We’ve all become intimately acquainted with our kitchens over the past few weeks. While cooking can be a cathartic activity, going from cooking meals a few times per week to preparing three meals a day all seven days (plus snacks) is another story.
This goes double for parents who are suddenly planning and cooking every meal for themselves and their families — which means juggling picky palates, dietary restrictions, and varying schedules. Triple for those who are also working full time.
Since you're now cooking all these meals at home, it's a great time to get creative in the kitchen. Working with appliances you already own, whether it’s a trusty cast iron skillet or a rarely touched specialty appliance stored deep inside a cabinet, here are some easy, crowd-pleasing recipes to try out so you don't get tired of eating the same things.
You’ve likely already been using your blender for basics like smoothies and juices. We love a protein shake with frozen fruit after a workout or a cold cocktail on the porch after a day of work or running around after kids. But there are other ways to use your blender to jazz up weekday meals without more effort.
Even the simplest dish is elevated by a flavorful sauce or dressing, and one of our recent favorites is romesco. Blister a couple of red bell peppers in your oven, then seed them and blend them with high-quality olive oil, garlic, paprika, toasted almonds (or any other nut), salt, and a splash of red vinegar or lemon. Usually, if I don’t like how it tastes off the bat, I just add more salt or olive oil until I’m satisfied.
You can prepare big batches of rice, roasted vegetables, and protein with minimal seasoning and easily dress them up with romesco. This will keep in the fridge for at least a week, so it’s easy to make a large batch to enjoy for weeknight lunches and dinners.
Some other ideas: Find a recipe for chimichurri, romesco, pesto, or mole. Homemade salad dressings are super easy and often better than store-bought, too.
Even if you’re only cooking for one, you likely have a huge stockpot taking up space in your cabinets. This is a reliable kitchen staple that’s ideal for making your own broth (much cheaper than store-bought) or cooking large batches of chili during football season.
Gumbo can seem intimidating to make at home because it’s a time-intensive task. Its base is a roux, which is a mixture of fat (like butter or oil) and flour used to thicken sauces and, as in this case, stocks. The kicker is that gumbo roux typically needs to be painstakingly stirred for about 45 minutes to an hour over a burner on very low heat. However, it’s absolutely worth the labor because (a) gumbo is delicious, and (b) you can prepare a huge batch and freeze some to make your labor worthwhile.
For the roux, you just need equal parts flour (you can sub rice flour or a gluten-free blend) and vegetable oil to your stockpot. Stir it constantly over low heat until the flour has turned a dark coppery color. Next, add the “holy trinity” of Creole cuisine: diced onion, green bell pepper, and okra. Once these are coated, pour in seafood stock, a can or two of diced tomatoes, seasoning (we recommend bay leaves, thyme, oregano, cajun spice, Tabasco, and Worcestershire), and Andouille sausage (if desired), then let it all simmer for about an hour. You can add white fish or shrimp and serve over white rice with more Tabasco.
If you can’t find fish or you’re trying your hand at more meatless meals, gumbo made with vegetable stock and topped with oven-roasted tofu is delicious. If your recipe calls for gumbo filé, there’s no need to invest in this rarely-used ingredient; just make sure to add plenty of okra to get a similar taste effect.
Baking sheets aren’t just for cookies. They can be used, among other things, for roasting big batches of vegetables, blocks of tofu, or home fries. If you have a local farmer’s market, this is a great opportunity to support local farmers and buy whatever produce is in season. From radishes to mushrooms to potatoes, tossing these raw ingredients in oil and herbs or spices and roasting them makes a tasty side or main dish. If you’re tired of the standard roasted vegetables, it might be time to try something new.
If you have canned jackfruit, roasting it in the oven on a baking sheet is incredibly easy; all you do is drain the liquid, spread the jackfruit over the baking sheet (cover the sheet with aluminum foil if you want less cleanup), then coat with oil, salt, and whatever spice blend you prefer. We like a classic taco blend, barbecue rub, or berbere, an Ethiopian spice blend that actually tastes great on tacos.
Top your jackfruit tacos with guacamole, salsa, and a slice of roasted pineapple if you like the sweet and salty combo.
If you have a slow cooker, you likely use it during colder months (if you use it at all) to make Italian wedding soup and lentil stews or to bring chili and queso to tailgates. But we have a proposal that will put this set-it-and-forget-it appliance to use as the days warm up: curry. It may sound counterintuitive, but curry is actually suitable to eat during hotter months because the spice will cool you down (as long as you don’t mind sweating a little).
While you can buy pre-made curry sauces from most supermarkets, curry is undeniably better when it’s homemade with fresh spices and left to simmer all day. While you should still support your favorite takeout spots when you can (and also give yourself some much-needed respite from cooking duties), now is an ideal time to try making dishes that need to cook all day. If you don’t have specialty spices on hand, check with local restaurants to see if they might be selling blends.
Our favorite curry is a simple chickpea masala. Make this a weekday project: Get up early before logging in to work, prepare all ingredients, and add them to your slow cooker. Leave them unattended all day to bubble and fill your house with lovely scents until dinnertime. The basics for masala sauce are tomato (canned sauce or a combo of tomato paste and canned diced tomatoes), onion, garlic, ginger, oil, salt, cream, and a blend of spices (usually garam masala, paprika, and cumin). Add all desired ingredients to simmer in your slow cooker, then add drained and rinsed chickpeas about an hour before you’re ready to eat. Serve with white rice, naan, and cilantro.
