Simple recipes for an intimidated cook, please?
October 10, 2010 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Most recipes in cookbooks overwhelm me--too many ingredients, too many steps. What are your best, tastiest recipes, with short ingredient lists?

I'm a novice in the cooking department--didn't have anyone to teach me, since my grandmother passed away when I was a teenager and my mother wasn't much in the home-cooking department. I've tried to learn on my own, but every time I see a recipe that sounds good, the recipe list overwhelms me--I never have most of it, don't know how to use it, etc. Therefore, my cooking thus far has been spectacularly boring and very repetitious.

I have a 7 1/4 qt french oven at my disposal, so stews and such would be good--but any category of meal, and I'm not a picky eater--meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, grains, all good. I can't handle much heat in my food. I've seen the Mark Bittman stuff, but would like mefi-specific/tested meals.

Please share your simple, short ingredients list recipes that still taste fantastic. Thank you!
posted by litnerd to Food & Drink (55 answers total) 105 users marked this as a favorite
Limiting the ingredients to just a couple things is going to severely limit your recipe choices. Another avenue you could take is many ingredients and only one step (i.e. throw it all into a pot). So, stews and soups would be a good start. Once you build your confidence with using multiple ingredients (and building up a basic reserve of spices and staples), you'll be better able to do more complex things. The first thing I ever truly cooked myself was chili. If I were you, I'd start there.

But if you want dead simple, very few ingredients, and delicious, you can't go wrong with roasted veggies. Potatoes, butternut squash, broccoli, carrots, onions, beets, etc (but pretty much anything, just pick your favorite) are all great for roasting.

Set your oven to 400. Chop up your veggie(s) into similarly-sized pieces, toss with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper (and maybe some rosemary if you're feeling adventurous). Put veggies on tray. Put tray into oven. Stab veggies periodically with a fork, and remove when tender (about 20 minutes). That's it.
posted by phunniemee at 12:38 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fry some Italian sausage. Sautee some onions and garlic in the sausage grease, then add some strips of red bell pepper and basil leaves as the onions and garlic are finishing up. Mix everything up, and add some olive oil if it's not very runny. Serve over penne with a bit of parmesan. Probably my favorite meal in the world, and it's super-eas.y
posted by coppermoss at 12:40 PM on October 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I know a great recipe that requires 3 ingredients. Sautee onions, add canned kippered herring snacks, then add scrambled eggs, fry until done. There are lots of other ingredients that are optional, such as mushroom, bell pepper, black pepper, etc., but with just those 3, it is a successful recipe. In terms of proportions, I would say ideally one onion and one can of kippered herring per each 3 or 4 eggs. It is possible to make a whole dozen eggs at once, but you need a large frying pan. Make sure the onions are well sauteed - they must turn golden brown.
posted by grizzled at 12:41 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Poached Pears:

Buy a pear.
Buy some dried fruit (I like raisins and apricots)
Buy apple juice.

Cut pear in half. Chop up dried fruit. Place pear in pot, cut side down. Add apple juice until pear is half covered. Add dried fruit. Cook at medium until pear seems done but not mushy. Remove pear. Boil apple juice/pear liquid until its a bit reduced. Add corn starch if you want it thickened. Pour over pear and eat.

(From some random '70s cookbook my grandma gave me.)
posted by shinyshiny at 12:42 PM on October 10, 2010

I absolutely love this book: 500 3-Ingredient Recipes. It's one of the few cookbooks I own that I use frequently. Amazon suggests a bunch of other cookbooks with similar gimmicks, but this is the one I know and love. Also, you may want to pick up a Cooking for Dummies or something similar. It'll teach you how to dice and braise and sear and all those other intimidating-sounding cooking terms. A book like that really helped me get comfortable in the kitchen.
posted by decathecting at 12:43 PM on October 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I second the use of the crockpot. Throwing stuff together (vegetables, some kind of grain, some water, spices, ready-made broth) is pretty foolproof and fun to refine as you learn what you like, but chili's an even better place to start (here's a basic recipe I've used).
posted by pavane at 12:45 PM on October 10, 2010

I find cooking videos on various websites to really help me learn cooking basics. Also learn how to stock your kitchen. Things like onions, garlic, olive oil, rice, dried beans and other pantry staples are nice to have on hand. You can make up anything with stock ingredients. When you bring home that bag of carrots or Chicken breast, having a stocked pantry will help you cook up all manner of dishes without having to get "extra" ingredients.

Here are some simple staples that get me through the week:

Quinoa salad: Cooked quinoa, fresh chopped tomatoes, avocado, and cilantro, juice from one lime, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Toss it all together. Yum!

Wilted Kale: Take 2-3 anchovy fillets and garlic, saute in olive oil for a few minutes. Throw in washed, chopped kale, and toss it in olive oil in pan. Cover pan for 2-3 minutes. When Kale is wilted, remove. Garnish with lemon juice and fresh-grated parmesan cheese.

