This is a guest post from Mark Bittman, the New York Times bestselling author of more than 30 books on food and cooking and a champion of simple, sustainable meals. His latest project, How to Eat Now, distills decades of insights into a two-hour audiocourse from Knowable. Mark Bittman, the prolific writer and founder of Heated caught up with Imperfect Foods to share one of his favorite takeaways from the new course!
When I teamed up with Knowable to create How to Eat Now, I wanted to give listeners a toolkit of meals that they could draw from to make healthy, delicious dinners any night of the week. But I know as well as anyone that it’s easy—and, sooner or later, likely—to get stuck in a cooking rut. How many of us continually find ourselves short on inspiration, picking out the same ingredients in the store as if on autopilot, making the same things for ourselves and our families, week after week?
Over many years of writing about food, I’ve identified three fundamental dishes all home cooks should have in their repertoire. These aren’t recipes written in stone, but rather templates for meals that you can adjust to your taste, adapt to the seasons, and prepare with local ingredients. Learn these and you’ll find that cooking becomes less stressful, more fun, and more improvisational.
Rice and Beans
Or, more accurately, rice and legumes. Rice and beans are inexpensive pantry staples for many of us already, and together they make some of the most important meals in the world—from Latin America to the Caribbean to Italy to India, there are countless variations on this simple combination. Legumes are an excellent source of protein, and once you learn to flavor and cook a pot of beans or lentils to your liking, you can dress it up with vegetables and fresh herbs and pair it with any grain you like.
Salad gets a bad rap, but that’s because so much of it is uninspired. Who likes to eat a sad heap of butter lettuce on the side of something more interesting? The truth is, a colorful mix of raw or cooked vegetables tossed with a little fat and acid—oil and vinegar is a good place to start—can be a wonderfully versatile and complete meal when you put a little thought into it. Toss in some grains and herbs, leftovers if you have them, add something for some crunch, experiment with dressings, and you’ll never be bored with your salads again.
Many cultures recognize the value of a good stir fry, and I think there’s one key reason why this dish is important: Meat acts as a condiment, not the star of the show. In other words, when there’s meat in a stir fry it adds flavor to the dish, but it’s the vegetables that do the heavy lifting. That’s important. As a species, we can’t continue to consume meat at our current rate. Prepared with fresh vegetables, good oil, and occasionally a bit of animal protein for flavor, stir frys can be a healthy, adaptable staple meal.
There you have it—three fundamental meals, all with infinite variations. You can approach them any way you like. Maybe you want to start by following recipes and familiarizing yourself with flavor profiles, or maybe you feel bold enough to dive in with whatever happens to be in your fridge or pantry. The beauty is, once you have a handle on the basic techniques, you’ll find yourself gloriously independent from recipes and able to put together a delicious meal no matter what’s in your fridge.
Want to learn more? Check out the new audiocourse on cooking with Mark Bittman from Knowable, How to Eat Now. Imperfect fans can get 20% off an annual subscription by selecting the Annual Membership option, adding your credit card information, and entering the code “imperfect” at checkout. Please note, codes are redeemable on the web only, but your app will sync automatically.
But what about soup/stew?
I always have some sort of soup in process, and it’s rarely the same soup twice!
I save vegetable trimmings, bits of leftovers, sauces, bones, etc. in the freezer for a week or two, then use them as a base for homemade stock.
Then I add whatever I have available that week: was sausage on sale? Did I have a couple of eggplants and some spinach? That sounds vaguely Italian, so I add some garlic, onion, basil, rosemary, and any leftovers that might blend in.
Later in the week, I might stretch the soup for another meal by throwing in a can of tomatoes, a cup of leftover rice and some half and half, garnishing the bowls with shredded Parmesan.
Soup is magical!
Soups are definitely a staple, and it sounds like you’ve got it down! 😍
I was thinking the same thing! Thanks for the tip on adding to it to make it a different dish, I hadn’t thought of that. Mmmmmm….