I'm sick of scrambled eggs, but can't deny their cooking appeal
July 5, 2009 7:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm lazy, impatient, and space constrained. But I really like food. Which cuisine should I master?

I'd like to get into cooking but all my attempts so far have been defeated by one of three things:

Too much cleanup. I can't stand washing dishes, so meals that call for 5 pans are eternally depressing.

Too much time. Instructions like "now wait 2 hours" don't work for me. I like to be eating in under 30 minutes from the onset of hunger.

Too much equipment or too many special ingredients. My kitchen is small and I'm probably not going to have a crockpot just for that one dish. I also prefer having a simple pantry with a dozen or so staples. Since each cuisine needs it's own set of spices and sometimes equipment, I'd like to focus mainly on one.

Is there a cuisine I can learn that alleviates some or all of these concerns? I like virtually all food (except italian for some reason), so go wild.

Previously: lazy cuisine and tight budget cuisine
posted by typography to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
If you like Thai food, you can make many coconut milk-based curries in one pan in 30 minutes or less on a regular basis and keep some variety in the meals at the same time. You can also make many variations of Thai fried rice in 30 minutes or less (if you don't count making rice the previous day as part of the 30 minutes). Very decent recipes over at ImportFood.com (and you can order authentic ingredients from there as well). If you "specialize" in Thai food, you will have the core pantry, pots and tools that you are looking for.

If you liked Italian, I have many suggestions for quick meals (learned out of necessity during the grad school days).
posted by hrbrmstr at 7:57 PM on July 5, 2009

Sushi. All you need is a good source of raw fish and vegetables, a rice cooker, and a small straw mat.
posted by musofire at 7:58 PM on July 5, 2009

Well, I was going to suggest Italian, as I like being able to put together the absolute basic essentials of pasta, olive oil, and garlic (and, usually, onion) in about 15 minutes with minimal cleanup (2 saucepans and a colander), but you've specifically excluded it (too much carbohydrate?).
posted by Ritchie at 7:58 PM on July 5, 2009

Southeast Asian (Japanese/Thai, etc.) seems an obvious choice.

Equipment & cleanup: something to cook rice in (either a pot or a dedicated rice cooker), and a good wok and/or large pan to stir fry the main dish in. A single bowl, pair of chopsticks and/or fork to eat it in.

Time: generally about as long as it takes rice to cook - e.g., about 20 minutes. In that time you can chop up and cook the other ingredients.

Ingredients: an array of basic herbs & spices (garlic, ginger, chili flakes to start with, plus others as you get more advanced); some oils and sauces (soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, black bean paste, thai curry sauces, etc.) that are cheap and easy to store; and rice, lots of rice.

Bonus: it can be extremely healthy if you do it right; you can incorporate a ton of 'found' ingredients including whatever vegetable happens to be in season; shallow learning curve but lots of possibilities.
posted by googly at 8:00 PM on July 5, 2009

Cajun/creole. Most stuff is cooked in one pot. It also uses vegetables that keep pretty well (onions, peppers, tomatoes, okra).
posted by shadow vector at 8:05 PM on July 5, 2009

My personal trick - I live in a city with super easy access to a produce market, so YMMV - is to keep mostly pantry items on hand. I pick up my produce on the way home from work. I pick up enough for tonight's food and maybe tomorrow's. That's it. There's little produce that's bulk cheaper, anyway, since it's largely by the pound.

Rice cookers are fantastic. Exactly what googly and others above said: start rice, prep food, fry food, (rinse cutting board while food cooks). Then eat rice and food. Save rice for tomorrow, save a step. Wash pan, serving spoon/mixing spoon, and eating dishes from the day.

Accumulate spices as you like - one new spice every week or two will catch you up without having a huge amount of money outlaid at once.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 8:30 PM on July 5, 2009

Mexican/region of Mexico of your choice. Most Mexican food is a permutation of the same handful of main ingredients. Most of the spices and ingredients are available in any grocery store (with some exceptions based on where you live). It also doesn't require lots of fancy techniques usually. There are many stews that are cooked in one pot, and a lot of dishes are based around tortillas with toppings or fillings with sauces, beans, and rice.
I'm not totally authentic when it comes to cooking Mexican, and my style is definitely more in the vein of cheesy Tex-Mex (that's the dominant cuisine where I live), but this website looks good for starting to learn more general Mexican cooking.

There will be some dishes that require cooking for hours (some of the stewed meats), but they're doable with faster cooking methods if you're in a hurry. A crockpot is a great investment, even for one person. You can buy smaller ones. You put the stuff in the crockpot, leave it on while you're at work or whatever, come home and you have the main part of your meal ready to go. Once you get one, they're really useful. Another kitchen tool that will make life faster and easier is a food processor, especially for making sauces like those used in many cuisines. Cleanup is easy since all of the parts that get dirty can be put in a dishwasher if you have one.
posted by ishotjr at 8:32 PM on July 5, 2009

Two cuisines spring to mind: Mexican (the original fast food) and Middle eastern(falafel, hummus), the latter tastes just as good after storing in the fridge, so you can make up a bunch and then coast on your efforts. For Mexican, I like tacos. Make and store taco components, then hunger-to-cooking-to-eating time is minimal.
posted by telstar at 8:37 PM on July 5, 2009

Let me single out fried rice. Can be prepared in infinite variations by just choosing what you put in it. If you're starving it can be ready in like 3 minutes with pre-cooked rice.

