Learning to cook, ready for next step
November 12, 2011 3:00 PM   Subscribe

Cooking upgrade: lvl 1 -> lvl 2

I find myself on an out-of-state temporary work assignment, and out of necessity I'm learning how to cook. I didn't do much cooking before, except for frequent barbecuing (which I sadly cannot do in this temp situation).

I've made some basic dishes so far (pot roast, blackened pork chops, roasted chicken) and now I'm wondering - what dishes can I make that are a little more complicated, and yummy to boot?

To be more specific, I'm trying to find recipes that are more interesting to cook than one-pot meals but don't require a chef's level of skill to complete.

What I have: Lots of time on the weekends to cook new dishes.

What I don't have: A well-stocked kitchen. I have only the basic utensils, and I don't want to buy new fancy gadgets because I'll just have to pay to ship them back home when my gig is finished.

Also - I don't eat any kind of fish, seafood or mushrooms. (I know, I know)

Eastern USA if the location matters.
posted by shino-boy to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Lasagne. If you can cook a one-pot meal, you can cook the tomato-based meat sauce bit. Then you can learn how to make a bechamel sauce - seriously, it sounds like it would be hard, but it's not. We learned how to do it in cooking class at school at the age of 10. You m ight have to have two or three goes before you get it not to be lumpy, but lumpy sauce still tastes fine, and it's quick to make even if you do have to chuck out the first attempt.

Then it's just a matter of stacking everything and browning it.

The best thing about lasagne is that once you have it down, you can easily experiment, putting in layers of mushrooms or spinach or replacing the noodles with sweet potato, or making it vegetarian by replacing the meat with lentils.
posted by lollusc at 3:34 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about soup? Potato leek soup is super easy - clean then chop up some leeks and saute them. Cut potatoes into chunks and throw them into the softened leeks. Cover them with chicken stock. Throw in some thyme and a bay leaf or two, along with chopped garlic. Season. When the potatoes are cooked, throw it in a blender (you could even use a potato masher if you don't have a blender) and puree until smooth. I add some milk at the end to smooth it out. A little bacon on top is good, as are croutons.

I also like to roast butternut squash and use it in the same recipe in the place of the potatoes. I also add some ginger and sometimes use coconut milk in place of regular milk.

There's also macaroni and cheese - make a bechemel sauce and cook some pasta. Combine, put croutons on the top and bake until the top is crispy.

Or lasagne (we use the Gordon Ramsay recipe you can find online - it's a bechemel lasagne, rather than the ricotta one most people make in the US.

Or shepherd's pie (sort of). Roast butternut squash in the oven. Boil potatoes. Combine and mash with seasoning, butter, and milk. Cut and saute onions, carrots, mushrooms, garlic and any fresh herbs you like (we do rosemary, sage, and thyme). Throw in ground turkey and cook until it's not pink anymore. Add in some chicken stock or white wine. Put the turkey in the bottom of the dish, cover with the mash, and put some cheddar over the top. Bake at 375 until the top is golden brown (we use the broiler sometimes).

Salads are also delicious - cook a grain/pasta (couscous, quinoa, orzo, red/white/wild/brown/black rice, etc.), chop up your favourite vegetables and roast or saute them, combine and add fresh herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, etc.), cheese (mozzerella, goats cheese, feta, etc.), some acid (lemon/lime juice) and seasoning. Or go traditional salad - mixed greens, some red onion, fresh tomatoes, strips of pecarino or some feta, and some mustardy dressing (I can give you my recipe if you want).

See if you can find a farmers' market and buy what looks good. As the vendors what they do with it. That's how I've learned how to deal with most of the vegetables I buy.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:34 PM on November 12, 2011

Are there any types of foods you'd like to try? I've found browsing Real Simple's and Rasa Malaysia's recipes has been helpful. Real Simple is more where you might want to start looking, but Rasa Malaysia's food is just so pretty.
posted by wiskunde at 3:44 PM on November 12, 2011

Do you have a big oven-proof casserole or dutch oven? If you do, put a couple of lamb shanks in it, along with some fresh (or, let's face it, dried) rosemary, a chopped onion & a couple of chopped carrots, a tablespoon of dijon mustard, a splash of worcestershire sauce unless the anchovy particles in it are too much for you, and a whole bottle of cheap dry red wine. (Not awful, but not expensive -- this is a good use for two-buck chuck.) Cook it at 275 in the oven for five hours.

