Please to Inspire and Educate a NOOB Cook!
March 14, 2014 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Finally got over my aversion to cooking, and now want to make sure I'm not missing anything fun out there! Hoping you can recommend great websites that have intrigued you, any testimonials on cutlery brands you are in love with (assume I already know what a chef's knife/paring knife is), and hopefully share some "Wish someone had told me THIS when I first started cooking!" advice. To keep this thread more specific, I'm primarily interested in breakfast dishes and interesting dinners for two. My favorite tastes are in Thai food and hearty, rustic Italian.

More info: I love omelettes, and hearty country breakfast ideas.

I'm not thinking about doing big party hosting yet, just some comfortable, vibrant breakfast/dinner ideas for my fiancee and I to share and enjoy!
posted by Lipstick Thespian to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Toss in a dash of baking soda to raise the pH and speed up the mailard process when cooking onions. Caramelize your onions in 10 minutes instead of 240!
posted by oceanjesse at 2:29 PM on March 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

Budget Bytes is great, and has many Asian- and Italian-inspired recipes. Bonus, it focuses on frugality in addition to taste.
posted by CheeseLouise at 2:41 PM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I wish I had skipped the fancy pans and just bought a bunch of cast iron and carbon steel.

The feel of a knife in your hand matters a lot more than people give it credit for. If you can go to a store and try a few, that's pretty great. I like the blades on all of my knives and reviews and recommendations can help you understand this, but that tells you nothing about how much you'll love a knife.

Plastic colanders and measuring cups will drive you crazy sooner or later. Just go ahead and buy them in stainless steel.
posted by advicepig at 2:51 PM on March 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Make everything (bread, stock, butter, sauces, salad dressing, etc) from scratch by hand at least once. It's fun, educational, and you'd be surprised at how much better it can taste than storebought. (Or, alternately, how much time you save buying storebought.)

Find a cookbook you like that jives with your personal taste (I enjoy Smitten Kitchen) and work through every single recipe in the book. This is a good way to discover new foods and also learn a variety of techniques.

Improvise! Challenge yourself to make favorite meals without consulting the recipe. Learn how to substitute ingredients. Swap out different acids (lemon juice, white balsamic, rice vinegar, etc) and see what happens. Come up with flavor combinations you like and riff on them. (For example, I love fresh cheese + cured pork products. Cream cheese & salami, sour cream & bacon, ricotta & prosciutto, etc... start with the flavor and work outwards. Put them in eggs? Over chicken? On a pizza? You get the idea.)

Every time you go to the store, buy something you've never cooked with before. Grab an eggplant, baby bok choy, beef tongue, whatever. Then find a recipe that really highlights that ingredient.

Spend a few weeks cooking with as few ingredients/recipes as possible, instead focusing on methods of preparation. Make green beans with nothing but a little fat, salt and pepper, and see how many ways you can cook them (boiled, sautéed, roasted, stir-fried, etc). Learn about how the heat & time cooked affects the taste of the vegetable. Likewise with different kinds of meats.

As far as gear, you don't need much. One good chef's knife (I prefer Japanese steel), a couple paring knifes (ceramic), call it a day. A convection oven will make anything you bake or roast about a thousand times better (Breville makes a good-sized toaster oven with a convection mode that I love love love). A couple sizes of nonstick pan — 9 and 12 inches is good. Splurge on Scanpan or similar; it's not coated so it still browns food nicely and won't scrape off with metal utensils. Also get a cast iron skillet and enameled cast iron dutch oven. Stick to these basic pieces and buy the best of each that you can afford.

If you like spicy or ethnic food, definitely pick up a mortar and pestle and start grinding your own spices. It's not as bad as it sounds and you'll never, ever go back to the regular stuff.
posted by annekate at 3:00 PM on March 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

I second cast iron.... it's all you need, will be used by your grandchildren.....

The best purchase I ever made was this cast iron wok... it's amazing, useful, makes cooking fun!
posted by HuronBob at 3:12 PM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Read The Food Lab on Serious Eats-- it's really incredible the lengths that Kenji goes to to disprove cooking myths or discover WHY something works the way it does or figure out the best way to do something. Through his experimentation, I really start to get intuition behind the methods and ingredients and dishes to modify them however I want and to KNOW how it'll taste web it's done. Finding his articles is the best thing to happen to my cooking.

Other than maybe making my own incredible stocks in an hour or two using a pressure cooker. Indispensable.
posted by supercres at 3:26 PM on March 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's no longer being printed, but Everyday Food was my go-to for a couple of years when I was working and had small kids. Many of those recipes live on on The nice thing about finding a way to make quick, tasty, weeknight meals, some of which with only 5 ingredients, was the repetition of making a menu, shopping, and incidentally learning about good flavor combinations and cooking seasonally. I didn't realize I was accidentally teaching myself how to compose my own menus and cook almost anything that's not weirdly fancy. I've mostly jumped off cookbooks now, unless it's an elaborate baking recipe, and it's so liberating to be able to walk into a store and plan a delicious week on the fly.

