11 Formats for Dinner Tonight
Whether you’re a good meal planner or a last-minute shopper like me, cooking (almost) every night is easier when you rely on a handful of tested and beloved recipe formats. On a given week, I tend to sketch out meal formats, rather than meals – which I’ve mentioned here before. Today, I’ve got more to say about my process, and I’m aiming to pass on some ideas about formulating your own go-to list of dinner types rather than dinners, whether you plan ahead of time or stop at the market nightly.
For me, the scoping goes like this: I pick a couple of formats for the week ahead, shop for ingredients that will work with them, and then let spur-of-the-moment plans, unexpected cravings, and random bursts of creativity take over. I don’t come home to an empty pantry, but I also don’t tie myself to saucy stir-fried pork on a night when it turns out I need pork fried rice.
Here are the 11 formats I turn to again and again.
1. Pasta with tomato sauce. The one, the only. Here’s how to make it the best ever. Make sauce by sauteing onions and garlic in oil, then adding broken-up whole canned tomatoes, salt, and oregano. Cook the pasta in salted water and scoop it right into the sauce. Finish with a lot of olive oil and a lot of parm. Also, put cubes of fresh mozzarella in the bottom of your bowl before filling it with pasta for a gooier delight.
2. Pasta with vegetables or other sauces. This gets a separate entry, because pasta is the best weeknight dinner in the world. Saute a few garlic cloves in some olive oil, then add a lot of a vegetable (zucchini, kale, broccoli, carrots, winter squash, or a mix!) and a little water and then cook, covered, until the veggie is really tender. Add the pasta straight from its pot of boiling water, plus some of the cooking water to make a sauce. Add a lot of parm and serve. And maybe some breadcrumbs, as in this brown butter-broccoli number. Alternatively: make pesto and toss pasta with that. Peanut noodles also count.
3. Soup & sandwich. The soup part can be really simple: broth with veggies or tomato soup. The sandwich could be a grilled cheese, a quesadilla, or even avocado toast. Honestly, the s&s pairing is so solid that two don’t even really have to match, flavor-wise, so whip up whatever you’re in the mood for. Here are some sandwiches and here are some soups. Come summer, consider replacing one of those s’s with a salad.
4. Square meal (meat or fish, starch, veg). The square meal gets short shrift on this site, mainly because it can cost more money than your average curry or bowl of rice. But what you lose in dollars you make up for in time. Here’s the chicken version: put two olive-oil coated and salt & pepper-seasoned chicken breasts in a preheated 425°F oven. Cut a sweet potato into fry shapes, toss with olive oil, and put those on a separate sheet in the oven. Cut up another vegetable, like broccoli or fennel, and put that on yet another pan. Cook all for about 30 minutes until chicken is done and veggies are cooked through and crisp, then serve. Here’s the fish version: do exactly the same thing, but pan fry the fish once the veggies are done. Or do this with salmon. Dress everything in a little homemade vinaigrette or a green sauce. You can also buy a good baguette and then not make the sweet potato at all.
5. Stir-fry. A little bit of up-front work earns you the quickest cooking time in the world. First, start some white rice. Then, chop up aromatics–onion, garlic, ginger–and a separate vegetable like bok choy or Chinese broccoli. Prep a protein in small-ish slices or cubes. Mix up a sauce that’s equal parts white wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, and sugar (check), plus a dash of cornstarch. Cook the protein in the oil with the aromatics, then put that on a plate. Cook the veggies in a little more oil, then return the protein to the pan. Add the sauce and let everything thicken before serving, perhaps over rice. Here are a few favorites: Sweet & Sour Tofu, Stir-Fried Napa Cabbage with Soba, Chicken & Leek Stir-Fry with Snowpeas, Peppersteak.
6. Quick stew or curry. While most stews stew for hours, some stews come together in minutes, so long as you season them seriously. A Thai coconut milk curry is a cinch if you stock curry paste, while a tomato-based chickpea curry can grace your table in 20 minutes, once you’ve minced ginger, garlic, and onions, sautéed them with curry powder, added cans of tomatoes and chickpea, and maybe thrown in some greens. I like this Chicken Curry recipe a lot, too. A smoked paprika-scented bouillabaisse turns fish, shrimp, and clams into dinner.
7. Potato & veggie hash with eggs. I never sneer at the miscellany of vegetables in my fridge or my onion basket, because a few of them together might become a delicious hash. Do this with any vegetables you like, then top with a fried egg and a handful of grated cheddar, perhaps.
8. Fritters, cakes & frittatas. These are clumped together because they start with the same ingredients: veggies, maybe leftover, an onion, and some eggs. Consider fritters to be akin to latkes (okonomiykai and zucchini-scallion fritters are two good ones), while cakes are a little more starchy (may I present red lentil burgers and quinoa cakes for your enjoyment?). Leftover spaghetti happily turns into spaghetti frittatas, while winter squash and rice become the lovable Winter Squash Bake.
9. Fried rice. I’ll never, ever get sick of fried rice: not the process of making it, not the taste of eating it, and not the fact that it turns leftovers into deliciousness better than anything else in the world. Make it just like you’d do a stir-fry, above, but skip the sauce, use plenty of oil, and throw in handfuls of cooled-down/dried-out rice at the end. Finish everything off with an egg scrambled in–and plenty of sriracha. I like this recipe for Shiitake-Cashew Fried Rice and this one for Steak-Quinoa Fried Rice. If you think you have nothing to put in with the rice, check out this minimalist version on Food52.
10. Salads & grain salads. You know how to make your favorite salad, probably, but that’s just one version in an endless array of dinners. If you want inspiration, read here about salad assembly, combinations, and, most importantly chopping. But don’t stop at lettuce. Cabbage is a good base. So is quinoa. So are cooked vegetables, like broccoli, especially in winter. The other day, I tossed cooked lentils and farro with my cilantro pesto and that was salad-like in its way. Bulk up your salad with a mix of proteins–nuts, beans, and bacon can all contribute–and look to eggs or the pantry’s can of tuna to finish things off. This is a Caesar-y dressing I absolutely adore.
11. Tacos. Wrap anything in a tortilla, and dinner immediately looks better. Try a mix of sautéed veggies or shredded chicken or scrambled eggs with a dollop of avocado and some shredded cabbage. But you can also throw Middle Eastern carrots in. I keep tortillas in the freezer, but if you don’t, maybe turn your taco fillings into some sort of salad or burrito bowl. And, if grilled cheese is more your style, turn that taco right into a quesadilla.