I just want real food.
August 9, 2012 10:23 AM   Subscribe

I want to eat like it's 1909 and have no idea how to plan meals. I will learn to cook. Does anyone have advice and/or resources for me?

Online recipes are full of ingredients like "X-Brand Low Fat Cheese" and "Canned Y in Syrup." I don't want to eat that crap, and I don't know enough about cooking to pull apart all the crappy ingredients and make something good - nor do I have the inclination to do so.

I want to eat like it's 1909. Take vegetables, cut them up, cook them, eat them. Same with fruit (well, minus the cooking). Same with meat. I want to eat only about two meals a week with meat in them - for my purposes, eggs are not meat, but fish and poultry is. I want to reduce my contact with dairy (not eliminate). I like bread, I like pasta, and I like rice, and I intend to continue eating them (though I could certainly stand to eat less pasta).

I'm not a picky eater. I like food other people would consider bland. I don't like frying things up in grease, and I'm very sparing with my spices. I know about as much as any college student about cooking: I can use the appliances without breaking anything, but when it comes to making any meal that takes longer than 10-15 minutes to prepare (including time for the water to boil) I'm clueless. I'm also on my own here. The other people in my house fill the fridge/freezer with soda, meat, frozen pizzas, etc, and the pantry is filled with microwave-ready just-add-water dishes, chips/cookies, and cereal. I am buying food for one single person (and one without a large appetite at that). I also don't mind eating leftovers, however.

So. How do I do this? How did grandma do it, or great-grandma? I don't want to "go on a diet." I just want to eat real food without an "ingredients" list on the back. Broccoli is made of broccoli. Flour is made of flour. I want to eat food where the ingredients are the food.
posted by Urban Winter to Food & Drink (63 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Go to the supermarket and buy only stuff from the edges: meats, cheeses, vegetables, and fruits. That will avoid most of the processed stuff.

The paleo diet is trendy, but largely consists of cuisine that meets your requirements.
posted by ellF at 10:26 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Online recipes are full of ingredients like "X-Brand Low Fat Cheese" and "Canned Y in Syrup."

Really? Any time I want to make something that I don't know how to make, I google "[thing I want to make] recipe" and click the first link, and I almost never see anything like what you describe. And if I do, I just go to the next link down.

There are literally thousands upon thousands of recipes out there on the 'tubes that use real, whole ingredients. Can you give me an example of what kind of recipes you're searching for and finding? If we know where you start, folks here can help guide you in a more productive direction.
posted by phunniemee at 10:27 AM on August 9, 2012 [17 favorites]

Go to better recipe sites. Epicurious.com is full of recipes that use real food, and you can sort my many things. 101cookbooks.com is another.
posted by rockindata at 10:27 AM on August 9, 2012

Oh, I spent the first three years of grad school learning to cook (generally for one person, but then I'm kind of a black hole so I should really count as two people) using 101cookbooks.
posted by rockindata at 10:28 AM on August 9, 2012

Buy a cookbook and ignore the internet.

The Joy of Cooking is one your grandma would have used, but is by no means the best or only one.
posted by gyusan at 10:29 AM on August 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

Joy of Cooking
How to Cook Everything (Mark Bittman)
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (not just for vegetarians)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:30 AM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding 101 Cookbooks. Smitten Kitchen is also good for food made out of real ingredients; her site is a little less focused on ingredients like agave syrup and kamut grains than 101 Cookbooks, which might make it easier for a beginner cook.

Re: cookbooks, How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman is a great place to start (as is How to Cook Everything Vegetarian).
posted by rebekah at 10:30 AM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Do you actively dislike spices and non-bland stuff or are you just OK with bland stuff? Because I would actually consider a preference for blandness to be sort of a picky eater thing.

In my low-meat diet, most dishes involve cutting up onions, sauteeing them, and adding various spices and other vegetables and beans.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:31 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

My suggestion for learning how to cook basic food is the Moosewood Cookbook.

