Simple, utilitarian, uncluttered cooking ideas

I have two sides to my cooking repertoire. You probably do, too. I refer to one side as Chef and the other side as Cook.

Chef needs time and preparation and a bit of skill. Chef appears for dinner parties and special occasions and on nights when I have time to dally in the kitchen. Chef is adventurous and interested in trying new things. Chef makes food better than what my family could get in most restaurants.

Cook is utilitarian. Cook appears when the family needs to be nourished and I have barely enough time to make that happen. Cook relies on family-favorite recipes that are made repeatedly over the course of a year. Sometimes Cook throws in the towel and calls in a “guest Chef” known as Chinese Delivery.

In a given week, I’m Chef a third of the time and Cook for the rest. Almost all of our meals we eat at home, which means I’m constantly on the lookout for simple, healthy, uncluttered recipes the Cook side of me can use for the 14 meals she is not incredibly excited about getting on the table. Unless you’re a professional chef or have super powers, your cooking routines are likely similar to mine; you’re interested in finding meals you can make when you’re wearing your proverbial Cook’s hair net instead of your Chef’s hat.

NPR recently reviewed Perfect One-Dish Dinners by Pam Anderson, which got me thinking about how often I use my crock pot, rice cooker, and Dutch oven when cooking utilitarian meals. (There are three recipes from the book in the NPR piece, so be sure to check it out.) I toss steel oats, water, and sliced up bananas in my rice cooker for simple warm breakfasts on chilly mornings, and a brined chicken in the Dutch oven with baby carrots, red potatoes, and onions makes an incredibly simple dinner.

Want to add more simple, utilitarian meals to your Cook repertoire? Try these free recipes from trusted online resources:

What are your favorite simple recipes? Add your suggestions to the comments.

39 Comments for “Simple, utilitarian, uncluttered cooking ideas”

  1. posted by Mike C. on

    The chicken in a pot looked good, but then I realized I don’t know what a brined chicken is. Is that a chicken who’s had his “a” removed from his brain;->

    As you can see, I’m really not much of a cook.

  2. posted by Tiffany on

    Tacos are the go-to “I don’t want to work too hard but refuse to get takeout” option in our house. We buy Penzey’s taco seasoning literally by the pound. Thomas Keller’s method for simple roast chicken is great for “I really don’t feel like cooking but I want a nice meal” nights. It’s 5 minutes of prep and an hour of ignoring it in the oven. And we’ve got several soup recipes that don’t take much effort past the initial chopping. But like your Chef/Cook, we have “weekend meals” and “weeknight meals.”

  3. posted by JustGail on

    A brined chicken has been soaked in a brine (basically salt water sometimes with other seasonings added) for a few hours to overnight. Apparently it works wonders for turkeys also. I’ve wanted to try this for a while as it doesn’t sound difficult, it’s the planning ahead that gets me.

  4. posted by Jen on

    Some of my favorite quick and easy week night recipes come from Nigella Lawson. I think all her recipes are readily available at her website, Her lemon linguine is one of my favorites, and you can easily add steamed veggies to it.

  5. posted by erinb on

    we have a brined turkey for thanksgiving every year. i’ll tell you the hardest thing about that is finding a container large enough in which to brine a turkey!

    i can only imagine that brined chicken would be similarly moist and delicious and easier to manage.

  6. posted by Heather on

    My favorite simple recipe is omelets. For the crockpot – spaghetti sauce with meat or Italian sausage; also coq au vin, chicken caccitore, beef stew, chili. Another simple meal is linguine and clam sauce (using canned minced clams). I also make lentil soup (with or without hambone) in my cast iron dutch oven. It is a multiple serving recipe so I usually freeze half. Potato and leek soup (Julia Child’s recipe in Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home). Make ahead and serve several times. Salad and good crusty bread go well with the soups as does grilled cheese sandwiches. If you are a cookbook collector you’ll find more recipes in your collection. Bon appetit!

  7. posted by erinb on

    also there’s a public television show called America’s Home Cooking – One Skillet that has some good info in it.

