Zero energy? Nothing in the fridge? No problem. These weeknight dinners ask the bare minimum from you, and deliver way more than you'd expect.

By Adina Steiman
Updated February 20, 2020
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What makes people return to the same recipes over and over again? We often make recipes we know by heart because those recipes are just plain easier to cook. Forget about cook time or the length of the ingredient list: the most accurate metric of the effort it takes to make a recipe is more akin to something like emotional labor. 

In other words, does the recipe call for 5 ingredients but also involve a trip to the butcher for a specialty cut? Does it take 20 minutes to cook but involve plenty of splatter on the stovetop to clean up later, or tricky flipping, or nonstop stirring? Does the recipe require fresh oregano when you know the rest of it will shrivel away in your fridge? All these factors can tip the scale between firing up your stove on a weeknight and giving a mental shrug, throwing in the towel, and yielding to the siren call of delivery.

Con Poulos

With that in mind, I hunted down the Food & Wine recipes that aren't just reliably, impressively delicious, but also demand a minimum of emotional energy from you. They're easy recipes that deliver the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal, with ingredients and steps that are pared down to the essentials. In other words, these recipes are so smart, they almost make themselves.

Chicken + Bread + Pantry Veg = Solid Gold

Take this sheet-pan chicken recipe (pictured above) from our very own Justin Chapple, for instance. If I were describing how to make this dish to a friend, I could do it in a single breath: Toss chunks of sourdough, cut-up bacon, potato and onion wedges, diced butter, and maybe some herbs and red-pepper flakes on a sheet pan with a generous amount of olive oil. Spread out and arrange salted and peppered chicken legs on top, skin-side up. Roast at 400F until chicken is golden brown and sizzling and bread is crisp, about 45 minutes. In return for this very undemanding series of actions, you get a one-pan meal made irresistible by crunchy croutons that have soaked up plenty of bacony, chickeny goodness. Even better, you probably have almost all of these ingredients in your house already. No sourdough on hand? Torn baguette or country-style white would work just as well.

A Tuna Pasta That Practically Makes Itself

Canned tuna and linguine have saved me more times than I can count. I usually make Marcella Hazan's immortal recipe, which involves a quick homemade tomato sauce, a couple cans of oil-packed tuna (way more flavorful than the water-packed kind), linguine, and a showering of chopped parsley. It's the ideal weeknight meal, since I can usually rely on having canned tuna, canned tomatoes, and parsley in my pantry, and parsley in my fridge. But this recipe strips down the tuna linguine paradigm even further, skipping the tomato sauce in favor of a simpler combo of sauteed garlic, tuna, toasted walnuts, lemon zest/juice, and your choice of chopped herbs. Now there's pretty much never an excuse not to make dinner.

John Kernick

A Super-Green, Easygoing Frittata

Sometimes, a fuss-free recipe is hiding in plain sight. This frittata from Nancy Silverton is one of the prettiest I've seen, but as written, it's hardly weeknight friendly, not when it calls for not one, not two, but five varieties of fresh herbs. But all that means is that any one of those herbs would be delicious in the frittata when going solo, too. Strip the multi-herb fanciness away, and you've got eggs beaten with some kind of fresh herb, salt, and a bit of water, then poured into a pan for a round of scraping and tilting until it's no longer liquidy. No need to saute onions or seed a bell pepper. At that point, I usually choose to run the pan under the broiler to finish the cooking for just a minute more rather than mess with flipping a frittata after a long day's work. Otherwise, that's just a recipe for molten, half-cooked egg on my shoes. As for the other ingredients, the prosciutto can easily be replaced with good sliced ham or a few crumbled pieces of bacon, and the shaved Parm can be swapped out for any other cheese that's taking up precious real estate in your fridge.

Susan Spungen

A Kale and Sausage Stew That's (Almost) Faster Than a Stir-Fry

In Cajun and Creole cooking, the Holy Trinity famously consists of celery, onion, and green bell pepper. But there are plenty of other culinary triumvirates that are equally deserving of respect. Case in point: sausage, kale, and white beans. Sausage adds richness and protein; kale deliver a dose of greens, and beans offer a carby base that soaks up all the flavor. It all goes into one pan, and then you saute the sausage (any kind, fresh or fully cooked, will do), then add the onions and cook a bit more, then add the garlic and then the kale. Simmer together with a couple cans of chopped tomatoes for just 15 minutes and add the beans right at the end. While the stew simmers, you can make a few slices of garlic-rubbed toast to go with. Or not!

