Recently a friend asked me if there was some secret to making fast, easy weeknight meals. She was in a cooking rut and was looking for inspiration. I thought it was such a great question because while I don’t pretend to be holding any magical secrets I do have an arsenal of recipes that I intuitively know and make without any planning as long as I have certain ingredients in the house.
So (aside from olive oil, salt, and pepper) here are my 10 ingredients I can’t live without, some recipe suggestions, plus a tried an true quick, easy recipe for Mexican Fideo, which can either be considered an extra saucy pasta or a thick tomato soup with noodles, whatever you want to call it, it is comfort food at it’s best.
1. Jasmine Rice
We have steamed rice at least twice a week, usually as a side to round out a meal. If you have a rice steamer—use it! Here’s a trick that will give you perfect rice every time: for 4 servings place about 1- 1/12 cups of rice in the pot of the rice steamer. Rinse it two or three times then fill it with enough water to just cover you fingernail when you insert your finger into the water and touch the surface of the rice. Cover it and let the rice steamer do it’s work.
I always have at least 3 or 4 types of pasta on hand. Pasta will make a meal out of just about anything. Adding butter, Parmesan, salt and pepper is about the most comforting food known to man but tomato sauce is also good (and healthier). If you have pasta, you have dinner.
3. Canned Tomatoes
High-quality whole canned tomatoes (bonus if they are homegrown) are essential to homemade pasta sauce, which along with pasta (of course) is a meal we have at least once a week. Every home cook should have a tomato sauce recipe memorized because I have yet to taste a store bought version that is better. Here’s a good one to start with: Basic Tomato Sauce.
4. Aromatics (Onions and Garlic)
5. Two or Three Fresh Vegetables
I am always trying to get my kids to eat more veggies, so I try to keep the ones they like on hand at all times. Right now my kids are into carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, and spinach so I try to have that in the house at all times, cutting up a few raw vegetables is an easy and totally acceptable side.
6. One or Two Kinds of Protein
In the real world I probably make three to four meals a week then eat leftovers the rest of the time, so one or two kinds of protein should be enough for one week. Many quick-cooking proteins like pork chops or steaks make easy meals, all you need is salt and pepper, a hot pan, and some olive oil. Serve it with the steamed rice and veggies we discussed and you’re good to go. If you are vegan, beans are an excellent option, so is tofu.
Eggs really are a magical food. It has been scientifically proven that topping any leftover with a fried egg makes it astronomically more appealing, plus there is no more satisfying dinner than breakfast.
Hoarding a few cans of beans in your cupboard is always a good idea (unless you despise the taste of canned beans, then I’d go with bags of dried). When I’m at a loss for dinner I gussy up a can of beans with some sautéed onions and garlic and little cumin and coriander and serve it with some steamed rice and a hard boiled egg and maybe some sautéed spinach if I’m feeling especially generous.
We always have either corn or flour tortillas in the house. Leftover chicken or steak can be reheated with some sautéed onions and garlic and made into instant tacos, not to mention quesadillas and breakfast burritos—two other excellent quick dinner options.
So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? What are your 10 essentials? Share with me in the comments, I’d love to know.
As for the fideo, it is one of my kid’s favorite meals that they request every time their Nana comes to visit. It is also known as sopa seca or dried soup because the thin, vermicelli-like noodles soak up all the rich tomatoey broth making it more of a pasta dish than a soup. Even better it comes together in less than 30 minutes using the ingredients I just listed, making it another good option for a weeknight dinner.
Look for the Mexican-brand fideo noodles. They are shorter than Italian-style vermicelli or angel hair pasta. They can be found in the Mexican section of most grocery stores.
If you want to add a little spice, a half teaspoon or so of ground chipotle chili powder is nice.
- 7 1/2 ounce package Fideo or vermicelli pasta
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- If using vermicelli place in a bowl and break into about 1-inch pieces.
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add fideo and toast, gently moving the pasta around in the oil until it changes color, about 3-4 minutes. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and set aside. It's okay if a few noodles remain.
- Add onion to the oil, season with salt and pepper, and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add tomatoes, broth, and oregano. Bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook until onions are tender, about 15 minutes. Add salt and sugar.
- Blend tomato mixture with a immersion blender, or transfer to a blender and blend until smooth. Return to the pot and add more salt or sugar if necessary. Add noodles and stir to coat. Let sit a minute or two or until noodles are tender, then serve.