  8. posted by Mo on

    I have several of Pam Anderson’s cookbooks and like them a lot, but she is definitely more chef than cook. That said, these recipes do look simpler than the perfect recipe books, and her How to Cook Without a Book is the cookbook that really taught me how to do the nightly get dinner on the table style cooking. She goes through staple recipes, Roast Chicken, Steam/Saute Vegetables, Pasta with Vegetables, Pan-Cooked meats, Hearty Soup, various simple sides… and for each of them gives a basic formula, as well as several example versions. Hearty Soup is saute 1 onion, maybe garlic. Add 1 quart broth, 1 pound vegetables, 1/2 pound meat, a starch and maybe an extra flavor ingredient. This makes it very easy to go from what’s in the fridge to a tasty meal on the table. That soup and pasta with greens and a bit of meat are my go-tos.

    She is a minister’s wife, with all the entertaining required, so her dinner party style recipes are strong. She also did a diet cookbook/way of eating guide that I keep meaning to try.

  9. posted by Jen on

    My favorite recipes change over time, but one thing I have found very helpful is that I always make extra when I am in “chef” mode. I tend to really cook a meal every other night, always making enough food for two nights (and sometimes a lunch as well). That way I always have a night in between where I just have to heat up dinner, no cooking. Just turn on the oven or microwave. I do have to live with the fact that I may have to eat the same thing two nights in a row, but I consider that a small price to pay for the fact that it’s convenient and yet we still have a home-cooked meal most nights. It takes a bit of planning but it’s worth it!

  10. posted by MamaCat on

    Great post! I am a chef on the weekend and a cook on weeknights. Friday is my “throw in the towel and order Chinese or pizza” night.

    I have my stolid, tried and true recipes that I use on weeknights – frankly, my husband and 13 yo daughter (who both have toddler tastes when it comes to food) prefer those to my forays into chef-territory. Most of these don’t require recipes, or I’ve made them so many times I no longer need to look.

    But I have a new favorite, the Beth Hensperger book “Not Your Mother’s Weeknight Cooking.” I have tried a fair number of recipes in there and they are pretty good. One note however – the serving sizes are HUGE. If it says it makes six servings, I cut it in half and I still get two nights of food out of it for my 3-person family. Another warning is that at least the first time you make some of these recipes, do it on the weekend to find out if it really works for “cook.” Some of these recipes should really be reserved for “chef.”

  11. posted by Marrena on

    I swear by my Fagor pressure cooker. Vegetables cook in a snap, much nicer than regular steaming and much faster too. It’s also great for making soup stock. It saves energy and time.

    Doesn’t cook meat so well though, for that I use my crockpot for cheap cuts, broiler for expensive cuts, and skillet for hamburger.

  12. posted by WilliamB on

    @erinb – to brine a whole turkey, think outside the kitchen. Try a large cooler or a trash can.

    1. Cooler: wash the cooler, put in the turkey, cover with cold brine. If you’re leery of your cooler’s food safety, line it with a food-safe bag, trash bag, or other oversized bag. If you’re really leery, wash the bag first.

    2. Trash can: wash the trash can, line with a bag, then proceed as for the cooler.

    While the turkey is brining, keep checking the temp of the brine. If it feels anything but cold, add more ice. The salt in the water lowers the freezing point so it can get really cold, which is good.

    To make cold brine: dissolve the salt in some boiling water, then add ice to cool it down rapidly. Much of the ice will melt so you’ll have a mix of water and ice, which is ideal to keep the turkey cold while brining.

  13. posted by Meg on

    I am loving Jules’ recipes at Her forte is “minimalist home cooking,” and she regularly posts recipes that can be made with 5 ingredients and 10 minutes. I have yet to make one that I didn’t like!

  14. posted by WilliamB on

    My usual fall-back is planning ahead. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? But there’s usually something in the fridge or freezer I can use, such as tomato sauce or a cooked chicken.

