Upping My Contribution to Family Cooking
May 8, 2024 7:59 PM   Subscribe

My wife is a fantastic, intuitive cook and does most of our dinners, but occasionally she wants me to cook instead. My skills are basically 'can follow a recipe'. My family has a range of preferences. Any suggestions on what I can add to my quiver?

My wife is a fantastic, intuitive cook who makes most of our meals because she enjoys it and has a range of preferences. I do other chores while she cooks and then clean up so there's no drama, but maybe once a week she very reasonably can't be arsed and wants me to take the lead.

My one decent meal is rolling sushi - so I don't mind a bit of labour and time (I just need to be organised to get good ingredients). Otherwise I slap together the basics for tacos (home-made guac, salsa, grilled peppers, refried beans) and pasta+salad (boiled pasta, store-pesto, store-salad).

Our meals need to be dairy and meat free (seafood is ok).

Any suggestions from anyone in a similar domestic bliss? Or ideas for another meal or two that I can add to my repertoire?
posted by jjderooy to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think a baked marinated tofu would be a great make-ahead protein that you could regularly put together and just have in the fridge. I like Steph’s tofu from the PCC. You can find lots of other different flavor profiles for a marinated baked tofu, but that one has a good balance and is easy to tip towards different cuisines. It’s good at all temperatures. Try it hot with rice noodles, cold in a wrap with something like peanut sauce and cabbage, room temperature in a grain bowl with avocado and tomato.

A hearty soup is a wonderful thing to have in your repertoire and is also something you can make a big batch of and freeze in portions to thaw when your executive chef is off duty. There are infinite soups, chilis, etc to choose from depending on what your family likes. I generally don’t do recipes and cook intuitively, especially soups, but I have and enjoy this very lovely book Soup Broth Bread which might give you some inspiration.

Also because you mention how you do tacos, a bean chili will probably be something that works well, because you can make a pretty basic one and set out a bunch of toppings for everyone to customize as they like. Avocado, non-dairy cheese or sour cream, cilantro, limes, minced red onion, hot sauces, pumpkin seeds, even finely shredded red cabbage or radishes.

If everyone enjoys pasta night, maybe find a seafood pasta you all like. Steamed mussels are super fast and easy to make, the annoying part is buying them day of so they are fresh. After steaming the mussels with aromatics and wine, put some of the liquid in a big pan and add some extra olive oil, minced garlic, and seasonings and toss your pasta in it. Frozen shrimp are easier to keep in the house and you could do many different shrimp pastas, including just steaming them and mixing into your store bought pesto.

You could also take pasta night and make it more of a big salad with a side of pasta night, by getting in-season veg and some protein options for the salad, like marinated beans or tofu or roasted chickpeas or cold cooked shellfish. You could cook the pasta ahead of time, cool it and make it part of the salad by letting it soak up a vinaigrette, too.
posted by Mizu at 8:29 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

A few suggestions:

1) Ravioli with a side of bean salad is pretty easy. Lots of bean and lentil salads out there, I can share a specific one if you want.

2) I also find smitten kitchen to be pretty foolproof. She has a vegan tag. Along the lines of what Mizu said, her black pepper tofu is easy and very tasty. I also really like her braised chickpeas and her carrot burgers. Also the three bean chili and black bean soup are staples around here. Those two reheat very well, so we always keep some frozen around. We actually keep them in single serving containers for lunches and then in gallon ziplocs (put on a sheet tray to freeze flat in the freezer) for dinners. Having stuff ready in the freezer is great for those days when you can't deal
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:43 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

I think a shrimp scampi would be very much in your wheelhouse and is really easy to make.

A homemade hummus is surprisingly easy, even with soaking dried beans overnight. The Yotam Ottolenghi recipe is simple. You do need a food processor and good tahini. I serve it with roasted cauliflower and onions, fresh pita, and some nice cheese and olives. Everyone will be full and happy
posted by brookeb at 8:58 PM on May 8

Salt and Pepper Tofu - it needs to marinade a few hours, but the marinade is blessedly simple and you don't have to press the tofu.

Dubu Jorim - a braised tofu dish, as sometimes frying tofu is annoying. (Please ignore the weirdass write-up that sounds like the author has barely encountered earth let alone tofu, Beryl doesn't write those.)

Yeoneojang (Soy Marinated Raw Salmon) - this can also go very well with a sort of poke bowl/chirashi sushi salad type situation.
posted by automatic cabinet at 9:21 PM on May 8

Fresh spring rolls, similar to sushi in terms of prep. Great with tofu and seafood as protein. Also easily adaptable to noodle bowls (also sushi is easy to do as a rice bowl).

Look up sheet pan vegetarian recipes (or sheet pan salmon). A friend of mine just shared this sheet pan soup and I’m adding it to my list.

A few more twists on some of the things you already have in your repertoire - taco salad (I mix black beans with soy chorizo for protein and add all kinds of veg) or frito pie (chili with chips and toppings).

For a quick meal that is reasonably pantry friendly, I like to do very basic Indian or Thai curry. Tofu or chickpeas, cauliflower and potatoes, frozen peas what any number of jarred sauces (for Thai curry it’s often a curry paste + can of coconut milk) over rice.
posted by leastlikelycowgirl at 9:35 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

To knock this out of the park I think you want to include something you make fresh, but it doesn’t have to be the main part of the meal. Any of the freezable plans above, plus a choice of quick breads? Chappati, boxty, drop biscuits, scones, socca — many can be made while the defrost cycle is going on the stew. A salad and/or sliced fruit and you have a feast! plus a chance of getting the few cooking dishes clean before dinner. I mean, for domestic bliss, can’t beat warm bread and an empty sink.
posted by clew at 9:45 PM on May 8

Pasta with white clam sauce is one of our pantry- friendly weeknight options. Rachel Ray has an online recipe that’s straightforward. Canned clams work well, and canned baby clams have extra iron.
posted by childofTethys at 4:36 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Julia Turshen’s Small Victories has more meat recipes than you probably want, but it definitely upgraded my “feed my people” skills.

