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Stumped by dinner? Instead of reaching for the less-than-desirable leftovers you have in your fridge, you can pull together a meal you’re actually excited to eat. With a few key pantry staples and some simple cooking tips, you can make weeknight dinners easy and elevated.
Ali Slagle, recipe developer, home cook, and author of I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To), shared her expertise on how to make simple yet delicious meals. From must-have pantry essentials to mastering the art of correcting a less-than-perfect dish, here’s how to take your weeknight cooking to the next level.
Don’t know what to make? All you need is one ingredient
Oftentimes, having too many ingredients on hand – and cooking night after night – can leave you with decision fatigue. When you aren’t sure where to start or what to make, Slagle suggests cutting out the noise and focusing on one single ingredient. Limiting your ingredients can completely change the way you approach mealtime.
“I like the challenge, because it forces me to be creative with the tools that I already have,” she explains. “During the pandemic, I would go to the grocery store and instead of buying ingredients for recipes, which is how I normally work, I had to just buy everything I thought I would need. As a result, I was like, ‘I have broccoli. How else can I use this broccoli?’ It [was] more restrained in terms of the ingredients used, but it unlocked potential in the items I’d already purchased.”
These pantry essentials bring the flavor
To enhance, round out, or amp up the flavor of the meals you make, you don’t need to keep a whole bunch of rarely-used herbs, spices, and seasoning blends in your pantry. Instead, you can rely on a few key pantry staples. Slagle recommends keeping the following on hand when you’re looking for solutions for a quick dinner.
“Some sort of cooking fat – I use olive oil a lot – is important for searing and browning, but also making rich flavors and rich textures in a dish,” says Slagle. “I think richness is really important to making sure that food feels satisfying.”
And in addition to its richness, olive oil is wonderfully versatile. If you want to try another cooking fat or oil, you can stock your pantry with picks like coconut or avocado oil that offer a combo of healthy fat and flavor.
“I think some sort of brightening ingredient is really important. For me, that’s lemons,” Slagle says. “When we’re cooking hastily or we make a big pot of pasta or soup, it can feel a little bit dull. A squeeze of lemon at the end kind of just wakes everything up in a really easy way.”
Fresh lemons will last about four to six weeks in your fridge. If you’re stocking up, you can freeze lemons whole or – for the ultimate convenience – juice them and freeze the juice in an ice cube tray for small, grab-and-cook portions.
Don’t be afraid to reach for a pinch of salt while you’re cooking. If food is bland or dull and you’re not sure what to do with it, Slagle says it usually needs more salt.
While home cooks often have a complicated relationship with salt, it’s actually a staple for both cooking and your diet. And when it comes to flavor, you’ve got to add a little salt to enhance your food.
Ingredients that add umami
Umami can take a home-cooked meal to new heights. “Sometimes when we’re cooking quickly, we don’t allow enough time to develop flavors,” Slagle explains. “You need to develop depth of flavor. Umami, to me, really does that.”
And it’s easy to stock your pantry with foods that can add umami to any recipe. As Slagle suggests, “Add something like anchovies, even if you don’t like fish; they’ll kind of melt away and add this under-layer of delicious saltiness. Or, something like soy sauce or fish sauce.”
If you’re going light on the salt, umami is especially key. “These ingredients contribute flavor in addition to salt. It’s like a more nuanced salt flavor; you’re actually contributing to the overall effect of the dish more so than salt might,” Slagle explains.
Don’t be afraid to experiment as you go
When you’re trying to cook quickly, taking extra time to adjust and play with a recipe’s flavor profile is likely the last thing on your mind. But it’s this step that can make the final dish a standout. Plus, experimenting can be especially handy if your cooking doesn’t taste quite right – or seems off in flavor.
“I often recommend scooping a little bit of the dish out into a kind of experimentation station and adding things to that,” Slagle says. “[My] cookbook organizes pantry ingredients based on what they contribute, like fat, umami, acid. I suggest taking one ingredient from each of those categories, adding it to the experimentation station, and if it’s moving in a good direction, keep adding more. Then, doctor the main batch accordingly.”
For more cooking tips that’ll help you build flavor and create easy weeknight dinners, keep reading: