Several of my older friends love relating that their homemaker mothers were great cooks, but could only make seven things: Monday’s dinner, Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s, and so on through Sunday.
To be fair to those busy women, they were masters of a lot more than seven things: None of those dinners were one-pot meals. And most home cooks, like my paternal grandmother, actually had two different main dishes for Sunday that they alternated.
But the point was that those dishes were confined to a routine repeat of only seven menus that never varied. While most of us nowadays claim we’d find that tedious, the truth is we’re all too often just as much creatures of habit as they were back then.
And actually, there’s a lot to be said for the mastery of basics that don’t require any conscious thought.
So long as we don’t confine them to a week-in, week-out rotation, having dishes and basic skills in our repertory that are automatic can actually be quite liberating.
One of the best things where having such skills and familiar dishes work to our advantage is pasta.
Most of us love it, and when we come home tired and hungry, the only thing faster is an omelet — and face it, there’s just so much you can do with that.
A quick survey of the kitchen might turn up, say, a zucchini that needs to be cooked. Most of us keep onions, garlic, a box of pasta, and a hunk of grating cheese on hand.
If you have the basic skills and a general idea of what goes together, a lovely pasta with zucchini is minutes away from the table.
Last month we bought a charming house in Virginia that we’re in the process of renovating as a second home. While recently there, basically camping out with limited furniture and kitchenware, I made three of the following things in that sparsely furnished kitchen, on an old electric range, without a recipe in sight.
You’ll notice that, except for the ramen, they use almost the same set of basic skills, and yet the results in each case are very different.
If you’ve got these basics down to the point you really don’t even have to think about them, you’ve got dozens of different pasta dishes at your fingertips.
Basic pasta skills
Cooking pasta well is a simple process, but it’s one that’s all too often done badly. Use plenty of water (not less than 3 quarts for 1 to 2 servings, not less than 4 quarts for 3-6 servings). Only after it begins to boil, add plenty of salt; it should have the salinity of sea water.
• Except for a slow-simmering ragu or meat sauce, most pasta sauces are quick-cooking, and are ready in less time than it takes to bring water to a boil and cook the pasta. Put the pasta cooking water on before you do anything else so it’ll be ready when you need it.
• Choose a heavy-bottomed pot whose capacity is at least 1 quart larger than the amount of water required. Add the water, put the pot over high heat, and cover it.
• When the water begins boiling, slowly stir in a small handful of salt (some pots will actually bubble over when the salt is added, so be careful).
• Stir in the pasta, leave it uncovered, and let it come back to a boil, stirring. Then cook, still uncovered, stirring several more times to make sure the pasta doesn’t stick together or to the pan, until it is al dente (firm to the bite but cooked through). It shouldn’t crunch between your teeth or feel pasty on your tongue. Use the manufacturer’s suggested cooking times as a rough guide, but let your teeth tell you when it’s done.
• When the pasta is ready, don’t over-drain it: you’ll want a little of the cooking water still clinging to it so that the sauce will coat it more evenly.
Basic sauté skills
Sauté derives from a French verb that literally means “to jump” and the food should be kept moving in the pan, either by tossing the pan or by stirring and flipping the food often. It’s a quick process, ideal for weeknight meals and indispensable for most pasta sauces.
• Sautéing goes quickly and is done over a lively heat, so it’s a task that requires your undivided attention. Have everything prepared and don’t start something else that is likely to distract you.
• Use only medium-high heat. Things scorch too easily over high heat and don’t get hot enough to really sauté properly over medium heat or lower. However, if you’re using a non-stick pan, begin with medium heat until the food is added, then you can safely raise it to medium-high.
• Put the fat into the pan before applying the heat.
• In most cases, you’ll also add the food that’s to be sautéed before applying the heat. The exception is any food that would soak up the fat when it’s cold (like mushrooms or eggplant). Onions, garlic, celery, carrots, and most vegetables like zucchini or broccoli should be added to the cold pan.
• Once it begins sizzling, keep the food moving in the pan, either by tossing the pan as a line cook would do to make the food flip, or by stirring and flipping it with a spatula or spoon. The object behind keeping the food moving is to have it brown and cook evenly.
Basic onion skills
Handling an onion is one of the very first basic knife skills every cook should master. Once you can handle an onion, you’ve got the base for many other dishes.
• Lay the onion on its side on a knife-safe cutting surface (not glass or stone). Slice off the root without cutting into the outer papery skin. Slice off the stem end, then turn the onion root-end-up. Cut the onion in half, then peel off the outer skin.
• Lay the halves of the onion on the flat cut side. If it’s to be sliced, cut it crosswise into slices as thickly or thinly as you need it to be. Thin slices cook more quickly.