    My favorite easy cooked chicken is from Cook’s Illustrated. It’s a French technique for braising chicken in an oven that I’ve simplified even more. The idea is that a small amount of liquid circulates constantly, keeping the chix moist without using a ton of liquid. At the end of cooking you get a little liquid that’s intensely flavored, and a moist, tender, relatively bland chicken you can eat as is or put in other dishes or sandwiches.

    1. If you want to get fancy, brown all sides of a whole chicken in a pot just large enough to hold it. Remove chix to a plate. The skin will get soft during the braise but browned braised skin tastes better than unbrowned braised skin. I skip this step because I don’t eat the skin.
    2. Saute some garlic (how much depends on how much you like it) and 1/2 each of chopped onion, celery, and carrot in a pot just large enough to hold your chicken.
    3. Put the chix in the pot, breast side down (it’ll look upside down). Cover the pot with tin foil, then put on the lid.
    4. Bake at 350F till the chix is done.
    5. Remove from oven, let sit 10 min or more before cutting.

  15. posted by chacha1 on

    1. pot roast in the slow cooker. beef brisket cut in big chunks, big onion cut in sixths, scrubbed chopped carrots, a couple of cloves of garlic crushed with the side of the knife, two bay leaves, a small can of tomato paste, a half-cup of good red wine. Set to low and leave it all day.

    2. pork tenderloin in the grill pan. brown on all sides in 1 tbsp butter plus 1 tbsp olive oil. season liberally to taste. add 1/2 c. water, turn heat down to ML, cover and cook for 7 min; turn, cook another 7 min.

    3. broiled steaks and tomato & mozzarella salad.

    4. homemade guacamole.

    5. sauteed root vegetables or red cabbage, with gorgonzola.

  16. posted by Kim on

    Thanks for the great links! Very timely as we are dusting off the crock pot for cooler weather.

  17. posted by WilliamB on

    If I don’t have food cook in advance and the freezer is empty of leftovers, soups, and sauces, I’ll make eggs. I have two fallbacks: omlet/frittata and Japanese donburi.

    1. Omlet/frittata. These work best if what you’re adding is cold when you add it. If you add something hot, it sweats and makes the omlet wet which I don’t like.
    – Beat eggs with spices and optional cheese. Pour into nonstick pan.
    – Add additives (chopped leftover meat, leftover rice, chopped cooked veg, etc) and stir them in.
    – Cook over med-low heat till the eggs are mostly set. Turn over[1] and let finish cooking.

    2. Donburi.
    – For each 4 eggs, mix 1/4 c. soy sauce (I vastly prefer low salt), 1/4 c. mirin, and 1/2 c. low or no salt chicken stock.
    – Put thinly sliced onion and whatever other chopped veg in a nonstick pan, then pour the sauce over. Simmer on medium-low till the onions are translucent and all the veg are hot.
    – Meanwhile beat eggs in a bowl. When veg are done, add eggs and stir. They’re going to look funny to you – too soupy and sorta brown rather than yellow; that’s OK, it’s how they’re supposed to look.
    – Cook over low heat till the eggs are cooked. Again, it’s going to look funny and you may have to taste them to tell when they’re done. They’re going to be soupy as a result of all the liquid they’re cooked in.
    – Serve over rice.

    [1] You can turn over by putting a plate on top of the pan, turning both over, then sliding the eggs back into the pan. Or you can cut the frittata into half or quarters and turn each piece separately.

  18. posted by Isarian on has an AMAZING compilation of easy recipes that yield lots of leftovers – great for my designated homekeeping Monday evenings, where I do my weekly chores and cook food with leftovers for lunch for the rest of the week.

  19. posted by Jay on

    One quick meal my family enjoys comes solely from canned goods (except for the spices and chips). We mix canned chicken, vegetarian chili, corn, and spinach, add black pepper and garlic powder, heat it up, and surround with large corn chips. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s sell most of the canned goods, which are more healthful than they used to be.

  20. posted by Michele on

    I like to cook a vat of soup on Sunday afternoons. With my small household, three to five quarts of soup will last from Sunday to at least Tuesday night, and often Wednesday. For the last meal, I may have to stretch it with beans or egg noodles, but these are ordinary pantry items that take very little time to add. I can have dinner on the table in the time it takes to heat up portions of soup in the microwave and set out some bread and cheese or other accompaniment.

