That sounds so mean of me. And I’m not some expert chef or anything. But I grew up with a mom who cooked and I’ve always liked cooking so throwing shit together in a pan is a little easier for me. The way flavors are supposed to go together and taste makes sense. Like tomatoes and basil. I get that. Although I also will concoct bizarre combinations too. Like I once made a basil & blueberry reduction sauce for pork chops that turned out to be to die for. And I’ve probably lost you.
The point here (and I’m writing this more because I sort of promised a friend I’d share some tips and totally forgot to) is that while I can’t turn you into Julia Child, I can help you learn how to make more than ramen and scrambled eggs. * Not that ramen isn’t delicious and a vital food group.
*Actually, toss that scrambled egg with ramen noodles and some peanut sauce and you’ve got an inexpensive version of pad thai. *
To become a decent cook, there are basically a few rules it’s a good idea to follow.
1) Don’t experiment when you’ve invited people over for dinner. Even professionals tend to have go to dishes. That’s because while experimenting with food can be a blast, you don’t want to be trying to master a cedar-planked salmon and then be left with nothing but flakes of charred fish when it’s time to eat. (Yes, that was personal experience. Turned out soaking the wood for 48 hours before really was important). And one of the quickest ways to make you doubt your skills is to have someone else criticize your cooking.
2) But do experiment on your own! I mean do you really think that a cobbler happened on purpose? Hell no. Obviously someone at some point let their kids do the cooking and all the pie crust ingredients just got dumped in the pan so they figured what the hell and voila! Cobbler. (That is probably not actually how cobbler was invented but it is a much better story). You know what the worst thing is that happens when your dinner ends up disgusting? You have to eat pizza. I mean oh wow the sacrifice. Seriously, the world won’t fall apart and no one will glare at you. You’ll just have a fuller trash bag to haul out to a dumpster and you’ll get to enjoy a slice of pizza.
3) Buy a crockpot. No really. BUY A CROCKPOT. If you’re single, they do actually make smaller crockpots which can be awesome. But honestly I have a bigger one and if there’s leftovers, great. If you’re cooking for a husband btw, big crockpots are great because guys will pick at whatever is in there all freaking day so you’ll want something left. You can make anything in a crockpot. Cobbler? Done. Ribs? Done. Chili? Yup. Soup, stew, chicken, pot roast, vegetables, fondue, I don’t care what it is, a crockpot will cook it. And best of all a crockpot will cook it without any effort from you. (I’ve included some fave recipes for crockpots further on).
4) If you have the money and/or a desire to be healthier, invest in an electric wok. You’ll want to get a decent one but you should easily be able to keep it under $40. A wok is great because it basically does the work of a skillet without needing as much oil. Plus it looks really cool when you toss stuff in a wok. And anyone who’s watched Food Network knows that looking good is half the point of eating well.
5) Master 5 main dish recipes and 5 side dish recipes and like 3 desserts. If you have a few dishes down pat, you not only have ways to wow a guest but it gives you something to work off when you do want to experiment. For example, I first mastered chicken saltimbocca (recipe below). Then I started messing around with it and used halibut instead. Turns out the halibut version tastes even better. Now I have 2 recipes and I only learned one. It’s also a fave of friends. Or my tomato soup recipe which can be easily varied by adding extra cheese for a smoky flavor, or chicken and tortilla strips, or tortellini.
6) Learn how to make Italian food. Or what will always be Americanized-Italian food. Even if you think you don’t like Italian, I’m here to tell you that just means you’re doing it wrong. For starters, throw out alfredo sauce. That is not Italian. That is just gross. The beauty of Italian food (and Greek food for that matter) is that it’s not about how to combine food but how to celebrate the flavor of just one item. You don’t have to become a master but learning how to utilize spices and seasonal vegetables and how to minimally use sauces is one of the best tricks I ever learned to being able to understand food. And the day you figure out how to turn a tomato into dessert is the day you can do anything.
7) Read salad dressing labels. I know that sounds like the dumbest idea but a lot of flavor combinations are used in salad dressings, especially vinaigrettes. If you’re in a pinch, walk down that aisle of the store to get a few ideas. Believe me, it helps.
