SHORT LIST This streamlined strata calls for just a few, well-chosen ingredients.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

A FEW YEARS AGO, when our weathercasters were predicting snowmageddon—or maybe it was a hurricane—I had an opportunity to contemplate what it means to do my job as a food writer.

Whatever the weather turned out to be, it wasn’t as bad as predicted. What proved even worse than I had imagined was my younger brother’s capacity to feed himself in the face of potential restaurant and grocery store closures. Despite growing up in a family of food obsessives, with a mother who, to this day, stocks her kitchen at all times as though it were a fallout shelter, my brother had never even tried to cook. His cupboards were near bare.

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When he called me for advice on how to prepare for the battening down of the hatches, I suggested he buy some dried pasta and jarred sauce so that, if forced to turn on his stove, he could make himself some spaghetti. That seemed doable for someone who may or may not have made toast before.

How would I make the spaghetti? he asked.

You’d start by boiling some water, I responded.

What do you mean?

My brother will tell you he never said this, except, I promise you, he did. Plus, I distinctly recall following up with instructions on how to put a pot on to boil. But if he needs to tell it his way for dignity’s sake, OK.

The storm came and went. My brother never had to attempt to make spaghetti. Still, I couldn’t accept his apparent inability to feed himself in a worst-case scenario. So, for Christmas, I gave him the gift of a cooking lesson.

The challenge, I realized, wasn’t to get him into my kitchen; it was to make him want to get into his own. That meant showing him how to make things he likes, with ingredients he gravitates to that are readily available and not too fancy: chicken, (canned) pineapple, cashews, broccoli, carrots, pasta. In two hours we produced a bunch of dishes incorporating these staples in various ways.

In two hours we produced a bunch of dishes incorporating these staples in various ways.

I was so inspired by this way of teaching that a few months later I started working on a cookbook building on that premise. It’s broken down into groups of three key ingredients—rice, Parmesan, onions; carrots, cashews, coconut; chicken legs, apples, shallots—and each group makes three very different recipes. Besides being practical, this way of cooking now seems timely, too, in a way I never could have anticipated.

I assume most people reading this know how to boil water, but I also suspect a good number of you cook only sporadically, to relax or as a weekend project—under normal circumstances.

Photo: Aubrie Pick

This pandemic and our collective response to it require rethinking how we feed ourselves and our families. For the majority of us that means cooking—if not every meal, every day, then most meals, most days. Add to that the constraints on our ability to get all the provisions we want, when we want them.

It’s time for food writers to step up and help you do the best you’re able with whatever you’ve got—produce, hours, bandwidth—to put meals on the table and not lose your mind trying.

With that, I offer a few recipes from my book, “Kitchen Remix,” made from two sets of basic ingredients. First: bread, tomato and ricotta. The smoky strata, a sort of savory tomato-bread pudding, sits overnight in the refrigerator so the crusty baguette cubes can fully absorb the spiced custard that will keep them moist through baking. The elegant ricotta toast, meanwhile, works as a light lunch, appetizer or snack. And the Italian peasant classic pappa al pomodoro is a deeply comforting porridge that I like extra-thick, with butter replacing some of the traditional olive oil and a spoonful of soft cheese on top.

I’ve also shared recipes using chicken breast, mozzarella and arugula. There’s the Japanese salad goma-ae, known for its sesame dressing. A crisp-skinned chicken paillard has its own salad, a tri-color combo with a single vinaigrette to marinate the mozzarella and dress the greens. Recipe number three in this group, my take on chicken parm, comes coated in potato chips and slathered with a grassy pesto.

If these recipes help streamline your cooking, bring you some pleasure and spark creativity for future meals, then I’m doing my job.

Ricotta and Tomatoes on Toast

Aubrie Pick

Photo: Aubrie Pick

ACTIVE TIME: 20 minutes TOTAL TIME: 90 minutes SERVES: 4

For the roasted tomatoes:

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 pound cherry tomatoes, halved

3 tablespoons olive oil

For the ricotta:

2 cups fresh ricotta

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves

⅝ teaspoon fennel seeds

½ teaspoon flaky salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

For the toast:

4 (½-inch-thick) slices crusty loaf

1 clove garlic, halved

Olive oil, to finish

Flaky salt

Honey (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees, with one rack in center and another in uppermost position. Lightly grease a medium roasting pan.

2. In a small bowl, mix sugar, sea salt, cardamom and pepper. Arrange tomatoes in roasting pan, cut-side up. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with sugar-spice mix. Roast until bubbling and browning at edges, 35-40 minutes. Transfer roasted tomatoes to a small serving bowl. Increase temperature to 400 degrees.

