Do YOU know any "formula recipes"?
February 18, 2011 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for simple recipes which follow a set procedure, but whose ingredients can be easily changed up.

I'm a 21-year-old college student who moved out this year and, while I like homemade food, I didn't previously cook much and don't really enjoy cooking as a hobby. The only real homemade meal I can make (without peering over a recipe while I do it) is a stroganoff "recipe" I picked up off the internet. Here's how you make it:

~1lb meat (chicken, ground beef, pork, turkey, shrimp, sausage, etc)
1-2 onions
a few cloves of garlic (or throw in garlic powder with soup if you're out)
1 can cream soup (mushroom, asparagus, celery, wild mushroom, mushroom and garlic, etc)
assorted vegetables (fresh, canned, or frozen)
some potatoes or pasta or rice

Stick onions, garlic, and "harder" vegetables in a frying pan and fry them up until they start getting soft. Then add (chopped up, defrosted) meat and keep frying until the meat is cooked. Then add the rest of the (chopped up, defrosted/drained) vegetables and cook a bit more. Then add the soup and cook until the soup is hot. Serve over the (separately-cooked) starch. Serve more vegetables on the side, if you want.

Here's why I like it:
- It doesn't require any specialty tools or a bunch of spices I don't have
- It tastes REALLY good!
- It's pretty easy to make and doesn't take a long time (although you do need to start a bit early to defrost things and put the potatoes in the oven)
- It can be as healthy, decadent, or cheap as I want/need at the time
- It tastes different every time, so I don't feel like I'm eating the same thing over and over again
- I usually have most of the ingredients lying around the house already, and I can use up vegetables that are starting to look a bit wilty

I absolutely love this recipe, but I just know there has to be more recipes like this out there somewhere! Do you have any? I'm primarily looking for 'meal' recipes, but if you have some for tasty baked goods/desserts/snacks/pasta sauces those would be great too!

PS: I've seen this, but it seems to be focused more on combinations of specific ingredients instead of actual procedures with a wide range of 'acceptable' ingredients... maybe a "next step" after I've figured out some general recipes. How to Cook Without a Book will be sitting on my shelf very soon, though.
posted by purplecrackers to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
Frittata! You can put anything in it, and it's really simple to make. I generally use this recipe: How To Make Frittata Like my 100 Year Old Grandmother.

The egg base stays the same, but you can put whatever vegetables/meat you like for filler. If you want to make bitesized ones, you can even pour it in muffin tins and bake it like that (no time on the stove).
posted by stoneweaver at 11:42 AM on February 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Cream of _____ soup. ______ Chowder. Learn how to make one and you can pretty much substitute in whatever you want (within reason). I make a gallon of soup every week to bring to work for lunches, it's cheap and you can change it up however you want.
posted by hafehd at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2011

  • 250g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp salt / seasoning
  • 150ml warm water
  1. Preheat oven to 240C.
  2. Mix ingredients together to form dough.
  3. Flatten over greased baking sheet.
  4. Spread with passata. Add grated cheese and whatever toppings you like / have lying around.
  5. Bake for 10~15 minutes.

posted by fix at 11:48 AM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Roasted vegetable soup.

This is my #1 solution to all wilty vegetables. It starts to turn into something of a game to find the best flavor complements for any given wilty vegetable, too.
posted by adiabat at 11:54 AM on February 18, 2011

Also! Roasted vegetables straight up. Chop up your vegetables into (roughly) 1 inch cubes, toss in a little olive oil or drop some cubes of butter on top, sprinkle on salt (more than you think) and herbs, spread in a single layer on a pan and pop in an oven. Set the oven to 350 - 400 (depends on altitude and your oven, just keep an eye on it until you get the feel), eat delicious food 1 hour later.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:58 AM on February 18, 2011

The Tightwad Gazette has a flexible casserole recipe, which TheSimpleDollar did a story on and gave lots of examples.

Here's the formula:
1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”

Choose from:
Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.

While I was searching for that SimpleDollar article, I came across this same question on Unclutterer so here are their answers, too.
posted by CathyG at 12:01 PM on February 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Similar idea: shepherd's/cottage pie. 1:1:1 ratio of meat, mixed veggies, mashed potatoes. Brown the meat, stir in brown gravy and other spices. Place on bottom of pan, cover with veggies. Cover the entire thing with mashed potatoes and bake for a while. The meat and seasoning juices do some great magic under the potato blanket. I scaled that one up to feed my house of hungry college guys, fifteen pounds of meat and potatoes turns out to be a lot.

