If you're not making your food multi-task as much as you are, you're doing it all wrong. Something as simple as chicken breast can be crumbed schnitzel one week and the star of pad Thai noodles the next. Salmon or ocean trout can turn up as fish fingers, carpaccio with a mustard and dill sauce, and under a crust of mashed potato in a pot pie without anyone hiding a yawn. And there's no end to the ways you can deliver that legendary hashtag #putaneggonit.
After identifying 10 major ingredients with a little help from our search engine, and with a bare-bones basic pantry, I've workshopped the options and come up with mini-recipes for 40 different meals. Yeah, 40. No repeats, no more what's-for-dinner brain freezes, and no more running all over town looking for some ingredient nobody has ever heard of.
THE 10 INGREDIENTS:
Chicken, salmon, pasta or noodles, spinach, tomatoes, cheese, eggs, beans or lentils, potatoes and ham or bacon.
IN THE PANTRY:
Sea salt and black pepper, olive oil, butter, flour, milk, cream, honey. A few basic sauces, such as oyster, soy, chilli. Spices, of course. Here's hoping you also have fresh herbs, garlic, chillies, good bread, yoghurt and lemons to hand – and if you don't, you should.
Recipes serve 4 unless otherwise stated
Chicken pad Thai: Soak rice-stick noodles in boiling water for 15 minutes, then strain. Make a two-egg omelette and cut into strips. Heat oil in a pan, and cook sliced garlic, drained noodles, sliced cooked chicken, omelette, fish sauce, tomato sauce, lime or lemon juice, chilli and sugar, tossing constantly over high heat. Serve with mint and coriander.
Green mac 'n' cheese: Lightly cook spinach and whiz to a puree. Stir into a basic white sauce with plenty of grated cheese, nutmeg, paprika, salt and pepper and cooked macaroni, toss well, strew with grated cheese and bake in an oiled tin until golden and bubbling.
Singapore chilli salmon: In a wok, heat oil and cook sliced garlic and red chilli. Add chilli sauce, tomato sauce, chicken or veg stock and a touch of salt and sugar, stirring. Cut the salmon into bite-size chunks and cook in the chilli sauce for 5 minutes or until done. Thicken with a little cornflour and serve with rice noodles.
Winter pan con tomate: Cut four tomatoes in half and bake at 180C for 20 minutes. Cut four soft bread rolls in half, flatten and lightly grill. Brush with olive oil and rub with garlic, then crush the warm tomatoes on top and #putafriedeggonit.
Caramelised salmon: Make a caramel sauce with half cup sugar, half cup water, fish sauce and fresh red chilli, and simmer for 5 minutes until thickened. Simmer bite-size salmon chunks in the sauce, add lime or lemon juice to taste, and toss with mint and coriander if you have them.
Croque-madame: Mix 3 tbsp grated cheese (gruyere if you have it) with 1 or 2 tbsp sour cream (or yoghurt), pepper, 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce (if handy) and 1 tsp Dijon mustard. Butter both sides of 4 slices of white bread, cover 2 of them with the mix, top with ham, close each sandwich and fry until lightly golden on both sides. Top with a fried egg. Makes 2.
Spanish revueltos with salmon and spinach: Beat 8 eggs with sea salt, pepper, 1 tsp smoked paprika. Heat oil in a frypan and fry 2 finely sliced garlic cloves. Add bite-size chunks of salmon and wilted spinach, then pour in the eggs. Cook over medium heat, pushing the eggs around the pan with a wooden paddle until just set.
Slow-cooked chicken in red wine: Dust chicken thighs with flour and brown in oil. Add 1 cup red wine and bring to the boil. Add 500ml tomato passata, 400g canned chopped tomatoes, 2 tbsp tomato sauce, dried oregano, grated garlic and a dozen halved chat potatoes, and cook low and slow for 2 hours.
Asian salmon omelette: Beat 2 eggs with a dash of soy sauce, chopped coriander (if handy) and salt and pepper, and pour into a hot, oiled pan. When nearly set, strew with flaked cooked salmon, coriander, mint, basil (or whatever herbs you have to hand) and chilli. Fold in half and stripe with oyster sauce. For one.
