Let’s get cooking

July 1, 2016

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that cooking is pretty important to me. I think I like cooking more than I like eating, which is kind of weird. So when an adult tells me they don’t know how to cook, I get all twisted up. What do you mean you don’t know how to cook?

I’ve had this conversation twice recently, and read a conversation on Facebook about it the other day. It seems like a lot of people either never had the time or interest to learn to cook, or didn’t have a home cook to learn from and are too intimidated to try. So I’m going to share a little secret, for at least the latter (and the former, if the interest is there) – COOKING ISN’T HARD.

That’s it. Cooking isn’t hard. And you don’t even need to follow recipes. I’m not talking about producing gourmet food here, I’m talking about the basics of being able to prepare a simple, healthy meal.

  • If you can boil water, you can cook.
  • If you can put something in a pot and stir it, you can cook.
  • If you have the ability to pay attention, you can cook.
  • If you can make a cake from a box, you can cook.
  • If you can read basic instructions, you can cook.

Trust me here. You can do this.

If you’re going to say, “but I burn everything I cook”, my answer to you is, so stir more, and walk away less. You can do this.

More or less, here’s my list of reasons you need to know how to cook:

  • Money – it’s cheaper to cook than to order takeout. Some prepared foods may be cheaper…I don’t really consider frozen dinners food, so I’ll digress here.
  • Health – you control what goes into your food. Organic versus non organic, amount of salt, sugar, chemicals, preservatives, etc.
  • Allergens – again, you control what goes into your food.
  • Skill – the ability to feed ourselves should not become a lost art. We need food to live; we should be able to prepare the food we need to live.

If you can get a feel for the different ways to cook, you can cook almost anything. It just takes some getting used to. I have categories, and how I tend to cook them (there are other ways, these are just my standards).

Two notes: First, this isn’t fine cooking here, this is a quick and dirty primer. Second, I learned to cook from my Italian mother, get ready for some olive oil.

Get yourself a the basics, a decent sized pot, a frying pan, a baking pan, a spatula, pair of tongs and a good spoon (I swear by a flat wooden spoon). If you’re cooking meat or fish, a meat thermometer is the easiest way to tell when they’re done. Ready?

For vegetables:

Bake, steam, saute, grill, boil

basic cooking old fashioned modern living

Some of the infamous giant zucchini

Let’s talk zucchini. Zucchini was one of my grandfather’s favorite things to plant, and he let them get big, so we could easy use one giant zucchini for 2-3 meals. How do I cook a zucchini? First I rinse it and cut it in the appropriate shape. Then I cook it.

  1. Bake: cut zucchini into cubes, chop onion into similar size pieces. Toss with olive oil to lightly coat, then place in oven safe pan (I like my Pyrex casserole). Sprinkle with salt, pepper and dried herbs/spices. Place in preheated oven. Check periodically; when zucchini looks a little clear, stab with fork to see if it’s tender enough to eat. Done.
  2. Steam: cut zucchini into half moons, then place in a pot with about 1/2 inch of water. Place lid on, turn heat on. Check in a few minutes, then a few minutes more if needed. Again, when the flesh of the zucchini is more clear than white, stab it with a fork to see if it’s tender. Drain off excess water, drizzle with a little olive oil and seasonings and give it a stir. Done.
  3. Saute: cut zucchini into slices/half moons. Slice some onion. In a decent size pot, add a little olive oil (don’t coat the whole bottom, but drizzle some in). Let it heat up for a minute over medium heat, then toss in the onions and give it a stir. Mix periodically for just a minute or two to give the onion a chance to mellow a little. Add in the zucchini and stir. Then stir again, and again. Not constantly, but every 30-60 seconds. Remember your heat isn’t too high; you want the veggies to get the heat without burning. Just keep it moving. Sprinkle in your salt, pepper, italian herbs, garlic powder, etc. Eyeball it, then do the fork test.
  4. Grill: Remove top and bottom ends of zucchini, then slice lengthwise, thin but not too thin (1/4″ or so). If you have access to a mandolin, use it CAREFULLY; it will give you beautifully consistent slices. Toss with a little olive oil and seasoned salt, then throw it on a hot grill. This may be the toughest, because of flare ups and potential for burning your fine little slices.
  5. Boil: Okay, forget zucchini. Don’t boil your zucchini unless you’re making minestrone soup. The only veggie (okay, tuber) I really boil are potatoes; boiling leeches a lot of the nutrients out of the food and into the water, which gets thrown away. It’s great for soup, but not great otherwise. So let’s talk potatoes. Wash and cut into edible chunks. Place in pot with water completely covering the potatoes. Turn on heat and boil until a fork goes easily into a chunk. Drain and dress with olive oil and spices, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, mash them with a little butter and spices, or quickly fry them to give them a crust.

For fish:

Bake, poach, saute

The seafoods I make most often are salmon and shrimp. So I’m going to go into some of my favorite ways to handle them.