Roasted Veggies/potatoes: Take any root vegetable (yams, carrots, etc.), along with onions and potato, toss the chopped ingredients in olive oil, salt, pepper and any spices that suit your fancy. (This is where you can experiment) Put in baking dish, cover with foil, bake in the low 400s for 30 minutes or the veggies are tender on the inside and crispy/golden on the outside. You could also do the same, but include meat, and roast in your french oven.

Soups are also a great intro to cooking. In your french oven brown onions and spices in butter or oil and then add a container of broth. Then add your other ingredients and heat until cooked through. Get a hand blender and puree the soup when cooled and you'll get a lovely, thick hearty soup. Try featuring all kinds of ingredients: carrots, squash, tomato, lentils, beans, or potato. I've made 20-30 different kinds of soup using the above method. One of my favorite is onions and curry powder sauteed in butter, then adding chicken broth and diced squash and simmering until the squash is cooked. Then puree and serve it with a dolop of chutney. (That's only 5-6 ingredients right there)
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 12:46 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please excuse my many typos! geez, I'm a bit wobbly today.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 12:48 PM on October 10, 2010

Microwave a pricked sweet potato for 4 minutes, check to see if it's soft, and if not keep adding 2 minutes until it is. Cut it open lengthwise and spread the halves out. Butter it and maybe work that in with a fork. There's most of a meal right there if you pair it with something. Otherwise try adding steamed broccoli on top of it. Or a blob of cottage cheese and then some broccoli. Or some diced walnuts or pecans. Quick and easy and delicious. I forgot sweet potatoes existed for a long time. Now I always have some on hand. And since they last a good while, I don't have to worry about them going bad within a week like most veg.

Pasta is your friend. If you boil the noodles, heat up some sauce, help the sauce out with some fresh onion or garlic, and sautee a couple of veg like zucchini or yellow squash or spinach, that's a nice, uncomplicated, easy meal.

You might like a cookbook I have called The 250 Best 4-Ingredient Recipes by Margaret Howard. It turns out dishes that seem like Real Grown Up Dishes, but just have those handful of ingredients an not too many steps.
posted by Askr at 12:50 PM on October 10, 2010

The recipes in The Joy of Cooking are dead simple. I'd start there and work your way up.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:54 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry if this isn't the answer you are looking for, but here is my take:

A great way to learn to cook is to find a moderate difficulty recipe, try it, and if you mess up, try again. Luckily, you are at a great advantage in this day and age. If there is a term or technique you don't know, you can simply Google it and there will be many videos and instructional websites on the topic.

Also, read up some articles on pantry stocking. It's hard to get used to buying a lot of different ingredients, and some may go to waste at the beginning, but it's a great skill to master. Most of the time, it also helps to think in advance what you want to make. Look at some recipes over the weekend and make a shopping list.

Almost no one has all the ingredients to make some random recipe just sitting in their cupboard. There is usually some planning and thought put into it.
posted by mungaman at 12:58 PM on October 10, 2010

Here's a stupidly simple roasted chicken recipe I posted in a previous thread.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a good seasonal one.

You'll need:

A 3-4 lb. pie pumpkin or butternut squash
3 cloves of garlic
An onion
A quart of chicken stock (you can use vegetable stock if you want to go veggie with this, too).
1 tblsp. rosemary
2 tblsp. coriander seeds

Chop up the rosemary and set your oven to 350.

Skin and cut up the pumpkin or squash into chunks. Toss the chunks with the chopped up rosemary and put into a big casserole dish. Put the pumpkin in the oven for half an hour.

While that's going, peel the garlic and chop it up. Do the same thing to the onion.

Grab a big sized pot, put it on medium heat, and put a bit of oil in the bottom. When the oil's heated up, throw in the onions, garlic, and the coriander seeds, and cook on medium to medium-low heat until the onions are soft and translucent. If the onion starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a quarter cup of your chicken stock to help keep things moving.

When the pumpkin is done in the oven, add it to the pot, and pour in the rest of the stock. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer it for 10 minutes, then take it off of the heat.

If you have a stick blender, use it to puree the pumpkin, onions, and everything else into a nice smooth soup. If you don't, put the soup into conventional blender in batches.

If you don't have a stick blender or a conventional blender, you can try mashing the hell out of the pumpkin with a potato masher to break things up until your arm wants to fall off. I recommend springing for the stick blender. They're neat.

Add salt and pepper to taste, and you're ready to serve!

You can also spice this up by adding some chopped up chile peppers back in the "sautee the onions and garlic" phase. :)
posted by BZArcher at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I posted this one in another thread, but it is also really simple.

1 lb. chicken sausage, cut into 1 inch pieces.
1 medium sweet onion, chopped.
1 head cabbage, chopped.
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp paprika
Pepper to taste

In a lightly oiled skillet, brown the sausage, then add the onion and sautee at medium heat until translucent.