When shopping, only buy real ingredients, like "Milk" and "Eggplant".
posted by dunkadunc at 10:34 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

epicurious.com is full of recipes that are not composed of processed junk. and so very good. i've yet to make anything from there that wasn't amazing. for example, start with this:
posted by TestamentToGrace at 10:34 AM on August 9, 2012

You're better off with a couple good solid cookbooks than a search engine for "real" cooking--rather than the making-packaged-foods-palatable cooking you seem to be finding a lot of on the internet. Browse the book store, or Amazon, or the library for one that has a lot of recipes that sound appetizing.

Joy of Cooking is good (although some editions have a lot of canned mushroom soup recipes in them). Cook's Illustrated is good. How to Cook Everything. Cookwise. I like Madhur Jaffrey's cookbooks. I know several people who really like the Moosewood cookbooks.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:34 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would agree that you're actually just describing how to cook in general but anyways, there are lots of cookbooks available at Google Books and the Internet Archive from the early 20th century and before.
posted by XMLicious at 10:37 AM on August 9, 2012

I'm a fan of America's Test Kitchen, I'm Just Here for the Food, by Alton Brown and the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

My recommendation for the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook is the older the better. My sister has one from the sixties, mine is a hair more modern, coming from the seventies.

What I like about the above cookbooks is that they're basic and scientific. Not only do you get excellent step-by-step instructions, but you get explanations. America's Test Kitchen even recommends tools and ingredients by brand.

Now, if you really want to cook like it's 1904, you want a Larousse Gastronomic. A 1961 translation of the French Cooking encyclopedia.

As a kid I was entranced with the book. I'd sit on the sofa for hours reading it, page by page. Everything from a description of Russian Service, to how to properly create Aspic (you SO don't want to know.) It's not a cookbook per se, but reading it will really help you understand cooking, food and eating.

I made the Waterzooi one day for dinner and my mom turned to me and said, "You need to get a job."

Once you've mastered basic cooking you can move onto Julia Child.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:47 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would reiterate the suggestions of the Bittman books, as well as classics like Joy and Fanny Farmer. I know what you mean about recipes that are mostly convenience foods - when I see one that is all cans of condensed soup and packaged spice packets, I move on, but that is definitely how a lot of people cook.
posted by Forktine at 10:47 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: You may be interested in this book from 1917, A Thousand Ways to Please a Husband with Bettina's Best Recipes. While it's true that there is no lowfat cottage cheese or whatever, many of the recipes heavily on butter and relatively few ingredients. I suspect the tastes would still not match yours, but it's an interesting look at a fledgling household around the turn of the century. We also have things like "constant heat" and "refrigeration" which actually lend themselves to lighter dishes with much fresher ingredients.

In real life, I would definitely nth Bittman's books. I frequently use them as a suggestion, because I love spice and a lot of flavors, so you can adjust them to your palate as desired. If you like Italian food, the Silver Spoon book might be of interest to you; it was described to me as a common gift for newlyweds and it's a great resource for basic and more advanced Italian dishes.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:52 AM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

Martha Stewart's Everyday Food is a monthly magazine (it comes in print in a handy booklet size and for ipad) that I generally love browsing through. It's very accessible and has lots of pretty inspiring pictures. I recommend it because it always includes pieces about how to use kitchen equipment or master basic techniques, plus articles which focus on one ingredient prepared several different ways. Check your local library if you don't want to subscribe yourself.

There is also some discussion of which edition of the Joy of Cooking is the best. Lots of Joy of Cooking devotees got upset about the 1997 edition because it lost the "homey-ness" in favor of more technical info, but I personally like it. Also, of any of the editions, it has the most emphasis on not using canned soups and doing stuff from scratch.
posted by dahliachewswell at 10:59 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you really mean 1909, historical recipe books are great to read. You have to adapt them because the measurements are wonky, and some of the ingredients aren't available, but to get the general idea, they're totally worth checking out.

If there aren't categories online for some of these recipes, I'll be very suprised. For instance, I just googled "Victorian recipes" and got this site.

