We all have one — a dish we don’t need a recipe for. The prepping, cooking and serving has become second nature, like a dance you’ve danced a million times before. When you whip it together from memory on a busy weeknight or at a vacation rental, it makes you feel a little accomplished, like you’ve figured it all out. (Even if it’s just for that brief shining moment.) The collection of recipes below, which is by no means a definitive list, includes those that you might want to work on memorizing next. They are back-pocket dishes that will never do you wrong.
This quintessential stew from Molly O’Neill was first published in the Times in 1994, and it is still a well-loved reader favorite during the chilly months of the year. You can’t go wrong with it as-is, but don’t hesitate to experiment with using different root vegetables, herbs and spices, or add a bit of tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce or balsamic vinegar to liven things up.
There is nothing quite as satisfying as whipping up your own crisp-tender naan to dip into a bowl of homemade dal or curry. This one, which Sam Sifton adapted from Meera Sodha, the British cookbook author, is quite simple and infinitely satisfying. “Once you make the recipe two or three times you’ll never buy naan again,” he writes.
Recipe: Meera Sodha’s Naan
Excellent served with crusty bread or a tangle of buttery noodles, Melissa Clark’s recipe is better than anything you could get at a seafood restaurant chain. The key is not to overcook the shrimp. You want them pink all over, but not curled too tightly with, as Melissa says, “the texture of tires.”
Recipe: Classic Shrimp Scampi
Adobo is the national dish of the Philippines, in which chicken, pork or fish is braised in a salty, sweet and tangy mix of rice vinegar, bay leaves, garlic, chiles and plenty of black pepper (and sometimes coconut milk, included here). Sam Sifton adapted this version from Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, who run the Purple Yam restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. It is outrageously good.
This four-ingredient sauce from Marcella Hazan has its detractors, but it is a real feat of practical magic. Combine a stick of butter, a can of tomatoes, one peeled and halved onion and a bit of salt, let simmer for about 45 minutes until the tomatoes have broken down into a silky sauce. Serve over noodles or use it as the base of a comforting baked pasta.
Recipe: Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce
While it’s traditionally a Persian New Year dish, sabzi polo with tahdig, or herbed rice with a crisp crust, makes a great accompaniment to any roasted or grilled vegetable, meat or fish. There are a few steps, but they are all quite simple, and the results are wildly impressive. You’ll need to summon your courage to flip the cooked rice cake onto a platter, but don’t most good things require a leap of faith?
Recipe: Sabzi Polo (Herbed Rice With Tahdig)
Dreamy with a capital D, Millie Peartree’s Southern macaroni and cheese is wonderfully rich thanks to a milk-and-egg base. Extra-sharp Cheddar adds tang and a layer of Colby Jack creates a gooey center. Make this your fall potluck go-to.
Recipe: Southern Macaroni and Cheese
Doubanjiang (spicy bean sauce), Sichuan peppercorns and fermented black beans make this mapo tofu from Andrea Nguyen delightfully spicy and umami-rich. (These ingredients are easily found at Chinese markets or online, and keep for ages.) It’s traditionally made with ground beef, but you can use lamb, turkey or plant-based “meat,” too. Serve over rice with something bright and green.
Recipe: Mapo Tofu
Found all over Latin America in many different variations, arroz con pollo is a true comfort food that lends itself to improvisation. This version from Von Diaz calls for boneless chicken thighs. Bone-in works, too, but skip boneless chicken breasts because they don’t have enough fat or flavor to carry through the seasonings of the dish. To save time, instead of making your own sofrito, there is no shame in buying it in the freezer section.
Recipe: Arroz Con Pollo
Meatballs are always a good idea, but they can skew dry, and pan-frying them can be a messy endeavor. Kay Chun uses ricotta for a supremely tender and moist meatball, then bakes them for a low-fuss alternative. Try underbaking them slightly, then finish cooking them in a pot of sauce for flavor that carries all the way through the meatball. This recipe calls for pork, but also works well with beef, or a combination.
Recipe: Pork and Ricotta Meatballs
Truth: Once you try this recipe from the chef Judy Rodgers, you’ll never roast a chicken another way again. It calls for dry brining the bird in the fridge for one to three days in advance, but if you don’t have time for that (who does?), an hour or two, or even just the time it takes to heat the oven, will do. The key to flavorful crisp skin and fall-apart meat is getting your pan super hot and using plenty of salt to season the bird.
For impossibly fudgy and dense brownies, Alice Medrich calls for baking them at high heat, then plunging the pan into an ice water bath so the batter slumps and concentrates into a truffle-like delight. A word of caution: Don’t use a glass pan. It could shatter upon hitting the ice water.
Recipe: New Classic Brownies
Mark Bittman’s pancake recipe is just as it should be: simple and foolproof, which means pancakes don’t have to be a weekend-only affair. Try using different flours or adding fruit or chocolate chips to the batter. If you have leftovers, separate with layers of parchment paper and freeze in a resealable bag or airtight container, then reheat individual pancakes in a toaster oven.
Recipe: Everyday Pancakes
Well, duh. Everyone needs a good chicken soup in their arsenal, and Julia Moskin’s fits the bill. Use the best poultry you can find, and here’s a smart reader tip: “If you’re planning on leftovers, don’t cook the noodles in the soup. Cook them separately and add to individual bowls. Save leftover noodles separately, too. It keeps them from getting too soggy.”
Recipe: Chicken Soup From Scratch