Help this impatient person learn how to cook from a book.
December 19, 2007 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Help this impatient person learn how to cook from a book.

I don't know how to cook. I am extremely lazy in the kitchen and want to learn to make good, tasty meals that require a MINIMUM of preparation* and utilize as many shortcuts as possible (e.g. frozen veggies, pre-made stir fry sauces, etc.).

I love vegetables, chicken and fish but don't eat red meat. I prefer ethnic flavors such as thai, indian, asian etc. I'm thinking learning some stirfry techniques might be a good place to start, but I'm open to other ideas.

What are the best cookbooks for me to try? In addition to a lack of cooking technique, I also know very little about basics such as stocking my kitchen. Thanks!!

*Ideally 10 minutes or less.
posted by mintchip to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Have you perused the EatMe page on the wiki, which anthologizes cooking-related MeFi threads and AskMes? Just a few entries which are apropos to your question are:

101 10-minute recipes
Healthy dinners for 2 in 30 minutes
Fast but healthy cooking

among others.

I recommend Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything as a basic recipe and technique bible, but there are fifteen threads about cookbooks in the EatMe collection. See also the threads on stocking your pantry.
posted by mumkin at 7:02 PM on December 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a copy of the 5 in 10 Cookbook (Five ingredients, ten minutes or less) and every recipe I've tried so far has been a winner, and most of them are tasty and elegant enough to serve to company.
posted by ambrosia at 7:09 PM on December 19, 2007

seconding mark bittman's "how to cook everything." his recipes are simple and straightforward, and have lots of yummy ethnic variations. (he devotes pages and pages to chicken cutlets. first, you learn how to saute the cutlet. then there are a half a million seasoning variations to accommodate your particular menu.)

a lot of the pleasure of cooking will come from practice. once you know how to dice an onion, or how hot the pan should be before you put it in, or what color the meat needs to be, you'll develop a lot more confidence, which will lead to joy. there's an old proverb that "the work will show you how to do it," and i think it's true here. the achievements are gradual and you may not even notice when you've mastered some things, but the longer you keep at it, the better and more fun it will be.

bon appetit!
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:23 PM on December 19, 2007

my honest suggestion is to just look at recipes that have ingredients that you like and experiment. I am not good at recipes, knitting or sewing patterns or mathematical formulas, but I am a good cook, knitter, and seamstress.

If you like to eat, you can cook.

Most recipes have similar ingredients depending on the kind of food you wish to prepare- indian cuisine has lots of spices (LOTS OF SPICES), italian food all has basil, etc. Basically pay more attention to the food you like and what is in it and do your own thing. It's fun!
posted by janelikes at 7:45 PM on December 19, 2007

Do not, I repeat not look to that shrieking harpy Rachael Ray for guidance. On a whime I've tried a few of her '30 Minute Meals'. They're all uniformly awful unless, I suspect, you were raised next door to Britney Spears.

What you probably need to learn are two things:

1) Basics of mise en place. This is fancy frenchifaction for 'get yer stuff ready'.
2) Timing

You can make a credible (as in, filling and tastes reasonable) spag bol in 15 minutes. It's all a matter of how you time it.

1) Put big pot of water on to boil. If your pot is stainless steel (as it should be), don't salt until water is almost at boiling point; salt can cause pitting in steel.

2) At the same time, put a nice big (wide & deep) pan on to heat up--number one mistake of home cooks is not letting pans get hot enough. If stainless steel, allow to heat 'naked', that is, without oil. If nonstick, put a good slodge of olive oil into the pan.

2a) if you're a carnivore, another pan on the heat, medium high for ground beef is good at this point.

3) While pot is coming up to boil & pan is heating, quickly chop up some onions, celery, and carrots. Fairly fine, but don't be too concerned about looks. Toss into pan as soon as ready--you don't need extreme heat for this. Do carrots first, then celery, then onions.

4) Allow veggies to get translucent & fork-tender. five minutes maybe. Add your herbs--at minimum, basil & oregano, fresh or dried. A little cayenne never goes amiss, and you'd be surprised, but a pinch of cinnamon in spag sauce is spectacular.

5) Add garlic, saute with veggies briefly, then add a can of crushed tomatoes to the veggies, and some tomato paste.

6) By this point, you should be--or have already--tossed in your pasta to boil. Don't put pasta in water until it's at a nice hard rolling boil.

7) Ground beef should be done. Drain & add to sauce. Simmer.

8) drain pasta. Throw sauce into now-empty pasta pot (put it on the burner you were doing the sauce on). Toss your pasta into the sauce. Serve.

9) Om nom nom nom.

Don't forget to season. Everything needs a little salt and (hopefull fresh-cracked) pepper.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:45 PM on December 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

Oh, sorry.. more:

Get you some chicken breasts. Season, toss in a pan on medium to medium high. Coook 'em through.

While you're doing this, prepare a bowl with: grated gruyere, some whole grain dijon, and enough cream to make it a thick paste.

