How to Build a Better Dinner
To be a faster, more creative cook, take a cue from restaurant chefs, J. Kenji López-Alt suggests, and rely on culinary building blocks.
By J. Kenji López-Alt
When cooking for my family at home, I rarely use recipes. Instead, I’ll pull from a collection of what I refer to as culinary building blocks. And I’m not talking about a mental library of recipes and techniques (though those can help). I’m talking about actual, physical things.
Open my fridge, and you’ll find a shocking number of plastic deli containers and Mason jars. Homemade and store-bought sauces, dressings, condiments, pickles, chile oils, sauce bases, concentrated stocks, curry pastes — anything that can add a quick, easy boost of flavor to my meals — take up a good 40 percent of my shelf space.
Most restaurant walk-in refrigerators are similar. Fresh produce and raw meat might make up half the real estate, while the other half might be devoted to these building blocks. They’re an essential step in operational efficiency. There’s a reason restaurants are able to serve dishes that taste like they took all day to prepare between the time you placed your order and the time you finished your appetizer. Most likely, those meals were made from building blocks that did take all day, with only the final bits — searing the salmon filet or grilling the chicken breast — done à la minute.
These building blocks vary by cuisine, and by chef, but they all invariably have an extra-long shelf life (typically weeks, if not months) and concentrated flavor. In fine dining or seasonal restaurants, where menus shift daily based on market ingredients, they’re critical, not just to ensure that seasonal dishes come out tasting good with very little time to iterate or test, but to maintain the flavor identity; that is, the ingredients, preparations and aromas that lend cohesion to a restaurant experience or are unique to a particular chef.
The San Francisco chef Pim Techamuanvivit makes her grandmother’s nam prik pao (a sweet-sour-spicy chile jam flavored with tamarind and shallots) and uses it as the base for tom yum and in a sauce for miang (betel-leaf wraps) at her restaurant Nari. It makes its way into the dressing of her yum yai salad, and is used to flavor a seasonal noodle salad at her restaurant Kin Khao. Alex Guarnaschelli of Butter in Midtown Manhattan preserves seasonal Champagne grapes with mustard and wine to serve on cheese plates, as a condiment for duck, in a salad with fennel and goat cheese, and as a garnish for pork ravioli.
Spice blends and other dry pantry preparations are also handy building blocks that don’t require refrigeration. In “The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook,” the chef Preeti Mistry includes a recipe for chaat masala that flavors her pav bhaji and some of the Indian-inflected pizzas she served at Navi Kitchen in Oakland, Calif. She spikes the base with extra red chile powder before tossing it with fries or sprinkling it over brussels sprouts and asparagus as they sauté.
Even your neighborhood pizza joint benefits from base recipes. At Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Paul Giannone makes one simple tomato sauce that forms the base of all his square pies. At home, he simmers crab in the same sauce, and serves it with pasta.
I like to think of these recipe building blocks in musical terms. There’s a reason my childhood music teachers made me practice scales, intervals and common fingering patterns until they became coded into my muscle memory: They’re the foundations of longer pieces. And understanding this allows you to build your proficiency in musical phrases rather than a single note at a time. In improvising a jazz solo, experienced musicians pull from a mental library of licks and riffs. The flourishes may be added à la minute, but the building blocks are already there.
The concept also allows for more efficient planning and communication. In early March, when the pandemic started in earnest, the crew and management at my restaurant, Wursthall, in San Mateo, Calif., decided to close to customers until we had a better handle on the risks. I started spending my nights at the restaurant, repurposing our inventory for meal boxes that I delivered to hospital workers and community centers. We soon joined Off Their Plate, a national organization operating under the auspices of the chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, which connected restaurants like ours with frontline workers in need of ready-to-eat meals. This allowed us to rehire some of the kitchen team (scheduled to prevent working in close quarters) to start cooking and boxing several hundred meals per day.
And it provided a unique challenge.
During normal operations, the restaurant maintains a spreadsheet that allows us to carefully manage ingredients, and lets the chef on-duty know exactly what needs to be ordered. But, with the disruption of the restaurant industry and supply chains caused by the pandemic, the flow was reversed: I had vendors calling to ask if I could use a few hundred pounds of dried chickpeas stranded on a delivery truck nearby, if I could make something out of several cases of cucumbers before they went bad, or if we could accept a pallet of mixed meats (including cases of New York strips, some lamb chops, lamb stewing cuts, frozen chicken tenderloins and pork shoulders).
To adapt to that shifting inventory, and to effectively communicate to my team, I relied heavily on base preparations that could fit easily into a wide range of dishes.
The musical analogy worked well here, too. Session musicians playing a new song don’t need sheet music to outline every note, and cooks familiar with a base recipe don’t need it written out for them each time it’s used. Asking Axel Tepau, my line cook, to pull out some sautéed onions and peppers from the walk-in, and use it to braise some pork shoulders with olives and raisins added toward the end is enough information for him to start making pork ropa vieja, even if the dish is new to him.
That vegetable mix, which we made by sweating sliced onions and bell peppers (early in the pandemic, we took in several cases of both) with garlic, cumin and bay leaf, was divided into 10-pound batches, frozen in vacuum-sealed bags and used over the course of months. We added pickled peppers, potatoes and chicken for a cumin-inflected version of chicken scarpariello. We used them to top harissa-spiced vegan meatballs (made with the 4,000-pound pallet of frozen Impossible burgers we took in). We baked it with tomato sauce, pasta and the leftover Italian sausage languishing in our walk-in.
For hearty salad boxes, we prepared huge batches of a half-dozen fridge-stable dressings that could be mixed and matched with fresh and pickled vegetables, grains and proteins. The leftover New York strips seared for one day’s meal could be served cold with sliced cucumbers, herbs, greens and pickled onions with a miso-sesame dressing, or we could use that same dressing on leftover shredded chicken with cabbage and vegetables.
We cooked chickpeas in large batches and marinated them with olive oil, vinegar and garlic, using them over the course of a week. Monday might be chickpeas with cooked farro, shredded raw and pickled carrots, parsley and hard-boiled eggs. On Wednesday, we’d combine them with cucumbers, red onions and fresh dill, and serve them with sliced lamb, and on Friday we’d scoop them over marinated kale and top them with olives, tomatoes and crumbled feta.
As a home cook, thinking about meals in terms of building blocks is what freed me from recipes. That shelf space devoted to condiments and sauces allows me to pick up whatever catches my eye at the supermarket or farmer’s market — or, more frequently these days, the freezer — and to figure out a way to serve it on a weeknight without having the specific ingredients a from-scratch recipe would require. Some of the base recipes we developed for boxed meals at the restaurant have even found their way into my home rotation and become an essential part of pandemic cooking.
With all the uncertainty going on outside, it’s comforting to know that when it’s time to cook, I’ll always have marinated chickpeas and miso-sesame vinaigrette in my fridge to rely on.
Recipes: Ropa Vieja | Braised Peppers and Onions | Chicken and Cabbage Salad With Miso-Sesame Vinaigrette | Miso-Sesame Vinaigrette That’s Good on Anything | Marinated Chickpeas
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