I guess this is a long winded way of saying stick with it, because you may surprise yourself!

Random other thoughts:

--Le Creuset pots/pans has held up better for me than any of the knock offs.

--If I want to learn a recipe or technique, I really hit it for a while. I made gravy for 3x a week until I got all zen about it and could be the gravy, or something.

--If you are cooking proud like I am, you might consider learning a cake recipe, a simple salad dressing, mayonnaise etc, so you can make yourself invaluable and impress when you are out in the middle of nowhere with some friends in a cabin.

--Cook's Illustrated is expensive on the stands but a subscription isn't too bad. I like all the little shortcuts and advice in there, like "freeze the rest of a can of tomato paste in T. increments so you can use them later." There are also articles about the "best" cookware, food brands, and so forth.

--I keep a scrap bag in the freezer and put veggie ends, raw chicken backs, necks, whatever into it and when it gets full, I make stock.

--I took a knife skills class taught at a local community college a few years ago. It was really fun. I didn't learn a ton since I've been a cooking nerd for a while now, but it was a good experience and I did pick up some new things.

--If you are lucky enough to be near a butcher or greengrocer or farmers' market, I pepper those people with questions. "How would you prepare this cut of meat?" "What would you serve this cheese with?"

Good luck!! Have fun.
posted by Lardmitten at 3:35 PM on March 14, 2014

omelettes: master these; it's doable and an omelette hold many other flavors that you love (ie: experiment with fillings in them). I make (homemade) salsa omlette's all the time because I love mexican food. Here's a weird trick that I learned while chatting with a chef at a bar - put your omelet in the oven to broil for like 30 seconds or so (watch it!) before closing it up - it won't be runny and will puff up real nicely.

Youtube is your friend! There are some things that require timing and visual understanding of what's going on - youtube is awesome in this regard. It helped me learn how to make a good omelette (thanks Julia Childs!). Warning: you probably won't ever want to spend 10$ on an inferior restaurant omelette again. Don't be discouraged because an 80 year old grandma makes something really hard look easy - they have 60 years experience on you (just watch it very carefully). My favorite youtube videos are hosted by a younger grandchild who explains what their grandparent is doing.

This was some great advice: "--If I want to learn a recipe or technique, I really hit it for a while. I made gravy for 3x a week until I got all zen about it and could be the gravy, or something."
posted by el io at 3:59 PM on March 14, 2014

Best answer: - Start with fat, finish with acid. This applies to basically every savoury dish.

- Don't buy a knife unless you have actually held it in your hand.

- Mistakes happen. Chuck 'em in the bin and order pizza.

- Alton Brown (Good Eats) for basic how and why in the kitchen

- Mario Batali (I'm sure episodes of Molto Mario are on youtube or the torrents) for Italian. Also find the show Two Greedy Italians. It's lovely anyway, but their approach to their recipes is extremely organic and laid back, seems like it'd be right up your alley. Also Kazan, and Lidia Bastianich.

- As mentioned above, learn some basics: stock. Mayonnaise. Salad dressings--vinaigrette, creamy like Caesar, dairy-based like ranch.

- Learn to pan-roast. Hot pan, protein into the pan presentation side down, cook until golden. Flip, optionally place on a piece of parchment, and into a 350F oven until done.

- Try learning concepts, not recipes. Example: vinaigrette is 3:1 fat to acid, mustard to emulsify. After that, the sky is the limit--and all you need to know is 3:1.

- Get one delicious dessert under your belt, something you can make on the fly, from memory. Flourless chocolate cake is a good bet for anyone who isn't vegan (contains eggs). Given your Italian leanings, you may also want to learn how to make zabaglione (sabayon)--which uses the same skill set as making Hollandaise or its daughter sauces.

- Practice practice practice your knife skills. Be sure you're holding the knife correctly (not like a sword; finger and thumb should pinch the blade on a chef's knife). Use vegetables that you're going to use for stock or puree as practice. Potatoes are excellent for knife practice! Then you just cook all the bits in milk and cream, puree, and you have potato soup.

- Keep your knives sharp. Get a stone, learn how to use it. Sharper knives are safer knives.

- To save stress, learn to clean as you go. I hate acknowledging the talentless hack for anything, but Rachael Ray popularized the idea of a garbage bowl and it really does help.

- Pick up a copy of Ferran Adria's The Family Meal. Not only is it full of three-course meals (only a couple of which would require specialized equipment), but he also lays out how to plan your time by showing a timeline of when to start what for every meal. An invaluable learning tool.

- Don't buy any specialized equipment until you can demonstrate to yourself an actual need. Fully 80% of what's sold in kitchen stores is easily replaced with decent knife skills, and sometimes a spoon.