While chickenboobs are cooking, prepare some frozen veggies according to package directions. Use some nice ones :)

When chicken is cooked through, coat one side in your cheese & mustard goop. Bung under the broiler to get brown and bubbly.

Have some goot crusty bread as your carbohydrate with this.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:53 PM on December 19, 2007

Mark Bittman is great. You might also enjoy Jamie Oliver's cookbooks (aka The Naked Chef), which are chock-full of quick, casual, crazily tasty recipes that definitely do not require a ton of preparation or any sort of impressive technique beyond the ability to slice stuff up.
posted by scody at 7:58 PM on December 19, 2007

I read Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and it was such good writing that it got me really interested in cooking. There is also some really good information in there. I recomend it. You won't learn recipes but it will help keep you interested in what you do. Also Heat by Bill Buford, less so but still very good,
posted by sully75 at 8:44 PM on December 19, 2007

Nigella Lawson was the one who finally got me to cook because she seemed so normal* and un-chef like (because she's not a chef, she's a food writer). Her first book, How To Eat, is still the one I go back to most often.

(*Normal = rich zaftig glamazon with awesome London kitchen, of course)
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:47 PM on December 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

"... I'm thinking learning some stirfry techniques might be a good place to start, but I'm open to other ideas. ..."

Real wok style stir fry generally requires a lot more heat than most home stoves are going to be able to create. A better alternative for many people interested in stir fry cooking, is to obtain an outdoor propane stir fry stove, which can handle steel woks up to 14" in diameter, and deliver the heat they need for fast, good stir fry. Much safer than trying to manage all that heat in a home kitchen, without the vent hood capacity of a commercial kitchen, too.
posted by paulsc at 8:57 PM on December 19, 2007

Betty Crocker, really.
posted by caddis at 9:00 PM on December 19, 2007

Tacking on from paulsc's comment: if you don't want to/can't invest in fancy stir fry stove, you can --

A. Use the highest heat setting you can on your stove and stir fry in batches. You never want to overcrowd a stir fry pan because it ceases to fry and begins to stew. Place items on a large platter in a single layer and reheat very quickly at the end.

B. Use the side burner on your outdoor grill, if you have one. If you don't, think about getting one when you buy your next grill. We have a fantastic and huge propane burner on our outdoor grill and it's tops for stir fry. Plus, we don't need any extra stuff when we want to make it.
posted by theantikitty at 9:07 PM on December 19, 2007

PS: Stir Fry Tips Thread
posted by theantikitty at 9:25 PM on December 19, 2007

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posted by bjgeiger at 10:10 PM on December 19, 2007

Though a little dated for actual recipes, The Joy of Cooking is amazing for all the little cooking basics that you will need. I'm a pretty decent cook, but I find myself in there at least once a month looking for cooking times and prep methods. It has big intros to every chapter that lay out explicit information that is often taken as common knowledge by other cookbooks.

Also the table-setting and etiquette bits at the front are always good for a laugh, but only useful if you're doing a formal dinner with 7 different forks.

I'm operating from a 30 year old version that's yellowed and held together with an elastic band [thanks Grandma!]. Wikipedia says there was a complete overhaul in 1997 so try to find an older one!
posted by rhinny at 10:34 PM on December 19, 2007

Follow what looks interesting in the cookbooks to the letter, set a timer and do things you like nearby--reading, surfing the net, video games...etc, etc, etc during the downtime.
posted by brujita at 10:39 PM on December 19, 2007

Also, here's something my Dad taught me... I put it on everything.

Amounts are negotiable:

2 Tbsp Miso
2 Tbsp Peanut Butter [100% PEANUTS AND SALT]
2 Tbsp Vinegar [any kind, even balsamic tastes good]
2 Tbsp Olive oil
hot sauce or chili flakes if you like
mix together, and add enough hot water to make it a saucy-type consistency [if you're steaming vegetables, use the veg-water for easiness and extra flavour dimension].

pour over vegetables, rice, tofu, noodles, fish, meat or add more vinegar to make a lovely salad dressing

This seriously takes less time than the kettle takes to heat the water for the sauce.

is really really good with toasted sesame seeds overtop, buy a cheap bag of the pure white ones and toast them dry [constantly shaking them] in a frying pan over high heat until they look golden and smell delicious. They keep forever in an old pasta sauce jar in the cupboard and taste delicious on everything vaguely asian influenced [and salads].
posted by rhinny at 10:44 PM on December 19, 2007 [5 favorites]

In addition to buying Bittman's How to Cook Everything, find a friend and take a 3-5 session introduction to cooking class. You need practice and guidance in how to chop, how to saute, and you will get to ask a pro all your questions in real time.
posted by shothotbot at 4:57 AM on December 20, 2007

It is possible to cook a whole heaping mess of rice and refrigerate most of it. It will keep well for quite awhile in the fridge. To reheat it, just put it in a bowl, at a tiny bit of water, cover, and nuke it for a couple minutes. Couscous takes only a couple minutes to cook, if you prefer that.

