Food & Drink

Here’s how to eat and still spend time with your friends

Cold chile noodles, served with fresh herbs, citrusy cabbage, and vegetables.
Cold chile noodles, served with fresh herbs, citrusy cabbage, and vegetables. NYT

I had always maintained that I’d be the kind of person who makes time for cooking, regardless of how busy I became. It is, after all, my job, my hobby, my creative outlet and how I connect with people.

Fast forward to 2018, and it became painfully clear that while that was a nice thought and all, it was also highly and incredibly unrealistic. The general idea that Life Is Overwhelming and There’s No Time for Anything is hardly new, but my reaction to it has adjusted from resistance to acceptance.

The way my friends and I spend our time has changed as families grow and careers take off and life gets more delightfully cluttered, and to me that has shown itself most obviously in the kitchen. Sure, I still enjoy the occasional elaborate, multihour cooking affair, but these days, there’s a lot more “come over for cheese and crackers because it’s all I have energy for” than there used to be.

This is also partly because of a realization I had: When I did invite people over for a meal, I would spend all my time alone in the kitchen working, without really focusing on what anyone was saying, or engaging in any meaningful way. (I am a lot of things, but a multitasker is not one of them.) Eventually, we would all sit down, quickly eat whatever it was I’d prepared, and then the evening would come to a close.

Nearly every time, I’d think, “But we all just got here!” I mean, sure, I just got there, but everyone else had been there for hours.

Several weeks ago, one of my dear friends invited another close friend and me over for lunch. Her husband was out of town, and she had a 1-year-old to take care of, so my other friend and I offered to bake or make, bring ingredients or shop – basically cater the entire affair – concerned about the burden of preparing a meal when you have a toddler learning to walk. She declined, assuring us that it really “wasn’t a big deal,” and not to worry.

We showed up to a spread that looked like it was, well, kind of a big deal. There was smoked fish from the legendary shop Barney Greengrass in Manhattan, simply cooked rice, jammy eggs, vegetables tossed with scallions, a bowl of greens dressed with lemon, and a creamy yogurt dip for spreading on crackers. Blown away by how beautiful and thoughtfully done everything looked, I felt guilty knowing she had taken the time to treat us to such an incredible afternoon when her every free minute is so valuable. (She could have been napping, maybe?)

Sensing this, she mentioned that it had taken all of 15 minutes to throw together, and that the secret to the impressive look was having several tiny bowls filled with things that didn’t require cooking. We spent the next few hours not in the kitchen but at the table, snacking and grazing, talking and catching up. The whole afternoon was truly novel to me, someone who could not imagine “having it all” – as in, a delicious, well-chosen, satisfying meal and the time to linger over it.

It dawned on me that I could lessen that burden of feeling so busy and actually get more out of cooking for friends if I flipped the ratio of time spent working to time spent eating.

I began making sure my kitchen has the ingredients that allow me to effortlessly – and at a moment’s notice, if need be – put together a meal that feels like an actual meal, rather than unwrapped nubs of leftover cheese masquerading as one. I pick one very simply prepared star of the show, and dress it up with more than a few tiny bowls (I own close to a million tiny bowls) filled with low-cook or no-cook items.

My spreads are mostly composed of whatever I’m trying to use up in the refrigerator (any rogue vegetable that can be sliced and quickly pickled is a popular choice) and the freezer (a whole cut-up chicken), food from my pantry (tinned fish and hot pickled peppers are big in my house), and something that I actually purchased for the occasion – a nice piece of fish, a whole chicken, or some good pasta or noodles I happened across.

In the magical tiny bowls, there’s something salty, something tangy, something spicy. Herbs, lettuces or both are nearly always present. There’s probably a dish of something creamy, like seasoned sour cream, or maybe a tahini dressing. A crunchy element like breadcrumbs or fried shallots is nonnegotiable. Nothing takes more than a minute or two to throw together.

Essentially it’s all the things I want to eat, sometimes served on their own, sometimes piled on top of one another, all on my table for a very casual and customizable eating experience.

Below you’ll find three ideas for relaxed meals that follow that basic template, rather than formal recipes for dinner: bowls of spicy, simply dressed spicy cold noodles with citrusy cabbage and garlicky tahini; slow-roasted salt-and-pepper salmon with just-set eggs and salty salmon roe; and a six-ingredient chicken to be served over buttered toast and crunchy lettuces.

Feel free to take just one cue from these ideas, improvising with what you have and what you like. Or replicate them fully. You won’t be sorry, I promise.