Add the cabbage, season, and cook until the cabbage is slightly wilted. Serves four!
posted by BZArcher at 1:04 PM on October 10, 2010

Scrambled eggs, parmesan cheese, pasta and tons of black pepper. Undercook the eggs and it becomes a cream sauce. It's the first thing all of my kids learned to cook and it's their favorite comfort food.
posted by dzaz at 1:08 PM on October 10, 2010

Roast chicken. 6 ingredients, if you include salt and pepper.

You need:

1 cup olive oil.
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 Roaster chicken.
Buncha salt and pepper (fresh ground!)

Strip one of the sprigs of rosemary, just run youre fingers down it to get off most of the leaves, and crunch up the leaves and the sprig in your hands. Put this into the olive oil, and bring the olive oil to a slow boil in a small sauce pan. Let it cool for a bit while you get the chicken ready.

Get the chicken ready by taking out the package of "stuff" from the body cavity, and giving it a good rinse inside and out, and pat it dry with some paper towels. Sprinkle some salt and pepper inside the body cavity, and use your judgement - too much, and it's salty, not enough and it gets bland.

Break the other two sprigs of rosemary in two, cut the onion into quarters, and smash the garlic cloves with a clean, heavy object of some sort. Stuff it all inside the bird, and put the bird in a roasting pan.

Sprinkle on some salt and pepper on the skin of the bird, and really rub it on so it sticks. Then paint on the sage-infused oilive-oil with a silicone brush, try to get it everywhere!

Make a little tent out of tin foil... just a long sheet of it folded at the top and crimped onto the sides of the pan... the tent should be very close to, but not touching, the bird.

Set the oven to Bake at 350, and slide 'er in. If it's under 5 lbs, check the temp at an hour and a half in, maybe 15-20 minutes longer for a really big bird... stick the thermometer into the meatiest part of the thigh. If it's at 160 or so, take off the tent (careful! It's hot! Use kitchen tongs), and crank 'er up to 450 for 20 minutes. This will make the skin golden and crispy.

When the chicken's at 170 or up, take it out of the oven, put the tent back on, and let it rest for 10-15 minutes. Carve it up, and enjoy.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:08 PM on October 10, 2010

Here's a dessert one, too.

Get 2 bananas. Peel them, cut them up, put them in a freezer baggie, and leave them in the freezer overnight.

Put the banana pieces into a food processor with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter and 2 tablespoons of honey.

Pulse the food processor until you get creamy smooth goodness.

Spoon into bowls and serve your fake ice cream. :)
posted by BZArcher at 1:11 PM on October 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Roast chicken. (on preview, another one)
Preheat oven to 390F. While heating, take a roasting chicken, rinse, dab dry. Rub chicken with 2 teaspoons salt, half a teaspoon rosemary, as much squorched garlic as you dare and some freshly ground pepper, or slightly more of all this, if chicken is big chicken. Never mind if this gets messy, just rub the stuff into the chicken inside and out at approximately all places. Place in French oven. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the chicken, add half a glas of white wine along the sides (alternative: a bunch of quartered tomatoes), close lid. Put in the oven. Look after one hour and ten minutes. Pierce with sharp knife at inside of the thighs. If the juice that runs out isn't pink any more, it's likely done, otherwise roast five or ten more minutes. Eat.

Simple meat stew. Buy beef cubes, cube onion (a 3 meat to 2 onion relationship in volume), put in large pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and cook-stir on top of the stove for 10 minutes. Cube half the meat's volume in tomatoes, add these, add (not too much) salt, stir some more. Lid on, heat low, cook for 2 hours. Make sure it doesn't cook too fast and dries up. Add water if it does.
After 2 hours, add a random amount (like a tablespoon or two) of good paprika powder, mild or hot, just as you like it, and half a glass of red wine. Maybe black pepper and pressed garlic, if you like that. Cook at least another half hour (the longer the merrier). Check for salt and eat. If the sauce is too watery, take out the meat, turn heat on high, cook vigorously for a while while stirring, add sauce to meat.

White mushrooms no-fail method. You'll need a large (preferably heavy) frying pan for this.
Prepare the mushrooms by cutting them into quarter-inch slices. Goes fast, is better than thin. Chop flat-leaf parsley and garlic fine (together two tablespoons after chopping). Heat up 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the pan, medium hot (never smoking). Add garlic-parsley, stir, and the mushrooms, which shouldn't overlap too much. Otherwise run two batches. Cook on medium high until all the oil is gone, sucked up by the shrooms. Add another tablespoon of oil, cook on for a minute, add some salt (remember, you can always add more later) and a good dose of freshly ground black pepper. Cook and stir another minute, serve.
posted by Namlit at 1:16 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Budget Bytes blog offers a ton of simple, few-ingredient recipes.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:23 PM on October 10, 2010

Potroast is easy. This procedure is for beef roast, though I imagine something similar would work for pork. (Despite the fact this is long, it's actually really easy to do this once you know the basic procedure. I'm just giving you a lot of detail because I'm assuming no prior knowledge.)