The problem with many many old recipes is that they assume someones in the kitchen for hours and hours; simmering a stock pot for 8 hours is perfectly reasonable.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:04 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

In addition to the other good cookbooks above, consider Nigel Slater. He's a great, intelligible food writer, but also his recipes are pared down, pure and easy. He always has plenty of meatless ideas as well.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:09 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you have a taste for ethnic food at all, ethnic cookbooks generally steer clear of fake food. I like Madhur Jaffrey's Indian cookbooks, and I have my eye on Marja Vongerichten's Kimchi Chronicles cookbook, too. Jaffrey's preparations aren't terribly challenging even for the novice, which is nice.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd like to nth Mark Bittman. I have "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian", and it's really great as a reference when I want to try a vegetable or grain that I have never cooked before. He gives you advice on preparing it in the most basic way possible, and follows that with a bunch of variations. As a new cook, that book has made it pretty painless for me to learn the basics of cooking and expand my repertoire to new foods and different ways to prepare them.

Re: cooking for one, a lot of his basic preparation advice will work for any quantity of food, and the more traditional recipes usually are for 4 - so not an outrageous amount of leftovers for one person.
posted by fussbudget at 11:20 AM on August 9, 2012

Fannie Farmer is even more plain-food-for-plain-people than Joy of Cooking. Behind the link is a reprint of the original 1896 edition, but the newer ones are the same basic idea.

If you don't want to buy an Indian cookbook, then try Bawarchi.

Depending on what part of the country you come from, you may love or hate Moosewood, cited above. I do not particularly care about the good ol' dishes of my youth, but still I find the entire Moosewood school of thought to be somehow bland and also sanctimonious at the same time. But if bland and low-meat is what you want...
posted by skbw at 11:24 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, don't be demoralized by your friends posting crazy recipes for whatnot on Facebook or wherever it is you "see" them virtually. All those wack recipes are almost by definition for people who don't know how to cook and are doing this for entertainment.
posted by skbw at 11:29 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: Because nobody's mentioned this so far-- before widespread refrigeration/long-distance food transport, the ingredients available to cooks varied tremendously according to the season. If you can get your fruits & veg from a CSA or farmer's market, that'll be an easy way to keep some variety in your food rotation without resorting to processed stuff. And even if you stick to the grocery store, keeping in mind what's in season will help you narrow down what's going to be the highest quality produce at any point in the year. Plus, it's just more fun to have a seasonally varied diet.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:31 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Watch Alton Browns "Good Eats" you can often find episodes on Hulu for free.

Buy a copy of "The Joy of Cooking". Or go to your local library and check out the cookbooks, cookbooks tend to me aimed at a different demographic than online recipe sites, which are usually people trying to get a meal on the table quickly. Where as the actual books tend to be more about the ingredients and enjoying the food.

Lots of secondhand bookshops stock old cookbooks if you really want to cook like it's 1909.
posted by wwax at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to eat like it's 1909 [...] How did grandma do it, or great-grandma?
Well, first she went into the yard and snatched a chicken up by its neck…
So, anyway, drop this conceit. Many $grandmas also boiled all vegetables until they were gray, which is in part why broccoli and brussels sprouts have such horrible, false, reputations.
Online recipes are full of ingredients like "X-Brand Low Fat Cheese" and "Canned Y in Syrup."
The only time I've ever seen this is when a blogger is specifically promoting some product, or if the recipes are explicitly of the make-in-15min-including-boiling variety. So that's another thing you have to let go of; cooking "real food" involves at least a little time investment. (As you learn, you'll figure out when you can walk away for a bit and do other stuff in combination.) Recipes with prepared stuff out of cans and boxes are fast because the stuff is already cooked and you're mostly just re-heating it while stirring together.

You need to find other sites to get your recipes from; over time you'll settle on a few people whose tastes align with yours and whose recipes you can trust as far as outcome. Also, many of them have guest posts from other food bloggers or a small list of links of people they also like; poke around. In addition to the ones above, Elaine at Simply Recipes posts a lot of great, generally low-fuss food. Herbivoracious has a focus on vegetarian food, since you seem to be leaning that way a bit.
If you have access to an iPad or other tablet, check out the magazine apps like Flipboard and Zite. They all have food sections you can flip through quickly with listings from all over the place, which is handy for discovering new sites and recipes.