A food processor is a surprisingly useful appliance, so if you have one sitting around and you aren’t using it, you should be. It can cut down on prep time for recipes that call for chopped vegetables, it can help you make nut butter at home, it can grind meat… the list goes on. But our favorite way to use our food processor? Making homemade snack dips.
Since snacking is constant while we’re all sheltering-in-place, why not replace your typical store-bought hummus with homemade? It’s a huge improvement in flavor, and if you have this dip on hand you might be less likely to reach for crackers or candy bars.
The necessary ingredients for traditional hummus are chickpeas (along with a bit of the liquid from the can), olive oil, tahini, salt, garlic, lemon juice, and cumin. Just add all ingredients and process until smooth, adjusting for taste. If you want to make roasted red pepper hummus, just add roasted red peppers and paprika. If you want to make chipotle hummus, sub the lemon for lime and add a tablespoon or two of chipotle in adobo sauce, which you can buy in cans at most supermarkets.
Cast iron skillets are the rage in modern kitchens, which is funny because they’re a piece of heirloom cookware that’s been around for many generations. People use these for all sorts of purposes: sauteing meats and vegetables, cooking over campfires, etc. However, our favorite way to use our cast iron right now might be a bit surprising: We’re using it to bake.
If you haven’t yet tried your hand at deep-south cooking but you own a cast iron skillet, flaky biscuits are a relatively easy-to-make baked good for beginners. Here’s a recipe sent to us by a lifetime Southern baker:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Pinch of baking powder
½ cup shortening
1 ½ cups whole milk buttermilk
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Combine flour, sugar, and baking powder in a large bowl. Add shortening to bowl and combine with flour using two knives until your mixture looks like flakes and peas. Make a “well” in the center of your bowl by pushing the flour/shortening mixture to the sides. Pour in the buttermilk and begin incorporating it by pulling in the flour/shortening mixture with a fork. When fully incorporated, you will have a fairly wet, loose dough.
Turn the dough out onto a heavily floured surface (waxed paper or a clean countertop). Fold the dough over onto itself several times, using floured hands. Do this until the dough holds together enough to pat out into a circle, about one inch thick. Using a two-inch circle cutter, dip it in flour and then cut the biscuit dough. Don’t twist the cutter; lift it straight up. If the dough comes with it, gently shake the cutter until the biscuit releases. Place biscuits, gently touching, on a greased cast iron skillet and bake for approximately 15 minutes.
If you happen to own an air fryer, you’re likely already skilled at making lower-oil french fries and chicken tenders. We’ve gotten more adventurous with our appliance, air frying things we never had before (like bell peppers and pieces of fruit), but our favorite experiment so far was air-fried tofu.
Many home cooks are intimidated by cooking tofu. Maybe it’s the texture or the need for seasoning. Maybe it’s the fact that it requires premeditation, as you have to drain each block to draw out as much moisture as possible. If you skip this step and try to roast or pan-fry tofu, you’re likely to get mushy, flavorless cubes. Even if you do perform this step, it can be hard to get your tofu tastefully crispy with traditional cooking methods. That’s why the air fryer is the tofu lover’s best friend.
You should still drain your tofu before you add it to your air fryer (and you should also marinate it) but this appliance quickly produces crispy tofu with no need for deep-frying. To make our favorite crispy orange tofu, you should cut the drained tofu into cubes and coat it with soy sauce and cornstarch, then cook it in the air fryer at around 400 degrees for about 8 or 10 minutes. In a skillet, simmer orange juice with zest, corn starch, garlic, ginger, salt, and a bit of maple syrup. When the tofu is crispy, add it to the sauce and serve over rice.
Many busy workers and parents use Instant Pots to quickly pull together weeknight meals. It’s a ridiculously fast way to prepare meat with minimal planning, and most models have multi-cooker modes that let you make rice or steam vegetables, too. But the only downside to cooking with an Instant Pot is that everything tends to come out with the same texture. However, this isn’t an issue when you’re making broth, which is why we propose that you put your Instant Pot to use making not-so-instant ramen.
The key to delicious ramen is the broth. Like curry, there’s clearly a big difference between instant ramen and homemade — but sometimes, you don’t want to spend all day waiting for your meal to be ready. Also like curry, all you need to do to make ramen broth is add all the ingredients to the Instant Pot — but rather than taking all day, it takes a matter of minutes.
Add the base (portobello mushroom, chicken, beef, or pork) with sesame oil, neutral oil, and diced onion on sauté mode for four or five minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and green onion for the last few seconds. Then add broth, miso paste, soy sauce, seaweed strips, and umami mushroom powder (if you have it), and cook under high pressure for between 5 and 10 minutes.
Rather than adding any vegetable garnishes to the Instant Pot (like extra mushrooms, carrots, or bok choy), oven roast them with sesame oil and soy sauce, as this preserves the textures and flavors. Serve it all over rice noodles with crunchy purple cabbage.
If you happen to own a sous vide machine, then you likely use it to prepare meat, and maybe the occasional vegetable. But if you’re missing weekend brunches, we propose that you break out this specialty appliance to poach eggs to eat with avocado toast, hollandaise, or skillet potatoes.
Poached eggs are a beloved brunch staple, but they’re pretty difficult to make just right — unless you own a sous vide, that is. The thing that makes poaching so difficult is that it requires extreme temperature control — which is exactly the function of a sous vide. In a deep pot or container, bring about four inches of water to 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 degrees Celsius). Lower eggs into water, cover, and leave for 12 minutes. When you pull the eggs out, put them directly into an ice bath for about one minute until they’re cool to the touch. And that’s it: The easiest possible way to make a notoriously difficult egg method.
Cameron Pitts is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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