In the quest to create great dishes, chefs sometimes grab dozens of ingredients and subject them to complicated techniques. Yet ask those same chefs—as well as food writers, bloggers, and home cooks—how they make great food when they don’t have the time or the energy for all that wizardry, and they’ll usually cough up secrets for making ingredients taste ridiculously good without doing anything fancy at all.
We’re talking three or four ingredients taken through the steps of a “recipe” that’s really just a couple of memorized sentences—the type of dishes passed on through word-of-mouth rather than glossy coffee-table books. The building blocks are common pantry staples and the process is simple, yet the results are sublime. All practiced cooks have these tricks in their arsenal—you just have to ask.
So let’s put down the PB&J and expand our arsenal of effortless yet remarkably delicious recipes. Here are the best, the simplest, and the easiest dishes we got from the pros.
The inverted cheeseburger
Make a cheeseburger and melt cheese on top. Lay the bun open on a plate. When you remove the burger from the cooking surface, place it on top of the top bun. Then place the bottom bun on top and flip the burger over. You now have a Cheeseburger with Cheese on the Bottom. By moving the cheese to the bottom, you bring it closer to your tongue and accentuate cheesy goodness.—Dan Pashman, creator of the WNYC food podcast The Sporkful and author of the new book, Eat More Better: How to Make Every Bite More Delicious
Get a twelve-pound striped bass or salmon or redfish, and encase it in wet kosher salt. Roast for an hour at 500 degrees; serve with a sauce of olive oil, lemon rind and fresh oregano. I learned this from Francis Mallmann in Argentina. It’s always moist, and the whole thing gets eaten every time.—Peter Kaminsky, author of Seven Fires: Grilling The Argentine Way, Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (And Really Well), and many more
Roasted brussels sprouts chips
Here’s how to make them: 1) Slice in half. 2) Peel. 3) Toss with olive oil and salt. 4) Roast. 5) Eat.—Jennifer Tyler Lee, author of The 52 New Foods Challenge: A Family Cooking Adventure for Each Week of the Year
Photo: The Kitchn
This time of year, if I’m lucky enough to find a crop of wild maitake or hen of the woods mushrooms, I enjoy making simple wild-mushroom bruschetta. I saute garlic, shallots, and maitake mushrooms in butter until golden, adding a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. After toasting the bread slices, I rub them with a garlic clove before topping with the wild mushroom mixture. It’s simple and superbly yummy.—Ava Chin, author of Eating Wildly
Whole-grain pesto bowl
Reheat leftover grains and prepare a quick impromptu pesto by pan-toasting a handful of nuts or seeds (walnuts or pumpkin seeds are favorites) and mixing them in a food processor with a clove or two of garlic, a few heaping handfuls of greens (spinach or kale in the winter; basil in the summer), a glug or two of olive oil, and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan. I’ll tweak the amount of oil to get the consistency that makes me happy, and then I season with salt and pepper. To pull it all together, I fold in a bit of pesto into my warmed grains and if I’ve got leftover veggies, I’ll incorporate those as well. Otherwise, a quick fried egg on top and an always seasonal, ever-satisfying lunch or light dinner is born.—Megan Gordon, author of Whole Grain Mornings and owner of Marge Granola
Five minutes of prep and an hour of twiddling my thumbs results in the most delicious dinner, plus plenty of leftovers to use in soups, sandwiches, and more in the days that follow. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Season chicken generously with salt, then tie the legs together and tuck the wing tips beneath body. Roast on a small rimmed baking sheet until an instant-read thermometer inserted in a thigh reads 165 degrees—about 12 minutes per pound. Let chicken rest 10 minutes before carving. That’s it!—Sarah Carey, host of Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food