Chili is also great, since it can have a wide range of add-ins after a base of beans, and pretty much just consists of 'add ingredients, make spicy, simmer until you are salivating enough'.
posted by lantius at 12:03 PM on February 18, 2011


My last answer in that thread is a pretty good link for these.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:04 PM on February 18, 2011

Need I add that the pizza recipe *always* turns out amazing? I've held (student) dinner parties where everyone helps to make them, and it's never failed to impress.

Since I collect student-friendly 'formula' recipes, here are some more tried and true dinner ideas:

The perfect omelette.

I don't fold mine - the topping goes on, then I sprinkle it with cheese and put it under the grill for a bit. Mmm Spanish omelette.

Self-crusting quiche
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup grated cheese
  • 1/4 cup self-raising flour
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 an onion, chopped
  • 3 rashers of bacon, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped veg
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Handful of chopped parsley (optional)
Mix the whole lot together and bake at 180 C for 40~45 minutes. A very versatile and filling recipe!
posted by fix at 12:06 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Pam Anderson has a "stir fry algorithm" in her cookbook The Perfect Recipe. It's not a method for producing classic traditional Chinese cuisine, but it's a workable approach to making a variety of stir-fry dishes that most Americans would like, using ingredients that most of us can get pretty easily.

If you want to try before you buy, here's a link to the relevant pages (I hope) in Google Books: stir fry discussion and recipe-generator.
posted by Quietgal at 12:08 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Breakfast hash:

- 3 parts starch (small shell pasta, diced potatoes, rice, even frozen tots)
- 2 parts meat-protein (sausage, hamburger, bacon, sliced brats, ham, etc.)
- 1 part eggs (scrambled, fried)
- 3 parts vegetables (red peppers, onions, garlic, broccoli stems, etc.)

1. On burner one, cook starch in pot of water.
2. While starch cooks, on burner two, saute your meat until cooked through. Add vegetables. Cook until they're as cooked as you like.
3. Remove meat/veg from burner two. Use a clean non-stick skillet and cook the eggs.
4. When eggs are done, remove from heat and add to meat/veg.
5. Add starch when cooked through.
6. Stir it all up and eat.

DIY Salad dressing:

- 1 part fruit juice
- 1 part vinegar
- 1 to 2 parts oil
- pinch salt
- pinch mustard powder
- pinch herb of choice, if desired

1. Pour it all into a mason jar. Shake it like a polaroid picture.

(Examples apple cider + apple cider vinegar + canola oil + rosemary / peach nectar + rice vinegar + olive oil + coriander / pear juice + raspberry vinegar + hazelnut oil / orange juice + date vinegar + orange-infused olive oil)

You'd really like this book/app: Ratio
posted by muirne81 at 12:11 PM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Boil water for pasta, salt it. Meanwhile, lightly sautee any veggies you have on hand in some olive oil; my favorites are onions, tomatoes, and asparagus, but really it's whatever you have on hand. Salt and pepper to taste, add parsley or basil or neither or whatever, again, this is pure improv. Toss with pasta. Eat.

Some delicious combos:

Anchovies, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic.
Asparagus, tomatoes, onions, some tomato sauce if you have any.
Tomatoes, tuna from a can, paprika.
Artichoke hearts, tomatoes, onions, spinach.

Seriously, whatever veggies you have on hand, sauteed, on pasta. Ready in however long it takes to cook whatever type of pasta you're cooking.
posted by lydhre at 12:16 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am your age, and I feel your pain. I use this recipe for 20 minute broiled chicken and artichokes to impress my friends by making them think I can cook. So easy, so yum.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:21 PM on February 18, 2011

If you're open to a cookbook, Pam Anderson's book How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart is exactly the sort of thing you're looking for.
posted by Lexica at 12:24 PM on February 18, 2011

Lentil stews. There are a billion different ways to make them, and you can pretty much use whatever you want in it and it comes out tasting different every time. So far we've ended up with Thai-tasting lentil stew, curried lentil stew, comfort-food lentil stew, fish-lentil stew (not really that great).
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Quesadillas. Chop whatever veggies and/or cooked meat you have laying around. Put a tortilla in a pan or on a griddle. Sprinkle lightly with shredded cheese, then put in the veg & meat, a little more cheese, and finally one more tortilla. When the bottom tortilla is getting crispy, flip it to crisp up the other tortilla. If your flipping skills aren't great, cover half the tortilla with toppings and just fold it over, then make another -- the half-moons are easier to deal with, especially if you have big tortillas. Cut them into wedges and serve with salsa (and sour cream if you have it). This is also good if you think outside the mexican-food box. Try bell peppers, mini pepperonis, mozzarella cheese, and pizza sauce to dip it in.
posted by vytae at 12:42 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Vegetable soup:

Chop your onion and saute until soft. Meanwhile, chop your vegetables - anywhere from two cups on up.