• If it’s to be diced or chopped, without cutting through the root end, first hold the knife horizontal to the work surface and slice into the onion from the stem end to the root without cutting through the root. Then make vertical cuts from the stem to the root, cutting all the way through and again without cutting through the stem. Then cut crosswise as if you were slicing it.
• Scallions are great for small, quick cooking and add bright flavor that’s always welcome on a cold night. Wash under cold running water, drain, and trim away root end and any discolored greens. Lay it on a knife-safe cutting surface and cut crosswise into thick sticks or slices, as needed.
Basic garlic skills
Garlic is a basic flavoring vegetable that few cooks are ever without. You can use garlic powder or already minced garlic, but know that its flavor will be harsh — and you don’t want to even think about what they’ve put into that minced garlic to keep it from spoiling.
• Lay the clove of garlic rounded side up on a knife-safe cutting surface. Lay the blade of a cook’s knife flat (horizontal to the cutting surface) and firmly tap it with your fist to lightly crush the clove. Slip off the papery skin (it should come right off).
• Coarsely chop the clove into large, even pieces, then keep going over it, chopping until the garlic is as fine as you need.
Basic zucchini skills
Zucchini squash is one of those everyday vegetables every cook should be able to prepare. This same basic technique is applied to other cylinder-shaped vegetables like carrots.
• Scrub the squash under cold running water with a vegetable brush until the skin no longer feels gritty and pat it dry.
• Lay the squash flat on a knife-safe cutting surface and slice off the blossom and stem ends.
• To cut into rounds, simply slice it crosswise as thick or thinly as needed.
• To cut into sticks, cut it crosswise into 3-4 pieces, then stand each piece on a flat end and slice it. Lay the resulting rectangular slices flat and slice them lengthwise into sticks.
Basic mushroom skills
Not all of us routinely keep mushrooms on hand, but when we do have them, they’re a quick-fix flavor boost for pasta, chicken, fish, and most shellfish. They also lend a meaty flavor to many other vegetables when you’re having a meatless meal.
• Wipe away any dirt clinging to the mushrooms with a dry paper towel. Trim the stems even with the caps. If they’re small and to be used whole, they’re now ready to go.
• To slice, lay them stem side down on a knife-safe cutting surface and slice them with a sharp knife.
• To dice, lay them stem-down on the work surface and cut in half horizontally, then slice them, and holding the sides together, slice in the other direction.
Basic broccoli/broccolini skills
Broccoli and its cousins are among the most common vegetables on our winter table. It’s easily and quickly prepared, which is probably one reason it’s so commonplace. But it’s also tasty and healthful.
• Rinse it well, especially the florets, under cold running water. Drain and, if its stem has a thick, tough skin, don’t cut it off and waste it. Peel that tough skin away with a vegetable peeler: the inner part is tender and sweet.
• To speed up its time in the pan when it’s to be sautéed, broccoli is often blanched first: Before cooking the pasta, drop it into the boiling pasta water for 2 minutes, then lift it out into a colander and rinse it well under cold running water.
• Cut the florets from the stem and break them into bite-sized pieces. Cut the stem into bite-sized pieces or dice it as follows: Cut it into sticks (the same technique as Basic zucchini skills) and cut the sticks crosswise into dice.
• When sautéing cut up broccoli, start with the stem pieces and cook them until they’re beginning to color, then add the florets (they’ll cook much faster).
Thin Spaghetti with Mushrooms
Basic skills: Mushroom, onion, garlic, pasta and sautéing. Serves 2.
• 1 8-ounce package small brown (crimini or baby bella) mushrooms
• 1 small shallot
• 1 large clove garlic
• 2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill.
• 6 ounces thin spaghetti, spaghetti, angel hair, or linguine
• ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, or Romano cheese
• 2 teaspoons butter or olive oil, for finishing, optional
1. Put 3 quarts water in heavy-bottomed 4-6 quart pot, cover, and put over high heat. Clean mushrooms with dry paper towel, trim, and slice (basic mushroom skills). Trim, split lengthwise, peel and dice shallot (basic onion skills). Lightly crush, peel, and mince garlic (basic garlic skills).
2. Put butter and shallot in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté (basic sauté skills) until shallot is pale gold and add mushrooms. Sauté until lightly colored and add garlic. Sauté until mushrooms and garlic are golden. Season with salt and pepper, toss, and turn off heat.
3. When water is boiling, stir in small handful salt and pasta and cook until al dente (basic pasta skills). When almost ready, reheat mushrooms over medium low heat. When pasta is ready, drain lightly (do not over-drain) and add to skillet. Turn off heat under skillet. Add 2 tablespoons cheese and pat of butter if liked and toss well. Serve at once passing remaining cheese separately.
Fusilli with Zucchini
Basic skills: Zucchini, onion, garlic, pasta, and sautéing. Serves 2.