Get the Recipe: Kale and White Bean Stew

Greg DuPree

An Actually Achievable Weeknight Pizza

Ordinarily, I would not suggest pizza as a mid-week meal. Stretching dough and transferring a fully loaded unbaked pie to a preheated pizza stone (or inverted sheet pan) is not my idea of an enjoyable activity when I'm feeling faint with hunger. But sheet-pan pizza is another animal entirely. There's an ingenious technique here: You stretch a ball of pizza dough across half of a baking sheet, then do the same with the other half and pinch the two pieces together to form one big sheet of dough, then top it with jarred pizza sauce, mozz, salami, spring onion (scallions work great), and grated Parm (I'm choosing to ignore the fennel seeds since they're not my thing, but they might be yours). Bake and then top, as the recipe suggests, with salt, oil, and greens, or just eat it as is. And don't worry about thawing frozen dough in advance; just unwrap and place in a resealable plastic bag in a bowl of hot water. It should be thawed in under a half hour.

A Simple (Yet Somehow Fancy) Shrimp Saute

Now, before you start telling me that there's no way you'd head to the fish market on a weeknight, never fear. Stock frozen shrimp in your freezer and they become a reliable weeknight staple: Quick to thaw in just a couple minutes if you run them under cool water or leave them at room temperature for 10 minutes or so. While they thaw, saute some onion (the backbone of so many fast weeknight recipes) in olive oil, add some chopped plum tomatoes (canned tomatoes would also work well) and red-pepper flakes, and then you're pretty much done. Add the shrimp and some kalamata olives, toss a few more times until cooked through, then add some feta and dill (totally skippable, or just use parsley) and serve this saucy Greek saute with more feta on top and plenty of crusty bread (also fished from the freezer, perhaps?).

Get the Recipe: Shrimp Saganaki

© Con Poulos

A Fast, Meaty Take on Mapo Tofu

It's true: This recipe calls for a single specialty ingredient: Ground Sichuan peppercorn. But it's one you'll want in your pantry anyway if you're a fan of that tingly flavor sensation. Once you have it, you're only minutes away from a savory sauce made with from ground pork, stir-fried with a trio of jarred pantry staples: Asian chile-bean sauce, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce. It's definitely not authentic, but also definitely delicious. Want a bit more protein for dinner? Just double the sauce ingredients and crumble in a block of silken tofu. Serve over steamed greens (bok choy, Chinese cabbage, or broccoli are all delicious), with some rice on the side if you're so inclined. You could also toss the porky sauce with udon, spaghetti, or egg noodles if you're craving the carbs.

The Greenest Carbonara

Speaking of carbs, this updated take on bacon and eggs in pasta form calls for spinach fettuccine, but you should feel free to use any long noodle you'd like. The dinnertime choreography is simple: Set pot of water to boil. While that heats, fry some bacon. Add pasta to boiling water, and while that cooks, whisk together an egg, egg yolks, and grated Parm with some pasta water. For a bit of bonus greenery, toss a clamshell of baby spinach into the pasta pot just before draining. Toss the cooked pasta with the bacon in the pan, add the egg mixture, and toss until just warmed and creamy. I'd definitely add some bonus Parm on top, too.

Get the Recipe: Spinach Pasta Carbonara

A Chicken Dinner You Can Make Your Own

Think of this recipe for chicken legs roasted on a bed of kale and potatoes as a gentle reminder that roasting chicken alongside pretty much any vegetable is a very good idea. Since this recipe serves 8, I'd cut the ingredient amounts in half for weeknight cooking, and roast everything in a 5-quart Le Creuset or other enameled cast-iron pan, or in a roasting pan for a bit more room. Go for a container of baby kale, and you don't have to bother finding "tender" kale or removing the center ribs. Use this recipe as a template for your own tastes, adding a spoonful of garam masala, Old Bay, or harissa to the chicken as you please.

Greg Dupree

The No-Stress Way to Cook Fish at Home

Yes, this recipe also involves potatoes tossed with olive oil and roasted, but bear with me—this is another great technique to know. Here, long-cooking veg like potatoes get a head start roasting on a sheet pan while you prep a simple compound butter. Spread a couple butterflied whole fish—wait, this is weeknight reality, right, so you can use any fish filets you've quickly thawed—with that tasty butter, then flip the potatoes, push them to the sides of the baking sheet, and slide on the fish. Roast for about 10 minutes more (insert a paring knife into the center of the fillet and check to make sure the fish flakes), and dinner is done.

Johansen Krause

Roasted Vegetables Are Dinner

You've probably tossed cubed butternut squash countless times with olive oil and spices and roasted it on a sheet tray until tender and irresistible. But toss some canned chickpeas into the mix, too, and you're halfway to a vegetarian dinner. While the vegetables and chickpeas roast, whip up an easy yogurt sauce to spoon on top, and you haven't just solved dinner—you've got extra on hand to save for lunch tomorrow.