If you are using harder vegetables such as carrots, potatoes or squash, put those in the soup pot with the onion and stir around, cooking until they start to soften. Then add your softer vegetables and as much water as you want--four cups or so.

Add salt and bouillon and a couple of sprigs of herbs such as rosemary or savory or two bay leaves, or a couple of tablespoons of wine. Lid and cook for twenty or thirty minutes until the vegetables are done.

Add any of the following to taste: salt, pepper, hot sauce, spices, olive oil, pesto, tomato paste, butter.

If you have a blender, puree it until velvety. This makes a surprising difference.

Re herbs: If you buy a packet of fresh herbs at the grocery store, you can keep it in the freezer for months, using a bit at a time. It's very economical and tastes better than dried herbs. I find that I use bay leaves, rosemary and savory the most.

Also, if you have a blender you can make spreads. Get a jar of marinated artichokes, for example, and put them in the blender with about 1/2 the liquid from the jar. Blend and you have artichoke dip. Or blend a can of white beans with half a small jar of roasted red peppers. Or blend a cooked potato with garlic and olive oil. This is great for parties and sandwiches.
posted by Frowner at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2011

pancakes (this is not a "fluffy" was originally intended for scones):

1-2 eggs
pinch (1/2-1 tsp to a tsp) salt
pinch baking soda
1 cup milk (or more)
3+ tbsp sugar/to taste
1-2 cups flour

scoop into hot, buttered frying pan, flip when pancake dotted with butter & cook for a minute or two on other side.

Other than finding your ideal salt (for flavor) and soda (for rising), pretty much any variation on measurements works. My 3 year old can (and has) made this recipe without me. More milk = runnier pancakes (mmm, crepes!), less flour does the same. Likewise, less milk/more flour = heartier pancake.

I've added raisins & cinnamon, I've cooked thin & rolled it up around fresh fruit, I've dumped in a cup or two of powdered baker's chocolate & upped the sugar to make (mmmmm!) chocolate pancakes (the dough got too thick, so I dumped in enough water to thin it).

The main thing to remember is that the pan needs to be hot when you spoon your batter in, otherwise they stick when you go to flip.
posted by Ys at 12:51 PM on February 18, 2011

2nding Tex-mex. I mean, the burrito is more like a "food delivery platform" than mere entré. Just look at how Chipotle's operates. Taco bell operates the same way with more 'menu items'. Really, all fast food these days is about filling up the menu with variations on a theme.

My enchiladas are just enchilada shells filled with beef n beans and covered with sauce and cheese. You can replace the filling, switch the sauce or cheese. Most of that can also be used to make tacos or burritos or nachos. If you're just learning, hamburger helper might be a good starting point; they package up the spices and sauces (and rice filler) with directions. If you want to get more creative, there's plenty of offshoot styles of food like seafood mexican and vegetarian mex.

The important thing about food prep substitutions is knowing how to cook the basic ingredients. Once you know how to cook various meats safely, dinner recipes are basically mixing things and adding spices Hint, if you don't have spices, they can be procured. Remember, spice is literally the spice of life!
posted by pwnguin at 1:15 PM on February 18, 2011

Amy Daczyzn also had a "universal" muffin recipe in the Tightwad Gazette books. It's online here.
posted by lemniskate at 1:26 PM on February 18, 2011

Any bread strata or casserole. This is pretty much a take on the Tightwad Gazette formula for casseroles, but...anyway:

Take some bread. Any kind of bread! It can be stale. If it's super fresh and soft, cut it into 1" cubes and bake it in a 300 degree oven for a while. I've used everything from store-bought English muffins to some incredibly rich brioche for the bread; everything works.

Grab some ingredients. This can be basically anything. Feta + spinach. Bacon + leeks + mushrooms. Apples + raisins. Sausage + potatoes + cheddar. Chopped up deli turkey + chopped up deli ham + chopped up Swiss cheese. You can go savory or sweet. Everything should be cooked prior to assembling (which is the next step.)