3. In a large bowl, season cheese with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 2 teaspoons thyme, ½ teaspoon fennel seeds, flaky salt and pepper. Transfer to an 8-inch baking dish. Spread cheese to fill dish. Sprinkle cheese with remaining thyme and ⅛ teaspoon fennel seeds. Drizzle with remaining olive oil. Bake until golden brown, 30 minutes. Heat broiler.

4. Arrange bread slices on a baking sheet. Toast on both sides under broiler, 2-4 minutes total. Rub top of each toast with cut side of garlic half, and drizzle with oil.

5. Slice each toast in two crosswise, and stack halves on a plate. Serve with baked ricotta, bowl of tomatoes, and a dish each of flaky salt and honey, if using. Diners can spread cheese on toast, top with tomatoes and finish with a sprinkle of flaky salt and a drizzle of honey.

Smoky Strata
Photo: Aubrie Pick

ACTIVE TIME: 25 minutes TOTAL TIME: 10 hours (includes overnight soaking) SERVES: 6

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

2¼ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

1/3 cup plus 11/2 table-
spoons roughly
chopped fresh oregano

⅛ teaspoon sugar (optional)

1 day-old baguette, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 cups fresh ricotta

1 cup grated Parmesan

2¾ cups whole milk

9 large eggs

2½ tablespoons harissa

1. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until soft, 5 minutes. Add ½ teaspoon salt, pepper and paprika, and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Off heat, stir in diced tomatoes, ⅓ cup oregano and ½ teaspoon salt. Taste and add sugar, if desired.

2. Arrange one-third of bread in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Scatter one-third of tomato-onion mixture over bread, followed by one-third of ricotta, using the back of a spoon to smear it around. Sprinkle one-third of Parmesan on top. Repeat twice more, reserving final third of Parmesan.

3. In a large bowl, whisk together milk, eggs, harissa and remaining salt. Pour mixture evenly over strata. Cover strata with plastic wrap and transfer to refrigerator. Let bread soak at least 8 hours.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in center position. Let strata sit at room temperature 30 minutes.

5. Sprinkle strata with remaining oregano and reserved Parmesan. Bake until puffed, golden, and cooked through, 45-55 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Chicken Salad Goma-Ae
Photo: Aubrie Pick

Goma-ae is a blanched-vegetable appetizer named for its sesame dressing, which has a smidgeon of sweetness and tastes a little like—but better than—peanut sauce. Although spinach tends to be the bed for the topping, green beans sometimes provide a surface. This recipe calls for arugula, and makes it a chicken salad. You just want to wilt the leaves: Overcooking them will result in some serious acridity, as opposed to the palatable bitterness that makes arugula a delight.

TOTAL TIME: 2½ hours SERVES : 4

4 scallions, trimmed and cut into thirds

4 pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts (2 or 3 whole breasts)

Boiling water

1½ pounds arugula leaves

1 pound fresh mozzarella, sliced into ½-inch-wide strips

1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into ¼-inch-thick half-moons

¼ cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar

½ cup tahini

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons toasted white sesame seeds

½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1. Fill a large lidded Dutch oven or heavy pot two-thirds full with cold water. Add scallions, cover, and bring to a rolling boil. Turn off heat, add chicken and make sure it is completely submerged by 2 inches. Add more boiling water as needed. Cover pot and let chicken sit on stove, off heat, until its flesh is white and its juices run clear, about 2 hours. If it’s not quite done, cover pot again and bring to a simmer, cooking chicken 10 minutes more. Transfer chicken to a plate and let cool.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt as you would for pasta. Prepare a large bowl of ice. Add a third of the arugula to boiling water and blanch 10 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to quickly transfer arugula to a strainer, letting water in pot continue to boil. Immediately plunge strainer into bowl of ice and run very cold water over leaves to shock them. Keeping arugula in strainer, drain leaves. Transfer blanched arugula to paper towels and squeeze dry. Transfer arugula to a large bowl, using your fingers to separate. Repeat twice with remaining arugula.

3. When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard bones, skin and fat. Pat meat dry with paper towels, then shred it into bite-size pieces and add it to bowl with arugula. Toss to combine. Add mozzarella and cucumber to salad and toss again to incorporate.

4. Make the dressing: In a medium bowl, whisk together soy sauce, sugar and tahini. Slowly whisk in ¼ cup water to thin out sauce. Add toasted sesame seeds and whisk to incorporate.

5. Pour one third of the dressing into the base of a large serving bowl. Add salad and toss to incorporate. Continuing to toss, stream in another third of the dressing so that salad is evenly coated. Add more dressing as desired. Season with salt. Serve at room temperature.