Through this combination of unfussy centerpieces and relaxed, snacky sides and condiments, you’ll find yourself spending less time in the kitchen and more time at the table. Life may not actually get less busy. But for a few glorious hours, it can feel that way.

Everyday salmon with tangy cucumbers and fried shallots

Yield: 4 to 8 servings

Time: 35 minutes

For the salty fried shallots:

3 large shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

1/3 cup canola, vegetable or grapeseed oil

Kosher salt

For the salmon:

1 1 / 2to 3 pounds skin-on salmon fillet

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

1/3 cup olive oil, plus more as needed

1 lemon

Flaky sea salt, for serving

For the spicy, tangy cucumbers:

4 small Persian cucumbers or 1 large hothouse cucumber, thinly sliced or coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar or white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper or 1 / 2teaspoon red-pepper flakes

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

If serving the shallots, combine shallots and oil in a small pot or skillet. Heat over medium and cook until shallots begin to sizzle and fry in the oil, 3 to 4 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling the pot or skillet occasionally, until the shallots begin to sizzle less and brown more, another 3 to 4 minutes. Once they’re just starting to turn a nice golden brown, remove from heat. (They will continue to brown in the oil, so pull them before you think they’re ready.) Use a slotted spoon or mesh strainer to transfer shallots to a paper towel-lined plate. Immediately season with lots of salt and set aside to cool.

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Season salmon with salt and pepper and place in a large baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil and place in oven. Roast until the edges are opaque and the fish is just cooked through in the center, 10 to 12 minutes for medium-rare, 15 to 18 minutes for more well done. Meanwhile, thinly slice half the lemon and pick out any seeds. (Save the other half of the lemon for serving alongside.)

If serving the cucumbers, combine cucumbers, vinegar and Aleppo pepper in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and let sit a few minutes, tossing occasionally to evenly season. Drizzle with olive oil before serving.

Remove salmon from oven and transfer to a large serving platter. (Alternatively, feel free to serve in the baking dish.) Scatter lemon slices over and nestle remaining lemon alongside for squeezing over. Sprinkle with flaky salt before serving with the cucumbers, shallots or both if you like, and perhaps quick pickles, buttered rice, jammy eggs or more fish.

And give these add-ons a try

More fish: Double down on the seafood experience with a jar of trout or salmon roe, high-quality tinned fish like sardines, or a smoked fish like trout or sable to snack on.

Buttered rice: Steamed rice is good, buttered rice is better. Stir a few tablespoons of butter into warm rice and season with salt and pepper before setting out (topped with more butter, of course).

Jammy eggs: I find a seven-minute egg to be the ideal for this dish: The yolk is jammy and just set, and the white is firm. If you prefer something runnier, go for a six-minute egg. If you prefer something firmer, go for an eight-minute egg.

Cold noodles with chile oil and citrusy cabbage

Yield: 4 to 8 servings

Time: 35 minutes

For the noodles:

1 / 2cup canola or grapeseed oil

1 tablespoon fennel seed

1 tablespoon red-pepper flakes

2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped

1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns (optional)

1 star anise (optional)

1 pound udon, soba or rice noodles, or spaghetti

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, or fresh lemon or lime juice

Kosher salt and ground pepper

For the citrusy cabbage:

1 / 2head red cabbage, very thinly sliced

Kosher salt and ground pepper

1 / 4cup fresh lemon and-or lime juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon and-or lime zest

2 tablespoons olive oil

For the herby tahini sauce:

1/3 cup tahini

1 garlic clove, finely grated

2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 cup parsley and-or cilantro, tender leaves and stems, very finely chopped

Kosher salt and ground pepper

For the lemony scallions:

1 bunch scallions, very thinly sliced

1 / 4cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon or lime zest

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Kosher salt and ground pepper

Heat oil, fennel seed, pepper flakes, garlic, Sichuan peppercorns and star anise (if using) in a small pot over the lowest heat possible. Cook, swirling occasionally, until you start to hear and see the garlic and spices frizzle and toast in the oil, 5 to 8 minutes. (Every stove is different and sometimes the low isn’t as low as we’d like, so keep an eye on things; it may take less time.) Keep cooking at the lowest heat setting until the spices are toasted and the garlic is golden brown, another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, cook noodles in a large pot of salted water until al dente. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. (If not using right away, spread onto a rimmed baking sheet and toss with a little canola oil to prevent sticking.)

If serving the citrusy cabbage, place cabbage in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Add citrus juice and zest, tossing to coat. Let sit a few minutes to soften. Drizzle with olive oil before serving.