Also, get Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" cookbook. If you don't want the physical book, it's available as an app for both iphone and ipad as well, $5 and $10 respectively. The electronic versions are so useful that I actually own both of them in addition to the giant $40 ($25 on Amazon) print book. It starts from the basics (how to saute chicken breasts, how to dice an onion) and teaches you not just how to prepare specific dishes, but how to really COOK.
posted by KathrynT at 3:46 PM on November 12, 2011

ALSO also -- if you don't already own a decent 8" chef knife, invest in one. Target has one for $30 or so that sucks much less than you'd think, and will certainly hold you over until you land in a more permanent kitchen.
posted by KathrynT at 3:52 PM on November 12, 2011

i think moving to Lvl 2 involves learning little tricks. I've picked up a lot just referring to Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (also, see his web column). I should also mention that I'm a stove-top cooker - I sometimes roast, I rarely bake.

Some tips:
Stocks are incredibly easy to make and taste awesome. You take left over meat on the bone, veggies (especially onions), and seasoning. ring to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer (medium-low). Do skim the fat as you go.
Jus about every dish needs salt and butter.
Use Kosher salt, and use a little more than you think you need.
Mince garlic yourself, don't buy it pre-minced.
Heat the pan before you put the oil in, heat the oil before you put anything else in. Not all ingredients go in at once.
Almost every American dish is made better by first caramelizing onions in butter or oil. Heat a pan, heat the oil, toss in roughly chopped onions on low-medium heat, stir until soft.
Garlic burns easily.

Most importantly, good food takes time - even if it's just time by itself over the heat.
posted by jander03 at 4:23 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good cooking is more about technique than having a quiver full of recipes. Start simple. Learn how to cook an egg to order (scrambled, over, sunny side up, poached, boiled). After that, learn to roast a chicken. Then learn braises and sautees. Get your knife skills under your belt. Most of all, get used to the idea that you'll be messing up almost every time you get in the kitchen -- it actually happens to everyone.
posted by Gilbert at 4:42 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Apologies for the self-links, but I think they're relevant.

B├ęchamel is the base for stuff from (unbeatable!) mac & cheese to fancy souffl├ęs.

Tomato Sauce is nearly impossible to mess up, and it presents a great opportunity to work on knife skills—onions, celery, carrots for the base mirepoix, for example. You can use it for obvious Italian-ish things like spaghetti with or without meat or meatballs, sausage, etc. You can tweak the flavors and ingredients toward Mexican (cumin, garlic, chiles, etc.), Greek (cinnamon), Western NC Style barbecue (vinegar, sugar), and beyond.
posted by phrits at 5:46 AM on November 13, 2011

I think there are two kinds of cooks: one that learns all the techniques and cuisines, then enters the kitchen confidently; and one that just finds a recipe and cooks it.

Learn new techniques if you want, but that isn't what you asked about.

Me, I've always looked for recipes I'd like to try, and made them. You can read the recipe and see how long it takes, how many pots/pans/bowls/utensils it requires, and how many (and what) ingredients it calls for.

It's easy and free to browse for recipes on the web. If you're feeling like making a stew, for example (like, its cloudy and cold out) just google recipe beef stew and glance at a few of the results. All of them will call for beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions. Some of them will include more interesting ingredients, like garlic, rosemary, beer or wine.

Pick one. Buy ingredients. Cook. Dine. Reflect on what you did, what you like about the dish.
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:40 PM on November 13, 2011

Thanks for the great answers. I picked up the revised edition of "How to Cook Everything", I think it will keep me busy for the next few weekends. (!)
posted by shino-boy at 6:40 AM on November 15, 2011

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