I used to avoid repeating recipes. Now I depend on it.
There was a time when I took variety in meals very seriously. Rarely would I serve the same dish in a month, preferring to constantly expand my culinary horizons and mine the wealth of recipes that exists in my cookbook and food magazine collections, with occasional forays online. There's so much wonderful food out there, I reasoned, so why would I 'waste' a night repeating anything?
Well, my attitude quickly changed as my family grew in number and appetite and I started working full-time. Suddenly, putting food on the table was less about creative expression and far more about practicality. Repetitive recipes didn't bother me anymore; what I needed was speed, quantity, and affordability. (Read: My new time-saving, stress-free approach to cooking)
It's been interesting to see the results over the past 18 months, since our family dynamic has shifted due to my new job. I track most of my family's meals so I can get fast ideas for menu-planning on weekends, and now I see there's a definite pattern to them. While there are many dishes I make frequently, there are 5 main ones that get repeated constantly, to the point where we're usually eating them once a week.
I can't imagine life without these recipes -- and by 'recipes', I should really say 'meal ideas'. I don't always follow the exact same recipe because it depends on what's in the fridge, what's in season, and what's on sale at the grocery store. All of these, however, are highly versatile, expandable, repeatable, and made from easy-to-find ingredients. They take relatively little time to assemble and use simple techniques. This is what my family subsists on these days.
Bean chili: Who doesn't love a great chili? My go-to standard recipe is entirely bean-based, made from a mix of kidney, black, and cannellini beans, sometimes with chickpeas, too. If I have a package of soy ground round I add that, too, or sometimes a pound of ground beef. There's always a spoonful of chipotle paste in there to give smoky heat. (I purée those small cans of chipotles in adobo sauce and add it to everything.) But basically, it's a giant bubbling pot of heart, tomatoey, spicy chili that delights the whole family. Serve it with grated cheese and diced avocado, with cornmeal muffins or warm baguette on the side.
Paneer curry with rice: Ever since my mother gave me Madhur Jaffrey's wonderful cookbook, Vegetarian India, two years ago, we eat a lot of paneer. I buy two 1-lb packages at the grocery store each week. (Multiple people have told me it's super easy to make from scratch, but I just haven't tried it yet.) Then, depending on who's cooking, my husband will make butter paneer, which is a vegetarian take on butter chicken that uses canned tomatoes and whipping cream, or I will make paneer with spinach sauce, a less-rich but equally delicious curry. We eat it with steamed rice and another veggie on the side, and our kids can't get enough of it.
Lentil-coconut soup: Admittedly, this is a brand new recipe that just came out in the December edition of Bon Appétit magazine, courtesy of Yotam Ottolenghi, but I've been making lentil soups regularly for years and am utterly obsessed with this recipe. It tastes like a curried chickpea soup I used to make that was incredibly labor-intensive, except that this version takes, quite literally, 10 minutes to get all the ingredients into a pot. It is so, so simple, and yet divinely delicious. I quadruple it and freeze the leftovers.
Tostadas: Because I don't have time to make tortillas from scratch and am not a big fan of store-bought flour or corn tortillas, I prefer to fry them quickly in a bit of oil to add flavor. Then we pile them high with whatever's on hand -- canned black beans cooked with onions and spices, diced chicken, leftover steak, cumin-rubbed white fish, shredded cabbage with lime juice and olive oil, grated cheese, avocado, salsa. Pass the hot sauce and those tostadas disappear in the blink of an eye.
Baked oatmeal: In a departure from the dinner theme, this is a breakfast staple that shows up on our table at least twice a week. In five minutes, I stir together a heap of oats, a bit of sugar, baking powder, milk, melted butter, and egg, and toss it in a baking pan with whatever add-ins I can find -- shredded coconut, frozen blueberries, grated apple. Half an hour later, there's a huge pan of baked oatmeal ready to eat. The kids are far more inclined to eat this than gluey boiled oatmeal (myself included). A double batch lasts us two mornings and reheats nicely in the microwave on the second day. (You can find the recipe here in the 1st slide of '5 delicious ways to eat oatmeal for breakfast.')
What are your family's staple meals and how do they save you time and money in the kitchen?