Feel free to memail anytime with questions.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:02 PM on March 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

Wine. Throw in a little at the end, boil off the alcohol. Drink some as you cook. Improves most dishes and your life in general.
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:06 PM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We have a non-stick Admiral Craft pan for eggs and omelettes. Got it at a restaurant supply store. It has its own shelf in the cupboard, and no other pan is ever set on top of it, as the owner of the store told us that nesting non-stick pans was a good way to wreck them. Also, we only ever use a silicone spatula, the spoon type or flexible stainless covered in silicone, in that pan. But it's not so expensive that it can't be replaced easily. I just got sick of big box store non-stick pans going bad after a few months.

Also have a cast iron pan for things like steaks and bacon and a cast iron griddle. Some stainless steel sauté pans (Vollrath) for searing meat (and then will make a sauce in the same pan, as it reduces quickly and you get the good pan juices) or sometimes will use those for bacon, depending on how I am cooking it. Bacon can be baked on a cookie sheet at 300 for 10-15 mins, or put in a pan with a bit of water and cooked till the water burns off, or in a cast iron pan with no water. Remember that bacon will crisp up more after you take it off the pan and are draining it on paper towels. You cannot uncook bacon: you can only keep experimenting with more bacon.

For eggs and breakfast methods, I like Jacques Pepin's demonstration of a French omelette vs. a country omelette. Gordon Ramsay has a good video on scrambled eggs.

For fancy breakfast, I have made this very easy smoked salmon pizza, also by Jacques Pepin, and have made most everything in this episode of Fast Food My Way. The spatchcock chicken goes over very well here. I have some good kitchen shears for cutting out the backbone, because I would seriously cut the heck out of myself if I tried to use a knife or cleaver.

Other breakfast ideas include strata and quiche (which could also be supper, with a salad on the side).

What I like about Pepin and Ramsay is that they are teaching techniques at they go along.

When you're making a new recipe, give yourself more time than you think you will need, especially if it calls for a sauce. TV chefs make it look easy because of thousands of hours preparing sauces, so don't get frustrated if it doesn't come out right the first time (or first several times!).

Prep everything ahead of time: mise en place.

Ramsay also has a cookery course that's available on YouTube. You could probably get some good dinner ideas out of that.

Good luck and remember, never walk away from something that's under the broiler. Ask me how I know.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:26 PM on March 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I swear by Victorinox knives. Reasonably priced and solid quality. Grab a knife sharpener too and kitchen prep will be much easier.
posted by Twicketface at 6:00 PM on March 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

My favorite cookbook is The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham. Pick one or two recipes from that every weekend and have a fancy breakfast. I do that, and the book has never failed me! If you have a waffle iron, the yeasted waffle recipe is a classic and so easy.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:27 PM on March 14, 2014

Please read this book. It teaches you how to cook, not just nice food-porn pictures with lots of recipes. You learn how to adjust recipes on the fly, and to taste, after practice and learning the cooking theory.

I had been a cook for about 2 years, and still learned a lot from reading this. Buy the hardcover, I can't imagine the Kindle edition being of as much value.

I can't say I value the follow-up to this book; that one is primarily focused on baking and really came down to learning about butter.

Lastly, I've heard somewhere that making a dish 5 times will make you good at that dish. You're going to encounter mistakes each time, and you'll figure out how to adjust which each successive try.
posted by efalk at 9:02 PM on March 14, 2014

Best answer: A couple of tips and a recipe...

Olive oil - if you have a Costco card, get the 2L bottle of Kirkland organic extra virgin olive oil. It's $14 IIRC. This was actually found to be one of the absolute purest olive oils on the market. We use it and it's good, good stuff.

You want to build up a supply of decent cookware. You dot have to do it all at once. Piece by piece is perfect. Keep an eye out at thrift shops (don't buy non-stick there, only buy that new) and see what you can find. For example, I just got an All-Clad skillet for $9 at a thrift store, and this thing is north of $100 new. I keep one non-stick pan around but I've gotten away from that. For saucepans, if you can get some Farberware pieces (they're silver with black handles, check at JCPenney) they can be good as well. We have two that were old when we were given them 20 years ago, and they're still in daily use.

Pizza sauce or something to put on angel hair pasta:
1/4 cup olive oil
8 cloves of garlic
1 15 oz can of diced tomatoes (or a few fresh tomatoes if you're willing to blanch, skin and seed 'em)

Put olive oil in saucepan over medium high heat. Bruise (use the handle of a spoon or the dull side of a knife and beat a few dents into 'em) into the 5 garlic cloves, and put them in the olive oil. Stir this for a few minutes. Let the garlic get just lightly golden toasted and then take the cloves out and discard. Don't let the garlic burn! Like I said, just lightly golden brown. Add in the tomatoes and reduce heat to medium. Let this all simmer together for 10 minutes or so. Then mash the tomatoes in the pan with a potato masher. Turn heat down to low-medium. Let simmer for a half hour, stirring occasionally. Mince remaining garlic cloves and throw in near the end. Salt to taste. Simple but oh so delicious.

