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Chicken nuggets
Globe correspondent Jonathan Levitt prepares chicken nuggets, a fast and popular dish to make at home. (Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)

Do try this at home

Some trial and error yields quality pizza, pad Thai, chicken nuggets, and beef chow fun. Skip the takeout.

It started with a craving for pizza. And not just any pizza, not Upper Crust or Figs, nor Cambridge 1, Santarpio's, or Pizzeria Regina. I wanted some kind of pizza perfetta, a plate-sized margherita pie with a crackly crust, milky-fresh mozzarella, a little bright tomato sauce, and a few tiny basil leaves. And I wanted to make it myself. So, after messing around with the charcoal grill and the gas grill, cranking up the oven and using a pizza stone, after making my own dough and buying dough, after buffalo milk mozzarella and cow's milk mozzarella, raw tomatoes, cooked tomatoes, and tomato sauce, after pizza after soggy pizza in the dog food bowl, I finally had it. I made the pizza I had always wanted to make. Then I sat down and ate it.

Good cooking is certainly alchemy, but it's hardly magic. You need plenty of time for trial and error, people to eat the errors, and a heavy dose of determination. But that's about all you need. In the end, my ideal pizza took eight ingredients, store-bought dough, and a pizza stone. Few cooks - even people who tackle more complicated meals all the time - make iconic restaurant dishes. They leave those to the people who do it day in and day out. If you want great pizza, you're likely to go out for it - as if it can't be made at home, as if real home cooking has to be passed down from your own grandmother and not anyone else's. But with the right ingredients, some simple tools, and good formulas, your kitchen can turn out the popular items everyone orders - the same pizza I made, along with pad Thai, chicken nuggets, and beef chow fun.

Authentic pad Thai requires fish sauce, tamarind paste, and a light hand on the sugar. Even pretty good pad Thai can be too sweet, too sticky, and taste too much like some kind of caramel-y dessert noodles. The best versions are dryer and more delicate with bright bursts of hot, sour, salty, and sweet. Heat comes from chili peppers, sour from tamarind pulp, salt from Thai fish sauce, and sweetness from brown or palm sugar. As with all stir-fried noodles, pad Thai demands a hot wok and attention to the order in which the ingredients go into the pan. Everything must be ready by the stove top because the cooking only takes minutes. Then finish the dish with plenty of crunchy bean sprouts, a sprinkle of fresh cilantro, a big handful of peanuts, and a squeeze of lime.

Where pad Thai is a splash of flavors and textures, beef chow fun is a more austere Chinese specialty. The dry-style noodles (they also come very saucy) are typical of stripped-down authentic dishes. Dry chow fun is all over Chinatown menus; like pad Thai, it's a beautiful dish - and much more than the sum of its parts. The ingredients seem almost ordinary, but it's the kind of thing that you make and then you can't believe you have. It's salty and soft and crisp, sweet from sliced onions, rich with thinly sliced flank steak, shiny with soy sauce and fresh wide rice noodles. When the soy sauce goes into the pan and bubbles up, and then coats the noodles, the dish showcases the complexity of a few simple ingredients. At the end, a handful of bean sprouts and slivers of sliced, deep-green Chinese chives cut though the richness.

And now to that pizza. Without a blazing hot wood-burning oven, long wooden peels, and endless vats of dough, the home pizzaiolo needs to improvise. And to avoid tears, spills, stress, and the dreaded sogginess that invariably comes with homemade pizza, make smaller rounds - about the size of salad plates. Also, use a thick pizza stone and let the oven heat for about 45 minutes to get the stone very hot, buy the freshest mozzarella, and make your own simple tomato sauce. And while working with yeast and perfecting your own pizza dough is a rewarding process, fresh dough from the supermarket or from a good pizza joint works at least as well and is probably more consistent than anything you could make at home. Generally, most pasta sauces can be adapted to use on the dough. Start with tomato sauce, add garlic, anchovies, olives, and crushed red pepper, and turn that sauce into a spicy puttanesca; or make a white pie with chopped clams and lots of garlic and fruity olive oil; or just make a simple pomodoro with imported canned tomatoes, which forms the backbone of my favorite pizza margherita.

I set to work figuring out chicken nuggets - fried chicken for beginners - because there isn't a kid around who won't eat them. Unlike fried chicken, nuggets have no bones to avoid and no dark meat with tendons. I tried all kinds of poached chicken purees (this is how some chefs make dressed up versions of nuggets), but then I decided that small pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast work best. Roll the little squares in flour, double dip them in eggs and panko, the crisp Japanese bread crumbs, and pan fry slowly in olive oil. They're as crisp and golden as McDonald's - without the mystery meat pastiness.

None of these reinvent cooking. They add something to your repertoire that everyone in your household will like. So, if you want pad Thai like the one you had at a street stall in Phuket, or the beef chow fun you remember from 3 a.m. in Chinatown after a particularly late night out, or chicken nuggets from your fast-food days, take your finger off speed dial, and turn on the oven or fire up the battered Joyce Chen wok. Stir-fry desire into dinner.

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