Chicken tikka: Cut chicken into cubes, toss in yoghurt, lemon juice and curry powder. Thread onto skewers and grill for 5 minutes each side until cooked. Serve with yoghurt.
Chicken skewers. Photo: Supplied
Baked tomato eggs: In a pan, simmer canned chopped tomatoes, a slug of olive oil, cumin, paprika, sugar, salt and pepper and 200ml water for 10 minutes until thick and saucy. Make two holes in the sauce, break an egg into each, cover and simmer for 5 minutes or until cooked. Serve with coriander and yoghurt. For two.
Thai chicken with basil and mint: Cook 500g minced chicken and chopped chilli in 100ml water, 2 tbsp Thai fish sauce, 1 tsp sugar and 1 tbsp lemon or lime juice until meat is brown. Add loads of mint and basil (if you have them), and serve with rice noodles.
Lentil crostini with poached egg: Cook lentils in simmering water for 30 minutes until tender. Drain and mix with home-made tomato sugo, cumin and paprika, salt and pepper. Serve on garlic-rubbed sourdough toast with poached eggs and crumbled feta.
Spaghetti and meatballs: Soak a thick slice of stale bread in milk, squeeze dry, chop and mix with 500g minced chicken, parmesan, egg white, sea salt, pepper, garlic, parsley and lemon zest. Form into balls and gently cook in home-made tomato sugo until tender. Toss with spaghetti and top with parmesan.
Use chicken in spaghetti and meatballs. Photo: Quentin Jones
Flat-roast chicken with dill yoghurt: Hang the yoghurt through a coffee filter overnight, then mix with chopped dill. Cut the chicken down the backbone, open up and flatten out. Scatter with olive oil, garlic, oregano, sliced lemon and dried chilli and bake at 200C for 50 minutes. Cut into chunky pieces and serve with dill yoghurt.
Pasta shells with parmesan cream: Cook large pasta shells until al dente, drain, and arrange in an oiled gratin dish. Combine 1 cup cream, 2 tbsp grated parmesan, grated lemon zest, nutmeg and finely sliced garlic and gently heat. Add the chopped ham, pour over the pasta shells, scatter with extra parmesan and bake for 20 minutes until bubbling.
Salmon and potato pot pie: Make the parmesan cream sauce (see above), and combine with chunks of fresh salmon and wilted spinach. Pile into large ramekins, top with mashed potato, dot with butter and parmesan and bake until golden.
Baked beans on toast: Combine cooked white beans with tomato passata, dash of water, tomato sauce, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce (if you have it), mustard, salt and pepper, and chopped parsley and simmer, stirring, until thick. Pile onto grilled sourdough and top with a fried egg.
Scram with ham: Whisk 8 eggs in a bowl with sea salt, pepper, chopped parsley and a dash of milk. Melt butter in a frypan and cook over medium heat, pushing the eggs around with a wooden paddle until just set. Serve on hot toast spread with Dijon mustard and topped with good ham.
Pasta alla carbonara: Chop 4 rashers of bacon and fry until crisp. Beat 4 eggs with 3 tbsp grated parmesan and lots of black pepper. Add the hot drained pasta to the bacon, tossing well, then tip the lot into the egg mixture, toss well and serve.
Carbonara is quick and easy. Photo: Supplied
Cobb salad: An American sweetheart, Cobb is a bright and breezy line-up of fully chopped, ready-to-eat ingredients. Try it with roast chicken, blue cheese, crisp bacon, tomato, spinach (in lieu of lettuce) and hard-boiled egg and serve with a blue cheese vinaigrette.
Chicken schnitty: Bash each chicken breast flat, dip in flour, then beaten egg then breadcrumbs and fry in butter and oil until golden. Serve with creamed spinach.
Pan-fried salmon with white bean puree: Heat drained white beans with rosemary or thyme, paprika, salt and pepper and a little tomato paste, then blend until smooth. Cook the salmon skin side down in hot oil until done to your liking, then served skin side up.
Pasta e fagioli: Half-soup, half-stew, all good. Combine canned chopped tomatoes with a hunk of good ham, cannellini beans and short pasta and simmer until all is tender. Shred the ham through the soup, add chopped parsley and salt and pepper, and top with olive oil, pepper and parmesan.
