No, I can’t cook. The kitchen terrifies me.
I prepare things, like pouring cereal and milk in a bowl. Or cutting up veggies for a salad. But applying heat just ends in a disaster of burnt and destroyed food that tastes like garbage.
My mom never cooked and so I never learned. And that’s fine with me because I’m not a domesticated housewife. I work and can buy food.
. . .
That was my story for the first 32 years of life. Eating Burger King and frozen dinners as a kid. Bringing Tupperware to friends’ houses in high school to ask their mom if I can take home some leftovers. Living off cans, boxes, and EasyMac in the microwave in college.
I was completely dependent on others for sustenance.
I tried to break out of that prison after college working at a hostel in Belize. In exchange for room and board, I helped with cooking, cleaning, and gardening. After taking an hour to peel a bulb of garlic and panicking from the directions of “add a dash of salt”, the woman who ran the hostel kicked me out of the kitchen until dishwashing time. I was hopeless.
YOUR FIRST TIP: To peel garlic, smash the clove with the side of a large knife, pressing your palm down on the side of the blade. Once smashed, removing the peel is easy.
A decade after college, living in Tokyo working long hours at a tech company that fed me breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I decided to take a few months off work to travel and simply relax and experience Tokyo.
Suddenly, with no one providing food for me and needing to save money since I wasn’t working, I found myself in a stare-down with my kitchen instead of eating at the office or restaurants. Fighting through fear and panic, I learned the basics of food, seasoning, and heat, to eventually fall in love. Now, two years later, I prefer cooking for myself and know that I have a new skill. Thank goodness, because I would be in shambles during this corona quarantine without it.
If you never cooked growing up, don’t understand the basics of peeling garlic let alone how flavors work together, you can still learn to put together a meal for yourself that is healthy, delicious, and rewards you not only with food but the satisfaction of knowing you can provide for yourself. Learning to cook can open your entire universe to try and learn new things.
Here are some tips I wish I knew at the start of my journey a few years ago.
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1. Choose a single food that you love and miss
My grandma always made delicious red cabbage, with some apple and other mystery flavorings. I would take big ziplock bags of leftovers and eat it as a snack in the car after getting high with friends. They thought it was munchies from the weed, but I just loved her cabbage. After she died I hadn’t tasted exquisitely cooked cabbage in years. So that’s where I started.
TIP: Lubricate the bottom of the pan with oil, broth, or water.
First, I just put chopped cabbage in a pot with some diced apples. They burned on the bottom of the pan. That was my first lesson, the pan needs some lubrication. I use coconut oil now, for delicious flavoring, health, and it can handle very high cooking temperatures.
TIP: Salt and pepper are your friends, add them to every dish.
Next, I learned to salt and pepper the dish. I always feared salt because of high blood pressure and other health issues the media says salt causes. But my giant pot of cabbage that lasts for days has less salt than the two teaspoons in a burger from McDonald’s. Eating processed and fast food is where the salt danger comes from. However, a little does go a long way, so start small.
TIP: Taste test along the way, don’t wait for the dish to be done.
How did I learn the proper amount of salt and pepper to add? By adding, mixing, and then tasting a small bite. That is how you learn the relationship of flavors and is the most important part of the cooking process. When I’m learning to make a new dish, my belly is full by the time I finish cooking. No big deal, just save and eat it later. But don’t skip this step.
2. From your starter dish, play around to create variations
I wanted to make my cabbage dish more robust, so I added broccoli. Then I added Japanese eggplant. I don’t like American eggplant, but its Japanese cousin is firm and bursting with flavor. Don’t go crazy, but each time you cook, make some small changes so you can taste the difference.
TIP: Use vinegar and premade sauces for flavor, no need to invent everything yourself.
The cabbage needed more flavor, but the spice isle overwhelmed me. A friend suggested using black vinegar, a common flavor in Asian cabbage stirfries, and living in Japan is available at every grocery store. So I removed the apples and added black vinegar. Suddenly I had a whole new dish. You could do the same with a garlic marinade or other pre-made sauces. Just pour it in your dish instead of finding all the individual ingredients.
TIP: Start with less seasoning/sauce, you can always add more.
I’ve added too much vinegar and the dish becomes painfully acidic. Real chefs know how to balance overseasoning with other flavors. But we aren’t chefs and I don’t know how to do that, so just start small, whether salt, vinegar, or other sauce, and taste test along the way.
TIP: Add vinegar at the end after you turn off the heat.
Vinegar tastes so strong you don’t need to cook it into food. And if you heat it for too long the chemical compound changes and becomes very bitter. So add it towards the end, or even as a finishing touch.
TIP: Use food as flavor. Onions go in basically every dish. Carrots add sweetness. Celery adds herbal flair.
Unless you don’t like onions, they add great flavor to everything and have become a staple for me. My cabbage dish now includes a carrot and celery stalk. And I grind up the celery leaves along with garlic cloves and ginger root for more flavor. Pro-move: chop things like garlic in a blender to save time.
3. Make a big pot for leftovers to enjoy the fruits of your labor for many days
Cook once and eat four or five times. That’s how you start falling in love with cooking. And most dishes taste better after the flavors have time to meld. So make a big pot and relax for the next few days.
TIP: Extend your dish by putting over rice, quinoa, or other grain.
Your meal will feel more complex, and your cooking will go further. I use a rice cooker — perhaps the best kitchen gadget investment you could make — for all my grains. For flavor, I use soup broths instead of water to cook quinoa.
TIP: Food keeps cooking after you turn the stove off because it’s still hot, so stop early.
I wanted to make sure the broccoli was fully cooked, so I kept applying heat. But after letting it cool down the vegetables had all lost their satisfying crunch. So now I add them at different times depending on how quickly they cook and turn the heat off right before they reach the ideal softness.
4. Once you feel comfortable with your first dish, start learning a second one from recipes
I cooked my cabbage dish about every week for three months before I was ready to move on. I then had the confidence for a challenge. The cafeteria at my office made ratatouille and I loved the flavors. Tomato sauce is a great tasting base.
TIP: Look at multiple recipes for a dish, take what you like, leave out what you don’t.
Ratatouille has endless options of different vegetables you can add to a tomato base. I chose eggplant (that delicious Japanese eggplant) and left out zucchini. And chose to chop as well as puree some tomatoes in the blender to make the sauce.
TIP: Look for seasoning and herbal blends to save time and money.
The first few times I made ratatouille I used individual jars of rosemary, thyme, oregano, and basil. Then I found Herbes de Provence, a blend of Italian herbs that saves a lot of time from dumping in each bottle. I also use a masala spice mix (cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, etc) that adds a quick and robust flavor to my cabbage dish.
TIP: Keep swapping and try various foods until you love it.
The ratatouille was great the next day after the flavors settled, but I didn’t love it the night I made it. I tried different seasoning for weeks, but eventually tackled it from another angle — instead of whole tomatoes, I pureed the sweeter mini grape tomatoes as the base. Instant change, all from the kind of tomato.
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We don’t have to be gourmet chefs to cook delicious food at home
Don’t let the kitchen cripple you into eating delivery and prepackaged food every day. Now is the time to try that simple dish you’ve been craving. Start with just one or two ingredients like onions and another vegetable. And let yourself have fun.
Thanks to Meg Stewart.
This post was previously published on Change Becomes You and is republished here with permission from the author.
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