Slow cookers are cheap, and even cheaper at thrift stores. Buy one and grab the Year of Slow Cooking feed, which posts stuff from lots of other sites. This will be especially handy for your desire to cut down meat. Slow cooker recipes generally involve dumping stuff into the pot and walking away for six hours(eg; I don't bother with the taco part), and freeze really well. Buy a bunch of these; pull one down from the freezer when you want some meat and nuke when thawed.

As far as basics of learning how to cook, fundamental books like Joy of Cooking will cover that. Just initially pick things that are within your comfort and then branch out as you get more confident. If you see a reference to something unclear, just go ahead and search for it. Sites are constantly publishing posts, and increasingly video, of even really basic stuff like "how to dice an onion" because of people like you wanting to know it.
posted by Su at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2012 [12 favorites]

I must be the only person not in love with Mark Bittman. Every time I look up a recipe in his book, it's way too complicated and DEMANDS X particular ingredient. And then I go back to Joy of Cooking or something.

Plus, I have his How to Cook Everything book and somehow it doesn't have most of the very basic recipes I end up looking up. For instance, I don't think it has short bread. It's chocolate pudding will only work with one kind of (expensive) chocolate, took twice as long, and ended up not being as good as recipe off the side of the corn starch box.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:35 AM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Its, not It's. dang.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:36 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: Since you're relatively new to cooking you might want to start simple, with five ingredients or less. Several years ago I had a cookbook constructed upon this premise (now since lost but we have the internets today so yay) and used it constantly. You can google around for various sites, although here are a couple:

Cooking Light
posted by hapax_legomenon at 11:37 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's another reason to check out old cookbooks. They used to do a zillion more desserts than we do these days. There used to be a thousand kinds of puddings, gelatins, tarts, jams, jellies, and cakes! Most of them don't sound tasty enough to be worth their hassle, but I still linger over them, tempted...
posted by small_ruminant at 11:38 AM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

The problem with many many old recipes is that they assume someones in the kitchen for hours and hours; simmering a stock pot for 8 hours is perfectly reasonable.

The other issue with vintage cookbooks is that they also frequently leave out actual measurements -- they give you a list of ingredients and expect you to know how much to use. Not so friendly to the beginner cook.

The Joy of Cooking is a great start. It's easy to follow and runs the gamut from easy to complex dishes. You might also want to pick up Cooks Illustrated, the magazine. It provides thorough instructions on how to make each recipe, as well as plenty of background on why they recommend doing it the way they do. The New Best Recipe is a compendium of recipes from the magazine.

Su's recommendation of a slow cooker (aka Crock Pot) is also a good one. They're super easy to use, and you can set it up in the morning and have a meal ready when you come home.
posted by me3dia at 11:43 AM on August 9, 2012

Alice Water's "The Art of Simple Food" is exactly the cookbook you're looking for.
posted by mollymayhem at 11:46 AM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: Nthing Su's comment. I had the opportunity to speak to my great-uncle about what it was like to grow up in the early part of the 20th century (he was born in the 1920s). Know what he said?

Food was often scarce because, well, subsistence farm and large family. Great-grammie would put up root vegetables in the cellar, along with pickles, jams, cheese, and cured meats. This, along with flour and molasses from the store, was what they lived on all year. You got a little bit to eat, and if food was really scarce, the older kids went without so the littler kids could eat. Great-uncle Joe remembers being sent out into the woods to forage for wild greens to supplement their diet, since great grammie was no fool and could see the kids needed their nutrients.

Just keep it simple. Keep to the outside periphery of the grocery store, try to avoid items that are too heavily packaged, and you should be fine.
posted by LN at 11:54 AM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Millions of food blogs (including mine, if I may say so) advise how to cook with real ingredients.

But okay, "1909" means books: anything by Marcella Hazan is your friend, and especially the The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating (1973)

Then, if you don't want to eat meat all the time, Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking has a host of easy-to-prepare and absolutely succulent recipes, many of them Vegetarian.