8) Invest in cumin, whole pepper, and sea salt. A great cook has a lot of spices but you can get by with a few. Cumin is one of those spices that can be overused but is mostly just underused. A pinch can save the seasoning of an entire meal. Plus it’s way cheaper than a lot of other spices. The salt and pepper are because you can do anything with decent salt and pepper. Which means you need to throw that Morton’s duo you bought for a dollar into the trash.
9) If you are trying to be a bit healthier, flip flop the portions. When most of us cook a meal, say stir-fry for example, we tend to think a big scoop of rice, then our meat choice and finally a few veggies tossed in for flavor. A healthier but not so sacrificing alternative is to let the veggies be the big portion, then the grains, and finally the meat.
10) Keep comfort food and quick meals on hand. Look sometimes you just don’t want to cook. Or your meal turns out tasting like rotten feet scrubbed in battery acid and you don’t have money for cure-all-crab-and-cream-cheese wontons. Yes, that’s a thing. That box of mac & cheese, packets of ramen, or whatever will still keep you fed.
11) Finally, always cook with wine. Not like in the food. Pour yourself a glass of wine before you begin and make sure to finish it before you sit down to eat. The best cook is a drunk cook! (Okay probably not but it sounds fun). Also, word of warning, music while cooking is a great idea. TV while cooking not so much. It is waaaaay too easy to get distracted.
Okay so those are a few of my ideas. Here’s a few recipes to get you started (and links to previous recipe posts).
Crockpot Chili: First, let’s understand that chili with beans in it is not really chili. Don’t let non-Texans fool you with their bogus recipes. Also, if chili doesn’t clear your sinuses for the rest of the year in the first bite, you’re doing it wrong. Needless to say, you may want to keep a gallon of milk around if spicy isn’t your thing. My chili recipe is basically dumping a bunch of shit in a pot and then adding stuff depending on my mood but I will do my best to give you a formula. However, chili is one of the best dishes that can’t be messed up. Unless you put beans in. Obviously.
So basically I start with about 2.5-3lbs of ground beef and dump it in the crock pot. Then I add cumin, tabasco, cayenne, chili powder, paprika, and oregano (about a teaspoon of each with maybe a couple more shakes of Tabasco). Then add 3 chili peppers (chopped) and 3 jalapeno peppers (chopped) plus 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic. Also, I use 1/10th to an 1/8th of a pound beef suet. You can get it at a local butcher. Add salt and pepper and then let it simmer for 8 hours. THIS IS A VERY HOT CHILI.
Smoky Tomato Basil Soup: You can make this in a crockpot and it will still be delicious. Just dump everything in and let it simmer on low for 4-6 hours. But I kind of like making soup on a fall day when I don’t have to be anywhere and can just chill in my sweats and dance around to Disney songs and make the house smell all yummy. And I get this weird thrill where I think I’m super talented because I’m making soup from scratch-ish on the stove. I don’t know, I’m weird.
*I totally thought I had this recipe on my computer. I will find it and share shortly. Until then, you can always just jazz up a basic tomato soup*
Leftover Tip: After mastering the tomato soup, there are endless ways to change it up. I mentioned a few above. If you make the soup creamier with extra cheese and half & half, you should try cutting grilled cheese into bite-sized pieces and treating it like fondue. Stirring in some rice or raviolis is also super easy.
Crockpot Yum Yum Chicken: My aunt gave me this recipe and it is easy peasy. Shred 4 cooked chicken breasts with a couple forks (just pretend the forks are werewolf claws and go to town. Yes, I watch too many supernatural shows.) and then add 2 8oz packages of cream cheese, a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a packet of italian seasoning with a 1/4 cup of water in the crockpot. Cook on low for six hours. You can serve it over pasta or rice. This is pretty much my go to comfort food.
Shortcake Dessert: You can do this two ways. Learn to make shortcake biscuits or go the easy way and buy a poundcake or angel food cake loaf. I throw this one in there because it is a way easier dessert than cookies or pie and even if everything is storebought, still looks like you made the effort. Besides people are stupid and it is really easy to pretend you slaved in a kitchen. Basically you put a slice of cake on a plate, add some fruit and dollop whip cream on top. If you use chopped apples, toss them in a little cinnamon first. Berries are also yummy. As are peaches with greek yogurt drizzled in honey.
