Let's Talk About Fail-Safe Recipes

The ones you go back to again and again

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

A year ago, before we entered the Upside Down, my husband and I made almost daily trips to the grocery store. It felt silly then, and even more so now, but we’re not the greatest when it comes to meal planning, and, until recently, I was way more of a recipe-driven cook – and he cooks infrequently, which is also changing.

As many people do, I remember my “last” big grocery run before we locked ourselves in: A bag of split peas felt like a real find (they’re currently sitting in our cabinet, untouched), a ton of pasta, the most random frozen vegetables; I think I might have scored a box of tissues. A cornucopia of things, many of which would not be go-tos during another time but that felt practically urgent that day.

Needless to say, we’ve changed our grocery habits – and, really, for the better. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to get groceries delivered or to order online and pick up. On every list: Salad greens, canned tomatoes, eggs, half and half, scallions, fruit, chicken thighs, tofu, broccoli, cauliflower, cheddar cheese and string cheese for our cheese-loving child. Our brand of staples, things from which I can easily pull together a dinner – which, lately, is one of a handful of different recipes I’ve come to think of as fail-safes. They’re easy to make, they’re extremely tasty, and the ingredients are usually found in our apartment. 

I’m sharing a few of those recipes with you, today: one vegan, one vegetarian, one pescatarian, and one meat-friendly. I hope that you love them as much as we do, but also – that you’ll share yours with us in tomorrow’s discussion thread! (It starts at 12pm ET and anyone who’s signed up for a membership can drop in to chat.)

I’m always on the lookout for more fail-safes, and am quite open to making this a semi-regular column, with your additions, please. (Also: I can say with utter certainty that I’ll continue to cook this way once “ALL THIS” is behind us.) 

Julia Turshen’s Curried Red Lentils With Coconut Milk

This one is from Turshen’s book, Small Victories, and it is a pantry WIN – thanks to my friend Aly for sharing it with me. The only thing I’d say is that it comes up a bit salty (and this is coming from a salt lover), so I cut the salt from 2 tsp to 1½. 

Makes: 4 servings


  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 shallot (my note: you can also use a small onion), minced

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds or ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

  • 1 cup (180 g) split red lentils

  • 1 13.5-ounce (398-ml) can full-fat coconut milk, shaken

  • kosher salt

  • Cooked basmati rice, plain yogurt, and chopped fresh cilantro for serving


1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the ginger, garlic, shallot, coriander, cumin, and turmeric and cook, stirring now and then, until the vegetables are softened and the spices are very fragrant, about 10 minutes.

2.Add the lentils, coconut milk, and 2 tsp (note: I use 1½) salt, then fill the empty coconut-milk can with water and add that to the saucepan. It will look like a lot of liquid, but the lentils will absorb it as they cook.

3. Stir everything together, turn the heat to high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Turn the heat to low and let the lentils simmer, stirring now and then, until they’re completely soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

4. Serve the lentils hot over rice. Top each serving with a spoonful of yogurt and a sprinkle of cilantro. 


Mark Bittman’s Pasta With Sardines, Bread Crumbs, and Capers

Really doesn’t get better than this. I haven’t been buying bread crumbs lately; I have just been pulsing whatever bread I have lying around in the food processor and using that, and I highly recommend. 

Makes: 4 to 6 servings


  • Salt

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs, ideally made from stale bread

  • 1 onion, chopped

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 pound long pasta, like perciatelli

  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

  • 2 tablespoons drained capers

  • 2 cans sardines packed in extra virgin olive oil (about 1/2 pound)

  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for garnish


1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put half the oil (2 tablespoons) in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the bread crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden and fragrant, less than 5 minutes, and then remove. Add the remaining oil and the onion to the pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until just tender; drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Turn the heat under the onions to medium-high and add the lemon zest, capers and sardines; cook, stirring occasionally, until just heated through, about 2 minutes.

3. Add the pasta to the sardine mixture and toss well to combine. Add the parsley, most of the bread crumbs and some reserved water, if necessary, to moisten. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnishing with more parsley and bread crumbs.


Judy Hesser’s Oven-Fried Chicken

Thanks to my sister for sharing this gem with me — a recipe from Amanda Hesser’s mom. It’s only been in my life for a few months, but I’ve made it multiple times. It’s super easy — you just have to remember the morning step. I know some of you may judge me for making this on the regular, since it’s not exactly low sodium. But I’m willing to take that criticism if it means sharing it with others, because it’s such a delight — and the leftovers are awesome.

Makes: 4 servings


  • 3 tablespoons sea salt (divided, plus more for serving)

  • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper (plus more for serving)


1. In the morning, combine 2 tablespoons salt and about a cup of warm water in a large bowl or container. Stir to dissolve the salt. Trim the chicken of excess skin and fat. Add the chicken to the bowl. Cover with very cold water and add a tray of ice cubes. Swish around with your hand to disperse them. Chill in the refrigerator until dinner time.

2. Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Remove the chicken from the fridge and pat dry completely with paper towels. Put the butter in a roasting pan large enough to fit the chicken in one layer (But remember, Judy says, "You don't want to crowd it or then it'll stew, like mushrooms"). Place the pan in the oven. In a 1-gallon freezer bag, pour in the flour, remaining 1 tablespoon salt and the pepper. Give it a good shake. Add the chicken pieces two at a time and shake them until thoroughly coated. As you lift them out of the bag, shake them off vigorously. This is vital. You do not want a gummy coating. Line them up on a plate, and repeat with the rest.

3. Lay the chicken pieces in the roasting pan, skin side down, and oven-fry until a chestnut brown and crisp on the bottom, about 40 minutes (sometimes it takes as long as an hour). Don’t flip them until this happens. Use a thin spatula to scrape them up off the pan and turn them; cook the other side until the bottom is browned, which will take less time, around 20 minutes. Remove the pieces from the oven as they finish cooking, and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Just before serving, grind fresh pepper over top and sprinkle lightly with sea salt.


Melissa Clark’s Fusilli and Roasted Cauliflower With Capers

If you don’t have Melissa Clark’s book, Dinner, you’re missing out. I’ve made this pasta a gajillion times. I recommend keeping your cauliflower florets on the smaller side, so that they fit in neatly with the pasta and all the other delightful bits. Clark says the cheese is optional, but, please, go for it. (And I use a whole head of cauliflower.)


  • 1/2 head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets (about 2 1/2 cups)

  • 3 tablespoons drained capers

  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste

  • 2 medium garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or smashed into a paste

  • Finely grated zest of 1 lemon

  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

  • 3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)

  • 8 ounces whole-wheat fusilli pasta

  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

  • Fresh lemon juice, as needed


1. Heat the oven to 425°F.

2. In a bowl, toss the cauliflower and 2 tablespoons of the capers with the 1/4 cup olive oil, the 1/4 teaspoon salt, and black pepper to taste. Spread the mixture out in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet, and roast it, tossing it occasionally, until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, mince the remaining 1 tablespoon capers. Scrape the capers and garlic into a large bowl and add the lemon zest, butter, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, and cheese if you like.

4. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until it is al dente; drain.

5. Add the pasta, cauliflower, and pine nuts to the bowl containing the caper mixture. Squeeze in lemon juice to taste. Season with salt and pepper, toss well and serve.