If serving the tahini sauce, whisk tahini, garlic, lemon juice, sesame oil and 1 / 4cup water in a small bowl until a creamy dressing forms. (Tahini thickness varies greatly from brand to brand; if you need more water to achieve a smooth, creamy dressing, add it by the teaspoonful until you get the desired texture.) Add herbs and season with salt, pepper and more lemon juice, if desired. Alternatively, place all ingredients and 1 / 4cup water in the bowl of a food processor and process until a smooth, creamy dressing forms.

If serving the scallion salsa verde, combine scallions, olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest and soy sauce in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper and let sit for at least 5 minutes before serving.

sWhen ready to eat, toss noodles with vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Spoon chile oil over the noodles, tossing to coat; keep adding the oil until your noodles are evenly coated. (Keep in mind you have other sauces for the noodles, so you’re just looking for them to be coated and sufficiently spicy.) Serve any additional chile oil alongside for personal spooning, with the cabbage and other sauces if you like.

Accessorize those noodles

More spicy things: Jarred pickled chiles, pickled jalapeños, Calabrian chiles – anything of the sort that will (lightly) set your mouth on fire are welcomed here.

Blanched or roasted vegetables with garlic: Toss blanched or roasted vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower or carrots with a bit of finely chopped raw garlic and a squeeze of lemon or splash of vinegar. This is a perfect use for any leftover vegetables in the fridge.

Greenery: A plate of springy herbs, such as parsley, cilantro, dill and/or mint to nibble on between bites of noodles, or a pile of sautéed greens like spinach, kale, Swiss chard or mustard greens to tangle into the noodles.

Toasted seeds or nuts: Toast sesame seeds, chopped peanuts or almonds in a dry skillet until golden brown and toss with a little oil and salt; sprinkle over everything.

Vinegar chicken with crisp roasted mushrooms

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Time: 50 minutes

For the chicken:

3 1 / 2pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken (use any combination of legs, thighs or drumsticks, or breasts halved crosswise)

Kosher salt and ground pepper

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 medium red onions, cut into 1-inch wedges

1 / 4cup white distilled vinegar

1 / 2bunch thyme, plus leaves for garnish

For the hard-roasted mushrooms:

2 pounds mixed mushrooms, such as shiitake, maitake, button, chanterelle or oyster, torn into large pieces or quartered

3 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and ground pepper

For the lemony Little Gems with sumac:

2 to 3 heads Little Gem lettuces, ends trimmed, quartered lengthwise

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

Kosher salt and ground pepper

Sumac, for sprinkling

Olive oil, for drizzling

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add chicken skin-side down and cook until skin is golden brown and releases easily from the pot, 8 to 10 minutes. Using tongs, turn chicken to brown on the other side, another 4 to 8 minutes, depending on what cut you’re using. As the chicken browns, transfer it to a large plate.

Add onions to the pot and season with salt and pepper. Cook, without moving them so they have a chance to brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add vinegar and 1 cup water, then use a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Bring to a simmer and return chicken to the pot, skin-side up, nestling all the pieces in there.(They don’t need to be totally submerged.) Scatter thyme around and place the lid on top. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook at a gentle simmer until chicken is cooked through and tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, if serving the mushrooms, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Toss mushrooms with olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet and season with salt and pepper. Roast, tossing once or twice, until the mushrooms are deeply browned and crispy on the outside but tender on the inside, 15 to 20 minutes depending on the type of mushroom and strength of your oven.

If serving the salad, toss Little Gems with lemon juice and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper and arrange on a large platter. Sprinkle with sumac and drizzle with olive oil before serving.

Remove chicken from heat and season the cooking liquid with salt and pepper as needed. Transfer chicken, onions and thyme to a large serving platter, spooning cooking liquid over the top, or alternatively, serve directly from the pot, with the mushrooms and salad alongside if you like.

A few more guests to flatter the chicken

Bread: Slice any good, crusty loaf of your choosing about 3/4-inch thick and toast until golden brown. Rub with a cut garlic clove and drizzle with olive oil. Garlicky or spicy breadcrumbs would also be welcome if you’re feeling carb-inclined.

Something creamy: Chicken loves more fat, especially this very tangy chicken. A bowlful of any seasoned creamy ingredient like sour cream, full-fat yogurt or labneh sprinkled with chives is excellent for spooning onto or underneath the chicken, over lemony lettuces and onto toast.

Quick pickles: For a quick, light pickle, toss thinly sliced vegetables such as radishes or fennel with a little thinly sliced shallot and season with a good splash of vinegar, salt and pepper.