Potato-Chip-Crusted Chicken With Arugula Pesto
Photo: Aubrie Pick

Something we all know is true: Even bad chicken Parmigiana is good. We totally eat—and love—it cold, same as pizza. It can be made with questionable tomato sauce or “cheese” that looks like baked Shrinky Dinks, and still we accept it. Imagine what properly melty mozzarella-blanketed chicken Parmigiana could be under the best circumstances—that is, coated with potato chips and smeared with a bright electric-green sauce. Try it in sub form on a long, thick roll, slapped with extra pesto, topped with arugula leaves and hit with a squeeze of lemon. Or, bypass the broiler and eat the chicken without the cheese or pesto, enjoying the maximum crunch from the chips.

TOTAL TIME: 1 hour SERVES: 4

1½ cups packed fresh arugula

½ cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

1 medium clove garlic, roughly chopped

¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated (scant ¾ cup)

¼ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup whole milk

1½ cups finely crushed kettle-style potato chips

¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (8 to 10 ounces each)

8 (¼-inch-thick) slices fresh unsalted mozzarella

1. In a food processor, pulse together arugula, parsley, garlic, hazelnuts, Parmesan and salt to form a paste, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Slowly stream in olive oil as you continue pulsing to form a smooth, bright sauce. Taste and adjust for salt as needed.

2. Place a baking rack on a parchment-lined baking sheet and coat rack with cooking spray. Set a rack in the oven so that when your chicken is raised on the baking rack, it’s 2 or 3 inches away from the broiler. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

3. Spread ¼ cup flour on a large plate and season with a pinch each of salt and black pepper. Add milk to a medium bowl and season with a pinch each of salt and black pepper. Fill a separate medium bowl with potato chip crumbs, remaining 1 tablespoon flour, and cayenne. Stir to combine.

4. Season each chicken breast on both sides with a pinch each of salt and black pepper. One at a time, dip each breast in seasoned flour to coat, shaking off any excess, then dunk in milk, letting any excess drip off, and roll through potato-chip mixture, pressing to coat. Place on prepared baking rack. Pat any remaining potato-chip coating on top of breasts.

5. Bake chicken breasts until their crusts are golden, they’re just cooked through, and their juices run clear, 18-20 minutes. Remove chicken from oven and turn on broiler.

6. Cover each breast with 2 pieces of mozzarella. Return chicken to oven and broil until cheese is bubbling and just beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a large serving platter and let rest 5 minutes. Gently smear a few spoonfuls of pesto over each breast and serve.

Pappa al Pomodoro

One of the most romantic things you can do is offer someone a bowl of pappa al pomodoro. It can accurately be described as either a tomato-based bread dish or a bread-based tomato dish. Some like to think of (and eat) it as a soup. But the Italian word pappa translates to “porridge,” and this is one of the denser preparations. The more memorable ones have a toasted flavor that comes from browning the stale bread before adding the other ingredients, instead of throwing it in at the end. This one starts with the bread and makes it the focal point of flavor and texture; any richer or denser and this wouldn’t be pappa. Cook it for someone you love, with ricotta on top. Note: Unripe and canned tomatoes are often too tart or, worse, have a metallic taste. Just a pinch or two of sugar will bring them around.

TOTAL TIME: 1 1/4 hours SERVES: 4

10 ounces rustic loaf, cut into 1-inch cubes (5-6 cups)

1 (14-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes with juices

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing

4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter

6 large fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons

4 medium cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed

1 teaspoon tomato paste

1¼ cups vegetable stock

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

Sugar, to taste (optional)

½ cup best-quality fresh ricotta cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees.

2. Arrange bread on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake, tossing once or twice along the way, until it has dried out and crisped up, 40-45 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, pass tomatoes through a food mill set over a medium bowl and grind to a pulp. (Alternatively, pulverize thoroughly with your hands.)

4. When bread cubes are ready, combine olive oil and butter in a medium Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When butter has melted and combined with oil, add bread. Use a wooden spoon to stir cubes continuously until they begin to brown, 4-5 minutes. Add sage and garlic, and continue to cook, still stirring, until bread is golden, about 2 minutes more. Add tomato paste and keep stirring for 1 minute to cook it through. At this point, bread should be toasty brown.

5. Add vegetable stock and cook until bread absorbs it, 4-5 minutes. When pan is nearly dry, reduce heat to low and add pureed tomatoes. Use a wooden spoon to gently break up bread and incorporate it into liquid. Cook until bread has absorbed as much of tomatoes’ juices as possible and any remaining liquid has reduced, 8-10 minutes. You should have a thick porridge-like stew; the bread should be completely incorporated. Use your spoon to break down any remaining noticeably large chunks of bread.