In the end, you want about 60% bread, 40% other stuff in your baking dish. I'm going to use a 9 by 13 pan in my example. You can either lay the bread out neatly, then layer the stuff, then layer bread, or you can jumble everything together. I prefer jumbling.

Then, take six to eight eggs and beat them together with 2 cups of milk. We're eyeballing this step, so you may need more or less. Add some savory spices (pepper, garlic, etc.) if your dish is savory, and sweet ones (cinnamon, nutmeg) if you're going sweet.

Now, taken the egg and milk mixture and pour it over the jumble of bread and stuff. It should not quite drown everything; pour slowly so you can control the coverage. I like crispy bits in the end, so I fill the pan about 3/4 of the way. Sometimes I underestimate the amount of liquid I need, so I'll mix up more in the same proportion (so, if I used 8 eggs and 2 cups of milk, I'll mix 1 egg with 1/4 cup of milk.) If you need more liquid, do that and dump it in.

Bake the whole thing in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes; it's done when the whole thing is solidish and the eggs aren't wet anymore. Let it sit for 10 minutes before you eat it.

It's good hot, warm, or cold.
posted by punchtothehead at 1:57 PM on February 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

"flip when pancake dotted with butter "

bubbles. Flip when pancake dotted with bubbles.
posted by Ys at 2:05 PM on February 18, 2011

Just last night I did pasta primavera with cream sauce ... perhaps a tiny bit more complicated, but so easy and so good:

*12 oz. rotini pasta, cooked as per package (or more, you just get less sauce coating. Or a different shape, it doesn't matter a lot)

*In a large pan, saute chopped onions and minced garlic in butter until soft; around 1 c. to 1 whole onion, 1 clove minced garlic

*Add vegetables of your choice, chopped, and saute until tender-crisp

*Add 1 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup chicken stock, and 2 tsp. dried basil. (Only step where proportions matter.) Cook a couple minutes until it slightly thickens.

*Put pasta in bowl, pour sauce/veggies over it, add about 3/4 cup parmesan if desired, and toss.

You can use tons of vegetables, you can use hardly any vegetables. I like to make it special when I have fresh springtime squash, but last night I did it with some leftover mushrooms, an orange bell pepper, and some frozen broccoli. I like to try to pick at least two strong colors for the veggies so it looks pretty (and is presumably healthier) but, again, doesn't matter!


We often use frittata to use up end-of-shopping-cycle odds-and-ends of vegetables, so I wholeheartedly support that idea. And I own the "How to Cook w/o a Book," very helpful!

Another easy idea is that you can steam just about any vegetable in with your rice. Saute onions and garlic in butter or oil. Add rice and stir to coat. Add stock. Cook the rice in chicken stock (or whatever you like) to give it that rich pilaf flavor, and then add your vegetables to steam for the appropriate amount of time near the end of the rice cooking. I'll toss some broccoli in for the last 15 minutes my brown-rice-in-stock is cooking, and that's a pretty hearty meal that takes hardly any work. Frozen veggies work fine. You can add multiple veggies -- I have a pretty good recipe for "salsa rice" where I add tomatoes, peppers, and other salsa-y things. You can top with cheeses, add spices, whatever. Plenty of good pilaf recipes out there for inspiration, but once you figure it out you can try things on your own w/o much trouble!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:56 PM on February 18, 2011

Learn how to pan roast meat - chicken breasts, steaks, pork chops. Use a cast iron or other oven proof skillet on top of the stove to sear and brown the piece(s) of meat on both sides. Then put some water in the pan and throw it in a 425°F oven until it's cooked through. It's easy, and in the time it's roasting, make yourself some veg or something.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 4:25 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Enchiladas are 12 corn tortillas, 2 to 2-1/2 cups of filling, 2 cups of sauce. 1 9 x 13 inch pan or 2 8 x8 inch pans, bake at 350 F until bubbly, serves 6.

Spinach salsa burritoes are 3 cups beans, rice, other protein or grains, 1 10-ounce box spinach, thawed and squeezed dry, 1 cup salsa, some chili powder and cumin, and 6 extra-large flour tortillas.

Stir fry sauce: 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 1 cup water, 2 tablespoons bottled sauce (hoisin, black bean, chili-garlic sauce, sweet chili sauce, etc.) 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Other ingredients to be added as desired - 1-3 cloves minced garlic, 1-2 green onions, sliced (white and green part), 1 inch ginger, peeled and sliced, minced fresh serrano or jalapeño peppers. Sauté garlic, onion, ginger, peppers in a teaspoon of oil. Add cornstarch and enough water to make a paste, stir well, add remaining ingredients, simmer until thick. Makes enough for 1 to 1-1/2 pounds stir-fry.

