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August 21, 2007 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn to cook.

The Background: For the first thirty-six years of my life, I've subsisted mainly on frozen food. This worked for me because I'm A.) Lazy, and B.) was a long time smoker and had completely destroyed my taste-buds.

However, I've subsequently quit and am discovering that this thing we call "food" actually has a "flavor". It's interesting.

I have no background in food making, but I have access to most of the acoutriments of cooking.
The Question: What kind of meal should I invest my time in learning to make? Google has provided an overwhelming number of suggestions and I don't have any idea where to begin.

The Caveats: As I said above; I'm lazy, so I'd like to find food making projects that are not all day affairs. Specifically, I'm looking for a couple of simple, easy to make meals, that are also tasty.

I like meat, but the wife doesn't, so I'd prefer to make something that we both can enjoy.

So where do I start?
posted by quin to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
The world of food is vast. I'd start with what you like. When you were buying frozen, did you enjoy some cuisines more than others? Mexican? Italian? Pick one and use it as a jumping point!
posted by modernsquid at 11:03 AM on August 21, 2007

Start simple...pasta is a good choice and not too hard to get it cooked correctly (the trick is to follow the instructions on the box, cook in salted water and then taste the cooked pasta to see if it is the right firmness that you like). Then you have a world of simple olive, tomato and cream based sauces to add to your pastas.

You can start with some jared sauces and experiment with doctoring them up with extra herbs or do combinations like an alfredo sauce with peas, bacon and slivered red onion. Then lastly you can try to make sauce from scratch with is still pretty easy but one thing at a time.

All of this doesn't take a lot of time and is vegetarian (and you can't mess it up too much). Plus it great served with garlic bread and everyone loves garlic bread.

Good luck!
posted by mmascolino at 11:09 AM on August 21, 2007

Start with 101 Simple Meals, ready in 10 minutes or less, from Mark Bittman in the New York Times.
posted by agent99 at 11:11 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Whoops, try this link instead, it's free:
posted by agent99 at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Here's what I've used as a daily meal for about a year:

Get some rotini or egg noodles. Put on some water. Chop up some red pepper, garlic, onions, broccoli, mushrooms, and/or pieces of pork. Cook them, with a little oil, in soy sauce or with herbs and lemon juice. Drain pasta when done. Dump pan with other stuff into pasta. Salt. Pepper. Hot sauce. Eat.

Takes about 20 minutes to cook.
posted by nasreddin at 11:19 AM on August 21, 2007

Check out some recipe sites for popular meals. I'm partial to Recipe Zaar, and there are many simple recipes there. There are tons of "Cooking for Men" books that focus on simplifying the process. I'd also suggest watching Alton Brown's show, Good Eats, on Food Network.
posted by shinynewnick at 11:22 AM on August 21, 2007

I've used Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything a tremendous amount since I started learning how to cook years ago. It's novice-friendly, but (since it covers everything!), will last you a long time.
posted by J-Train at 11:26 AM on August 21, 2007

Start with some of the 127 questions tagged with cooking here. Be honest-- you're just trying to accumulate favorites, aren't you?
posted by dersins at 11:27 AM on August 21, 2007

Pasta, fried potatoes, stir fry, eggs, cookies, fancy salads are all things that are easy and versatile. Also, learn how to use a grill to cook veggies as well as meats.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 11:27 AM on August 21, 2007

I'll recommend this cookbook for recipes that are easy, tasty & vegetarian: 5 Ingredient Vegetarian Gourmet.
posted by Laura in Canada at 11:31 AM on August 21, 2007

Why not start out by trying a few Alton Brown recipes that interest you? He generally explains why and how cooking works within the context of rock solid, damn good dishes. To keep everything free, go to the library and check out a copy of "I'm Just Here for the Food".
posted by Arch1 at 11:37 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you want to start cooking more and enjoying it as a hobby (as opposed to picking up a few signature dishes to impress people) I recommend Cooks Illustrated / America's Test Kitchen. They explain what they are trying to make, what doesn't work and have clear recipes that are not the world's simplest, but easier than many foodie-driven sources.

The website is massive, perhaps too large for starting out. The New Best Recipes is a great collection that covers all the basics (pesto, cakes, good potato leek soup) and has some decent "exotic" stuff as well.
posted by allan at 11:51 AM on August 21, 2007

Is the wife a total vegetarian, or will she eat poultry? Because roasting a chicken is about as easy as it gets, and tasty!
posted by trip and a half at 11:56 AM on August 21, 2007

I'll second the Alton Brown recommendation. Even if you don't follow his recipes, the books are very entertaining and not just about food. He explains lots of cooking theory in an easy, readable way.
posted by ninjew at 12:18 PM on August 21, 2007

i'm seconding mark bittman's "how to cook everything." it is full of basic recipes with thorough instructions (and it doesn't make you feel like an idiot for not knowing how to, say, boil water. really.)

it has a lot of vegetarian ideas, plus meat dishes you can prepare for one, so you can saute yourself a chicken breast to go along with whatever you make for the family.
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:36 PM on August 21, 2007

Is the wife a total vegetarian, or will she eat poultry?