6. .Discard garlic cloves and remove pot from stove. Taste pappa and add salt, pepper, and a pinch or two of sugar, if necessary. Serve immediately, dividing pappa among 4 bowls. Top each with 2 tablespoons fresh ricotta, a liberal drizzle of olive oil and some pepper.

Chicken Paillard and Arugula Salad

An incredibly crisp-skinned, succulent piece of poultry is the goal. It involves a buttermilk bath and hot-hot-hot cast-iron skillet that starts on the stove and moves to the oven. The simple salad of arugula, sun-dried tomatoes, mozzarella has a vinaigrette made from the marinade used to flavor the cheese. When you can, give yourself at least a 12-hour lead to marinate the chicken, and allot 4 hours for steeping the mozzarella.

Ciliegine are, as per their Italian name, “little cherry”–size balls of fresh mozzarella packed in water. Occoncini (“little mouthfuls”) are larger versions thereof. If your market doesn’t have them, you can get a regular-size sphere of fresh mozzarella and roughly cut it into smaller pieces.

What Kleenex is to tissue, Wondra is to instant flour. Finely ground and low-protein, it’s quick to dissolve and less prone to gumminess and clumping than regular flour. Since it’s precooked, you don’t have to worry about keeping it on the stove long enough to remove any raw flavor. I like to dust chicken or vegetables with it before frying or baking them; it yields the thinnest, crispest of coatings.

ACTIVE TIME: 1 hour TOTAL TIME: 12 hours (includes marinating) SERVES: 4

For the chicken:

4 skin-on boneless chicken breast halves (10-12 ounces each)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

2 cups buttermilk

Wondra or all-purpose flour, for dusting

6 tablespoons neutral oil

For the salad:

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

1 large clove garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon dried red chile flakes

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano leaves

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil leaves

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 ounces fresh water-packed mozzarella ciliegine or bocconcini, drained

½ cup dry sun-dried tomatoes

5 ounces wild or baby arugula

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1. .Prepare the chicken: Place chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap and pound it until breasts are about ½ inch thick. Place 2 chicken breasts each into two large resealable plastic bags

2. In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon zest and juice, black pepper, and kosher salt. While whisking, add buttermilk. Evenly divide marinade between the two bags. Seal bags and refrigerate chicken 12-24 hours, turning a few times throughout.

3. Meanwhile, marinate mozzarella: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When oil is shimmering, add garlic and chile flakes and cook, stirring, just until garlic starts to color, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and stir in oregano, basil, ½ teaspoon sea salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Let sit until cooled slightly, about 5 minutes. Pack mozzarella balls into a 16-ounce lidded glass jar or sealed plastic container. Pour prepared oil over mozzarella. Add remaining ½ cup olive oil to cover, using more if needed, seal the jar, and turn it a few times to coat cheese. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

4. Before you are ready to cook chicken, soak sun-dried tomatoes in a small bowl filled with warm water until reconstituted, about 1 hour. Drain and roughly chop.

5. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

6. Remove chicken breasts from marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Dust skin-side of each breast with Wondra flour (about 1 tablespoon total), shaking off any excess, and set chicken on a plate.

7. Heat a large cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet on the stove, gradually increasing heat from low to medium-high. Add 3 tablespoons neutral oil. When oil is shimmering, add 2 chicken breasts, skin-side down. Cook, occasionally pressing with a spatula, until browned, 5-7 minutes.

8. Transfer skillet to oven and roast chicken until it’s just cooked through and juices run clear, 8-12 minutes. Remove skillet from oven and flip the breasts over. Sprinkle each with a pinch of kosher salt and black pepper. Let them sit in skillet for minute, then transfer to a plate and cover with foil. Repeat with remaining 3 tablespoons neutral oil and chicken breasts.

9. Meanwhile, make the salad: In a large bowl, season arugula with remaining ½ teaspoon sea salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper, tossing to incorporate. Add sun-dried tomatoes and toss again to combine. Dress salad with lemon juice and 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon flavored oil from mozzarella, tossing to coat. Add about hal the mozzarella. Save remaining cheese in its marinade for another use. Sealed in an airtight container, both will keep up to a week in the fridge. Bring to room temperature before serving.

10. To serve salad and chicken separately, family-style, toss arugula in a large serving bowl and place chicken on a platter. To present it as one dish, place chicken breasts on a large platter, then top or surround them with salad. Alternatively, you can plate servings individually.

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