  1. Bake: Take a pan with sides, throw some parchment down on it. Preheat your oven to 400F. Rinse your salmon and place it skin side down on the parchment paper. Then on that nice, fishy top part, drizzle a little olive oil and sprinkle some herbs. Then bake it for maybe 10 minutes and check it. The fish should look more solid, less translucent. I love my meat thermometer here, so I don’t need to flake away any fish to see the inside. Put it in the thickest part, and if it’s the right temperature, it’s done. If not, check again in 5 minutes. So on and so forth.
  2. Poach: This is sort of like steaming, but fish. Prepare your fish as above (oil isn’t necessary here), but instead put it in a shallow pot on the stovetop with a little water or wine. Cover and let simmer at medium heat until the fish starts to look cooked. Check with the thermometer. See the similarities?
  3. Saute: I will sometimes just cook shrimp stovetop with veggies to throw over pasta or rice. If you cut it up, it’ll cook faster. So let’s say I’ve sauteed some onions, spinach and peas…then they’re nearly cooked, I throw in my cut up shrimp and continue mixing for maybe a minute or two until the pieces are pink all the way around rather than raw grey. That’s it.

For meats:

Bake, fry, braise, grill

  1. Bake: Meatballs are REALLY easy. I made chicken meatballs the other night – a pack of ground chicken, 1 egg, a handful of breadcrumbs, finely diced onion, chopped fresh parsley, salt, pepper, garlic powder. Mix. Preheat oven to 400F. Line baking pan with parchment paper. Use those hands and shape your meat mixture into uniform size balls and plop them on the pan. Place in oven. Ground meats cook pretty quick, so check after 10 or 15 minutes, and you’ll notice the meat it darker and doesn’t look raw anymore. You’ll need to stab one and check for clear juices, or use a meat thermometer to make sure the center is cooked. If not, leave it a little longer. Once they’re ready, serve or toss them with tomato sauce. Do the same with ground beef, and substitute raw rolled oats for breadcrumbs if you’re gluten free. Some people fry their meatballs, I like to bake them.
  2. Fry: Chicken cutlets? Mix a container of scrambled up raw egg, then grab a plate with breadcrumbs. Dip your cutlets in the breadcrumbs, then the egg wash, then the bread crumbs, and pile them up on a plate. In a a frying pan or cast iron skillet, heat about 1/2″ oil (olive oil isn’t best here, go for a vegetable, canola, etc) until sizzling hot. Carefully place in your cutlets using a pair of tongs, not crowding them (watch out, the oil may spatter!) Once you start seeing the edges brown, flip them and let cook for about the same amount of time. You’ll watch them nice and brown on both sides, and since they’re thin, they cook quickly. Remove with the tongs and place on a plate with paper towels to rest and drain off excess oil. Next batch goes in.
  3. Braise: I don’t do a real braise (though I’m planning to try), I do a quickie braise. Let’s say some country style spare ribs. Heavy walled cast iron skillet goes on medium heat with a little olive oil until it’s nice and hot (any pot with a cover will work really, just make sure it has a good seal). Use tongs to sear your meat (plop it down in the pan until the outside is cooked, flip it over and try to get all sides – this seals in juices). Take the meat out for a moment, and add onions, then some veggies (sometimes carrots and celery, sometimes I add potatoes or others too). Keep it moving until the veggies have a little color – season as you go. Add the meat back onto your lovely bed of veggies, then add a little water, maybe an inch; you don’t want to submerge the meat. Wine, water, broth, etc – or a combination. Put the lid on and let it simmer (not boil, just simmer, keep that heat low) for an hour and a half up to 3 hours. Check periodically, because if the liquid all evaporates, the bottom will burn (this is why a good fitting lid is important). Add more liquid if needed. Use a meat thermometer if you’re not sure your meat is cooked. This method should turn out a soft, tender meat and nice stew-y veggies. I do beef, pork and chicken this way, including a super simple chicken and dumplings.
  4. Grill: I only learned how to barbecue about a month and a half ago! I’m still not a pro, but I can do it. Take your steak, chicken thighs, pork, etc. and marinate or dry rub as you wish. Turn on the barbecue (there should be instructions on it) and let the grill heat up – do whatever you do to clean it too. Use BBQ tongs to place the meat, flipping it periodically until it’s cooked. Move it or turn down the heat if you’re getting flare ups.

What else?

Rice is easy! White rice cooks in 10 minutes, brown rice is more like 45 – there are instructions right on the package. Add seasonings, or open a can of beans, rinse the goop off them and stir them in, or toss with sauteed veggies. Pasta? Boil water with a bit of salt. At a boil, add pasta and set timer to time specified on the box. Then drain it out and throw your sauce on.

I know I make this sound easy. Forgive me for sounding flippant, I can be casual because I am so sure that anyone can manage this! And the beautiful thing is that once you get used to cooking, you don’t need recipes. You buy broccoli and you think, “hmm, I’ll steam that then dress it with olive oil, salt, pepper and dried shallots.” You learn go-to methods, and then you apply them to different foods within that category.

You’re not going to become a celebrity chef overnight. You may mess up, over or under cook something or burn it just a little. That’s not a big deal.

Like I said earlier, if you can do other basic activities, you can cook! If you still don’t think so (and you’re local), come over so I can prove that you can cook.

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