Sometimes, I just don't want to think about dinner. That doesn't mean I don't want to make dinner, I just want to do it on autopilot. The thing about autopilot, though, is that it works best when you have a bunch of destinations already programmed in. That way you don't wind up circling the city on the Beltway for three hours, and actually get someplace.
My culinary autopilot often takes the form of template dinners. A sort of plug-and-play MadLibs approach to cooking that's pretty much perfect for midweek brain-dead dinners. You learn the template, and fill in the details as you will.
I think a lot of us cook this way without even realizing it. Heck, I know I did. I've done it for a long time. I only realized it recently. Once I realized it, I went to the (very limited) trouble of formalizing a couple of the templates I'd been loosely employing for years, tweaking and refining the outlines of what have come to be culinary mainstays that help me breeze through dinner without much active thought, because all the thought went into the template ahead of time. The consistency makes it easy, and the variables keep things from feeling repetitive.
These templates can also be a great way to build some healthy meals into your routine; you can design them from the ground up to include an array of proteins and vegetables, in formats and combinations that are appealing to you and your family. In that way, it's also a style of cooking that lends itself quite well to various dietary needs and styles. Template cooking is perfect for keto, for example.
Here are a few of the templates I rely on. Each one is just that: a template. Take these as they are, tweak them to your preferences, or use them as inspiration for your own template dinners.
Fish Template One
Some templates are fussier than others. This one's kind of fussy. It's not difficult, and nothing in it takes much time, but it does dirty more dishes than a lot of my templates. So if you're looking for one-pot templates, keep scrolling. I got you covered a bit later on. If you're good with using a blender on a weeknight, this template is a good way to make dinner feel fancier than Wednesday typically warrants.
This one feels pretty self explanatory. Everyone likes fish with crispy skin. A flavorful purée anchors the plate and adds substance. Fresh vegetables up the nutrition, and a condiment gives you another element to play with and a pop of flavor. The fish is up to you. My family is partial to salmon, but most any skin-on filet will work. The key to the purée? Butter. And Salt. And a good amount of time in the blender. You want it smooth. I've done broccoli, various squashes, edamame, sweet potato. Recently, I did cauliflower purée enriched with butter, parmigiano and white pepper. It was ridiculous. You want to go simple with the vegetables. You have so many flavorful things on the plate, I find a simple steamed veg works best. Roasted would work. I find that the clean flavor of simply treated vegetables is the best bet, though.I've even gone raw a few times. When it comes to the condiment, you have a lot of options. Any sort of confit or relish works. Pickles are nice too, like quick-pickled carrots. You want it to have some texture.
Pasta Template One
Everyone likes pasta. Pasta is quick. Pasta is easy. Pasta relies heavily on staples. Pasta also gets repetitive very, very quickly. We eat my wife's riff on Marcella Hazan's butter and onion tomato sauce more frequently than I should admit. Pasta Template One gives some flexible reliability to your pasta plan, working in some healthy and flavorful elements in the process.
Some type of flavorful meat,
Some type of green veg,
Some type of legume
Brown the meat, add aromatics (garlic, onion), add cooked legumes or green veg (depending on the tenderness of the veg), add whichever one you didn't just add, stir in flavor enhancer, add parm and lemon juice/zest for richness and acid, respectively, add cooked pasta and toss to combine. Add a little bit of the pasta water you reserved, to adjust texture. I've used various prepared sausages for this. Italian is an obvious answer, but don't feel limited. Chorizo works well here. Lamb-variants are delicious. Once, I subbed in prepared kofta meat I snagged at Phoenicia. It was great. Flavor enhancers include worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, miso, marmite, etc. Don't be afraid of flavor enhancers. They're the bomb.
Fish Template Two
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Sometimes, you don't have more than one pan in you. I get it. Given the fact that I've done this next one a couple times a month, minimum, for the past few months, minimum, I really, really get it. At first, succumbing to the "sheet pan" trend felt like a bit of a defeat. This template works too well and tastes too good to feel like defeat, though.
Sweet/Tart + Juicy Thing
Most often, this one renders as green beans, tomatoes and olives, topped with salmon. Sometimes it's broccoli. Snap peas are nice. Grapes stand in for the tomatoes (or alongside them) if I'm feeling frisky. Olives are a bit trickier. I've used them pretty much every time. Caper berries would work. But olives offer a world of options, between varieties and treatments. Lately, I've been favoring a marinated olive mix I grab from the bulk olive bar at my H-E-B. Toss the green veg with olive oil, salt and pepper and throw it on a sheet pan and into an oven at 400 for about eight minutes. Add everything but the fish, toss to combine, and back in the oven for another eight. Layer the fish on top of the veg, and back in the oven for (you guessed it) eight minutes. Times can and will vary based on the specifics.
Keep an eye on things. You want the green veg to be not quite half cooked before you throw on the other non-fish ingredients, and it's best if you wind up with a little browning. Sometimes, I get really lazy about it, and everything but the fish goes on at once, cooking until the veg is roughly two-thirds of the way done. You don't get the same textures (I usually look for the green veg to brown a bit, and I want thesweet/tart thing to burst), but it's a small price to pay for a bit more convenience. Given that convenience is a major part of the template, I'm OK with that.