a good hamburger - you can get all fancy and do a meatloaf burger if you buy the meatloaf mix - chop up any veggies you need to get rid of - we like broccoli, carrots, onion, celery with some ketchup and breadcrumbs - and garlic and an egg - make into hamburgers - pan fry til done. Serve on hamburger rolls. I would do frozen mixed veggies or salad as a side - or homemade oven fries (literally - slice potatoes in fries shape - coat with oil of choice - salt/pepper/garlic powder if you like - cook at 425 for about 20 minutes - or until done.)

    Roasted chicken - buy chicken thighs or drumsticks - season to taste (I love Greek seasoning from Penseys) chuck in oven at 375 for 45 minutes. Serve with rice - you can even buy the microwavable rice in the bag at Trader Joes - which is an amazing timesaver. Saute spinach in garlic and olive oil - and dinner is served.

    I agree on the pizza too - Pizza night is a hit - and premade crusts are quite good - at the end of the day - just about anything can go on a pizza - but all you really need is sauce and cheese (although I have made it work without cheese - - sometimes supplies are somewhat low! Barbecue sauce works with veggies in a pinch!

    I also recommend highly having some premade food in the freezer - and by that I mean - throw a chili or soup together on the weekend - and put it in the freezer. It helps out a lot when you are rushing around on a weeknight.

    1. I love that half your suggestions are from Trader Joe's. :) We love that store too!

      The tip about keeping food in the freezer is a great one. I've been meaning to do that... gotta get around to it. Thanks for the fabulous ideas!

  11. One really easy recipe is vegetables with chicken. If you buy vegetables pre-frozen from the store, just cook them in the saucepan like you usually do, I add a bit of olive oil and salt. Then cook the chicken, either in a saucepan with soy sauce and oil or bake it at 375 for about 45-50 minutes and add it to the vegetables.
    Mac and cheese is another classic, as is classic pasta but experimenting with the sauce. I sometimes add mushrooms to tomato sauce or mix milk, flour, and a bit of cheese and spices to make a cheese sauce.
    There's a very good spanish dish whose name escapes me, but it's sliced potatoes, onions, bacon, peppers, really whatever you want with beaten eggs (add a bit of milk) poured over it.
    Also, you can really never go wrong with baked chicken or pork tenderloin. A lot of times Costco will have a relatively inexpensive pork tenderloin that can be spread out over a few days as a main dish or as an ingredient in an omelet or sandwich. Baked chicken only needs butter and whatever spices you want to rub it with, I've often squeezed lemon juice over it.

    1. All of these ideas sound delicious! Good point about Costco—maybe it's time for me to get a Costco card. Thank you, Claire!

  12. As an Aussie, "meat and three veg" is basically our national dish (well, along with every international cuisine under the sun).

    Step 1. Learn how to cook vegies in a way that you love. I recommend:
    - Carrots in honey: steam them and then add a teeny bit of honey and butter
    - Beans steamed and then lightly fried with some onion and butter
    - Mushrooms anyway you like!
    - Brocoli, steamed
    - Making a chutney-like tomato dish (just invent it as you feel the flow) is also a great topping for any steamed vegies

    Step 2. Choose your meat. I recommend:
    - Lamb chops, wrapped in foil and cooked in the oven, or just grilled
    - Sausages
    - Roast (seriously - it is so easy. Just stick the meat in the oven. Everyone is always impressed by roast meat but it is one of the easiest things ever to cook!)
    - Grilled fish

    Meat and three veg ... It's like cooking without turning on your brain :)

    1. Ah, meat and three veg is brilliant! Love it. Thanks for the clever dinner planning-strategy, and the recipe ideas!

  13. Hi Tess! First let me say what a lovely couple you and Frank make! I certainly have enjoyed reading your story.:) Regardihg the above subject, you have gotten so many excellent bits of advice and tips that I don't think I could really add anything.....other than encourage you to master all the basic cooking techniques, (and don't be afraid to try more difficult ones, if you find yourself with extra time.....a good cookbook is so helpful in this respect. "Joy of Cooking" is probably my favorite; it's chock full of information!)and no matter what happens don't give up!!! Creativity in the kitchen is so much fun and can produce fantastic results......but then along comes The Disaster, that can make you want to NEVER attempt the whole creative thing again. Ever. I could tell you plenty of stories.....most famous (or infamous?)my imitation-crab enchilladas. My husband still teases me about that one, even though it happened when we were first married(~about nine years ago). He has a wonderful sense of humor though, thank heaven, and will try about anything. I think he has more faith in me, than I have in myself and I have overheard him describing me as a very good cook to his friends, so I have definitely improved over the years.....unless he is just being very VERY sweet;) Happy cooking, Tess, and God bless you!


    1. Thank you, Kate, we're so happy to have you reading! Your advice is great—it's so true that one big disaster makes you want to throw in the towel forever—I had that happen with a baking recipe recently. But you're right, I've got to just keep trying. I'd love to hear the story of the imitation-crab enchiladas—it sounds really funny!

  14. Hey Tess, hope you and Frank are well! Obviously I don't have a family yet, but living alone as a grad student, I'm trying to get better at feeding myself well, rather than just having scrambled eggs on toast every night (I mean, it's a lovely meal, but not very hearty...) - I am not the most skilled cook, so I just try to keep things simple - one of my favourite dishes is fajitas, but rather than just cooking chicken pieces, onion and garlic and then adding the sometimes bland seasoning that comes in those fajita boxes/packets, I've started experimenting a little - adding a tin of tinned tomatoes really bulks up the meal for the better, and adding a good dash of paprika and chilli powder (as hot as you can take it!) makes it a lots more flavoursome. I also love a good chilli - I use this BBC Food receipe which is super easy to follow and almost impossible to mess up! http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3228/chilli-con-carne - (and if you just leave out the kidney beans, you essentially have a bolognese sauce - two meals in one!)
    Also, I don't know if you can't buy it in the U.S., but I swear by Worcestershire Sauce as an easy flavouring - fry an onion, garlic, chicken pieces, and peppers, then season and add liberal amounts of the sauce to flavour. Add to noodles and voila! If you can't get in the US, I might just have to pop some in the post from across the pond...it's too good to miss out on!
    Anyway, these are probably meals you have the hang of, but I find them all pretty foolproof (even for a terrible cook like me!) and most importantly, they are hearty and filling :) Hope all's well with you, God bless xxx Meabh

  15. Hey Tess! You have received quite a few lovely suggestions here as I just skimmed through a few of the responses. The only thing I really have to add/reiterate is just to learn a few basic cooking techniques that can really lead you to create a ton of dishes on the fly. For example, master roasting chicken breasts, thighs, or even a whole chicken. The chicken meat can be tossed into pasta, salads, tacos, curries, enchiladas, risotto, etc. Other things to master would be risotto basics, rice cooking in general (unless you have a rice cooker!), sauce basics (bechamel, etc.), quinoa(endless ways to use cooked quinoa in salad!), polenta (easy, cheap versatile dish!), and maybe an easy pizza dough for impromptu pizza nights (I should share a recipe for thin crust pizza that can hang out in the fridge for up to three days before you need to use it!). Anyway, those are just a few off the top of my head. The one piece of kitchen equipment I highly recommend for cooking meat is an instant-read thermometer. You will never, ever dry things out if it is removed at the right internal temperature! Seriously, one of the best kitchen gadgets ever. Anyway, apologies for any misspellings...I'm working on a puzzle with my 3-year-old simultaneously! Hope you are doing well! Love, Monica