"Minimal mess" dishes?


We are heading to Baltimore to my BIL’s for a sad family occasion this upcoming weekend. We’ll be staying with him as we always do and I’d like to cook at least a couple of nice-ish dinners for 3 adults (and a 3-year old spring onion, but he’ll likely eat spaghetti and meatballs for 3 nights straight). Problem is, I need recipes that cause minimal stress to my BIL. He is Type A++ and while he fashions himself as an Italophile and someone to whom good food is very important, last time I looked in his fridge, nearly every food item was hermetically sealed in plastic and manufactured far from Baltimore (and it wasn’t Italy). His IKEA cookware doesn’t look like they’ve ever been used. Every time I do something in the kitchen (even toasting bread in the morning), I feel his vigilant eyes on me. He reminds me that the stack of dish towels are there to be used. His clean-up ritual after breakfast borders on the absurd.

I am a fairly organized and calm person in the kitchen (it’s usually my happy place) - I clean up as I go and try to have a decent mise-en-place to avoid last-minute chaos. But man, my pots and pans take on patina, for sure, and when a meal starts coming together, things can get a bit crazy (in a good way…that’s what wine is for!). Which I love. So, I am not up to my BIL’s standards. Are there are special-occasion-y dishes that anyone could share that minimize kitchen messes? For example, I was thinking about Smitten Kitchen’s mushroom marsala pasta bake, which we love, but only because I saute and bake the hell out of it in my Le Creuset to form that beautiful crust (which would probably give BIL a heart attack if he saw the pan). Dishes like that are decidedly a “no.”

Many thanks for any suggestions.


(John Hartley) #2

I’ve no wish to pry into the sad occasion but , bearing that in mind, why do you wish to give yourself the added stress of cooking new dishes. Surely better to stick with your tried and trusted ones. No?

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Nah, I’m the type of person who cooks to de-stress and I love to experiment. So, trying new dishes is not daunting at all. For one dish, I’m considering cacio e pepe, which I’ve always wanted to try my hand at, but have never attempted. That might even distract BIL from the sad event, even for a short while.


(Denise) #4

Your empathy is wonderful. I will get the ball rolling with the suggestion of fish en papillote. Salmon filet topped with matchsticks of zucchini, carrot, and very thinly sliced mushroom is my go-to combo. Serious Eats has tips: http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/03/how-to-cook-food-en-papillote-packages-vegetables-meat-fish-slideshow.html

A roll of parchment paper might likewise be your best friend to minimize mess if you’re roasting vegetables on a sheet pan. Though foods tend not to brown as nicely on parchment, there’s no cleanup and no mess left behind on the pan. Maybe a pan of roasted vegetables alongside a prepared rotisserie chicken.



Is this a flight for you? If not I’d suggest maybe some items that you can make this week and just bake/heat when there.

Or I was thinking one pot items like soups, stews, chili …

Or baked pasta dishes like ziti or stuffed shells.

I recently made a baked chicken with wild rice dish that was super tasty and easy. (Essentially the rice with some veggies and chicken stock baked with bone in breasts on top). I love wild rice this time of year and for most non-foodies something they never make.

Are you leaning towards certain types of dishes or cuisines?



A risotto could be nice too. Protein of choice - shrimp, chicken, pork tenderloin …



If you don’t mind the cold, and if he has a grill outside, how about doing the cooking outdoors so he doesn’t see the ‘stress’? Paella comes to mind, which is a similar idea as risotto.



@tomatotomato Yes! (High five). My busy brain totally forgot about parchment paper cooking, especially with high-quality seafood, which I’m sure we can get in Baltimore. If plans to cook do materialize, some variation on this will definitely make an appearance for one dinner.

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@Thimes like you I’m in Boston so definitely a flight but we always have to do a Whole Foods run on our way from BWI to not impose on my BIL. I like the idea of sheet pan dinners with chicken and roasted vegetables that you and @tomatotomato have suggested. BIL is not very adventurous food-wise so I can’t pull out any Korean dishes without worrying that he’s just eating them to be polite. I think comfort dishes that he’s comfortable with is the way to go.



