As the food editor of The New York Times and the founding editor of NYT Cooking, I spend a lot of time bringing together cooks, reporters, chefs and critics to lay out strict instructions for how best to prepare specific dishes. These recipes take a particular form: a list of ingredients followed by step-by-step directions for how to use them to result in a finished dish. I think of these recipes as sheet music, a form of notation that allows home cooks to re-create the cooking of others, just as a printed chord chart allows Mike from Sheboygan to play the Beatles repertoire in his den, passingly well.
But I don’t just cook with recipes, and I am not alone. Indeed, cooking without recipes is a kitchen skill same as cutting vegetables into dice or flipping an omelet. It’s a proficiency to develop, a way to improve your confidence in the kitchen and to make the act of cooking fun when sometimes it seems like a chore.
For the past four years, I included one of these no-recipe recipes, an invitation for you to improvise in the kitchen, in every Wednesday edition of What to Cook, a newsletter I write for The Times. What follows are some highlights from that archive, suggestions for things you might cook yourself or for as many people you have or don’t have at the table, as you like.
Smashed Potatoes with Bacon, Cheese and Greens
Get some nice baseball-sized, yellow-fleshed potatoes, one per person, and cut them into quarters. Toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper on a sheet pan, and slide them into a hot oven to roast, say 425 degrees. While they’re cooking, make yourself useful: Fry some bacon; grate some Cheddar; toss a few large handfuls of spinach or baby kale with olive oil, just enough to lightly coat the leaves; slice some avocados; and see if you have some sour cream in the refrigerator.
When the potatoes are soft, pull them from the oven and smash the pieces down with the bottom of a coffee cup or drinking glass. Arrange the smashed potatoes on the sheet pan, and top each portion with greens, a chopped slice of cooked bacon, and plenty of cheese. Return to the oven to melt the cheese, then garnish with avocado and dots of sour cream. Or yogurt! It’s a no-recipe recipe. There are no rules!
• You could parboil the potatoes if you want, then smash them and proceed as directed. That would work well!
• You absolutely can omit the bacon. This is a great side dish for roast chicken.
Fettuccine With Ricotta
and a Fistful of Mint
Set a pot of nicely salted water over high heat to boil. When it does, add the fettuccine, then get the rest of your dinner ready as it cooks to al dente. Chop up a fistful of mint and a small shallot if you have one (half a small onion if you don’t), mixing them into a cup or two of fresh ricotta, then loosening the mixture with a healthy drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Add some salt and pepper to taste, perhaps a shake of red pepper. When the pasta’s done, which’ll be about the same time as you’re done with the sauce, drain it in a colander and add it to a big warm bowl, then fold the cheese into it, mixing gently. Serve to adoration.
• Always salt your water. It helps season the pasta you’re cooking. You want it the flavor of not-totally-unpleasant brackish water: the taste of a summer swim in a coastal pond that gets breached by the sea.
• Reserve a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help smooth out the sauce as it comes together. Do this every time you make pasta.
Baked Salmon with
Barbecue Sauce and Hot Peppers
There are generally a few kinds of barbecue sauce in my refrigerator, leftovers from various experiments. That may be true for you as well? I bet there’s a half-bottle of store-bought sauce, anyway, or a dusty unopened one in the pantry. Check: There probably is. Let’s make dinner with it, and some salmon fillets. Put the barbecue sauce in a small pot on the stove over medium heat, then turn the oven to 400. Roughly chop a few jarred pickled hot peppers into the sauce, and add a couple of pats of butter to silkify the situation. Warm that through while the oven heats, then salt and pepper the salmon fillets and roast them skin-side down, on a lightly oiled sheet pan, for 10 or 12 minutes, or until they are just barely cooked through. Spoon the pepper-studded barbecue sauce over the top, and go to!
• A sheet pan is an invaluable no-recipe recipe tool. Cover it with foil, then lightly oil that, to make cleanup easier.
• Salad on the side! Whisk olive oil into some lemon or lime juice until it’s emulsified, hit it with salt and pepper, and then use it to lightly dress a pile of arugula or spring-style greens.
Oven-Roasted Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Croutons
This one came to me from great New York Times food reporter Julia Moskin. Scatter a bunch of sliced onions and shallots across the oiled bottom of a large pan, then put a bunch of chicken thighs on top, skin-side up. Season the thighs with salt and pepper, then slide the pan into a 425-degree oven to roast until the chicken is crisp on top and cooked through, about 35 minutes. Shake the pan every so often, and add wine or stock if the onions are browning too fast. Meanwhile, make some croutons from good, chewy olive-oil-tossed bread, toasting them until golden in a pan or in the oven alongside the chicken. They can be cut or torn up — no matter. Put the croutons on a warm platter, dump the contents of the roasting pan over the top and arrange the chicken on top of that, mixed with bitter greens. Boy howdy.
• People who talk about cooking a lot always tell you to make croutons out of stale bread. I don’t have stale bread, generally, because my children like French toast for breakfast. Toasting fresh bread in a pan is a good and delicious shortcut.
