Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Did I Make Tonight? Some Basics

I want to start with the nitty-gritty basics. If you rarely cook at all for your family, if you find yourself mostly serving frozen dinners and takeout, and you want to change that, it may seem intimidating to alter your routine to make time for cooking. If you know how to cook and are looking for new ideas, you can probably skip this post, but if you are new to cooking and need some tips, this is a good place to start.

First of all, some basic kitchen equipment. Don't get the cheapest stuff you can find. You don't need the most expensive, either, but a good set of pots and pans and a quality knife or two will go a long way toward easier cooking and better tasting food.

I don't mean to talk down to anyone, but this is targeted at the extreme novice, so I'm going to explain everything in as much detail as I can so you know exactly what I'm talking about. I hate when I'm reading instructions or a recipe and I don't understand a word or action; I don't know what I'm supposed to do, and there's no explanation! So I don't want to write recipes like that, either.

Here are the bare minimums for kitchen supplies you'll probably want to have:

Pots and Pans:
6-quart pot with lid
2 and/or 3-quart pot with lid
10" frying pan
Large skillet with lid - a skillet is like a frying pan but with higher sides

8" frying pan
12" frying pan - this is good if you're cooking larger quantities
Stovetop griddle

Solid stirring spoon
Slotted spoon
Pancake turner/spatula

Sharp chef's knife (7 or 8-inch, probably)
Paring knife
Serrated knife

Set of measuring cups and spoons
At least one, preferably at least two cutting boards - not teeny tiny ones!
Set of mixing bowls
Baking sheets (aluminum or stainless steel 1/2-sheet pans are great)
Aluminum foil
Paper towels

If you have those basics, you can cook most of the meals I will be describing. Sometimes I'll use a food processor or an immersion blender. Sometimes I'll use the slow cooker. But usually it's a couple of pans on the stovetop.

Now, two staples to get you started.

This is my never-fails-me pasta method. Pasta is a fabulous "I don't feel like cooking" meal to make. It takes about 30 minutes from "I need to make dinner" to "Dinner's ready," and you can keep pasta and jarred sauce on hand at all times for whenever you need it. These are definitely non-perishables that you should have in your pantry for dinner on the fly! To make it healthier, use whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta. You can also easily toss in frozen or canned veggies to up the vitamin and fiber content, or a protein such as cubed tofu, beans, or browned ground beef or vegetarian "beef" to round out this easy meal.

The great thing about pasta is you can make a lot or a little and it takes about the same amount of time. I usually make a package plus half another package for my family of five good eaters. Pasta saves well to use for lunch or leftovers, and you can set aside some plain cooked pasta to use another time for a pasta salad, for example.
  • Take your 6-quart pot and fill with water to within about 2" of the brim. Put the lid on and put it on a burner on HIGH. 

  • When it comes to a rolling boil (bubbling a lot) add a healthy pinch of salt (say, a tablespoon) and pour in your dry pasta. Stir. 

  • Let it boil UNCOVERED for the amount of time specified on the package, usually around 7 or 8 minutes for smaller shapes (elbows, small shells) and 10 to 12 for bigger or thicker shapes (spaghetti, bowties). You should stir the pasta a few times while it cooks to make sure all of it gets cooked evenly and so it doesn't clump together.

  • After the specified time for the pasta is up, take a fork and taste one piece of the pasta to see if it seems cooked through. It should be soft but not mushy, crunchy, or chewy. 
  • Put your colander in an (empty) sink and pour the whole pot slowly into the colander. 

  • Now, here's my method: Put the pot back on the stove while the water drains from the pasta. Turn OFF the burner (you don't want an empty pot sitting on a hot burner). Shake the colander a little to get off most of the water, then put the pasta back in the empty pot. Now you'd add in your sauce, or toss in a pat or two of butter and some Parmesan cheese. 