Yogurt and flour for deep-fried goodness—for fish and chicken, sure, but especially for frying vegetables. Coat cauliflower, onion rings, thin slices of winter squash, long wedges of Belgian endive, whole stalks of broccoli rabe, etc. with yogurt that has been slightly thinned with water or milk, and then dip into flour. Shake off the excess, fry in hot oil, and sprinkle with salt. You can also pound a little garlic and herbs—like basil, parsley, or cilantro—mix into more yogurt and serve as a tasty dipping sauce.—Cal Peternell, chef at Chez Panisse and author of Twelve Recipes
Boil pasta…whatever kind you like, just until al dente in lots of salted water. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, melt half a stick of butter and, towards the end throw, in some sage leaves and grate in lots of nutmeg. Toss the pasta in there and then, here’s the kicker, take off the heat and add tons of grated Parmesan cheese and some ground black pepper and more nutmeg, if you like nutmeg (and who doesn’t?). It’s my favorite easy dinner.—Adam Roberts, blogger at Amateur Gourmet and author of Secrets of the Best Chefs
Crispy fried egg
Let the egg sit out at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes (longer if I’ve thought ahead) to remove the fridge chill. I fire up the wok over medium-high, and when it’s hot, I swirl in enough oil to coat the bottom. Crack the egg into the wok and let it blister at the edge, splutter, hiss, and fry. When the edges are brown and slightly curled up, it’s done. [For egg-frying tips, check out our GIF tutorial.] If that happens prematurely before the whites are set, I put a lid over the egg for 10 to 15 seconds, then I uncover to finish crisping. I eat the egg with toast, or over rice with glugs of Maggi Seasoning sauce and lots of fresh-cracked black pepper.—Andrea Nguyen, author of The Banh Mi Handbook, Asian Dumplings, and many more
Photo: Andrea Nguyen
Super simple salad
Arugula with a lemony anchovy dressing is my go-to salad that makes use of mostly pantry staples. You just want to take a few oil-packed anchovies and mash them to a paste. Add a tablespoon of fresh lemon juice and the best olive oil you can find in the house. When you whisk all of this together you should have a nice thick, salty dressing, that when tossed with spicy arugula makes the perfect salad. Add some thinly shaved Parmesan and chives if you’re feeling fancy.—Julia Sherman, editor of Salad for President
Shaved vegetable salad with tea-pickled radishes
I love making this dish because there is no cooking involved and it’s easily adaptable for any season. Even though it calls for apples, fennel, radishes, and radicchio for fall, I can easily substitute ingredients depending on what I’m inspired by in the season. And since I use the pickling liquid to make my vinaigrette, I maximize flavor and minimize waste. To make it: Pickle sliced radishes in a combination of salt, 1 cup sweet tea, 1 cup cider vinegar, sliced garlic gloves, and whole black peppercorns. Leave for at least an hour. Pour the reserved pickling liquid into a large bowl. Add the honey and whisk to combine, then drizzle in olive oil to emulsify. Add thinly sliced fennel, apple, radicchio, celery, parsley, and the pickled radishes, then toss together.—Gail Simmons, Top Chef judge and author of Talking with My Mouth Full
Lentils de Puy, spicy Italian sausage, and kale
The easiest way to do this would be to go to Trader Joe’s and purchase already steamed and vacuum-sealed lentils and pre-cut kale, and then get sausage from a butcher (if people are health-conscious/Kosher/etc., they can use turkey sausage or chicken sausage). I usually cook the sausage for about 10 minutes (to get the pink out), then throw in lentils until warmed through (a few more minutes), deglaze with a splash of sherry vinegar, season a bit with salt (sausage is salty, but you want to make sure lentils have flavor too), and finally throw in the kale for a few minutes just so it’s wilted. If I am lazy and get the pre-cut kale, the leaves are pretty dry so I add a splash of water to let the whole thing steam a bit; if I wash my own kale, then there’s residual water on the leaves so it helps the leaves steam/wilt. All in all, this dish can take me anywhere from about 15 to 25 minutes to make.—Olga Massov, blogger at Sassy Radish and cookbook editor at Phaidon Press