Did I mention Julia Child? On- and offline. Great for basic techniques as in "learn how to cook". Ah. Food.
posted by Namlit at 12:00 PM on August 9, 2012

Okay, missed the blandness. Ignore the indian cookbook. Sorry.
posted by Namlit at 12:01 PM on August 9, 2012

Try this:

Supersizers Go Victorian

Supersizers go Edwardian

This is a really wonderful series. Also read Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:03 PM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]

But if you just want to eat nice good hearty meals, use The Joy of Cooking and Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking. The older versions of the Joy of Cooking are interesting and have recipes for squirrel. Be prepared for a lot of heavy, fatty, meals.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 12:06 PM on August 9, 2012

Absolutely go get one of the many awesome cookbooks listed.

But then you can relax. Cooking isn't difficult and it's really low risk. If your recipe calls for lowfatfakefooditem, you can just switch it or leave it out- the worst case is that your dinner isn't great.

We have a lot of food allergies in our house, so we make tons of adjustments. It almost always turns out fine.
posted by Blisterlips at 12:12 PM on August 9, 2012

If you're serious about the 1909 part, August Escoffier's Guide Culinaire was first published in 1903 and first translated to English in 1907. It is still considered the canonical guide to haute cuisine. You might not learn many practical recipes from it, but you'll learn about ingredients and techniques.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:12 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh- and one of the best things I figured out: you can steam veggies in the microwave very very easily. Was the veg, shake of some of the water and put it in a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap (leave a hole for the steam to get out) and nuke it for 30 seconds or a min.

Time saving side dish gold.
posted by Blisterlips at 12:15 PM on August 9, 2012

I want to pick up on a couple of different points than people recommending you excellent cookbooks.

First, packaged foods in the U.S. have labeling laws. If you buy pre-cut baby carrots in a package, that package will say "Carrots. Ingredients: Carrots." Flour is not made of flour; it is made of wheat. And virtually all flour you can buy in the United States will be "fortified" with B vitamins (niacin and folic acid), to replace the B vitamins lost in the processing of the grain into flour, which helps prevent spina bifida and other spinal birth defects, as well as pellagra in adults. Salt will be fortified with iodide, which helps prevent certain kinds of mental retardation, as well as miscarriage, in fetuses, and goiters in adults. Vitamin D fortification of milk, which is essentially universal in the U.S., "took the astonishing statistics of approximately 80-90% of children showing varying degrees of bone deformations due to vitamin D deficiency to being a very rare condition." (wikipedia)

So many "simple" foods you buy are going to have additives. It is helpful to familiarize yourself with some common food additives (including the fortification required by law) so that you aren't frustrated away from buying a natural product that has some citric acid in it to prevent your ice cream from separating.

Second, are you searching for recipes that perhaps your mother made frequently, and her repertoire is heavily weighted towards mid-century foods? If, for example, you are trying to find a natural recipe version of "heart attack potatoes," that's just not going to be out there; it needs the cream-of-whatever soup and the cornflakes, and you just can't really make cornflakes from scratch. Because if you're search on "pasta primavera with broccoli" the first several links I looked at are all made of actual ingredients, not prepackaged stuff. If all you can find is prepackaged food-based recipes, you may need to start thinking about different dishes. And yes, good ways to do this include following particularly good blogs or getting a good cookbook.

You probably do not want to eat like it's 1909, food was kinda gross back then. Not very colorful, and lots of boiling the flavor out of stuff. Also lots of preventable dietary diseases. You want to eat fresh, healthy food, which means Bittman, et al.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:20 PM on August 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Project Gutenberg has many cook books. Here's a book of recipes from 1913 North Dakota! and here's a list of 365 foreign recipes from 1908 (note includes Jewish Stewed Brains, Bavarian Fried Brains, and German Stewed Brains which all sound suspiciously alike!) These recipes are going to be light on instructions, but it shouldn't be hard to wing it if you've got a more modern cookbook that tells you how long to cook onions or chicken or whatever.

I really like Je Sais Cuisiner/I Know How to Cook which is France's version of Fanny Farmer/Joy of Cooking. Lots of nice basic recipes and no canned soup!
posted by vespabelle at 12:48 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

>>Online recipes are full of ingredients like "X-Brand Low Fat Cheese" and "Canned Y in Syrup."