Zuppa di Fagioli - farro and bean soup. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
Tuscan roast chicken: Arrange chicken thighs and legs on roasting tray, top with salt, pepper, olive oil, sliced garlic, sliced lemon and rosemary and bake for 30 minutes. Roll rough chunks of stale sourdough bread in the garlicky pan juices and olive oil, and bake for a further 20 minutes. Serve with beans.
Salmon Caesar: A bare-bones Caesar – just salmon fillets, gently pan-fried until you can pull the just-pink lobes apart, tucked into spinach (in lieu of cos leaves) with soft-boiled eggs, croutons and a strong vinaigrette spiked with parmesan and anchovy (everyone has anchovy, right?).
Chicken scallopine: Bash out two chicken breasts, tear into little rags and toss lightly in seasoned flour. Heat oil and cook the chicken over high heat, tossing well. Add 1 cup white wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper (and capers if you have them) and cook until lightly creamy. Add heaps of parsley and serve with mash.
Warm salmon, lentil and potato salad: Cook lentils with two diced potatoes in simmering salted water until tender. Drain, toss with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and serve with crisp-skinned salmon and fresh coriander (if you have it).
Little egg and bacon pies: Take one oiled muffin tray. Line each hole with bacon, crack in a large egg, add a dash of cream, grated parmesan, chopped chives, salt and pepper and bake for 18 minutes until set. That's it.
Bacon-wrapped chicken breast: Season chicken breasts and wrap with rindless bacon rashers. Pan-fry in a little oil until golden then bake at 200C until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Serve with mash.
Salmon fishcakes: Mix cooked salmon with mashed potato, tomato sauce, lemon zest, paprika, parsley, salt and pepper and form into patties. Dip each in flour, then beaten egg, then breadcrumbs to coat, and cook in a little butter and oil until golden on both sides. Serve with crisp bacon and lemon.
Just substitute white fish for salmon in fish cakes. Photo: William Meppem
Spaghetti al pomodoro: Cook up a quick tomato sugo with canned chopped tomatoes, sliced garlic, salt, pepper, dried oregano and a slug of olive oil for 10 minutes until thickened. Add drained spaghetti, toss well and serve with parmesan and black pepper.
Spaghetti pie: Make spaghetti al pomodoro (see above), then pile it into an oiled baking dish, top with grated parmesan and bake until crisp.
Spaghetti jaffle: Make spaghetti al pomodoro (see above), cooking spaghetti until soft. Add heaps of grated cheese, and jaffle it in a sandwich maker until crisp, hissy and golden.
Salmon carpaccio: Whisk together honey, Dijon mustard, olive oil, a touch of vinegar, salt, pepper and chopped dill. Finely slice sashimi-grade salmon and arrange on plates, scatter with finely chopped hard-boiled eggs and spoon on the dill dressing.
Spicy chicken noodle stir-fry: Heat oil in a wok and fry sliced garlic and chilli, add finely sliced chicken breast and toss well. Add egg noodles, soy, oyster and chilli sauces, tossing well. Add diced, cooked potato and spinach leaves and toss until wilted.
Add whatever vegies are to hand for a spicy chicken stir-fry. Photo: Linsey Rendell
Southern fried chicken: Dredge chicken drummies and thighs in flour, salt, cayenne, paprika and cumin, then fry in 1cm-deep hot oil for 5 minutes until well browned. Transfer to the oven and bake at 200C for 15 minutes. Serve with blue cheese and spinach salad.
Lentil and chicken soup: Cook 400g lentils in vegie stock for 30 minutes or until tender. Add canned chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, soy sauce, diced cooked potato, shredded cooked chicken, chopped parsley, ground coriander, cayenne and salt and pepper and cook for 15 minutes. Serve with a swirl of olive oil and cracked pepper.
Pesto-stuffed chicken breast: Whizz basil, parsley, garlic, grated parmesan and olive oil into a cheaty pesto. Thicken with breadcrumbs and stuff under the skin of each chicken breast. Bake at 200C for 20 minutes and serve with salad.
Jacket potato with cheese and bacon: Bake whole large potatoes for 1 hour at 200C until tender. Crumble 3 crisp bacon rashers into fresh ricotta (if you have it) with sea salt, pepper and paprika. Scoop out the top of each potato, add the ricotta mixture, scatter with grated parmesan, heat and serve.