My personal kitchen philosophy is that cooking is an art, and baking is a science! I will experiment while cooking, substitute one herb for another, add more or less of this or that. When baking, though, I follow the recipe to the letter.
The basic ingredients I recommend always having on hand are olive oil, garlic (fresh and/or powdered,) onion powder and simple dried herbs like basil and oregano (to start!) I also have a hot sauce (like Tobasco sauce) to add some zing.
Here are my go-to easy recipes. Stick to the basic recipe, and if/when you feel comfortable doing so, experiment with the alternatives!
1 - My very basic red sauce: Heat a bit of olive oil in a pan, on medium heat. Throw in one chopped onion and a sliced clove of garlic (or two or three! Depends on your taste.) Stir gently until you can see through the onions, then pour in a can of crushed (not diced - too liquidy) tomatoes and sprinkle in a teaspoon of dried basil, a teaspoon of dried oregano and a teaspoon of sugar (or honey; this cuts the tomato's acidity.) Turn the heat down to low and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While it simmers, prepare your pasta as per directions on the box. I like fresh linguini myself, but anything goes!
Alternatives: throw in a can of mushrooms (or handful of sliced fresh mushrooms) and/or some sliced sweet peppers (red, green, yellow or orange, whatever you prefer) before adding the crushed tomatoes. Cook for another five minutes, then add the crushed tomatoes. At this point, if you have it on hand and you feel like it, you can also pour in 1/4 to half a cup of wine (red or white, experiment!) Another idea is 1/4 cup of vodka and a few squirts of tobasco sauce*. Simmer for 10 minutes. At the very last minute, I like to toss in a handful of whole kalamata or green olives.
This is great sprinkled with Parmesan cheese or with a few dollops of goat cheese thrown on top. (Note: add the goat cheese to your plate, not to the pot of sauce!)
Step 2 - Easy Italian chicken: Preheat oven to 400F. Take two boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Sprinkle both sides with lots of onion powder and garlic powder (note: not onion salt or garlic salt!) (If you have them, place one leaf of fresh basil on the chicken.) Place 1 slice of fresh tomato on each breast (on top of the basil leaf, if using.) Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Alternative: Skip the slice of tomato (and basil leaf); once done baking, spoon some salsa (I'm fond of the Tostitos brand roasted garlic salsa) onto the chicken. You can also place some thin slices of whatever cheese you like. I use marble cheddar. Stick it back into the oven just long enough to heat the salsa/melt the cheese (two-three minutes.)
Serve on a bed of rice (white or flavoured. If you use salsa, Spanish rice goes very well with it) and any type of frozen or canned veggie you have on hand. Also very good with a simple salad on the side.
Both these recipes make enough for two servings. Makes for an excellent lunch the next day!