>The only time I've ever seen this is when a blogger is specifically promoting some product, or if the recipes are explicitly of the make-in-15min-including-boiling variety.

Really, you see this all the time. There was a great question the other day about cooking on an open fire; someone gave this link to foil dinner recipes, where at least five out of the nine recipes rely on canned soup, frozen hashbrown patties, and similar ingredients. That's pretty typical for searching for recipes online; it takes more looking, and sometimes careful reworking of the search terms, to get higher quality recipes.

For your from-scratch non-meat cooking, I have a soft spot for the classic Tassajara Cooking. It's definitely closer to bland than spicy, and it assumes you are starting as a beginner. I don't refer to it often, but I realized a while back that I am constantly using things I learned from it when I first bought a copy. I don't share the love for the Moosewood cookbooks, but they are indisputably influential and a lot of people really enjoy them; see if you can get a copy from the library and try some things out.
posted by Forktine at 1:05 PM on August 9, 2012

Echoing everyone to say that Fannie Farmer and The Joy of Cooking were kitchen stalwarts when I was starting out. However, I don't see anyone mentioning James Beard, particularly The James Beard Cookbook. Here's a review that is pretty spot on. I wore out my first copy and got a replacement copy a couple of years ago.
posted by gudrun at 1:11 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First, learn a stable rotation of three easy prep methods that you can apply to a variety of ingredients. Then you can reliably make dinners most nights without trying to learn a new recipe.

For fresh veggies:
Cut up veggies. Put frying pan on medium or med-high heat, add a pat of butter or a small drizzle of olive oil, let it get warm for a minute or two. Then add your veggies, cook them - stirring - until they are a good texture for eating. It is even better if you begin with chopped onions and/or garlic, put them in once your butter/oil is warm, let those cook until they're translucent, and THEN add your other veggies.
This is great for: greens (spinach, etc; these will cook down, reducing in volume a lot, and will undergo a dramatic color change - you want to eat them when they're very bright green), green beans, peppers, red cabbage, mushrooms (these will cook down, reducing in volume a lot)...

Method 2: ROASTING
Cut up veggie into roughly 1" cubes, toss lightly in olive oil, salt and pepper, put on a cookie sheet or lasagna pan, cook in a oven around 425 degrees until browned outside and soft inside - begin checking at 25 minutes, check every 5 mins or so.
This is great for: potatoes, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, beets, carrots and parsnips (lower temp to 375 for the latter two).

Method 3: STEAMING
You will need a pot with a lid, and a steamer basket or metal colander that fits into your pot.
Chop veggies. Put about an inch of water in your pot and bring it to a boil. Put the veggies in the steamer basket/colander, but the basket/colander into the pot so that the veggies are held above the surface of the boiling water. Put a lid on the pot and wait from 3-7 mins (check online recipes for times).
This is great for: asparagus, brussels sprouts, green beans, broccoli...
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:14 PM on August 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you want a blog for very basic, fresh cooking, go check out Stone Soup. Her recipes are all five ingredients or fewer, and the techniques used are very simple and accessible. She sometimes gets a bit preachy about nutrition--I think that she's on the paleo-ish bandwagon--but if you can ignore that, the recipes are great.
posted by MeghanC at 1:16 PM on August 9, 2012

Best answer: Other tips:

Newer cookbooks, not older
If you want food that is high in fresh foods, lightly prepared, and low in fat and salt, then you don't really want to cook like it's 1909. We have much better access to fresh fruit and veggies year-round today, thanks to refrigeration and transportation. Much less need to rely on preserved foods. You may find that old cookbooks like Joy of Cooking have a lot more cream, salted meats, etc than you probably want.

Frozen veggies
If you find that meal planning is hard for one person, because your veggies go bad before you can use them, turn to frozen veggies. Freezing preserves the nutrients in a way canning doesn't, and you can easily buy enough fresh stuff for half the week, then use frozen veggies to round out the rest of the week.