Barbie Cups (Best thing ever): This is my family’s go-to recipe. If you’re having a movie night or a game day or just have guys coming over to eat, this is a perfect dish. You need ground beef, bbq sauce, a can of homestyle biscuits, and cheddar cheese. That’s it. Cook the meat in a skillet until it’s browned and then mix the bbq sauce with it. While that’s doing its thing, open up the biscuits and place each one in the cup of a muffin tin. Pull the biscuit around so it spreads out in the cup (like it’s making a little bowl). Add a scoop of browned meat to the top of each biscuit and sprinkle shredded cheese on top. (Feel free to go heavy on the cheese. I mean it’s cheese. Too much is not a thing). Then bake according to the biscuit can directions. The average person I know eats about 4 of these and I’m pretty sure they only stop there because more just seems rude.
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread
Italian Bread Salad: Best dish ever. Or like top ten. And I learned it from several badass Italian ladies and mastered it when I had to help cook for my friend’s rehearsal dinner which was a massive Italian feast. The salad is basically crusty bread cubes, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, olive oil, and balsamic. You might know it as panzanella but I’ve honestly never heard an Italian call it anything but bread salad. But you can call it what you want. Use a loaf of tuscan bread or something similar if possible and make sure it is good and stale. Then tear it into cubes, spread it on a cookie sheet and let it sit out for a few hours. DON’T LISTEN TO THE BULLSHIT IDEAS ABOUT TOASTING IT. THAT IS WRONG. Just saying. You need about 18 fresh basil leaves, 7-8 roma tomatoes (make sure they’re roma), 2 normal sized or one big cucumber (not English cucumbers, the taste isn’t right), some olive oil and balsamic. It’ll taste better with a higher quality oil & vinegar but that’s not super important. When you chop the cucumber and tomato (into decent sized bite-sized pieces), peel the cucumber first. Once everything is chopped up (you can just rip the basil apart with your hands) put it all together in a big bowl. Dash a little olive oil and a little more balsamic over it just like if you were putting oil and vinegar on a greens salad for dressing. Use your hands to mix it together. VERY IMPORTANT. Toss the salad just enough to mix it together. Any more and the bread will get too soggy. I love this one because it is ridiculously easy and tends to impress people. (A caprese salad has the same effect).
Italian Pasta Salad: This is one of my go to pasta dishes. The rotini pasta (the spiral kind that’s usually orange, green, and white) is best but any pasta works. Buy a packet of italian seasoning mix at the grocery store. It’s by the salad dressings. Mix it with 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar and 1/2 cup of olive oil and stir it really well. Then dump it with the cooked pasta and mix together. Voila! (Yes, I like that word).
Leftover tip: Make a big batch of pasta and then fix a bowl with the toppings of your choice. Try celery, carrots, tomatoes, and onions one day or chicken and mushrooms the next. Salami, mozzarella, and black olives are also yummy. This one’s good hot or cold too so it can be a perfect choice during the summer months.
Balsamic Green Beans: Easiest side dish in the world. Use haricot verts (the long string beans) and toss them with a dash of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt. Saute them in a wok (or skillet) for about 5-6 minutes. Just enough to keep them crispy. They’ll pair with pretty much everything.
Kale: Yes I know making kale sounds disgusting. But it’s super healthy. However, two things most people don’t realize about kale: 1) it has no taste so you can toss it with anything for all the benefits and none of that gross slimy taste (I’m looking at you spinach) and 2) it has to be cooked right or it’s weird. Anyway, you can put kale in soup or stew or pasta or rice dishes or toss fresh kale in a salad or make kale chips (so good!) and I think its just different enough from other greens to be fun as well as resourceful. First, salt the kale like right when you toss it in the pan. It needs some form of seasoning and salt is best. Then you want to cook it in a little olive oil and white wine. Kale is at its best when it gets this funky combination of steaming and sauteeing and wine works better than water or broth. Experiment a few times. You’ll be able to easily taste the difference.