Two years ago I could go for days without setting foot in my kitchen. Work had taken over my life, and I didn’t even make coffee for myself. I had lots of nice things—four sizes of pots, skillets, a stock pot, a wok, baking sheets, pie plates, a slow cooker, a rice cooker, a bread maker, a KitchenAid mixer—but they were just crowding my kitchen.
While fantasizing about a balanced life, I read the book Apartment Therapy by Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan. To get the most out of your living space, it advises cooking at least one meal a week at home. So one evening I invited a friend over for dinner, thinking: How hard can it be to make pork chops? My friend, who was raised in Italy and can make gnocchi from scratch, said the pork chop was fine even though it tasted like shoe leather. I was mortified and vowed to change.
So I was lucky—when it became necessary to cut back on my expenses, I was already cooking a few basic dinners a week. Now I take lunch to work, do takeout even less and watch my ingredient costs. Right now a lot of people are considering cooking to save money, and I’m pretty sure many are in the same boat as I was: starting from scratch skills-wise and cursed with a rarefied palate from so much eating out. Here are ten tips I learned along the way:
1. Cooking is not necessarily time consuming. Lots of things, from quesadillas to pork chops, can be made in takeout time. I am always on the lookout for quick, easy meals. Mark Bittman, who writes a regular column for The New York Times, is one of my heroes. Gourmet magazine’s archive of fast recipes can be found on Epicurious.com under Quick & Easy Recipes. Or try my quick quesadilla: grate Monterey Jack cheese onto a flour tortilla, fold the tortilla in half and fry it in oil for two minutes on each side, then serve topped with mashed avocado.
2. It’s good to know what’s in the food you eat. A happy side effect of cooking is that you know exactly what’s in your meals because you put it there. Over the winter I was craving chocolate and sweets, but there was no room in my budget for store-bought pastries. So I began making my own cakes and cookies, and was surprised at how few ingredients are needed: flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking powder and spices. No preservatives, no trans fats. For the summer I’ve been making a chocolate granita with just cocoa, sugar and water.
3. You don’t need fancy gear. Cooking is easier if you have the right tools, but almost everything I’ve done uses a pot or a frying pan, a good knife and a spoon. If you don’t have a mixer, you can still mix by hand; it just takes longer and burns a few more calories.
4. Music helps. When I got into cooking, I hated being in my kitchen—it was lonely and boring. So I bought an under-the-counter clock radio/DVD player and everything changed. I’ve read about people having a glass of wine or beer while they cook, but that will just make me clumsy. Figure out something that will let you enjoy waiting for the water to boil.
If you have three out of five of the listed spices, try the dish anyway. If you don’t have nuts, go ahead and make the brownies.
5. But you need to be tuned in. A big problem I’ve always had while cooking, especially the third or fourth time I make a dish, is not focusing properly. I might misremember the amount of a key ingredient, or accidentally dump half a jar of cayenne into the beans because I thought there was a second lid with holes under the cap. More than once I have forgotten that I had something on the stove until I smelled it burning (now I set a timer in case I move on to something else). Focus is good for you, like meditating.
6. You don’t need every ingredient. If you have three out of five of the listed spices, try the dish anyway. If you don’t have nuts, go ahead and make the brownies. In fact, my mother always left out the nuts when she baked because she thought they were too expensive. I recently made chili that called for a lot of vegetables that I didn’t have, and I just added in what I did have. This works best with dishes like casseroles or soup; don’t try baking a cake without eggs.
7. You can double a recipe or cut it in half. A corollary to No. 6. I was craving Welsh Rabbit one day, but the recipe I found made eight servings, and the thought of leftover Welsh Rabbit was not appetizing. So, I cut the ingredients to two servings. You do have to pay extra special attention if you do this, since some ingredients, like eggs, can’t be halved. Most measuring spoon sets don’t have ½ tablespoon, but ½ tablespoon is 1 ½ teaspoons. There are lots of measurement converters on the web; I use Infoplease Cooking Measurement Equivalents. I advise writing out the new list of ingredients and measures so you don’t get mixed up.
8. Most dishes start with onions and garlic sautéed in oil. Get used to it. Set the gas or electric burner on medium-low and watch while the onions change color from white to translucent to golden to brown. Stir every now and then so they don’t stick to the pan. If you’re trying to make up something on the spot, this is a great foundation—it works with anything from making scrambled eggs to heating up canned beans to sautéing chicken breasts.
9. Things cook faster in tiny pieces. I love mashed potatoes, and I noticed they cook faster when diced. But if you’re not mashing, be aware that a friend recently told me potatoes get more watery that way.
10. Making soup is easy. Simmer vegetables in chicken broth until they are soft and then blending it all. I was making a lot of soup from recipes last winter when I realized that most of them involved this method. When the next cold snap comes, I’m winging it.
Do you have a favorite rule of thumb for the kitchen? Share it!