• 1 medium or 2 small zucchini
• 1 medium yellow onion
• 1 large clove garlic
• 1 tablespoon each extra virgin olive oil and unsalted butter or 2 tablespoons either
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• 6 ounces fusilli, penne, or other short, tubular pasta
• ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, or Romano cheese
• 2 teaspoons unsalted butter, for finishing, optional
1. Put 3 quarts water in heavy-bottomed 4-6 quart pot, cover, and put over high heat. Scrub zucchini under cold running water. Trim off stem and blossom ends and cut into sticks (basic zucchini skills). Trim, split, and slice onion (basic onion skills). Lightly crush, peel, and mince garlic (basic garlic skills).
2. Put oil and/or butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add onion and sauté (basic sauté skills) until softened and just beginning to color. Add zucchini sticks and sauté until colored pale gold. Add garlic and toss until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds longer. Season with salt and pepper and turn off heat.
3. When water is boiling, stir in small handful salt and pasta and cook until al dente (basic pasta skills). When pasta is almost ready, reheat zucchini over medium-low heat. When pasta is ready, drain lightly (do not over-drain) and add to skillet. Turn off heat under skillet. Add 2 tablespoons cheese and pat of butter if liked and toss well. Serve at once, passing remaining cheese separately.
Penne with Broccoli or Broccolini and Scallions
Basic skills: Broccoli, garlic, pasta, sautéing. Try this also with fusilli, orecchiette, rigatoni or even a strand pasta such as spaghetti. Serves 2.
• 8 ounces (about 1 medium stalk) fresh broccoli or broccolini
• 2-3 medium scallions
• 6 ounces penne pasta
• 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced (Basic garlic skills)
• Whole black pepper in a mill
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
• ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. Bring 3 quarts water in heavy-bottomed 4-quart pot to rolling boil over high heat. Wash, trim, and peel broccoli and cut florets from stem (basic broccoli skills). If any fresh leaves are attached, pull off but reserve. Break florets into bite-sized pieces, cut stem into short, bite-sized sticks. Wash, drain, and trim scallions. Thinly slice on the diagonal, separating white and greens.
2. When water is boiling, add a small handful of salt and pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente (basic pasta skills). While pasta cooks, film sauté pan with olive oil, add garlic, sauté over medium high heat until sizzling and fragrant but not colored. Add broccoli and toss to coat. Sauté until broccoli is bright green and garlic is the palest gold, about 2 minutes or less.
3. Add white part of scallions, broccoli leaves (if any), toss well, and season with salt. Add splash of water, cover, and lower heat to medium. Braise until crisp-tender, adding more water if pan gets too dry, about 3-4 minutes longer. Turn off heat, uncover, and season with pepper. Toss and taste, adjusting salt and pepper (keep in mind cheese will add a salty element).
4. When pasta is ready, lightly drain and add to pan with broccoli. Add reserved scallion greens and butter. Toss until butter is melted and coating pasta. Add 2 tablespoons cheese and toss. Serve at once, passing remaining cheese separately.
Ramen with Broccoli
Instant ramen are a staple for tuition-poor students and a boon for busy singles. Don’t turn up your nose: No, they’re not as good as regular noodles. But they’re a life-saver for busy work-nights, and you’d be shocked to know how many professional chefs eat them with relish.
Here’s one way of lifting them to another dimension with very little effort. If you really need to be dainty and have broth on hand, you can discard the flavoring packet and use it instead.
Basic skills: Onion, broccoli, zucchini (for the carrot). Serves 2.
• 2 packages chicken flavored instant ramen noodles
• 2-3 scallions
• 1 large carrot, washed, trimmed, and peeled
• 6-8 ounces broccoli or broccolini
• 2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger root
• 2 soft-cooked eggs (recipe follows), optional
1. Remove flavoring packet from ramen. Bring 4 cups water to boil in heavy-bottomed 2½-3 quart saucepan. Prepare scallions and slice, keeping white and green parts separate (basic onion skills). Cut carrot into dice (basic zucchini skills). Wash, trim, and cut up broccoli, dicing stem (basic broccoli skills).
2. When water is boiling, season with flavor packet and add ginger. Add white part of scallion and carrot. Cook 2-3 minutes or until carrot is crisp-tender. Add broccoli and cook 1 minute. Stir in noodles and scallion greens, cover, and cook 2 minutes. Serve if liked with soft cooked egg.
Soft-Cooked Eggs for Ramen
Have the eggs at room temperature. If they aren’t, put them (in shell) in a heat-proof bowl and completely cover with the hottest tap water your system produces. Let them sit 2 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, bring enough water to completely cover the eggs to a boil over medium high heat. Slip in the eggs, cover, and cook 4 minutes (or until done to your taste). Drain and rinse the eggs with cold water. Gently tap them on the counter to crack the shell on all sides. Carefully peel under cold water, taking care not to break the white. Put one whole egg into each serving.