Casual Kitchen’s Core Principles: #3: Identify and Exploit Simple, Scalable and Minimalist Recipes

This is part three of a six-part series on Casual Kitchen’s core principles. Find the beginning of this series here.

CK Core Principle #3: Identify and Exploit Simple, Scalable and Minimalist Recipes

Many recipes are "bad" in the sense that they’re labor intensive, require lots of prep work, contain a long list of costly ingredients, and are a general pain in the ass to make.

If you enjoy spending all day in the kitchen making recipes like this, go for it. But if you’re like most Casual Kitchen readers looking to get delicious and healthy dinners on the table with a minimum of time and fuss, it's a critical skill to be able to identify "good" recipes. Meaning: a recipe that’s both easy and delicious.

This skill isn’t hard to develop. All you have to do is ask yourself three quick questions as you read any recipe:

1) Does this recipe involve lots of prep work, several steps or a long list of ingredients?
2) Does it contain expensive or difficult-to-find ingredients?
3) Will it be difficult to double this recipe?

If you answer yes (or even maybe) to any of these three questions, "next" this recipe. Immediately. There are zillions of recipes out there that are shorter, easier and equally delicious. Go pick another one.

Now, am I telling you never to cook challenging and difficult recipes? Heavens no! I’m merely saying this: if you want an easier experience putting healthy food in front of your family, proper recipe selection is 90% of the battle. Short, simple and easy recipes have enormous advantages over complicated and difficult ones. They cost less. They take far less time. And they can be just as as delicious. Moreover, the shorter and simpler a recipe is, the less likely you’ll make a mistake, skip a step or otherwise mess up the recipe. Result? Dinner is on the table with a minimum of risk.

Okay. Let me share a quick thought on the double batch rule--one of the best sources of efficiency in cooking. Here at Casual Kitchen, we’re always on the lookout for what we call "scalable" recipes: recipes that can be easily doubled (or even tripled) with minimal incremental work.The point to making double batches, of course, is a double batch gives you not only dinner for tonight, but also dinner for future nights too. After all, there's no easier way to put a good dinner on the table than to reheat a dinner you've already made.

Generally, any simple recipe that meets the three questions test above will be a good candidate for the double batch rule. Go back and take another quick look at those three questions: you’ll find that for any given recipe, whatever answer you come up with for questions 1 and 2, you’re likely to get the same answer for question 3 as well.

Many recipes offer still more scale opportunities if you keep your mind open for them. It takes next to no time to slice up, say, six stalks of celery rather than three--just pile them up together and make the same number of cuts. Further, your costs per serving often go much lower thanks to scale benefits. Those incremental three stalks of celery came with the full-size package of celery you bought in the first place, right? Better to eat them now rather than have them rot in your fridge. Another example: Does it take any more effort to open a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes rather than a 14-ounce can? Nope, and yet your cost per unit for those tomatoes is significantly lower.

One last thought: There are dozens of highly scalable recipes here at Casual Kitchen that are both easy and excellent doubling candidates. All are available to readers for free. For a few prime examples, see my Chicken Mole, Black Beans and Rice, Smoky Brazilian Black Bean Soup, Navy Bean and Kielbasa Soup, Thai Pasta Salad and Viennese Potato Soup. These recipes are glorious gold mines of cooking efficiency and they can help you make tons of healthy food for your family with surprisingly little effort.

1) Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home contains a staggering collection of easy, interesting recipes.
2) Jules Clancy’s books, such as Five Ingredients, Ten Minutes and her blog, Stonesoup, offer classic, easy, minimalist recipes.
3) Jay Solomon’s Vegetarian Soup Cuisine: 125 Soups and Stews from Around the World
is an exceptional resource for simple, scalable and hearty soups and stews. Perfect for part time vegetarians. Note that this wonderful book is getting increasingly difficult to find!
4) For more context on the principles above, see:
How To Tell If a Recipe is Worth Cooking In Five Easy Questions
How To Get Faster At Cooking
Seven Rules To Ensure Mistake-Free Cooking, and
Casual Kitchen’s 25 Best Laughably Cheap Recipes, which is quickly becoming my all-time most trafficked post.

Next up! Core Principle #4: Focus On First-Order Foods

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Janet C. said...

I hope that you're correct in assuming most of your readers will know that the purpose of making double batches is to freeze half for later consumption, not so they can eat double servings! ;-) But seriously, the Keep it Simple Stupid principle is the only way to go in cooking!

Barb | Creative Culinary said...

While I love the occasional day long cooking session (think Julia Child's recipe for Beef Bourguignon), as a single mom it was always important to get good food on the table quick. Making enough for leftovers was critical; we weren't having any of that 'I don't like leftovers' in our home!

Two of my favorites? A well known pasta dish by Marcella Hazan combines canned tomatoes, an onion and butter that is served over pasta. It is FOUR ingredients but to die for. Just Google 'Marcella Hazan Tomato Butter Sauce' for the recipe.

Next, and hope you don't mind a link to my site, are these chicken thighs. One of the simplest dishes I make, they are SO good that I can barely get a plate to the table without devouring a couple straight out of the oven. Spices, chicken thighs, honey and cider vinegar. Amazing.

I love the perspective you bring and the help you offer to those who might view cooking as something difficult and unattainable. I had my two girls in the kitchen from an early age and am proud if part of my legacy that both can cook a great meal. But maybe prouder even of helping to do the same for their friends who never had that instruction at home. They are 'hungry' for the knowledge and to a one feel empowered after I teach them some basics. Forget fancy tools; the one thing I suggest for the 'make it easy' kitchen is a crockpot. It is magical. :)

Daniel said...

Janet, you have a point.. the second batch doesn't help if one eats twice as much. :)

Barb, thank you for your thoughts and your recipe ideas. I (and my readers) are always looking for creative, delicious and laughably easy recipes. Those look like really good ones!


Sally said...

I also look for recipes that aren't labor intensive, affordable and scalable, but those I can scale down, not up. If there are no more than four servings, I will make full recipes of soups and stews and a few other dishes.

I often repurpose leftovers. Roasts can become many other dishes. I t
season them simply initially, freeze in single servings,and add appropriate seasoning to make whatever dish I want.

A rice dish is first a side dish, but leftovers can become fried rice or served with a poached or fried egg.

Melissa said...

For frugality and simplicity, questions 1) and 2) up there are paramount. I've come to a point where I don't want to spend the time on fussy or complicated recipes nor do I want to make - or post anything on my blog - requiring hard to find or expensive ingredients.

If it's not easy and can't be done cheaply, I almost won't even look at it anymore. Bonus for it being easy to scale (halved or doubled).

Daniel said...

Sally, Melissa, great point on the value of a recipe that can scale *down.* Hadn't really thought about it that way, but it's a another useful feature of a scalable recipe. Thanks for the insight.