For potroast, you don't need a super-duper fantastic cut of meat, because the extended cook time in fluid will tenderize it. Bottom round (OK), top round (better) are a couple cuts you could start with, but experiment with what tastes good for the price. Grocery store roasts will probably start at 1.5 lb or more, but you can make a large-ish batch and freeze portions to reheat. It reheats really well (often tastes better the second time around). If you're concerned about fat content, choose a cut with as little visible fat as possible; if you are concerned more about tenderness and flavor, look for something that has small amounts of visible fat marbled throughout. Often there will be one side that has a layer of fat on it. You can trim this off before or after cooking.

You need a Crockpot or an oven pot (like your french oven).



- Beef roast
- Kitchen Bouquet [browning & seasoning sauce usually found with steak sauce, often with other condiments]
- Season salt (e.g., Lawry's)
- Pepper (optional)
- Potatoes, cut to approximately 2x2x2" pieces - enough to pack around the roast in your pot
- Other veggies to taste - I use carrots cut into .5" cross-sections, and frozen peas and lima beans.
- Optional -- a small minced onion, onion flakes, onion powder, or some other form of onion flavor (some argue that onion is crucial to classic roast beef, but I disagree.)
- water


- Take the roast out of the package and use paper towels to pat it dry. At this point, if you want your final dish to be "leaner," trim off any visible fat around the meat. If you want it to have a richer flavor, leave the layer of fat on one side.

- Brush the outside with Kitchen Bouquet. You can use a seasoning brush, or just your fingers--drizzle a little on, rub it around until the whole thing has a thin layer of brown stuff. While KB is kind of strong, it's still hard to overdo it since excess will pretty much cook out into the water, so don't worry if it comes out too fast or something.

- Place the roast into your pan or Crockpot; if you left the fat on one side, place this side UP. The fat will melt down into your meat and fluid during cooking, and will protect the exposed top of the roast from getting dry. (If you are going for the leaner version, you can also brush the top with olive oil).

- Cover the top of the roast with a generous layer of season salt and any other seasonings you're using. Again, hard to overdo this one because much of it will come out in the water (though be careful with pepper if you're using it -- that you CAN overdo).

- Surround your roast with potatoes, and carrots and onions if you're using them. Wait on 'softer' veggies like beans and peas--you'll want to add these later, an hour or less before the roast is done, or they'll be nothing but mush at the end (you can always skip these your first time, or until you get a feel for how long this takes). You basically want to fill the pot to the same level or just below the height of the roast.

- Fill with water so that just the top .5" or so of the roast is sticking out of the water.

- Cover and cook:
- 350 degrees in the oven, or
- "low" on a crockpot.

- It will take at least a couple hours, depending on the size of the roast and your preferred level of done-ness. You can grab a meat thermometer and google internal temperature guidelines, but I basically check it by pulling it out, driving a knife into it, and checking the color of the middle of the roast. If you like 'rarer' meat, you'll probably want to check the temp, but for the more 'done' end of the spectrum, this works fine.

- When it's done, pull it out and carve it up! The fluid will have become a lovely beef broth that you can make gravy out of if you're really brave, but I just serve as a jus for the meat and potatoes.

- Freeze the broth separately from the rest of the food, or refrigerate all together. You can heat it up in the oven or the microwave, and it'll be fantastic.
posted by amberwb at 1:27 PM on October 10, 2010

Recipes with few ingredients like these are a great place to start. But if learning to cook is what you're after, I recommend you also work on your ability to improvise, because you won't always have time to plan and shop ahead.

To do this, pick a cuisine you like. You're going to want to experiment with mixing ingredients that commonly show up in that cuisine, so go for something relatively simple or intuitive for you, and something you won't mind eating a lot of while you're experimenting. Italian is a great example.

Wander around your supermarket or health food store, looking at the ingredient labels on pre-mixed sauce jars and seasoning packets. You'll see some patterns right away.

In Italian cooking you see a lot of: olive oil + tomatoes + basil + sharp, hard cheese (parmesan/romano) + garlic + onion. You really can't lose when mixing these together for a sauce, except maybe if you use too much garlic. You can create a number of distinct sauces by varying the quantity and preparation of each ingredient.

Pasta Salad sauce: oil-based with fresh ingredients
Margarita sauce: tomato-based with canned ingredients
Pesto: basil- and oil-based with (fewer) fresh ingredients

Mix them together until they have the right consistency, and taste good. (Yes, always taste what you're cooking while you're cooking it.) Put any of the above on any protein or starch you've ever seen on an Italian menu: chicken breasts, pasta, boboli pizza shell, french bread, frozen meatballs, fish.... you get the point.

