I have forever seen recipes on TV and around the web for something called Mexican Lasagna, a giant layered casserole that contains pretty much everything we love and cannot get enough of — tortillas, beans, salsa, cheese and then some — but couldn’t bring myself to make one because I make bad decisions based on trivial things, such as the name, which made me cringe (must we blame the people of Naples or Mexico for the unholy ways we Frankenstein their cuisine?) and the fact that I hadn’t exactly run out of excuses to eat tortillas, beans, salsa and cheese yet and thus didn’t need to enlist another one. Don’t worry, Deb is going to see the error of her ways in the next paragraph.
Weeknight Favorite Archive
I read about French farçous pancakes for the first time on Friday morning and by lunchtime I was eating them. As my usual process of funneling the hundreds of recipe ideas swarming around in my head into a single one worth sharing is an exercise in exasperation involving extensive considerations of how I’d like to approach something, ingredient availability, time availability, estimated number of rounds it will take to get said recipe right, scanning my worry meter over all the places I suspect it might flop, number of stores to get to find ingredients, all interspersed with baby feedings, and overdue items on an forever-long to-do list, getting from “yes I want to make this” to “eating it” in a little over an hour alone makes this the best thing I’ve made this year.
Although I am firmly of the belief that the internet needs another recipe for chicken crockpot chili like your groggy narrator needs another morning of her mini-humans rousing her before 6 a.m., when I went to make my own one night, I was dissatisfied with what I found. It wasn’t because recipes out there weren’t good, or well-reviewed and certainly not because they hadn’t made countless other people out there content at mealtimes, but because they weren’t what I was looking for. And, well, as that’s how we got here in the first place, it seems appropriate enough to step into the year 2016, the year this website turns ten, not fighting this at all.
Prior to last week, I only liked baked potatoes two ways and the first was so weird, I usually had the decency to keep it to myself. Many years ago, I had an internship a couple blocks from a lunch place with a baked potato sub-menu, full of odd and awesome topping combinations. My favorite involved a marinated tomato-pepper salad, avocado, cheese and — yesss — ranch dressing and it was amazing and wonderful and stop looking at me like that because I have missed and longed for it since. The second way I like baked potatoes is equally troublesome, the classic with “the works” involving heaps of cheese, butter, sour cream, bacon, chives and blood pressure medication. I no longer eat them the first way because the sandwich shop is 250 miles from here and also it has since closed; I usually resist eating them the second way because if I’m going to have all of the fat and calories of a golden, glistening and salted pile of French fries, I’d rather have them in said French fry format.
Regarding the ever-present stacks of cookbooks around the apartment, my mother joked to me on Sunday that I should open a library. She’s probably right. I don’t think that a week goes by that I don’t* receive at least one new cookbook and I hardly know where to dive in. And don’t get me wrong, I too swoon over the currently in-demand aesthetic of vertically oriented, dimly lit photos of reclaimed weathered barnwood tables boasting sauce splatters and variations on kale on matte pages bound in jacketless books. It’s just that they’re all starting to jumble together.
What makes a recipe great? In my head, there’s a list of ten things and eight of them are different ways of saying the first one, which is “It works.”
- It works.
- For everyone. In every kitchen.
- Without requiring an advanced cooking degree or preexisting mastery of obscure techniques.
- Or voodoo.
- Definitely not prayer.
- It explains what you need to do in the clearest language possible.
- It anticipates where most home cooks might struggle. If something is a game-changer — i.e. it will kill the recipe if you don’t adhere closely to a step — it will warn you.
- Did I mention that it needs to work? Because it doesn’t matter what you’re making or who gave you the recipe or how transcendent it was at the Michelin-starred restaurant that night, if the recipe printed in a publication intended for home cooks doesn’t work for most of us at home, it sucks as a recipe. It leads to bad meals, bad moods and take-out. A recipe flop is about the worst way to spend your limited free time. It is a 100% guarantee that you’re not going to feel like cooking next time you have a chance.
Over the last couple years — a dark time in which I’ve slowly had to accept that my once-tiny baby with fairly simple needs now required real square meals at very specific times of the day, such as dinner, far earlier than we ever do and that he’d likely be looking to me (me!) to provide them or face the hangry consequences — I’ve attempted to increase my repertoire of two things: 1. Dinners that can be made easily in under an hour that I actually want to eat, and 2. Casseroles. No, no, I don’t mean the canned cream of soupiness things. I mean, the idea of taking disparate meal parts and baking them in a big dish until they’re much more than the sum of their ingredients. Plus, they’re dinnertime magic: they reheat well; they make excellent leftovers for as long as you can stretch them; and they rarely require anything more on the side than a green salad (for grownups) or steamed broccoli (for people who haven’t yet come around to salad). Long Live The Casserole Rethought With Minimally Processed Ingredients! is hardly a sexy catchphrase, but there you have it: my new battle cry.