Make one big dish that keeps
Eg, use frozen (thawed in microwave) broccoli in a quiche/frittata; frozen spinach (thawed in microwave) in a veggie lasagna, etc. Chili or rich soup is also good for this. Those are dishes that you can make Sunday and they'll keep in the fridge offering a readymade sliceable meal all week. Then you can make a lovely fresh salad or freshly cooked chicken on the nights you have more energy, and have something ready on the nights when frozen pizza is otherwise a temptation.

Pasta sauce
If you like pasta sauce, you will be pleased that pasta sauce is very easy to make. Pesto is simple - basil, oil, nuts, food processor. Tomato-based sauce is easy too - begin by sauteeing chopped onions and garlic at least until translucent; add whatever chopped veggies you like and let them cook a bit, then add canned whole peeled tomatoes and cook to let reduce, at the end add herbs like oregano and basil. You can use fresh tomatoes too if you prefer - use Roma or plum tomatoes, shaped like oblong lemons; they are bred for sauce making. This is basically a variation on the technique of Sauteeing, and it's infinitely variable as you figure out what you like.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:27 PM on August 9, 2012

Pretty much any cookbook that isn't from a food brand (ie. Not the 'Kraft Cookbook' or whatnot) likely won't mention any brands or packaged food at all.
posted by Kololo at 1:30 PM on August 9, 2012

I second the suggestion to read some Nigel Slater, he has such a beautiful way of writing about food and may help kindle (or re-kindle) a love of cooking. I'd also suggest checking out Delia Smith, she has a great reputation for cooking basics and she has a ton of stuff on her site available.
posted by pymsical at 1:37 PM on August 9, 2012

Alice Waters' The art of simple food is a great book as well.
posted by The Violet Cypher at 2:16 PM on August 9, 2012

I highly recommend Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Here's an article about it.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:03 PM on August 9, 2012

Nthing Joy of Cooking as guiding you through the steps of learning to cook more kinds of food. If you'd really like to learn about older cooking methods, though, I'd recommend two resources. The Encyclopedia of Country Living which will walk you through the basics of growing, raising, preserving, and cooking your own food, should you choose to be that hardcore. The Little House Cookbook is focused a few decades earlier, about a family in the 1970's trying to cook the way the Ingalls family did in the 1870's-1890's, I believe.

(Though as a reference point, I will say that my grandmother, as an adult in the 1950's, heated up a lot of canned soup for cooking, and her mother had a cook to do the cooking. So grandparents may not be the most helpful, cooking-wise.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:35 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good advice above, but given the tone of your question, I'll just add that you should consider tracking the nutritional quality of whatever meals you opt for. Thanks to a suggestion here a while back, I've been using cronometer.com (it's free), and the results have been enlightening. Basically, you can enter your menu items and the site calculates their vitamin/nutrient values against whatever criteria you choose (weight loss, different lifestyles, etc.).

Among the themes I've noticed, it's sometimes easy to assume you're eating healthier than in practice you are, because we all make associations between certain styles of food ("1909" = "healthier/better", etc.), when the numbers can add up somewhat differently. Anyway, not to stir the vegetarian/vegan shit pot too much, but I'll recommend, based on your question, that you monitor carefully your protein levels with whatever meals you end up picking. Yes, veg/an cuisine doesn't automatically mean protein deficiency, but I've found it can take more attention (or a lot more carbs) to avoid this problem without recourse to some of the common protein sources you sound down on. Or, put another way, although of the contemporary mainstream diet may be unhealthy, "keeping things simple" shouldn't always mean automatically restricting certain choices out of hand.
posted by 5Q7 at 3:48 PM on August 9, 2012

Animal Vegetable Miracle has the recipes from Barbara Kingsolver's book of the same name.
posted by kamikazegopher at 4:03 PM on August 9, 2012

N'thing Alice Water's "The Art of Simple Food". Works through basic recipes of the type you're mentioning.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:51 PM on August 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who has answered so far. I'll be coming back to read more thoroughly through the answers later, but for now I'll mention a couple things I noticed:

I used the "cook like it's 1909" thing more as a play on the "party like it's 1999" phrase, not a literal expression of the way I want to eat. Things were very different then, and not necessarily better by any means. I am very interested in the historical cookbooks though; I'll definitely look into them.