When you're comfortable with that, add more ingredients for complexity. For instance, anything you've ever gotten on a pizza, canned artichoke hearts, capers, olives, pine nuts, roasted red peppers, red pepper flakes, spinach, white beans...

Once you've mastered one cuisine with this method, apply the same thinking to another cuisine. You'll develop a few dishes you really like and you'll feel more confident with more complicated recipes.
posted by nadise at 1:29 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know chipotle has been done into the ground the last few years, but dammit, it's a wonderful taste. Here's a badass chipotle aioli sauce that is spicy and delicious to put on all kinds of stuff, and easy to make. The ingredients are basic, except the chiles.
Get a can of chipotles in adobo sauce (available at most any supermarket in the U.S).
In a blender, put in:
a 24 oz. container of sour cream (or light sour cream, or mayonnaise, which some people like)
1 teaspoon of cumin
half a cup or so of fresh cilantro
juice of one lime
a couple-three good-sized cloves of garlic
about 3 of the chipotle chiles with a proportionate amount of the sauce they come in. You can add more or less, depending on how hot you like it
some salt and pepper.
Blend that shit up, slap it on something!
posted by Red Loop at 1:35 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've tried to learn on my own, but every time I see a recipe that sounds good, the recipe list overwhelms me--I never have most of it, don't know how to use it, etc.

The recipe itself will tell you how to use the ingredients.

When I've made complicated multi-ingredient, multi-step dishes, the first thing I do is read the recipe, and then I read it again. I go through my pantry/fridge and see what I have, and put whatever I don't on the shopping list.

Then I rewrite the recipe, by hand, starting with what needs to be done first. I check it against the published recipe. I write out the order and amounts of ingredients, and use the list to set up my mis. If the recipe calls for a cup of chopped onions, with 1/2 a cup used in one step and 1/2 a cup used in a different step, I set up two bowls or piles of onions. Same for liquids, salt, herbs, etc. Cross things off the mis list as you go.

I keep my handwritten copy of the recipe nearby, so I can check it while I'm stirring something or waiting for the water to boil or whatever.

The thing that will get you out of the panicky "Too many things!" brainfreeze is practice practice practice. And writing things out so you understand them and can follow them easily.

A caveat: if you don't know the difference between roughly chopped and diced, don't know how to saute something, aren't good at telling the difference between a rolling boil and a simmer, then start of reading an older edition of Joy of Cooking, or Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Both, if I recall correctly, have "what to keep in your pantry" lists, and that's a good place to start.
posted by rtha at 1:42 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Baked goat cheese with hazelnuts

one package of chevre (goat cheese)
one little package of hazelnuts (in the baking goods section)
some olive oil
a baguette

chop up the hazelnuts. In a small oven-proof dish, sprinkle half the hazelnuts on the bottom, put the chevre in, smoosh it down so it even fills the baking dish, sprinkle the remaining hazelnuts on top. Drizzle a little olive oil on. Put in the oven at 350 until it's warmed through, about 10 minutes.

In the meantime, slice up a baguette, brush with olive oil on one side, and toast in the broiler until golden brown- a minute or two. Turn over and toast one more minute. (Can also do this before hand.)

Serve the warm goat cheese with the toasted baguette slices. Makes an easy appetizer, and everyone loves it.
posted by ambrosia at 1:49 PM on October 10, 2010

A strong recommendation for a cookbook:

How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman (author, among other things, of the NYT food blog "The Minimalist".)

HtCE is organized by ingredients, and starts with the simple basic recipe. There's then often a list of "alternate ideas" for the recipe, which you can incorporate or not. E.g., pasta sauce starts out with tomatoes, garlic or onions, olive oil and salt, but then there are a host of optional proposed additions.

I share your dislike for laundry list recipes; Bittmans' method is much more, well, minimalist.
posted by endless_forms at 1:55 PM on October 10, 2010

What about taking cooking classes. I'd suggest doing so and learning.

If you aren't up for that, please buy this book by the culinary institute of america.

It will familiarize you with the basic cooking techniques and ingredients to go along with each one. Once you have the basics down, you can adapt them to anything you want to cook.
posted by TheBones at 1:59 PM on October 10, 2010

- Simple (3 ingredients!) and delicious tomato sauce for pasta.

- Slightly more challenging recipe for pasta with roasted broccoli in a lemon cream sauce.

- Poach some chicken, chop it up and keep it on hand to add to pasta dishes, salads, sandwiches. Very easy and versatile.

Good luck!
posted by illenion at 2:15 PM on October 10, 2010

You don't necessarily need to understand the 'function' or 'use' of everything you put into a recipe. For instance, when I make an Indian recipe, I don't necessarily understand what the 1/2 teaspoon of some random spice is doing in there. You just take it on faith that your recipe will make something tasty.

