Cooking 101 - Graduate from Microwave User to Home Cook
The fall school schedule is just around the corner and that means changes are usually in store. Many small changes occur as kids move up a grade, maybe to a new school, from elementary to middle school or junior high to high school. Maybe time schedules change at home, transportation to and from school is modified, or eating plans are adjusted to get school kids and working families through the day. These changes require a lot of adjustment and compromise to make everyone happy and on time. It’s a lot of work, but somehow, everyone soon settles into the new schedule without too much trouble.
But what happens for the recent high school graduate? This is the time when a major change might soon disrupt the “small changes” comfort zone everyone has grown to expect for the last eighteen years. All of a sudden, it is a brand new world for families — especially the college bound high school grads who will be on their own for the first time in their life. Adjusting to a new school life on campus is exciting and intimidating in and of itself, but there are all sorts of considerations thrown in the mix, including housing, transportation and meals.
Beyond Pizza and TV Dinners
Whether a college freshmen or simply out on your own for the first time, you need a plan for meals. Fast food and pizza will drain a food budget quickly. And it isn’t going to do much for your health, either. Sure, every now and then a meal like this is expected, when your schedule leaves you in a bind for time, or it’s simply time for fun with friends, but the rest of the week needs a plan.
It’s easy to stock up on canned goods, boxed “helper” meals, and frozen dinners, and these will get quick meals on the table, but there is life beyond ramen noodles. Learning to shop at the grocery store is the first step. The key to stretching your dollar, better health and eating great food is usually found around the perimeter of the grocery store. Take a walk along the outside aisle of any grocery store. That is where you’ll find the produce section, meat and seafood counters, dairy, bakery and deli. Fresh food with shorter perishable dates is located in that magic circle surrounding the center aisles.
Learning to Cook
The next step is the leap of faith. You can cook. Learning to cook can be scary if you’re not prepared for it. Like all other adventures, it just takes determination and dedication to do it. With a short list of basic good kitchen equipment and a grocery bag full of food “from the perimeter,” the first hurdle is complete. The rest is commitment.
The equipment list is short for starters, but can easily grow as skills develop and the desire to add the precise utensil suited for specific needs is warranted (and within budget). Three basic kitchen tools are required to begin the cooking journey: a good knife for chopping, a good cutting board and a good pan to cook in. I stress the word “good” for all of these items, because anything less is a potential cause for frustration and injury, causes for discouragement that can be detrimental to moving forward.
Your Kitchen Friend
The best, and likely the biggest, investment to make in the kitchen at this beginning stage of culinary adventures is a good chef knife. It is the one prized possession to assist in every cooking preparation. It’s perhaps the most intimidating part of cooking for many, as well. The chef knife is the one tool that turns “box and can opening food warming preparers” into home cooks.
Chef knives come in various shapes and sizes. High-carbon stainless steel (also known as “stain-free” or “no-stain”) is a good choice of material for the home cook, as it will resist rust and hold a sharp edge. A knife constructed from one piece of metal is ideal for strength. Judge the blade for the task and how easily it can be sharpened. The thickest part of the blade should extend through the handle. The handle should feel comfortable to grip, and a high quality finish is desirable. A good kitchen shop will assist in selecting the best fit for your cooking.
Your Friend Needs a Friend
Cutting boards are also available in many choices. Plastic, wood, thick, flexible, large and small. Like the knife, finding the perfect board depends on the intended use. Wood boards are comfortable and great for cutting vegetables, but plastic might be preferred for meats and clean-up purposes. Select a cutting board when selecting the knife for the best fit and advice from knowledgeable kitchen store staff.
Pots and pans will probably cause the most confusion in the kitchen. There are hundreds of choices. Finding the one perfect size and shape to start is a daunting task, but knowing a few key properties to look for quickly guides to the most appropriate pan for basic needs. Different sizes are suited for specific tasks, but for the beginning cook, one versatile pan that works well for many tasks is the ideal choice. A stir-fry pan fits that description better than all others. Like a wok with a handle, the stir-fry pan has sloped sides and a large cooking surface. It is ideal for simple sautés, soups, and of course, stir-fried dishes.
If the budget allows, a basic set of cookware will have the most common types of pans for basic cooking needs: a fry pan (or omelette pan), a skillet (or sauté pan), a sauce pan and perhaps a stock pot. This is a nice starter set, but it is probably beyond the beginner cook’s needs. The simple stir-fry pan can handle most preps that the basic set covers. Like the knife, the pan’s construction should be the primary concern. A heavy-duty, stainless steel with aluminum core pan is a good choice. The aluminum core heats evenly and the stainless steel is easy to clean. Again, consult with a good kitchen shop for the best single pan to meet basic cooking needs.
Linger in the produce section. Choose a good selection of fresh, colorful vegetables to start your cooking adventure. Bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini, carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, beans, asparagus, eggplant, spinach, lettuce greens, garlic, radishes and avocado. The list goes on and on. (And don’t forget fresh fruit: apples, oranges, bananas, kiwi, strawberries and grapes.) Choose favorites and choose something new. A week’s worth of dinners can come from this list. Supplement your shopping with cheese, eggs, chicken breasts, a small cut of meat, bread, rice, pasta and perhaps pizza dough. A week of great meals is on the way!