Moosewood cookbook is a classic older vegetarian cookbook.

For fresh options, learn to make vinaigrette and do a hearty salad with bread and hummus on the side?
posted by sixswitch at 6:12 AM on May 9

One easy and flexible is using a premade curry paste to make Thai curries. Fry up a tablespoon of this, add a can of coconut milk and a bunch of veggies, and simmer it through. Would be nice with just veggies, fried tofu, mock duck from a can, or whatever. Serve it with rice.
posted by advicepig at 6:57 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

Added note: these little buckets have a plastic bag inside, snip off a corner and squeeze out what you need. Then twist tie the bag shut and put it back in the bucket and it keeps way longer than the label claims. Drying out is the real enemy here, so this packaging is way better than the cans.
posted by advicepig at 7:00 AM on May 9 [2 favorites]

Seconding Smitten Kitchen for good vegan recipes. We make her Sheet Pan Chow Mein often.

Budget Bytes has good stuff, too, with the vegetarian recipes usually including advice to make it vegan, and they are specifically aimed at being very accessible to new cooks. We really like th Balsamic Roasted Mushrooms with Mashed Potatoes and they also have lots of advice about things to do with tofu
posted by hydropsyche at 7:08 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

My biggest hit (and it's quick and doesn't require a lot):

- Pasta e Ceci via Smitten Kitchen. Don't skip the finishing oil.

A long time ago I got How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman and it has some great basic frameworks, into which you can throw anything you have in the fridge. In my house, minestrone and miso soup are two go-tos. Can't find either in full online, but here are two similar:

- Minestrone
- Miso soup

Lastly, I'm a big fan of roasting whatever vegetables I have on hand and having some pan-fried protein on the side. Options include white beans with garlic, tempeh, veggie sausage or other fake meat of your choice.
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 9:14 AM on May 9

Japchae! You can easily make this without meat.
posted by paradeofblimps at 10:21 AM on May 9

Pasta with Smoked Salmon in Cream Sauce.

You just need three things, which all keep well in the fridge:
A package of hot-smoked salmon.
A small container of heavy cream.
A jar of capers (optional).
And of course, pasta of any kind.

The effort-to-effect ratio is off the charts. It feels super-deluxe, at least to me, but is fast and easy and darn near foolproof. Recipes abound on the internet.
posted by dum spiro spero at 10:28 AM on May 9

Adding to Mizu's pasta suggestions above: a good marinara sauce is pretty simple and easy to make, and allows for some variations to keep it interesting.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:28 AM on May 9

If you cook a lot you'll learn the intuition. But there's also a genre of cookbooks intended for teaching basics. Some ideas for that: For one particular recipe... Lately I've been enjoying making this Everyday Dal recipe. The simplest possible Indian food, good in itself or as a starting point for embellishment.
posted by Nelson at 10:28 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

There's some types of cooking that are good for building technique, which can help with future flexibility. Nelson has some above. I strongly recommend The Woks of Life to learn stir fry technique - get a base sauce, layer protein, veg, aromatics. Very flexible ultimately but you can use the same few ingredients while getting the timing down.
posted by cobaltnine at 1:47 PM on May 9 [1 favorite]

In our family, vegetarian shepherd's pie (or garden pie) is the ultimate comfort food. I make it with black, brown or green lentils and mushrooms. Yesterday, while I was making it, out of curiosity I found this recipe on the internet, and it was game-changing. The gravy makes all the difference. I made my own gravy recipe with dried mushrooms and some scraps I had in the freezer, which I think probably was a slight improvement, but I'm sure the original is great, too.

If you are interested, here's how to make my mushroom vegan gravy from scratch:
Start with the stock
1/2 cup dried mushrooms -- I used porcini and shiitake
1 piece of kombu
scraps from vegetables -- in this case I used only tops from leeks, it could also be the leftover half onion from the recipe, carrot-tops, celery tops. What you have, except cabbage scraps. Give them to the chickens. I copped them very roughly and there was about a cup of scraps.
4 whole peppercorns
A pinch of salt

Bring all of this to the boil in 1/2 liter of water. Turn is down to a simmer immediately, and simmer at very low heat for 30-40 minutes. One reason I think this is better than their version is that the color is beautiful and dark. But also that it has a lot of umami taste.

Strain the whole thing* and keep the warm broth in a jar while you make a roux in the same saucepan of equal amounts of vegan butter and flour (I'd say 1 tbsp of each). When the roux is cooked through, but hasn't turned golden, add the stock slowly while whisking frantically. Actually, lumps aren't so terrible because you can whisk them away.
Now it is time for the seasoning. Use white pepper, salt, tamari, balsamico or another rich vinegar and tomato paste or ketchup. Add very carefully while tasting and thinking about what you are tasting and what is missing. When you like the taste, add another tbsp of the vegan butter, turn off the heat and whisk it in. This will gather the flavors and give the gravy a rounder taste and a nice sheen.

*You can chop up the now re-hydrated mushrooms and add them to the lentil-mushroom-pea mix.
posted by mumimor at 3:53 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone - lots of this will be worked into the home scene over the coming months!
posted by jjderooy at 8:41 PM on May 12

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