• A fact you ought to know: Julia Moskin was named for the great American cookbook author and television personality Julia Child!
Italian Subs With Sausage and Peppers
Start with the onions, slicing two big sweet ones and setting them in a hot pan with a couple of gurgles of olive oil. Season with salt, black pepper and a shake of red-pepper flakes, then cook over medium heat, stirring and tossing occasionally so that they go golden and soft. This’ll take a while. Add a couple of sliced bell peppers to the pan, and continue cooking, still stirring and tossing, until they begin to wilt. Set the vegetables aside. About halfway through, set some sweet Italian sausages in another hot, oil-slicked pan, and cook them through until crisp and brown on the exterior, turning often.
Split your sub rolls (I like the sesame-seeded variety here) and scrape out a little of the interior from each. Load one side of each roll with some of the onions and peppers, the other with a sausage. Top with mozzarella, put the open sandwiches on a sheet pan and slide them all into a hot oven for five minutes or so, until the cheese is melted and the bread is lightly toasted. Fold together and serve.
• Of course, you can make these subs with hot sausages instead of sweet. I’m not a monster.
• And, of course, you don’t need to top them with mozzarella. But that’s pretty good.
Almond and Dried Fruit Pilaf with Rotisserie Chicken
Melt a knob of butter in a pot, then sauté a sliced onion in it until translucent. Add rice, as much as you want to cook, and stir it around, then add water in its usual ratio to the rice, and cook as you always do. At the end, add some chopped prunes, or currants, or raisins, or all three, along with a handful of slivered almonds and salt and pepper. Fluff the rice to mix everything together. Put the top back on the pot, and let the rice and mix-ins mellow out for a few minutes. Serve alongside a store-bought roast chicken, the legs and thighs separated and the breasts cut on the bias and fanned out for show.
• Use basmati rice, or jasmine, for a floral note.
• Use pistachios or pine nuts in place of the almonds. Substitute capers or olives for the sweet dried fruit.
Fried Egg Quesadilla
This simple fried egg quesadilla makes as fine a light supper as it does a breakfast repast. Easy work: Melt some butter in a pan and gently cook a corn tortilla in it. Top the tortilla with grated Cheddar, a slice of deli ham or some cooked bacon if you want them, a little chopped cilantro or salsa or hot sauce, and another tortilla. Cook, flipping the quesadilla a few times, until it is crisp and golden and the cheese has melted into lace at the sides. Use a spatula to pull it out of the pan, and place it onto a cutting board to rest. Fry an egg in the now-empty pan with a little more butter, then cut the quesadilla into quarters, placing the egg on top. Top with cilantro and hot sauce or salsa.
• To feed more than a few people, use your oven to store finished quesadillas while you cook. Then top with fried eggs!
• Pico de gallo would make a nice addition: a couple of cups of peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes mixed with a minced white onion, a minced serrano or jalapeño pepper and a minced clove of garlic. Add the juice of a lime, some salt and pepper and chopped cilantro to taste.
Rotisserie Chicken Salad With Greens and Herbs
Pick up a heat-lamp roast chicken at the market on the way home — it’s OK! — and tear it apart to feed four, or half of it for two, shredding the meat with your fingers. Mix the chicken with a few handfuls of baby arugula, a large handful of sliced scallions and a lot of chopped cilantro. Cut an avocado or two into the mix if you have them on hand. Then make a dressing out of lime juice — one juicy squeezed lime will do — a pressed garlic clove and a few glugs of olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper. Drizzle that over the top and serve. Dinner in 15 minutes, tops.
• What makes a good rotisserie chicken? Its skin is golden and shiny with fat, and does not resemble a handbag. Also, it is available within 10 minutes of your home.
• Swap the lime for lemon, and the cilantro for parsley. Add capers and omit the avocado. Club Med!
Quick-Broiled Pork Chops with Peanuts and Gochujang
Make sure you’ve secured the thinnest chops you can find at the store — that’s crucial for the quick-broil part. Throw a few handfuls of dry-roasted peanuts in a pan set over medium-high heat with a glug of sesame oil. Let those go until they’re fragrant and just beginning to darken, then take them off the heat and toss with a few shakes of chile powder. Set the peanuts aside and heat your broiler. Line a sheet pan with foil, and oil it lightly. Salt and pepper your chops, lay them out on the pan, and slide them into the oven. Cook the chops for around four minutes, then flip them over to finish. Meanwhile, mix a tablespoon or so of gochujang, the Korean red-pepper paste, with a healthy splash of orange juice and a wisp of mirin. Taste. Adjust. Pour into a deep serving dish or platter. When the chops are well crusted and brown, slide them into the sauce for a toss. Top with the peanuts and some chopped scallions if you have any. Rice on the side.
• Feeling luxe? Use cashews in place of the peanuts.
• Vegetables? Roast broccoli on a second oiled sheet pan in a hot oven while you’re toasting the peanuts.