Practice knife skills with the plethora of fresh veggies and fruit. Hold the chef knife by the handle, with forefinger and thumb gripping the rear sides of the blade. This provides a stable, comfortable grip for basic slicing and chopping. Potatoes are good to start. They slice easily and are easy to judge size. Make ½-inch slices, then cut each slice into ½-inch sticks, and finally, cut each stick into ½-inch dice. Hold the vegetable with fingers bent under and knuckles resting against the blade. Never raise the blade above the knuckles. This prevents any chance of injury. Keep the tip of the knife on the cutting board, slicing down through the vegetable with a forward motion. If the knife is new or recently sharpened, cutting is effortless and safe. A dull knife can cause injury, because it requires more pressure and slips. Always use a sharp knife to cut and chop.
Once past the potato practice, move to onions, bell peppers and carrots. Various cutting methods offer various shapes for dining enjoyment. Slice the onions. Cut bell peppers in half, remove the seed core and cut the halves into uniform-sized pieces. Cut carrots in half lengthwise (cut in half or to manageable size pieces first, if desired), lay the flat sides down and cut in half lengthwise again, then cut into short sticks (julienne-cut) or cut into small dice. Regardless the shape of the cut, try to cut any veggies in uniform sizes. This allows for even cooking.
What’s For Dinner?
The knife and cutting board have been put to good use. A pile of vegetables sits near. Now it’s time to cook! Filling a bowl with fresh-cut vegetables can fill a week’s worth of dinners through a little creativity. Let’s start with my highlighted recipe, Vegetable Stir-Fry . It puts that new pan to use in a quick and simple prep. Even without a stir-fry pan, this recipe is easily prepared in any skillet and utilizes all the fresh veggies waiting to be enjoyed.
Expanding to the supplemental grocery list, the same fresh vegetables are easily incorporated into other dishes throughout the week. For a meal in minutes, try a Chopped Salad: toss the chopped vegetables (bell peppers, broccoli, red onions, carrots, celery, radishes, avocado) with fresh spinach and torn leaves of lettuce. Add julienne-cut deli ham, shredded cheddar cheese and chopped hard-cooked eggs. Top with a favorite salad dressing. Use the same combination of ingredients in a Pita Pocket Sandwich for a salad to go!
For a Quick-Cook Pasta and Vegetables, cook any shape dried pasta (penne or bowties are nice for this recipe) according to package directions; drain cooking water and reserve cooked pasta. Heat pan on medium-high, add 1 teaspoon olive oil and 1 minced clove of garlic (one segment of a head of garlic, chopped into a fine dice). Add 1 cup chopped veggies (summer squash, onions, bell peppers, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes). Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on desired doneness (shorter time for tender-crisp, longer time for tender). Add a teapoon fresh chopped herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary), the cooked pasta and stir with vegetables to serve.
Chicken with Vegetables is a similar prep with much different results. Slice chicken breasts into serving size strips or pieces. Heat pan on medium-high, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, minced garlic, and chicken, and sauté (fry) for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until chicken is no longer pink in the center. Remove chicken from pan and reserve. Prep and cook veggies as described above, then return cooked chicken to pan (with fresh herbs, if desired) and stir to heat through. Serve with cooked rice.
Smoked Sausage Fajitas are quick and easy. Heat pan over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, a thinly sliced onion, a chopped bell pepper and one pound smoked sausage, cut into slices. Cook for about 7 minutes, or until vegetables are tender and sausage is browned. Season with hot pepper sauce and serve in warm tortillas.
Maybe a nice cut of meat grilled to your liking is on the menu. Toss a couple diced potatoes into boiling water and cook until tender (20 to 30 minutes) and mash to serve. Spread a layer of chopped veggies (red bell pepper, zucchini, red onion, cauliflower) on a baking pan, drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil over all, sprinkle with 2 tablespoons fresh chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, savory, oregano) and season with salt and pepper to taste. Roast in the oven at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes, or until veggies are golden brown and delicious! Serve Roasted Vegetables with meat and potatoes.
One dish meals are easy when vegetables are ready to go. Add to soups, stews or casseroles. And don’t forget Homemade Pizza. Pick up pizza dough at the store (or pre-baked pizza crusts), roll it out onto a pizza pan or baking sheet, top with a favorite spaghetti sauce, chopped vegetables (or roasted vegetables) and slices of pepperoni or ham. Top with shredded mozzarella cheese. Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven for 10 minutes or until crust is golden and cheese is melted.
Expand Your Skills
When it’s time to fly the coop and you’re on your own, don’t hesitate to expand your skills in the kitchen. Start small with basic cooking utensils. Shop from the perimeter of the grocery. Organize vegetable preparations so that you’re ready for recipes throughout the week. When food is prepped ahead of time and basic staples are on hand, dinner is ready to serve in little time. Vegetables are always a great place to start. The same ingredients can be used in many ways to create a variety of meals. Explore the best options for your kitchen and cook with confidence. Congratulations graduate and welcome back to learning — you’ve graduated from microwave user to home cook!
Carol Ritchie is the host of "Cookin' with Carol." She has taught cooking classes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for 25 years.