Nope, birds are a no-go. She will on occasion eat fish though.

Thanks for all the advice so far, it sounds like pasta is going to be a good place to start. Any more suggestions on how to perfect this? Sauce tricks, seasonings, etc?
posted by quin at 12:48 PM on August 21, 2007

Any more suggestions on how to perfect this? Sauce tricks, seasonings, etc?

Much easier to follow the recipes of others until you know why you are doing what you are doing. Another vote for Alton Brown.
posted by bh at 2:03 PM on August 21, 2007

I often feel like pasta gets too much stuff dumped on it to really be able to appreciate the individual flavors. Here's a super-nummy, easy, fast, cheap, vegetarian recipe:

Olio e aglio

You will need:

Long pasta (linguine or spaghetti)
Good extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly-ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes

Fresh parsley

Boil a giant pan of water. When it's at a rolling boil, throw in the pasta. Follow the directions on the packaging to end up with al dente pasta. Drain.

Meanwhile, put a flat pan of some kind over medium-high heat. Put three or four (it's a lot, but it's basically your sauce, so) tablespoons of oil in the pan. When you can see the oil "shimmer", it's hot enough to proceed.

Into your oil, add: a few shakes of red pepper flakes and grind in some black pepper. Let the oil and the pepper bits get to know each other for ten or twenty seconds.

Now add: two or three cloves of garlic, either slivered or finely chopped, depending on how you prefer it (garlic will give you more garlic flavor if you chop it very finely before cooking it) and stir it around. Cook just until the garlic starts to turn golden, which will be a few dozen seconds at most. Take off the heat.

Now add your oil/garlic/pepper mix to your piping-hot, just-drained pasta. Toss with a bit of salt to taste. Toss with chopped parsley if you like.

Serve immediately in warmed bowls (I stick microwave-safe bowls in the microwave for a minute.) Pass the Parmesan at the table. Add a green salad. Eat!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 2:19 PM on August 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

For rather expansive vegetarian cookbooks, you cant go wrong starting off with anything by Mollie Katzen, especially "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest" or "The Moosewood Cookbook".

And as a beginner cook, these relatively easy recipes will start you thinking about all sorts of crazy concepts like spice choices, al dente, and the difference between cooking and flavoring oils.

Then you can start with Alton Brown's post-graduate courses ;-)

Also, there must be hundreds of cooking websites out there with everything from the simple to the sublime. I usually defer to Epicurious, but that's just the beginning.

Happy cooking!
posted by elendil71 at 2:38 PM on August 21, 2007

You might master the many glories of breakfast before choosing a cuisine or ingredient (pasta) to focus on. Lots of breakfast food is vegetarian and delicious and usually fast a/o simple.
posted by janell at 3:13 PM on August 21, 2007

Any more suggestions on how to perfect this? Sauce tricks, seasonings, etc?
The only tricks in cooking are the ones used to cover up bad food.

So where do I start?
Nthing the suggestions for Alton Brown or Mark Bittman's books as they have easy to follow recipes and are fairly comprehensive.

Pasta is a good way to start but follow thehmsbeagle's style of pasta recipes and stay away from the tomato sauce and cream sauce based recipes. 1 or 2 chopped fresh vegetables cooked in olive oil and tossed with hot pasta is wonderful.

Ask your wife for a few dishes she enjoys and learn to cook some of the simpler ones to perfection. Positive feedback is a great motivator.

Does your wife cook? Find a time once a week that you can cook together. Switch off each time between the prep (peeling, chopping) and cooking duties.

The secret to cooking is to taste and smell everything however mundane. This includes tasting the salted water before you start boiling it for pasta.
posted by junesix at 3:14 PM on August 21, 2007

The library is your friend. They will have many, many interesting cookbooks, many solely for vegetarian cuisine. The better ones for you will have more than just recipes, but also include detailed preparation instructions. If you find you like one a whole lot you can go out and buy a copy. Websites are nice, but a reference book beats all.
posted by caddis at 4:02 PM on August 21, 2007

Why not learn from the best? Julia Child's "The Way To Cook." It's not just the fancy French food she's most famous for - it's an overall basic cooking book that includes many of her French classics but also American and other ethnic favorites. She always explains things very well, and uses an extremely helpful "master recipe with variations" format, so that you can learn a basic technique or dish, and then learn how to make several things out of it. Also, this particular book has tons and tons of photographs.