    Here’s what I think is a big tip for uncluttered cooking: learn to tolerate eating the same thing for a few days, or even meals, in a row. I seem to know a lot of people who won’t tolerate eating leftovers or having repetitive meals. That kind of attitude costs money and adds stress to meal planning. I love having, basically, a half-week of nutrition ready to go in one afternoon’s work.

  21. posted by Erin Doland on

    @erinb — I brine a chicken or turkey in a polycarbonate food prep container, like what restaurants use:

    If you get one, know that Cambro doesn’t sell lids with their bases, you have to order those separately.

  22. posted by Lee on

    The easiest is low sodium tomato soup and toasted cheese sandwiches and fruit.

    Beyond that, we make chili and stew in quanity and freeze them in 2 serving quanities. We can also make the stew “fresh” by chopping vegetables the night before, then the next morning put them in the bottom of a crock pot with a 2 lb. frozen roast, fat side up, on top, and cook on low all day. That night, we chop the roast and add low sodium tomato soup and strained canned tomatoes and reheat on high. Sour cream and (pre)grated cheese make nice toppings. Either with bread and a handful of Costco bagged spinich and vinegarette taste great.

    Leftover meat, especially salmon, on top of bagged spinich with blueberries and strawberries and a little feta cheese with vinegarette is simple, fast, and similar to what we might eat in a nice restaurant.

    Presentation ups the rating of most meals. Replace the paper plates and add placemats or tablecloth, cloth napkins, a couple of candles and fresh flowers from the yard and lower the lights. Our standard dinnerware is white and will go with anything we pull out. Even takeout or restaurant doggie bag food looks nicer on a plate.

  23. posted by Kalle on

    This Cook/Chef thing really resonates with me. I bet you could use two different aprons as well, to help you assume the right role for the job at hand. Hats should work, too, but maybe that’s pushing it.

  24. posted by Rachael on

    Long time reader, first time poster. My husband and I have come to rely on the Stonesoup Cookbook for our minimalist cooking. The premise is that all recipes call for only 5 ingredients, and most take under 30 minutes to prepare. Most of them involve lots of fresh veggies or foods with great flavor. Best of all, you can download it for free directly from the author’s blog:

  25. posted by Maryann on

    LOL your “cook” foods are my “chef” foods.

    When I get home late & kids are starving, all I can think of is take-out or a quick chicken cutlet parm.

    I’m going to try to make my first tacos tomorrow night, wish me luck…

  26. posted by Jess on

    FYI to all the briners out there: IMHO, rubbing salt all over the bird, inside and out and under the skin does just as well as brining and you don’t have all the liquid to deal with. Ideally salt it and wrap in plastic wrap when you get home from the store so it has a chance to sit w/ salt a day or two, but I’ve also done it up to two hours before and it turns out fine.

    Fave weeknight recipes:

    1. broiled fish filet, steamed veg, rice: you can marinate the fish if you happen to think ahead, or just paint on some miso or soy sauce mixed w/ your favorite cooking oil before you put it in the oven to broil; veg can be steamed in a pot, over the rice in the rice cooker or in the microwave; rice I leave to the rice cooker. You could make it even simpler by buying pre-cut fresh or frozen vegetables for steaming, but chopping up some broccoli or what have you doesn’t usually take that long.

    2. anchovy pasta: while the pasta is cooking, cut a medium onion into rings; sautee onions until they’re translucent; add as much garlic as you like; drain and rinse a small can of anchovy flat filets, add to the onions and sautee until they completely disintegrate; toss into the pasta with toasted pine nuts, parmesan and some parsley if you have some on hand

    3. grilled sausages, potatoes or rice, salad: my husband and son love sausage and love grilling… they cook the sausage, I toss the rice in the cooker or boil the potatoes and do the salad. Couldn’t be simpler!