Omelettes can be made for many occasions, too, not just breakfast.
posted by grobstein at 8:39 PM on July 5, 2009

I like to make Sushi but there's a lot of cleanup. Too much, really. Mainly because the rice is sticky so you'll need to wash the rice pan, then the dish where you mix the vinegar in, then you will probably drop a bit of rice around as you rush to spread it on nori and add stuff and roll it up before the rice cools down.

Here's the thing.. now, I don't know about meat because I'm vegetarian, but as for vegetable dishes, you have to keep in mind that there's a million various dishes you can make, but only a few of them are nutritious enough to have them every day for months. Basically, something either brown rice based or lentils, or beans. If you want to go under 30 minutes, this means no brown rice and no beans.

First of all, I think you're wrong about 30 minutes, that is, you just have to face the fact that you'd be missing too much by constraining yourself to half an hour. That's just not enough time to make most decent meals, and you'll get tired of the quick meals eventually. If you're hungry, drink a little water and wait 5 minutes and hunger goes away. People can go weeks without food, 45-50 minutes is nothing.

HOWEVER, let's say that at least some days you want to do 30 minutes. OK. Here's what I would do: 2 pans, one pan for lentils, the other to sautee mixed vegetables. Cast iron dutch ovens work great for sauteeing. Put some olive oil in, heat it up on medium, add ground black pepper (2 or 3), add 3 ground pods of cardamom, and then add your vegies. Close the lid and let it sautee for 30 sec, then keep opening the lid and stirring about every 30-60 seconds; if they get too dry, add a little water. They should be done in 12-17 minutes. Lentils will be done in 25+ minutes. Since you have so little time you want to use vegetables that are easy to wash and clean, e.g. broccoli, peppers, kale (kale is awesome when sauteed), green, yellow squash, tomatoes, collards, tofu. You don't want spinach because it takes forever to wash thoroughly. I'm sure you'll think of many other vegetables to add. You can also add 2 washed chunks of canned pineapple - adds a really great sweet flavour.

That's really the only solid meal I can think of that can be done under 30 mins and that you can eat daily for month and live to tell about it.
posted by rainy at 8:49 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Quesadillas! My dad got me a quesadilla maker a couple of years ago, and my roommates and I had lots of fun coming up with yummy creations. Some of our favorites: goat cheese, mushroom, and roasted red pepper; shrimp, avocado, sweet corn, and queso fresco; apples, raisins, and brie; and good old cheddar, jack, black beans, and hot sauce.

As a bonus, there's little to no clean-up. As long as you don't overstuff your quesadillas, all you have to do is wipe down the plates once the machine's cooled off.
posted by non sum qualis eram at 8:52 PM on July 5, 2009

Oh, and the reason I really am against 30 minutes is because both brown rice and beans are tastier than lentils. I'd hate to be limited to 30 min. I think 45-55 minutes is the golden minimal time for a solid meal that gives you many options. Just 15 minutes less and you can't only do so little.
posted by rainy at 8:54 PM on July 5, 2009

Most asian food is by definition about 'fast cooking'. Buy pre-cut veggies (if you really want to eliminate that 'chopping' step), a selection of chinese-ish sauces or flavourings, and keep some sliced up protein your freezer, and you can make stir-fry or soup in less than 15 minutes, with nothing but one saucepan/frying pan/wok to clean up.
posted by Kololo at 9:01 PM on July 5, 2009

I recommend rice dishes. Fried rice, dirty rice, sambol, the list goes on. In keeping your pantry small, it sounds like you want to learn staples, one at a time, and the most widely usable ones.
posted by rhizome at 9:02 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

At the risk of my answer being a little too meta...the problem, as i see it, isn't "which cuisine." It's that you perhaps need to go past reading & following recipes into using them as inspiration within already-established routines.

Would it help you to know how these recipes are supposed to work? Perhaps read Ratio. Not as a cookbook, but a philosophy book.

That said, my go-to source for tasty easy recipes (or inspiration) is generally Mark Bittman's Minimalist column.

In my opinion, easily 75% of equipment is just luxury for a home cook simply wanting tasty unfussy meals.

My "not requiring thought" dinners revolve around this basic pattern:
Saute onion or garlic or shallot or ginger or all three in oil. Add veg or meat or both. Add whatever spices are desired. Meanwhile, make some sort of grain or starch (Bulgar, pasta, risotto, basmati, whatever.) Combine, possibly add cheese, season well with salt and pepper.
posted by desuetude at 9:25 PM on July 5, 2009

You could also look into ways to shortening your prep time. For example, if you buy chicken breasts, but you rarely eat roasted/grilled/sauted chicken breasts, cut them up, then freeze them in the portions you'd want. Different pastes (Thai, for example, green and red curry pastes) are things that you'd be better off making a small jar of, then using it as needed, so that your prep drops to almost zero.