@sck That’s a great idea. He does have a grill but I don’t know if he keeps the tank filled after the summertime. If he does, even this (at times lapsed) vegetarian knows how to grill some flank steak, and I make a mean chimichurri sauce.

And though I’ve never made risotto, this is an interesting suggestion from you and @Thimes. I would definitely appease BIL’s love for Italy (he studied in Florence as an architect student and Italy is the only place he vacations to).

Edited to add: I really cherish the HO community. It’s something I look forward to when the going has been personally tough at times.



The toughest part about risotto is standing there and stirring for a long time. Otherwise its straightforward, and of course, tastes great.



Honestly, the distraction will be good for me. My hubby B can hang with his brother and the guys can tend to spring onion while I cook and drink wine and think about our dearly departed family member.

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Risotto really doesn’t need constant stirring and it should be start to finish in 20 minutes.



Sorry for your loss.



Oh yikes… your BIL sounds a lot like my mom! I.e. It should basically be an immaculate kitchen that looks like it has never been used.
I’m thinking a sheet pan supper is the way to go. One cutting board, one foil wrapped sheet pan (aka don’t hurt the pan and minimal clean up). Bon app out together a listical style thingy here, maybe the not glamorous yet definitely comfort food grandma style pizza is a good one. As an homage to BIL’s cleanliness issues use a store bought pizza dough.

+1 for a fish en papillote prep, although perhaps buy a mild fish to keep fishy kitchen oders to a minimum, i assume that would potentially upset the fastidious one.

If you can have your SO keep BIL occupied and out of the kitchen while you’re cooking that would be ideal, worst case scenario get takeout or delivery if the situation is obviously too aggrevating for him to deal under stressful family circumstances.


(Denise) #16

If a Whole Foods run is an option, maybe pick up a prepared entree or soup and make a great salad or veg dish to serve with it. Shortcut meals like that have helped me when I have been in a similar situation.

Also, homemade minestrone if soup aroma and vegetable scraps would not be too much. One pot, a cutting board, a knife, maybe a peeler to clean up. Maybe consider a wedge of Parmesan to grate over the soup bowls at the table to make the meal feel more special.

I hope that your journey goes well.


(—d) #17

Pot of homemade soup and a nice loaf of bread
Stuffed peppers
Crockpot ribs
Mac and cheese
stuffed cabbage
eggplant parm
baked salmon

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@Rooster Soup and good bread is the default winter meal in our house, but unfortunately, I have a feeling that BIL won’t consider soup to be a “meal.”



Sounds like you want to cook, but he doesn’t like anyone to use his kitchen but him. Or maybe he doesn’t like how you leave his kitchen after you use it. Since he is the host, and you are the guest, it would probably be better to take his wishes into consideration, not yours. Especially if he is in a state of mourning/sadness.

I would order food delivery. You are all fed, and his kitchen remains the way he wants it.



My very “meat and potatoes” father is the same way with the soup is not a meal thinking but there are a few that he does think are a meal and would work for a one pot one cutting board situation to minimize mess:

  • thick chili with meat and beans, DIY toppings like sour cream, shredded cheese, scallions, jalapenos; store bought corn bread from whole foods is actually quite good here too
  • with access to good seafood a chowder would make a hearty soup dinner, a sturdy loaf of bread along with it , platter of crudite and dressing for those who want some veggies

Another thought would be to proactively reach out to your BIL via email/phone and say how “i would love to cook family dinners during our stay with you and we are thinking to stop for groceries on our way to your house. Probably just a ((whatever dish)) and ((another dish)) - or let me know if you would prefer that we pick up take out and breakfast supplies”
I think he would appreciate knowing what to expect (ie you walking in with a bunch of groceries intending to cook) and if he can’t deal right now this gives him an opportunity to say so in a way that doesn’t come across as ungreatful.