Last week, Lifehacker.com posted a list of dishes and drinks you should know how to make. Some of it I agreed with, some of it I didn’t, namely the fried fish. Is it necessary to know how to fry fish? I don’t think so. The post garnered a lot of comments so I thought I’d write my own list.
I don’t have recipes for all of these, because I haven’t mastered a lot of these. Of course, there are so many recipes for all of these dishes. The point of this list is that I think you, and everyone, should know how to cook these things by heart. I don’t mean you can’t tweak it, or adjust it. But these are dishes that have a purpose in our lives, and are delicious, and you can make often enough that it would be tedious to constantly refer to a recipe.
These are dishes you should understand at a chemical level – by which I mean, you should know how the elements work together, so you can cook without a recipe. If you know what reducing a red wine in a marinara sauce tastes like, then you’ll know how long to reduce it, right? If you know that citrus curdles dairy, you’ll know to add lemon rind to your whipped cream rather than juice. Knowing what the flavors are doing, how they’re reacting, and how things actually cook helps you understand a recipe, and make it your own.
If you’re interested in learning how to commit a recipe to memory, Food & Wine has a great article with Thomas Keller about how you can do that.
- Roast chicken. Roast chicken is like the Mount Everest for a lot of home cooks and professional chefs. It seems so simple, yet it’s hard to get it completely done, not dry, but not mushy.
- A dessert. Any dessert, really. It’s always good to know how assemble a dessert for a dinner party, a special occasion, a bake sale. Whatever. Preferably something you could fancy up with some homemade whipped cream and fruit, but could stand alone as well.
- Vegetable soup. Even when it’s crazy hot in south Texas, I always like a nice root vegetable soup. Soups are a great meal to make because you can taste and add things as you go along. The beauty of this dish is you can make a soup out of anything in your fridge, and make it creamy by adding dairy and blending it, or keep it chunky, or add a swirl of truffle oil. This is a dish you can make in a pinch, or make a really complicated one over the weekend and let the flavors come together in the fridge.
- Marinara sauce. Everyone has their own preferred spaghetti sauce – with meat, with meatballs, lots of garlic, lots of vegetables, completely smooth, crazy chunky. I like mine with red wine and sauteed onion, garlic and pancetta. This is one of my go-to dishes, because I always have canned tomatoes, pasta, garlic and onions.
- Pickles. Really, any kind of pickled thing. Knowing how to quick pickle things and the ratio of vinegar, sugar and water makes something pickled. It’s amazing all the things you can pickle if you know how.
- Salads. I know this sounds stupid, but I can’t tell you the number of salads I’ve ruined for myself because I put on a dressing that clashed, or added too much cheese, or the wrong nuts. I ruin my own salads by putting on too much stuff, soggy tomatoes, and bitter greens. Knowing how to easily put a salad together and, more importantly, how to restrain yourself from putting on too much. (If you can figure out how to do that, let me know.)
- Egg breakfasts. One of my absolute favorite breakfasts is John’s breakfast sandwich – a slice of panchetta, sauteed, a fried egg, a slice of melty cheese. Two pieces of bread toasted, with cream cheese on the insides. I know. Cream cheese. I know. It sounds weird. But it adds a creaminess and a tartness that is so, so good. And if you leave the egg with a runny yolk, you can mop up all that yolk with your bread. Knowing how to make an egg breakfast, whether it’s a quiche, frittata, omelet, scrambled, requires more skill than making a bowl of cereal, but will be so much more delectable in the end.
There are more, I’m sure, but that’s a good set of things you should know how to cook. Anyone have any other meals we should know how to cook? Recipes we should memorize?