And this isn't really a formula, but you could use it for one, as you can add all kinds of stuff to it. It's the easiest lasagna recipe in the universe. Invite some people over or freeze half of it, though, because it serves 8.

World's Easiest Lasagna

1 16-ounce jar marinara sauce
1 26-ounce jar marinara sauce
garlic powder and Italian seasoning, if desired
1 15-ounce carton ricotta cheese
1 8-ounce package grated mozzarella
1 box no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour the pasta sauce into bowl.

In another bowl, combine the ricotta and mozzarella.

Oil a 9 x 13-inch pan or 2 8 x 8-inch ones. Spread a bit of sauce in the bottom of the pan(s). Top with 1/3 of the lasagna noodles. Spread on 1/3 of the cheese and then top with 1/3 of the marinara sauce. Repeat the layers twice.

Cover pan(s) with aluminum foil. Bake until bubbly, about 30 minutes.
posted by zinfandel at 6:34 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

See my basic jambalaya recipe here. You can modify that base by adding veggies or changing up the meat. Just leave the holy trinity (onions, celery, garlic) intact.
posted by axiom at 7:37 PM on February 18, 2011

Wow, that is not the holy trinity. I meant to type onions, celery, green pepper!
posted by axiom at 7:52 PM on February 18, 2011

How to Cook Everything has been a great handholder for me in this respect (so not ready to leap to "without a recipe"). It has a lot of specific recipes, but it also has a lot of ... tables. If you have an iDevice, the app version is awesome--so well made!
posted by wintersweet at 8:07 PM on February 18, 2011

Basic stir fry, change meat and veges at will:

Wok over flame until hot. Oil in wok. Add sliced, minced or crushed garlic and/or ginger. Add small amount (3oz or so) finely sliced or chopped meat, fish, fowl, or meat replacement product. Stir fry about a minute. Add one or two vegetables. Stir fry until nearly cooked. Add sauce made of 1-2 tsp sugar, 1-2 Tbsp fish or soy sauce, a little water to thin if desired. Toss to combine. Serve over rice. Garnish with chopped fresh herbs (one or two of chillies, cilantro, basil, mint, scallions, squeeze of lime, etc).

For variations on the garlic and/or ginger add some chillies, or try a wet curry paste.

For a change on the sauce, try a tsp or two of oyster sauce instead of the fish or soy, add a dribble of sesame oil, a little black pepper, a squeeze of lime juice, or a Tbsp or so of chili sauce.

Key thing here is to keep it simple. Generally, the fewer ingredients, the clearer the flavors, the easier it is, the better it is.
posted by Ahab at 8:49 PM on February 18, 2011

Chinese stirfry. Tigers and Strawberries has a series of blog posts about making your own stirfry with no fixed ingredients, just following rules of three. Pick main ingredients, aromatics, and condiments (and some supporting ingredients), and then follow basic stirfry technique.
posted by JiBB at 10:46 PM on February 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

You all are AWESOME, thanks! I'm just starting on my spring break so I'll have lots of time to test these out too!
posted by purplecrackers at 8:03 AM on February 19, 2011

I make a cold grain salad that I switch up the ingredients to regularly. I do it by eye so the measurements are not exact. But basically:

2 parts grain (could be anything, quinoa, barley, pasta, rice, etc)
1 part protein (cheese, chicken, tofu, tuna)
2 parts vegetables (onions, peppers, corn, olives)

I then pull it together with "salad dressing" to taste. You can use pre-made salad dressing, equal parts vinegar and oil (what I usually do) and add in fresh herbs here - scallion and parsley are especially good.
posted by fermezporte at 9:48 AM on February 19, 2011

This suggestion is off the beaten path, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

If you have a asian market with Japanese food stuffs in your area you could try Okonomiyaki. It literally means "as you like, grilled". It's a savoury pancake that's made with flour, eggs, water (dashi for the purists) cabbage and whatever else you feel like throwing in. It's topped with Japanese "Kewpi" mayonnaise and Okonomiyaki sauce along with bonito flakes (dried shaved tuna), seaweed, green onion.

Some recipes on the web call for a vegetable called yamaimo (or nagaimo) to be added to the batter but, it isn't essential you won't wind up with a disaster if you don't use it.
posted by squeak at 7:13 PM on February 20, 2011

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