Watching a lot of Food Network can help, however while I too love Alton Brown, I'm not so sure he's really the best for a total novice cook, because he goes into some exhaustive details about ways to really perfect certain dishes, and often employs methods that, while I'm sure they work well, are rather unorthodox and cumbersome to a daily cook. A better basic cooking choice might be "How to Boil Water" or Nigella Lawson's shows.
posted by dnash at 5:54 PM on August 21, 2007

If you can't work out what to cook, fry some onions while you think about it.
posted by flabdablet at 6:42 PM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cuisine at Home is an awesome magazine filled with simple recipes (including vegetarian). It's cheap and you get 6 issues a year. It will certainly help broaden your culinary horizons without making it difficult.
posted by BradNelson at 9:56 PM on August 21, 2007

Learn to cook scrambled eggs. Once you can cook that, you can cook anything (within reason).

I started by making simple stir-fries. A large frying pan, or a small wok will do you well. You can cook nearly anything in a wok. Learn as you go.
posted by SansPoint at 10:55 PM on August 21, 2007

Something else to try out is a slow cooker. Turn the thing on, put a tablespoon of oil and half a cup of water in it, chop up just about anything you think might end up tasty, fling it in, clap on the lid and head off to work. When you come home, your dinner will be ready and your home will smell good.
posted by flabdablet at 11:49 PM on August 21, 2007

First off, congratulations on entering the world of cookery! You've made a good decision.
Heating olive oil with crushed garlic will aide almost anything you subsequently add to that pan
Soups are easy and great: chuck in any veggies you like with some stock, bay leaf or other herbs and spices, cook till soft, blend.

I hope this isn't uncalled for, but I keep a blog where I document my cooking. I'm a student living on my own but still manage to eat well. Different kinds of food, with detailed instructions and pics alongside make it pretty easy to follow, I'm told. Link in profile.
posted by shokod at 1:46 AM on August 22, 2007

Lentils, red rice, spaghetti, soy sauce, a little olive oil + some vegetable. Why lentils? They have protein since you don't add meat. They're also filling and make the meal hearty and add texture and they're much faster to cook than any beans. Why red rice? White rice is essentially empty of all minerals and vitamins and doesn't have much texture and no flavor. Brown rice takes forever to cook. Think 2 hours or so to make it digestible.. Red rice is somewhere in the middle. Add spaghetti ~5-7 minutes before it's ready. Spaghetti makes texture very interesting and makes the dish 3x tastier. Spaghetti by itself isn't very tasty because its texture is too mushy and slimy. If you do just the rice and lentils it's still a very good dish but it's kind of dense. With spaghetti it's just perfect. Add soy sauce when almost all water is gone and stir for a few minutes, then serve. As for veggies, you can do almost anything, I very often use cabbage, green and/or purple, because it's convenient to store, it doesn't get old for a long time unlike most other veggies. Green/yellow Squash is good if you're close to catching a cold or already caught one because it has the vitamin that helps against colds. Same for potatoes.. you can add a bit of them and/or yams.. Broccoli is good too, but it's really hard to come up with a veggie that would not be good. As far as spices go, I add a bit of freshly ground cardamom sometimes or red pepper flakes, but the dish is so good by itself that I find spices are not necessary at all. Soy sauce adds a little salt and that's it. Cast iron 'ovens' are really great. The lid stays on because it's heavy as hell and because of the pressure it does act as a sort of an oven. Iron distributes heat better than regular steel in my opinion. It's hard to believe it can make much difference but somehow it does. Cast iron 'ovens' (they're really huge pans with heavy lids) are also easier to clean because with steel pans you have to hold it down firmly with one hand and clean it vigorously with the other, while cast iron pan stays in place due to its weight and you can concentrate on cleaning part. It's also naturally non-stick, you have to cure it with oil in the stove and then nothing will stick to it, and you don't have the downside of teflon that gets messed up if you forget to take it off on time. It think this dish is practical almost to perfection, it's easy, tolerates wide range of ingredients, healthy, quick - 30m - and amazingly tasty. Bread is also nice to make in a breadmaker machine. One thing to keep in mind is that using milk or buttercream instead of water makes it 5 times tastier. You can make it much better than store-bought bread because they always add preservatives, etc. A few slices of fresh bread with butter is a perfect meal!
posted by rainy at 8:04 AM on August 22, 2007

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