  • OR: If you want to use the pasta for a cold dish, instead of putting it back in the hot pot, run cold water over it in the colander in the sink, mixing it around, until it's cooled.
To make sauce: 
  • At the same time that the pasta is cooking, take your smaller pot (2 or 3 quart) and empty your jar of pasta sauce into it. (I like Barilla and Trader Joe's marinaras, for a relatively inexpensive suggestion.)
  • Put it on a second burner on MEDIUM to medium-high heat (not all the way up or it will burn). 
  • COVER the sauce pot (tomato sauce splatters) and let it warm up while the pasta cooks, stirring occasionally (every few minutes) so it doesn't burn on the bottom. (Pro-tip, you can use the same stirring spoon for the pasta and the sauce!) 
  • At this point, you can also add in some frozen or canned veggies (frozen peas always work well, for example, or carrots). Another trick is to add in a jar of pureed baby food, like sweet potatoes or carrots. It will blend in with the sauce but still provide some extra nutrients. You can also add white beans or chick peas, tofu, or cooked meat of some kind (we'll talk about meat in another post). 
  • If you want a creamy sauce, you can stir in some half-and-half or milk until the color looks nice, say a quarter to a half a cup. 
  • When the pasta is done and drained, empty the sauce into the pasta in the pot you cooked the pasta in and mix it all together. 
  • Dinner's ready! (If you have picky eaters who don't like sauce on their pasta, obviously you can serve the pasta and sauce separately, but I like to mix it up so the flavor of the sauce gets cooked into the pasta a bit.) 
  • Serve with grated Parmesan cheese for extra yum.

Many people are intimidated by rice. I'm here to take away the mystery. Rice is EASY, and you don't need a rice cooker. Quinoa can be made exactly the same way, incidentally. This method is for plain white rice. You need to know the basic technique to make many of the rice dishes I'll be describing in the future.
  • Take your large pot (6-quart) and put a tablespoon or two of canola, olive, or vegetable oil in the bottom. Turn on the burner to high. Let the oil get hot - wait three or four minutes. 
  • Measure out your rice. One cup is usually enough for three to four people if served alongside additional food. If you're just making rice and serving more people, do 1-1/2 or even 2 cups. Remember, leftover rice is useful, so don't worry if you make more than gets eaten! (Protip: You don't have to use an actual measuring cup for this. You can even just use a juice glass!)
  • When the oil is hot, add the rice to the pot. Season with a couple pinches of salt. Let the rice toast for a couple of minutes, stirring often so it doesn't burn. 
  • When the grains start to turn white (as opposed to pearly or translucent), it's time to add water or broth. You need twice as much liquid as rice. So if you're making one cup of rice, you need two cups of water or broth. If you're making 1-1/2 cups of rice, you need 3 cups of liquid (not that complicated, right?). 
  • Pour in your water or broth and cover the pot. DON'T LEAVE the stove. 
  • As soon as the liquid is bubbling, stir the rice briefly, then put the cover back on and turn the burner down to LOW. 
  • WALK AWAY. Resist the urge to open the pot to check on it. Don't add anything. Don't stir. WALK AWAY for 20 minutes
  • Come back in 20 minutes, open the pot, and you should see that there is no more liquid in the pot and the rice is moist. If there's still liquid, re-cover and leave it for another five minutes. If it's still wet after that long, you may need to turn up the heat a little to boil off the rest of the water.
  • Turn OFF the burner, take a fork and mix the rice up a bit (this is "fluffing" the rice), put the cover back on, and leave it for another three to five minutes. That's it. 
  • (Brown rice is made the same way, but you'll need to leave it for 50 to 60 minutes instead of 20.)

With a plain pot of rice, you can then serve something over it, add stuff to it, fry it, or put it in an airtight container in the fridge to be added to another dish later in the week. Rice has a tendency to dry out in the fridge, so you may need to add some liquid when you rewarm it.

And that's all I have for you for now. We'll get into some other techniques and methods as we go along, such as chopping and sauteing onions, browning tofu, and roasting chicken (one of my favorites).

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