You can try to approach things differently. Instead of seeing it as one big procedure, break it up. A common way of doing this is to prepare all your ingredients and put them all into seperate bowls, and just focus on that. Then later, maybe even the next day even, cook them, tossing them in one by one when the recipe says to. You'll notice chefs on TV doing this, thats how they make everything look simple.

Also, lots of complex looking recipes are really just a few very simple, independent recipes being put together into the same product. Like a lasagna recipe may be complex with lots of ingredients, but you can just approach it as a few simple recipes, which you can do on different days or at different times, and just toss them together and bake.
posted by Hither at 2:31 PM on October 10, 2010

Somebody already suggest Bittman above, which I came in to recommend, so I'll add Julia Childs' The Way to Cook. Julia's book basically covers all skills you'll need - how to braise meat, how to make pastry dough, how to saute vegetables then shock them to keep their color, how to make a sauce and what to make it out of... I taught myself how to cook, too, and I once the initial shock wore off, I realized that mastering the basic skills was the key: once you know those things, someone can hand you a bag of ingredients and you can make something that tastes good. And recipes won't seem so daunting because the techniques will be familiar.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 2:36 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mujadara is one of my favorite easy meals. It's just rice and lentils with caramelized onions, but somehow the sum is much, much greater than its parts. Here's a basic recipe.
posted by something something at 2:36 PM on October 10, 2010

The Four Ingredient Cookbooks by Emily Coffee is a fair start.

For more than four ingredients, you can always grab a copy whatever collected issues of Taste of Home (xmas, fall, etc) or try a single issue (note: some people just abhor ToH for whatever reason), and I always recommend Cooks Illustrated.

I've found quite a few good and not very complicated recipes from They tend to run items in groups, so you might find 5-20 recipes for a specific kind of cookie all of a sudden.

Also, visit your local used book store and see if they have a copy of local or regional recipes. Many, many, many local groups put out cookbook collections for fundraisers, and these invariably wind up in yard sales and used book stores. State fair recipe books are also a good catch.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 2:37 PM on October 10, 2010

You don't need to find three-ingredient or one-step cookbooks.

You need to learn how to think about cooking.

Don't worry about the number of things on the lists of ingredients, or the number of paragraphs in the instructions. That is not important.

What you need to know is that those things all break down into categories. So say there are 10 ingredients to your recipe. Chances are those ingredients are going to include one kind of oil or fat to cook the rest of the things in, some vegetable, meat, and/or starch elements, something liquidy if it's a soup or stew, and the rest will be condiments, herbs, spices, or other flavorings.

So, let's say you have a recipe for corn chowder. It calls for corn, potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, red bell pepper, vegetable oil, vegetable stock, rosemary, crushed red pepper, maple syrup, orange juice, salt, and milk. That seems like a lot of ingredients, so complicated, oh no! But it's really not. It's really just the vegetables that go into a chowder, some oil to cook them in, some liquids to turn it into a soup, and some flavorings. And many of those things can be omitted or substituted if you don't have them on hand.

The same happens with the steps of instructions. What's written down looks like a lot. But really what the instructions are telling you is that you need to chop and process all of the vegetables, cook them in a certain order, and add liquids and flavoring elements at certain points. Technically it's really only three steps. But it looks like a lot of steps because it's important to know that you shouldn't start by adding maple syrup and crushed red pepper to an empty pot, or by grilling the corn, or by julienning the carrots.

Another thing that might help would be taking a class that teaches cooking techniques. That way you won't be so intimidated when a recipe tells you to dice this or sautee that.
posted by Sara C. at 3:00 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not incredibly healthy, but easy enough and with 4 ingredients:

1 Chicken Breast per person
1 oz. goat cheese per person (roughly)
Some fresh basil
Olive Oil

Cut a pocket in each chicken breast. Stuff with goat cheese and basil. Saute in about 1/4 inch of olive oil in a pan. Cook until chicken is done, maybe add salt and pepper, serve.
posted by Hactar at 3:29 PM on October 10, 2010

Ingredients: 1. Linguine 2. Escargot in shells packed with garlic parsley butter ($9 at a good fish shop) 3. Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. Prepare linguine normally, while escargot roast for 10 min at 375. Extract escargot and dump with butter onto linguine. Mix well with lots of pepper and grate cheese on top.
posted by nicwolff at 3:56 PM on October 10, 2010

Mark Bittman has been mentioned, he also has a ton of videos of simple recipes available with an account on
posted by Science! at 4:32 PM on October 10, 2010

illenion's first pasta sauce suggestion is also one of my favourites, and has only three ingredients! For another pasta sauce with three ingredients, see bottom of this page. Some Italians I know discard the fried garlic before adding the tomatoes, but either way it's great. (Often with cooking, less is more.)