My standby "30 minute meal" is simply some sauteed vegetables, a starch (reheated rice or a microwaved "baked" potato), and a seared steak. You can do the same with a chicken breast, etc., but here's the process:

Get out your cast-iron skillet (get one if you don't have it - they're pretty cheap and are invaluable) and put it on medium-high heat. While that's heating, season your meat with salt and pepper. Throw the meat on the skillet, but not right in the center - leave some space for the veggies.

As the first side of the meat is cooking, season your veg. Green beans or asparagus work perfectly for this type of cooking, or anything you might "stir fry" - squash, zucchini, peppers, etc. This is about the point that I would start reheating the rice or cooking the potato (potato takes about 10-15 minutes in the microwave).

Flip the meat to cook the second side, add a little bit of butter to the empty side of the pan, and throw in the vegetables. Turn the vegetables constantly so they don't burn. A single serving of asparagus or green beans takes maybe four minutes to cook fork-tender. Veg goes on the plate, finish cooking the meat, then the meat goes on the plate. Starch should be ready at about this point.

And you're done! Or not, if you want to make a pan sauce, which is just about the easiest thing to do to spice up dinner. While the pan is still hot, add some butter... about 2 tbsp. (You can make a roux at this point if you like, but it's not really necessary) Let it brown a little, then add a flavorful liquid like stock or wine, seasoning, then let it reduce to a sauce consistency. I am deliberately vague here because this is the exciting part where you get to experiment and see what items in your pantry complement each other.

So, summing it all up - prep, about five minutes, pan sauce, another five. A good sized steak takes less than 15 minutes to cook this way, so all told you're looking at less than a half hour start-to-finish.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:20 AM on December 20, 2007

If you're looking at starting with pre-made sauces, frozen vegetables, and other shortcuts, here's what I'd recommend. Go to the grocery store and look at all the sauces. Stir-fry sauces, pasta sauces, Indian sauces, whatever. Lots of these jars have simple recipes on them. Usually they say something like: heat up a pan, chop an onion, sautée onion, add chicken/tofu/vegetables/whatever, add sauce, simmer. Eat. This kind of thing is how I started cooking, because it's really basic and hard to mess up, and it's gratifying. Once you get comfortable with tossing things into pots and pans, you'll be ready for the next steps: mixing up your own sauces, inventing new combinations of veggies and protein, etc. But start with the dead-simple combination of protein, veggie, and sauce. Add a starch (rice, pasta, bread, potatoes) to make it a meal.

Stock your kitchen with a variety of sauces, different frozen and fresh veggies (mix it up as much as possible, and get single-vegetables for greatest selection power, or else you'll get sick of the same broccoli-cauliflower-green bean blend), a few kinds of rice (jasmine, basmati, brown, etc.), different kinds of pasta (try different flavors, shapes, etc.). Have fun!
posted by bassjump at 7:04 AM on December 20, 2007

A good place to start is with the technical mechanics of cookery. I'd recommend checking out What Einstein Told His Cook by Robert L. Wolke if you have a science-y type of mind. It'll help your brain wrap around the basic science of cooking. Also, check out Alton Brown's books (and show "Good Eats" on the Food Network) for information in the same vein. He actually has a great and ridiculously simple yet awesomely tasty veggie curry recipe.

Otherwise, just experiment. Once you know the basics, it's just a matter of putting food in a pan and turning on some heat.
posted by General Malaise at 7:26 AM on December 20, 2007

I'll nth everyone's recommendations for How to Cook Everything, but I'd say that Bittman's other amazing cookbook, The Minimalist Cooks at Home, might be a better bet. Not that you shouldn't buy How to Cook Everything, because everyone should have that book, but The Minimalist Cooks at Home is all about stripping the complexity and prep time out of great meals.
posted by Kreiger at 7:01 AM on December 21, 2007

I am a big fan of Cooking with America's Test Kitchen. They provide clear, concise recipes and explain why the steps you take are important. I've only tried a few recipes in there, but in basically every case it wound up being easier than I expected.

Another tip: When executing a recipe, resist the urge to put things in the fire right away. Pre-cutting and measuring your ingredients into tiny bowls or cups makes the process much less frantic and mistake-prone. I did their Chicken Piccata a few nights ago and the key to the whole operation was having the four stages of ingredients waiting patiently in a row, already prepped.

I know you want to do canned veggies and such, but fresh ingredients don't often require much more work. (Beans on the other hand, are a pain. Go canned.) But you'll get a much more rewarding taste out of fresh stuff, like garlic you mince yourself as opposed to garlic powder.

Also, make this. (not the lamb stew, which looks much harder, but the Cuban dish.) It's way too easy considering how incredibly delicious it is.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:33 AM on December 21, 2007

How many of the cookbooks cited here actually use frozen vegetables etc.? For that, I think you are limited mostly to cookbooks published by food merchants.
posted by caddis at 2:40 PM on December 21, 2007

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