One last thing - if you make a cake, don't get a store bought mix. Look up cake recipes online and you'll be amazed how many recipes use just flour, sugar, butter, and a few other ingredients you probably have laying around anyway. It makes fantastic cake (and for me it justifies the money we spent on a KitchenAid mixer, though those aren't a requirement for this.)
posted by azpenguin at 11:54 PM on March 14, 2014

Best answer: Watch Julia Child's videos or flip through any of her books. She has this rep of representing fancy-ass French cooking - and often, that IS what she did, but always with an optimistic, laid-back tone of "let's have fun making something delicious" and "sharing food with friends is more important than technical perfection." Even if you don't actually make any of her recipes (and do NOT start with the crazy complicated stuff, obviously!) I would think her approach could be especially encouraging for a new cook.

I especially like this episode of Julia & Jacques, on beef stew. I don't remember if they even give a specific recipe, but it contains a lot of helpful guidelines on temperature, what cut of meat to choose, what vegetables go well with it, what the meat should look like at which stage, etc.

Stew would be a great place to start, btw - minimal up-front effort and a couple hours of cooking time can lead to an incredible end result. And a TON of other one-pot meals are built the same way - do a thing to some meat (brown / slice), do a thing to some veg (chop / saute), put them in a pot with liquid and herbs, walk away for two hours, and you've got an amazing dinner and leftovers for days.
posted by jessicapierce at 12:20 PM on March 15, 2014

Maybe everyone finds this obvious, but I discovered last year the benefit of having a bowl by the chopping board for all of the bits you want to throw away - or 2 bowls if you're collecting for stock/compost. Before, I was scraping from the board directly into the trash can after each ingredient, which takes longer and is more prone to mess.

I have 3-4 stainless steel bowls for this purpose and many, many others. They nest perfectly so 4 takes up the same storage space as 1. They're cheap ($5 from the supermarket), indestructible, easy to use and clean.

Next time you're at a restaurant with an open kitchen, keep an eye on what they're using - mostly stainless steel, very few fancy gadgets. When you're considering buying something, consider 'would a professional kitchen have one of these?'. If the pros don't need it, you don't need it.

I bought an excellent chef's knife (a Shun left-handed) and ruined it by having it sharpened by the guy in the mall. It's worth either going to a specialist (who will announce it by telling you not to use the guys in the mall) or sharpening it yourself.
posted by cogat at 4:33 PM on March 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: For what it's worth, when I was a single man learning to cook I did it by making a list of ~6-8 things I wanted to be able to make. Not so much very specific dishes, but types, e.g. spaghetti sauces, vegetable stew, frittata, pesto, salads, stir-fried vegetables with rice, and the like. Because they were staples, I loved them, if I was going to eat well I needed to learn to do it myself, some simple, some fancy. (I might want to ask someone over for dinner!) Then I made those few things again and again and again for myself. Variations on the theme as I became more confident and proficient with the dishes.

I learned what worked and what didn't, how to use spices, made mistakes, learned how to do without ingredients, use suboptimal cookware, substitutions that worked, and gained some sense of what went well together and what went too far.

This did not make me a good cook, because there are whole classes of things I can't make without going to books, if at all, techniques I don't know, and basics I am ignorant of. But there are dishes I can make pretty well on the fly, I'm willing to experiment in the kitchen, and I can look over a spare cupboard and figure something out. And I added new dishes to the list over the years. Most recently pizza, which turned out to be easier than I expected, and opened up a new world (calzones!)

The original list decades ago excluded bread and other baking, since the place I lived in had a stove where only the cooktop burners worked, the oven didn't, and the landlord wouldn't fix it.
posted by lathrop at 2:16 PM on March 16, 2014

Get a nice wok; it'll change your life.

Never be afraid to play with your food. It's how you learn to make things your way.

Keep a diary of things you do that come out great. You may not ever refer to it again, but writing stuff down commits it to memory. Alternatively, you might end up with a book of fantastic ideas that you play out later in the kitchen.

Invite people over to try stuff out. Nothing like pressure to make you step up your game. And it is so satisfying when friends tell you how good stuff is.

And get a wok 'cause it will change your life.

Other cool toys: microplanes; a decent blender; steel bowls; a good cutting board; dish towels.

If there's spice shops around, try out different salts and various varieties of pepper. There's lots of crazy spice blends from around the world that go far beyond powdered curry.

The Saveur & Serious Eats websites are labyrinths of food craziness...
posted by artof.mulata at 12:29 AM on March 17, 2014 [2 favorites]

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