The sauce is as quick to make as boiling the spaghetti is; I don't understand why jars of pasta sauce exist actually.
posted by Kiwi at 4:51 PM on October 10, 2010

If you really want simple, basic, plain cooking go find The More With Less Cookbook. It has been out for decades, compiled by a Mennonite lady and also has a lot of info in it besides recipes that is useful for a beginning cook.

(I usually have been able to find it in Christian bookstores but that up there's the Amazon link. A selling point is it has a great pizza crust recipe and it also has a really good lentilburger recipe as well. It's not vegetarian tho-lots of meatbased recipes as well. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:24 PM on October 10, 2010

You mentioned Mark Bittman, so I just wanted to chime in that his lesser recommended "Kitchen Express" cookbook is AWESOME. All his recipes are one, simple paragraph, with ingredients included right in. He only gives exact measurements when it matters, the instructions are simple, few ingredients, and it all just makes for a very non-intimidating cooking experience. And I can vouch for the tastiness--we just made his squash coconut-curry soup tonight!
posted by ninjakins at 5:36 PM on October 10, 2010

Coincidentally, I heard an interview on NPR this morning with cookbook author Pam Anderson.
Her book is called One Dish Dinners, and sounds like it is full of easy ways to make a great dinner.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:25 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh wow, Eric Ripert's Tomatoes Provencal recipe is keen. He has a bunch of videos on his site that are for pretty quick/easy (and fantastic) dishes, too.
posted by mintcake! at 6:33 PM on October 10, 2010

Cook beans in one pot and sautee some vegetables in the other. That's just two ingredients and is incredibly delicious. If you use 2 types of vegetables, that's 3 ingredients, still not too bad. If you substitute basmati brown rice for beans and try different types of vegies, there's enough variety here not to need other recipes at all.
posted by rainy at 6:48 PM on October 10, 2010

I got this one off the back of a can of Hunt's Tomato Sauce. I call it "Chicken to Die For", and it's super easy to make:

Salt and pepper several skinless boneless chicken breasts

Sear them on both sides

Throw in some diced onion (frozen or dehydrated works)

Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over the chicken (yes, sugar)

Pour 1 tablespoon of vinegar over the chicken (yes, vinegar)

Add potatoes and carrots, celery, too, if you wish

Cover with Hunt's tomato sauce

Simmer slowly for several hours either on the stove or in the oven stirring

If there's chicken and sauce left after the potatoes and carrots are gone,
it goes well over rice.

The original recipe involved frying the chicken first, but I only did that
once. It was good but was way too much trouble.
posted by JaneL at 7:13 PM on October 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I also make this soup all winter long:

1 can Campbell's Vegetarian Vegetable soup
1 lean hamburger patty
assorted vegetables depending on the mood I'm in

Brown and crumble the hamburger patty.
Pour in the can of soup.
Add whatever vegetables you feel like that day.
Add a little onion.
Toss in one or two handfuls of rice depending on how thick you want the soup.
Simmer all afternoon.
Salt, pepper, chicken bouillion to taste.

Usually I'll add a can of new potatoes. I kind of whack them up a little with my butcher knife while they're still in the can. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's faster and with them corraled in the can, they don't go bouncing across the floor while I'm trying to cut them up.

Then I add a can of kidney beans or crowder peas. Sometimes, I'll add a small can of carrots. I also add one or two cans of tomatoes. Sometimes I use Rotel instead of just plain tomatoes, and I like the way it spices the soup up (and opened up my sinuses).

I used to use dehydrated onion, but recently I've discovered frozen diced onions at the grocery store - very good and very convenient.

I tried making it once without the can of soup, but it just didn't taste right to me without it as the base.

It's great that night but even better the next day after it's been refrigerated and reheated. If I've made more than 2 night's worth, I freeze the rest in individual servings that can be popped in the microwave to reheat.
posted by JaneL at 7:58 PM on October 10, 2010

And last, but not least:

Roasted chicken breasts

3 bone-in chicken breasts with skin on (skinless, boneless work well, too)

Olive oil

Salt, pepper, paprika to taste

Cover a cookie sheet in heavy duty aluminum foil and place the breasts on it, skin side up. Drizzle each with olive oil, spread it all over to cover, then season each with salt, pepper and paprika. Roast at 400 for about an hour.
posted by JaneL at 8:02 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Roast chicken: Salt and broil at 450 for 45-1 hour. Optional: Stuff with an orange or herbs. Really good nestled in salad.

2. Stock: Put your roast chicken bones in a pot in your oven at 170 overnight. Optional: Add an onion, peppercorns, celery, and carrots. Save some in ice-cube trays to easily add to dishes.

3. Soup: Stock plus anything. Add spinach or egg or veggies or beans. Add a little lemon. Blend if you want it thick.

4. Wrap chicken (or fish), vegetables, and potatoes in tinfoil and broil at 400 for 45 mins. Optional: any spice. If you want it Indian add curry. Lemon slices are always welcome.