    My new fave cook book is “The Art of Simple Food” by Alice Waters. You’d think it would be ultra-chef-y given that it’s Alice Waters, but she’s not kidding about the “simple” in the title. The recipes in the book are simple and delicious. Her method for roasting chicken is simple and perfect; her biscuit recipe is simple and perfect; her minestrone recipe is … well, you get the idea.

  27. posted by Shannon on

    How do you cook oatmeal in the rice cooker without it sputtering all over the place? I would LOVE to do this!

  28. posted by Ms. D on

    You know, I was thinking my brined spiced turkey was really difficult, but it’s not, it just requires pre-planning (the spiced brine – like 2 gallons of it – needs to be boiled then cooled). As far as the container, a large stockpot (available at bed, bath, and beyond, but bring a friend if you plan on hauling it home on public transportation) works great, I just tape the lid on to keep critters out and stick it outside (not useful if it’s not cold where you are around the holidays). I can fit a 22 lb. bird in there.

    But the usual in quick and easy for me is chicken or fish with veggies and garlic butter. I throw the chicken/fish and frozen veggies (seasoned with whatever tickles my fancy that night…uncluttering should NOT include cutting spices from the pantry, IMHO) in a glass baking pan covered with tin foil in the oven for 20-30 minutes and sautee some garlic on the stovetop and then add extra butter (the butter only takes 10 minutes, so I start it when the chicken hits 145 or 125 for the fish).

    For the ultimate in quick and easy, as a single person, I’ll cook a family-sized meal and then repurpose some of the leftovers, and freeze the others in single serving sizes. Since most things will keep frozen for 6 months to a year (if properly sealed), there’s no lack of variety if you make one of these meals every two weeks or so (generally 6-8 servings per meal). Depending on what it is, you just toss it in the microwave (meats, veggies) or a pot of boiling water (in a boil-safe bag, pastas, rice dishes, casseroles, mashed veggies).

    30 minute meals is my favorite, though. The chef and the cook get to play.

  29. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Shannon — I rinse the oats before putting them in the rice cooker, which reduces the sputter some, but my rice cooker still sputters water out the little hole in the lid. It sputters water out of the hole in the lid when I make rice, too. I just lay paper towels or a dish towel down on the counter to catch the sputtered water.

  30. posted by Greyghost (aka the other Jen) on

    1) Lifehacker recently published an article on brining chicken:

    2)My favorite fall-back meal is basic chili – adapted from Peg Bracken’s “I Hate to Cook Cookbook”:

    1 lb hamburger (500g +- if you’re a Canuck like me.)
    1 can tomato soup (generic is fine here)
    1 can Red Kidney beans (skip the famous name brand with their small can, pick up the BIG can for less in the ‘ethnic’ foods section.)
    1 ‘Tablespoon’ chili powder (Add chili powder until it smells good.)

    That’s the basics: I add mushrooms (a cup of fresh chopped or one drained can.) Serves two hungry people. I put my husband in charge of making toast and butter for a side dish. Dark beers go great with this.

    Others add: Tomatos, pepppers, onions etc.

  31. posted by Karen on

    Re: Brining

    We do a brined turkey every Thanksgiving. It really is fabulous, incredibly moist, and it cooks very fast. Here’s the link to Alton Brown’s recipe–it’s probably the only recipe I ‘chef’ from that I haven’t altered!

    Alton’s right about a 14-16 lb bird. If you need more meat, buy two. The leg-lovers will thank you! For a container, a 5-gallon bucket from Home Depot or the like works well, is cheap, and because the bird goes in ‘vertically’, you don’t need to turn the bird. Afterward, it cleans up easily with a quick shot of bleach-based spray cleaner.

  32. posted by WilliamB on

    If I’m stuck without fresh food, I think cans and Tex-Mex.

    Moros y Christianos (Moors & Christians, aka black beans over white rice): Saute onion & garlic & pork/lard/fatback if you have it, add canned black beans, add hot spice to taste, heat, serve over rice.

    Tortilla soup: canned chicken/turkey/ham, canned beans, salsa, thinned with chicken stock, a few shakes of hot sauce, heated together and topped with grated cheese.