I've enjoyed most ethnic food I've eaten, as long as it's either not too painfully spicy (I've never had an issue with curry, but maybe I've only eaten the mild kind). I mentioned bland food being fine mostly as added detail. Ethnic dishes are awesome too, and I can always dial down the spice myself if need be.

Thanks again; I'm looking forward to reading through all the answers more thoroughly later on.
posted by Urban Winter at 5:24 PM on August 9, 2012

I find Quick Recipe from Cook's Illustrated to be a good combination of good food, using real ingredients (things like canned beans, tomatoes, and chicken juice are commonly used though), and taking a reasonable amount of time (basically all under an hour). While the book is not in print, it is readily available.

The Best Recipe by Cook's Illustrated is probably my favorite cookbook to recommend. Again, it will use things like canned beans and chicken juice, it is about real ingredients while being practical.
posted by fief at 5:59 PM on August 9, 2012

How to Cook Without a Book: Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know by Heart

Absolutely what you want for "I have (or want to eat) ingredient X; how can I cook it simply and easily so it's tasty?" Very good for people new to cooking who want to become comfortable and confident in the kitchen.
posted by Lexica at 6:48 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came in to suggest Mark Bittman's cookbooks (for the recipes), and also to watch a few episodes of Alton Brown (mainly for the explanatory food science over the recipes). I also agree that a small crockpot might be a great idea, as you can batch cook something, then refrigerate/freeze most of it to eat later. This is convenience food without the crap of packaged convenience foods! Finally, learn to stir-fry vegetables. Stir-fry done properly doesn't use very much oil do it shouldn't be greasy fried food, and it's a quick, easy way to use vegetables when you aren't sure what else to do with them!
posted by Joh at 9:41 PM on August 9, 2012

I'd really recommend the BBC Good Food site. I use it all the time and it's greast for finding recipes at different levels of complexity. Also because it's British you don't see the 'add two cans of x' type recipes you seem to be describing.
posted by eb98jdb at 4:14 AM on August 10, 2012

seconding Simply Recipes - it's "curated" by the blogger/website lady, so there's nothing on there that doesn't cook up delicious. once in a blue moon she'll recommend some sort of specific brand of spice (blah-blah-blah's cajun spice mix or whatever) but that's rare, and usually doesn't involved processed foods, but rather spice blends.

everything on that site is delicious, and meets your requirements. basically i eat simplyrecipes recipes 3 meals a day 6 days a week - you can pry that website from my cold, dead hands etc etc
posted by messiahwannabe at 7:58 PM on August 10, 2012

Yep, there are tons of books and blogs out there that offer better and fresher recipes than ever before.

Basically, to find them, you have to be quick to toss out anything deemed easy, fast, weeknight, 30 minute, etc. Even though these terms describe plenty of great food, they're code for "dump processed food in pan."

Typically, anything targeted to moms, especially Pinterest, will involve either cream of mushroom soup or a ranch dressing packet.
posted by that's how you get ants at 4:01 AM on August 11, 2012

Here's one you have to use carefully. Hillbilly Housewife does have some processed food, not much, but the vast majority of it is unprocessed in the name of thrift. So if you see the one recipe that calls for "taco sauce" or something, don't freak out. For example, her biscuits are fantastic.

Julia Child is often referenced above, but specifically, for a beginner, you can't go wrong with The Way to Cook. How To Cook Everything is in right now, but Way to Cook gets it done every time, no trial run needed, in my experience.
posted by skbw at 8:22 PM on August 11, 2012

Best answer: If you are feeling more adventurous later, the Silver Palate cookbooks (too many to link) will take you the next step toward being a person who can reliably turn out whatever kind of food they want. You could certainly start with their New Basics, but if you want to keep it simple at first, better go with Way to Cook as noted above.

Silver Palate recipes in particular are good for when you have company but don't have time (money) to test the recipe. Any given one may not be your absolute favorite, but they also produce every single time. My mother has made probably 40% of their recipes, maybe even half.

I would have linked these before but I thought you were, in fact, on some sort of historical trip. :-)
posted by skbw at 8:28 PM on August 11, 2012

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