Tex-mex, though, is pretty simple and easy to make. Quesadillas (you can use a fry-pan, it works just fine), tacos, burritos (hello lunch tomorrow), and tostadas are dead simple. If you ever get the urge, you can move on to more time-consuming, but wonderful things like enchiladas, carnitas, and mole.
posted by Ghidorah at 11:57 PM on July 5, 2009

nthing Thai. Buy or make a few pastes - red curry, green curry, mussaman, tom yum etc. They keep forever & instantly load your meals with flavour.

If you start to tire of those, you can fall back on stirfries with rice.

And don't forget noodle soups! As long as you can prepare in advance, or buy, a nice stock, you're set. Or else just use the tom yum paste. I like sour coconut paste a lot, too. Throw in some of those frozen fish / crab / etc balls, or chicken, or tofu, fresh vegies, whatever. Then, when eating, you've got your chilli, fish or soy sauce to adjust the flavour.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:04 AM on July 6, 2009

At the risk of my answer being a little ortho:

Learn to master cocktail making. It will give you something to do while you wait for the take-out to arrive.
posted by danny the boy at 12:05 AM on July 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cus while there are plenty of decent 30 minute recipes out there, let's be real: you're pretty much gonna rachael ray all over your tiny apartment
posted by danny the boy at 12:17 AM on July 6, 2009

Thanks for the great responses so far folks! Too many good ones to mark as best, so I'll just hand one out for comedy.
posted by typography at 12:50 AM on July 6, 2009

Let me suggest a different way to look at your question: instead of mastering one cuisine, why not master one cooking utensil. I would suggest the wok.

A decent wok is pretty cheap, and amazingly versatile. As has been pointed out above, a simple stir-fry is a quick and easy meal, with or without rice. Need an omelet in the morning? Grab the wok, with the added benefit that frying bacon or sausage (or anything else) in a wok limits the spattering because of the high, wide sides. Feel like some Mexican? Fajitas are pretty easy in a wok. Need to steam something? Just put a puddle of water in the bottom and whatever needs to be steamed on a round cake rack, then cover.

Cleanup is pretty simple, and once the wok is properly seasoned, scrubbing isn't really required.
posted by dinger at 4:48 AM on July 6, 2009

Pretty much all around the world there are grandmothers making amazing meals in impossibly tiny kitchens - there's no such thing as a cuisine that *requires* a ton of space. It's more a style of cooking that can be done in one casserole or one pot, and all cultures have foods that fit into that category. Helpfully, cooking techniques are somewhat overlapping, so learning one should help you with others, and so on. It might be more useful to start with a set of main ingredients you like and then find all kinds of easy recipes with them, and also more fun!
posted by Salamandrous at 4:53 AM on July 6, 2009

Here's my recipe for Korean kimchi jjim:

Kimchi, the bigger the pieces the better
Pork belly, cut into 1/2" cubes.

Starting with the kimchi, alternate layers of kimchi and pork belly in a stovetop pot. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Serve on rice.

There's a lot of Korean food that is that easy to make, but also a lot that's difficult. I think every cuisine has easy and difficult recipes.
posted by billtron at 5:37 AM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about Fusion? It's in the in cuisine.
posted by JJ86 at 6:04 AM on July 6, 2009

Sandwiches. No really, sandwiches from across the world both cold and cold. Banh mi from Viet Nam, quesadillas or tacos from Mexico, Jewish deli, Italian deli, burgers, etc.. It has the advantage of variety; ease of supplies (new meat and fixings each week with near eternal condiments) and an items that can be picked up on the way home.

Soups that accompany a sandwich are easy to come by and can be easy to make (one pan).
posted by jadepearl at 7:02 AM on July 6, 2009

I suggest making a week's worth of boiled beans or a week's worth of brown rice that you can then store in tupperware in your fridge. Dinner consists of sauteeing/steaming/braising/boiling whatever accoutrements you'd like to go with your beans/rice, heating them up and voila, you've got a quick, cheap and satisfying meal.
posted by nonmerci at 11:51 AM on July 6, 2009

Do you have a broiler?

One of my favorite dinners in the universe: cut up chicken breasts, bell peppers, and onions (big chunks), and toss with olive oil, pepper, cumin, salt, and oregano. Dump it all into a rectangular glass baking dish and broil. Eat with hummus and pita. DELICIOUS, takes about 20 minutes.

The broiler cooks things really quickly; it's like an indoor grill.
posted by thebazilist at 12:21 PM on July 6, 2009

Two things:

Bittman, as mentioned above.
Clean as you go.
posted by Dick Paris at 1:29 PM on July 6, 2009

surprised nobody linked this
posted by timory at 11:56 AM on July 9, 2009

Bittman's books are excellent, too. I've got How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and it's a delightful encyclopedia of foods, all no-nonsense and mostly easy.
posted by grobstein at 12:02 PM on July 9, 2009

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