    Burritos: Heat canned beans or refries and meat if you have it, roll in tortilla with salsa, guac, lettuce, onion, sour cream – or whatever of these that you have.

    Burrito casserole: tortillas or tortilla chips as the bottom layer, beans or refries, cooked meat, guac, cheese, repeat laywers as you choose, heat through.

    Bean dip: Mix refries, salsa, some hot sauce; heat, serve with chips. (I’m almost embarassed to list this.)

    – if you use canned beans, rinse them off first because the canning liquid is very salty.
    – there’s no place for bad tastes to hide so use the best ingredients you can. I think Goya canned beans are by far the best on the market. There are a lot of good salsas out there; my faves all come from the international/import aisle of the supermarket.

  33. posted by Christine Hartman on

    My husband is a nutritionist and I’m a home economist, we’ve been married 3 years and we have very different cooking styles – to the point where we wouldn’t eat each other’s food. The “cookbook that saved our marriage” is “Glorious One-Pot Meals” by Elizabeth Yarnell.

    Ms. Yarnell developed a method of dutch oven cooking that’s easy and very low fat. There’s a lot of variety among the recipes and the food is incredibly tasty. It’s also very easy to adapt recipes to seasonal, local ingredients.

    In the summer when we don’t want to heat up our kitchen we take the dutch oven outside and cook the food by putting pre-lit charcoal briquettes on the lid of the dutch oven and underneath. (How dutch ovens were originally intended to be used.)

    It’s necessary to learn the specifics of her method (easy) to have success, but it’s totally worth it and has greatly simplified our life.

  34. posted by Audrey on

    I didn’t know Pam Anderson had a cookbook out – I’ll have to get that one. Sounds good. Thanks for sharing the great links :}. You might also enjoy a new cookbook out called, “Let’s Cook Tonight,” by Gigi Centaro. The author has done the planning and thinking for you. All you have to do is take the shopping list out of the binder, go to one grocery store for the ingredients and then go home to follow simple, easy to understand instructions. Before you know it, you’ll have everything done and a complete meal will be on the table for your family to enjoy. Love it!

  35. posted by Lou on

    Simple chicken cacciatore: Chop up a medium or small eggplant, skin on.
    Heat olive oil in a large chicken fryer or stirfry pan over med heat.
    Add a large onion peeled & quartered, cook till transparent & remove,
    Add a large any color bell pepper, cored & cut into 8 pieces, cook till soft, remove.
    Brown 4-6 pieces of chicken 3-5 min on each side
    (I always use thighs so they are all the same size).
    Put the chicken,onion and pepper back into the pot, add the chopped eggplant, pour a can of chunk or stewed tomatoes overall.
    Lower the heat to low (just so it gently bubbles.
    Let it cook for an hour. That’s all
    It doesn’t need spices or pepper or salt. Fabulous taste.
    It doesn’t matter if someone in the family hates eggplant b/c it dissolves in the simmering & just thickens the sauce..
    A yummy, filling, healthy complete meal that takes less than 15 minutes after the first time you do it..

  36. posted by Lou on

    OOps – cook that cacciatore COVERED.

  37. posted by lilliane on

    Try Mark Bittman, the minimalist cook at The New York Times. He also has his own website. Here’s a very simple pasta with peas and prosciutto. He has tons of recipes at the Times and a lot of videos.

  38. posted by gypsy packer on

    For easy entertaining–tacos with all the trimmings.
    For general cooking–red beans and rice. I can my own tomatoes with red jalapenos and garlic, so all I have to do is saute some onions and garlic with smoked turkey sausage, add the beans, rice, thyme, a little sage, and simmer for half an hour.
    Or: simple pasta, with basil, garlic, and parmesan. Sprinkle with dried habanero or crushed red peppers.

  39. posted by Ginger on

    WilliamB — I wanna come to your house with all that fast mexican food!

    My (and kids’) favorite Crockpot meal — cubed beef (stew meat), cream of mushroom soup and golden mushroom soup — cook to death in slow cooker and serve over egg noodles. YUM!

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