9 Cooks on Their Favorite Assembly Dinners

Shaniqua Juliano

If turning on the oven or standing over the stove for an extended period of time is not on the docket today—because it’s hot, you’re busy, or both (or neither, you’re allowed to just not feel like it!)—you need an assembly dinner. As its name suggests, this sort of dinner […]

If turning on the oven or standing over the stove for an extended period of time is not on the docket today—because it’s hot, you’re busy, or both (or neither, you’re allowed to just not feel like it!)—you need an assembly dinner. As its name suggests, this sort of dinner doesn’t involve cooking so much as assembly, bringing bits and bobs from around your kitchen together into something quick and delicious. You may need to boil an egg or toast some bread, but for the most part it’s as cool (temperature-wise) and low-key as mealtime can be.

A pan bagnat plate, like the one pictured above, is my favorite assembly dinner move. It’s a deconstructed version of the classic French sandwich that looks more like a cheeseboard than a picnic lunch. All of the power players still get a spot on the plate, like fancy canned tuna and anchovies in olive oil, sliced boiled eggs, marinated olives, and jarred roasted red peppers. A sliced and salted peak-season tomato and a handful of herbs keep it summery and fresh, but it’s just as good without if you’re sticking primarily to pantry staples. Just be sure to keep a little bowl of mustardy vinaigrette on the side for drizzling, and serve the assortment with lots of flatbread crackers or little toasts to load up as you go.

That’s the biggest lesson in making an assembly dinner: Cold stuff from the fridge and jarred things from the pantry don’t have to be boring, but you might need a little inspiration to get the ball rolling. I asked five chefs from around the country, plus a few Epi staffers, for the minimal-cooking, mostly-scrounging dinners they throw together again and again—read on for fodder to plan yours for tonight.

Cold soba and toppings

Who: Naoko Takei Moore, cookbook author and owner of Toiro in L.A.
What: I love quick summer meals. I always keep my homemade kaeshi (an all-purpose sauce made from soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar) in the fridge and use it for so many things. One of my go-tos is cold soba topped with natto, shiso, okura, seaweed, and any other toppings I have, with kaeshi poured over the top. I can prepare it in 5 minutes!

Pantry pasta salad

Photo by Evan Sung

Who: Katie Button, chef of Cúrate in Asheville, NC
What: I cook the pasta and rinse it in cold water to chill it back down. Then I toss it with whatever I can find in my pantry—usually some variation of the following: olive oil, sherry vinegar, salt, tuna packed in olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, hearts of palm, canned artichoke hearts, and/or toasted pine nuts (or really whatever roasted salted snack nut I happen to have on hand). Sometimes I throw in feta cheese, or fresh basil or tarragon from my garden, and sometimes I will use the same water that I boiled my pasta in to boil a couple of eggs and throw that in too. It all works! The only necessary ingredients are pasta, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt—then the canvas is yours.

Smoked or cured fish platter

Who: Maggie Hoffman, Epi senior editor
What: When it’s really muggy out, this does the trick for me. Bagels or whatever bread you crave, plus whatever cured or smoked seafood makes you happy: Nova (did you know that Russ & Daughters ships?) or lox or gravlax or smoked trout or herring or whatever you can find. Cream cheese (or maybe a little crème fraîche mixed with lemon), sliced onion, capers, the best cucumbers you can find. Tomato if you want. Everybody builds their own plate (and okay, my kid just eats a plain bagel. Life goes on.) Hint: The secret to making this meal feel like dinner and not brunch is a martini, if you’re into that kind of thing. Any leftovers (with any leftover lemony crème fraîche) can be served on potato chips for a fancy snack tomorrow.

Dressed-up watermelon

Who: Max Hardy, chef and owner of Coop Detroit
What: Salads are my go-to meal because they are easy, quick, and healthy. Watermelon is my favorite fruit, and it means summer to me, so I love to sneak it in when I can. A salad with watermelon, olive oil, honey, Dijon mustard, Champagne vinegar, feta, shallots, and fresh arugula for the base is the perfect summer meal.

Big leafy wraps

Who: Lauren Joseph, associate commerce editor
What: I make a ton of collard green wraps when it’s too hot to cook. If the greens are tough, I quickly blanch them, but if their nice and babyish I just trim out the center stem, smear on a generous spoon of sauce of miso, soy sauce, a little honey or maple syrup, and lime juice, and then fill with whatever vegetable bits are in my fridge—usually cabbage, avocado, cucumber wedges, and bean sprouts. Sometimes if there’s leftover chicken or rice, I add that in there too, but the wraps are great just with vegetables. (Editor’s note: You can also skip the collards and use nori sheets as wrappers to make your own hand rolls!)

Themed grazing

Who: Joseph De Leo, Epi photographer
What: I like to set out odds and ends around a theme when cooking feels like too much. Hummus night means cucumbers, carrots, radishes, bell peppers, feta, and pita. Tapas night means jamón, Manchego cheese, olives, and shishito peppers—maybe a no-cook soup like gazpacho or salmorejo. On cold-cuts night, I pair sliced turkey, soppressata, and French ham with whatever cheese we have and a baguette. Plus stone fruit! Plums are the best with the salty meats and cheeses.

Leftover grain salad

Photo by Evan Sung

Who: Fany Gerson, chef and founder of La Newyorkina in NYC
What: I always try to have some kind of cooked grain or legume around, like farro or lentils, so I can just throw something together. I love having a big salad for dinner so I’ll chop whatever vegetables I have (usually cucumbers, tomatoes, and fennel), plus any combination of fresh herbs, like parsley, basil and cilantro, and toss it all together. I’ll either add a nice can of tuna, some goat cheese, or leftover roast chicken if I have it. Basically it’s all leftovers! If I don’t have a dressing on hand, I’ll just squeeze fresh lemon over the top with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

A raw fish situation

Who: Joe Sevier, Epi associate editor
What: I love a crudo/poke/brightly dressed raw fish situation with soft summer melon (of the cantaloupe or honeydew variety). For me, raw fish works best when it’s met with brightness and heat, so I’ll go for a dressing with lots of citrus or rice or sherry vinegars, plus gochujang, hot paprika, Sriracha, or pepper jelly—depending on my mood, the flavor profile I’m going for, or whatever’s in the pantry. I’ll sprinkle gomasio or furikake all over the top and scatter herbs or other tender, flavorful greens. And avocado is always invited to the party. I usually won’t add anything too crunchy here because it’s sort of a study on soft textures: the melon and the fish (and maybe the avocado) work so well together, I kind of only want to focus on that. But a crudo or ceviche with tortilla chips on the side is not unheard of in my house.

One-pot meals…plus ice cream

Who: Makini Howell, chef and owner of Plum Bistro in Seattle
What: I always have greens and fresh veggies for a salad on hand, but these days my cupboard is also packed with staples like pasta, tomato sauce, lentils, and brown rice. I like to grab any of these to mix and match and throw together a one-pot meal. I also keep a freezer full of ice cream for dessert!

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