Dumb dishes you’d be smart to cook at home

When I phone chefs to inquire about the details of a particular menu item, every so often in the conversation, they will toss in the word “dumb.” What? Talented culinarians with years of kitchen training and experience — the same folks who create dishes that become so signature that we beg and plead for them not to ever be taken off the menu — calling their dish “dumb”?

What they mean, I think, is that the dish is simple, uncomplicated or perhaps requiring few ingredients. For all of us pressed to get food on the table, none of that is dumb in the least.

I solved my Easter brunch conundrum in the eleventh hour with the easy crowd-pleaser of ham and egg baskets. Grab a muffin tin. Drape a thin ham slice over each cup, crack an egg on top and let it fall into the cup. Season with a crank of pepper and a pinch of salt. Bake it in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until the yolk is barely set. It's so simple it borders on stupid. But people love it. And it's fast. So, let's call it smart.

Recently, Mihoko Obunai, executive chef for soon-to-open ramen joint Nexto, described to me a brunch recipe she makes for her kids. It involves cooking grits, pureeing kimchee and swirling that into the grains for a Southern-Asian marriage of kimchee grits. She tops it with a soft-poached egg, a bit of Parmesan and a dash of hot sauce. Sometimes, she’ll serve it with bacon on the side. “It’s not very fancy,” Obunai said.

Who cares if it’s not fancy. That sounds delicious — and doable for even a novice cook.

While grits is rather new to Obunai, who was raised in Tokyo, lived in California as a high school exchange student, and got her culinary degree in New York before moving to the South in the early 2000s, the kimchee and egg on top are very much rooted in her childhood. The nonfancy dishes we love frequently hail from our younger days.

The dumb dish of my childhood has to be my dad’s fried bologna sandwiches. He periodically made them Saturday afternoons, the one weekly meal my mom did not orchestrate. I remember consuming these hot sandwiches on Saturdays when morning chores were done. The smell of fried bologna was horrid to me then; now I approach it with fondness. I also pay attention to the frying part, like my dad did. The bologna isn’t ready until the round ends are browned enough that it begins to curl up on itself.

If there’s one recipe I learned to master during my college days living in Spain, it’s the comfort dish that is a Spanish potato omelet. I’ve pulled together many a brunch or dinner by pulling the tortilla espanola out of my culinary back pocket. A straightforward, hearty dish of eggs and potatoes, I love making it because there is the zen of slicing spuds into thin disks, the patience of cooking eggs low and slow, the deliberateness of keeping a steady hand when flipping the omelet.

My husband has his comfort foods, too. Tops among the unfussy ones has to be gizzards and hearts. He grew up with them and, whatever I might think about gizzards and hearts, they are great in his book. He and his siblings even used vie with his father over the hearts. So, when I opened the fridge recently to see a plastic carton of fresh gizzards and hearts, I knew Joe was pining for a taste of home.

I fried those poultry pieces right up. I think they made him a bit happier. Thinking back, I should have given him a two-fer dumb-dish dinner by also making his mom’s Stuck Together Rice.

Take cooked rice. Stir in enough whisked eggs to coat it, plus a generous helping of Parmesan cheese, diced ham if you’ve got it, and salt and pepper to taste. Bake it at 350 degrees like a casserole until it feels right.

Stuck Together Rice is a dish that my mother-in-law grew up eating. Her parents hailed from the tiny mountain village of Pietraroja in the Campania region of southern Italy. They emigrated separately, but settled in the same city and ultimately got married. I don’t know the real origin of Stuck Together Rice. It’s sort of a casserole version of the Italian rice balls known as arancini. It does, however, seem fitting that it is attributed to Grandpa and Grandma Manzelli. They found one another and, well, they stuck together.

Beloved dishes might be plain. They might be simple. But they aren’t dumb. And aren’t we lucky to be stuck with them?