5. Tacos: Blend a can of chipotle chiles. Slather any meat it in it. Cook and cut into strips. Saute onions until just tender. Add to corn tortillas for great tacos.

6. Combine lemon juice, a little olive oil, and some herbs. Broil bone in chicken thighs and paint with mixture every 5 minutes. Cook about 35 minutes total.
posted by xammerboy at 8:56 PM on October 10, 2010

Extremely Basic Chicken Pot Pie


* 2 frozen pie shells
* 1-10 3/4 oz cream of mushroom soup
* 1/2 C. milk
* 1 bag frozen mixed vegetables
* 2 C. cooked chopped chicken
* 1 tsp. minced garlic
* 1 small onion
* Coarse ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Take pie shells out of freezer, separate, lay one pie shell flat, leaving the other in the pie pan, and thaw for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, defrost frozen veggies in microwave; chop and sautee onion.

Mix chicken, defrosted veggies, sauteed onion, garlic, soup and milk in large mixing bowl. Pour into pie shell; top with flattened pie shell. Pinch edges together and poke holes in top crust. Bake for about 30-40 minutes or until crusts are done.

Serve it with mashed potatoes and a flavorful green vegetable, like green beans or steamed asparagus.

Acceptable substitutions:
stew beef and golden mushroom soup (for the chicken and cream o' mushroom soup)
turkey (for the chicken)
posted by magstheaxe at 9:27 PM on October 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a 7 ingredient stir fry that basically breaks down into four simple steps. To be served with rice (which you could cook on the stove, or microwave. I guess you could even use one of those 40 second microwave packs.)

Oil for stir frying.

2-4 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 fresh chillies, deseeded and minced

About 4-6 ounces chicken - cut into thin strips

Mixed together in a bowl for the sauce:
1/2 - 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce (if you hate fish sauce, increase the soy a little, and replace the rest with water)

1-2 handfuls basil leaves.

Heat the oil in a wok.
Add the chili and garlic and stir fry until just becoming fragrant.
Add the chicken and stir fry until almost cooked.
Add the sugar, soy and fish sauces. Toss to coat.
Add the basil and toss to wilt.
Serve with rice.
posted by Ahab at 11:44 PM on October 10, 2010

Sara C. says basically what I came here to say: cooking is about 90% technique, and 10% ingredients.

Others have alluded to this, but you can make a wonderful tomato sauce with only four ingredients (olive oil, onions, canned tomatoes, salt). Pesto is likewise ridiculously easy: just whir up some fresh basil, pine nuts or walnuts, some grated hard cheese, and mix in some oil while it's going.

I'm a big steak fan, but my steaks are never seasoned with anything beyond salt and pepper. I also love a tomato salad in the summer, which is basically just tomatoes with salt, pepper, olive oil and some sort of vinegar.

If you master technique, you're in much better shape than if you memorize a list of ingredients. Get in there and muck around, and don't rely on recipes to tell you what you want to eat.
posted by Gilbert at 2:19 AM on October 11, 2010

I've made a bunch of stuff from Stone Soup. Her recipes are all 5 ingredients, 10 minutes. She also puts out a free e-cookbook. None of the recipes are transcendent, but they're all quite good and dead simple.
posted by hawkeye at 3:17 AM on October 11, 2010

Seconding Stone Soup - I've had some tasty meals from the recipes there.
posted by harriet vane at 4:26 AM on October 11, 2010

Nobody mentioned Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book? The recipes may be a bit dated now and are not exactly gourmet, but it would probably be just the thing for you. Googling "Peg Bracken recipes" brings up some samples.

Rubbing basil between your hands + bit of garlic + olive oil on your pasta, dress with parmesan and pine nuts, and you have "pesto" for when you are feeling lazy...

This's a bit gross (out of a Bracken-era cookbook, by Helen Gurley Brown of all people) but a nice bedtime snack: saute an onion in butter, dump it on a piece of toast, and cover with hot milk -- "soup"! Nice topped with cheese.

A cream sauce that is mostly just cream is very easy. Saute some chopped mushrooms in butter, add whipping cream, push around on low heat until thickened: mushroom sauce. (Lovely on gnocchi.) Put whipping cream in pan, chuck in a good strong cheese, push around on low heat until thickened: cheese sauce. (Lovely, w/parmigiano reggiano, on egg noodles.)
posted by kmennie at 1:06 PM on October 11, 2010

I asked a couple of similar foody questions a while ago that netted some good recipes:

Simple recipes
Infrequent shopping recipes
posted by jonesor at 6:30 AM on October 13, 2010

Thank you everyone for the varied and thoughtful responses. Everyone's answer is "best" in its own way--I appreciate the resources, recipes, and suggestions and will be trying many of them soon!
posted by litnerd at 8:38 AM on October 13, 2010

My pulled pork recipe involves two ingredients: pork, barbecue sauce.
posted by knile at 7:48 AM on October 15, 2010

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