How to Cook Good Food (For Those Who Don’t Know Shit about Cooking)
A crash course for the rest of us
If you’re an expert cook, stop reading right now. You will be appalled at this post. You might feel personally insulted. You will call it sacrilege. You’ll demand the return of the Inquisition.
This post is not for the pros. It doesn’t even give precise measurements. This post is for folks like me who were somehow thrust into needing to cook for themselves (or their families) for whatever reason and yet have absolutely no background training in cooking. It is for people with zero time on their hands; for those who refuse to live on fast food, junk food, or low-quality food. It’s for people who don’t have time to read a book about cooking, consult a recipe every time they need to make something quick and which doesn’t taste like cardboard. It’s for people who don’t keep extra stores of “Dragon’s Teeth” or “Banshee Eyelashes” or whatever other obscure ingredients you find on cooking websites purporting “Easy and Quick Meals” only to inform you at the end of the article that you’re a fraud and an impostor because you don’t have the right stuff in your pantry.
I do all the cooking at home. My wife does the cleaning. We each have our fortes. I won’t let her anywhere near the kitchen. She won’t let me anywhere near the cleaning cupboard. It’s a match made in heaven.
How to Cook a Bit of Everything
Go Easy on the Salt!
This is the first thing you must know. Too much salt is irreparable. Always err in the direction of too little, never too much. You can always add salt at the table. You can ruin any meal with only a teaspoon of too much salt.
Garlic Is Your Friend, and Your Secret Weapon
Garlic will not make your breath smell unless it’s not fried properly.
Lightly fry the garlic in some butter or some oil over medium heat. If you don’t mind the taste, coconut oil is apparently very healthy to cook with. But I’m not a fan of the flavor it imparts to the rest of the meal. You do not want the garlic to go too brown.
You want the garlic to give off an aroma and then either take it off the heat or put your other ingredients in there immediately.
You do need to know how to cut garlic:
The Only Herbs, Spices and Condiments You MUST Have in Your Kitchen
These are the spices / herbs / condiments that you cannot do without. Everything else is just gravy.
- Oregano — great on Italian dishes. Great in soups.
- Basil — I use it in everything.
- Marjoram — amazing herb that goes with everything, although I use it mostly on meat. (We don’t eat a lot of fish because it’s not cheap where we live.)
- Olive oil
- Vinegar — something like commercial balsamic vinegar.
- Some kind of stock for soups — chicken stock, vegetable stock, even meat stock. We only use stock without any artificial flavorants.
- Coriander — nice for minced meat / ground beef.
- Thyme — I don’t love the flavor, but it can be used in various things like soup, potatoes, meat. Just experiment with it and see what works for you.
- Rosemary — also not my favorite, but it does taste good when you sprinkle some in a pan before frying any bacon over it. I learned that on a Jamie Oliver episode.
The Basics for Meat Dishes
Whether you’re frying diced turkey or beef steaks, get your garlic ready. Take the garlic out when cooked, crank up the heat and then stick your meat in the pan. For beef, turn it over and cook only as long as you feel is necessary. I like my meat slightly charred on the outside. You need a really hot pan for that.
Add some sliced onions (or diced green pepper) to the frying pan with the meat in there and cook them as long as you want — longer if you don’t like the onions too spicy.
At this stage I usually add more fat — butter or coconut oil or vegetable oil. You could also add some canned mushrooms.
Put the garlic back in when it’s all just about ready to serve. Move the meat around on it.
Sprinkle the meat with salt, pepper, marjoram, basil on one side.
The Easiest Roasted Chicken Recipe
Chop up a plethora of garlic. (No guarantees your breath won’t be a little funky on this one because you’re not frying the garlic.)
Run the chicken pieces under water and dry them with a paper towel.
Put them in a baking dish. Cut notches into them, piercing the skin.
Stick the garlic pieces into the cut notches so the garlic is essentially inside the chicken.
Mix up olive oil, a tiny bit of salt and pepper in a bowl—even some crushed garlic if you’re feeling adventurous and have no date scheduled for that night. Get your hands dirty and rub it into the chicken. Feel free to try with any of the other herbs mentioned above. They all work.
Sprinkle some lemon juice on the chicken if you want. This makes a big difference to the final flavor.
Cook in the oven for about an hour at about 360F / 180C with the fan going.
I say “about” because that’s what I mean. I warned you professionals about sacrilege in this post. For me, cooking is about knowing enough to find my way around the kitchen, not following precise recipes.
Look in on the chicken regularly the first few times you cook it. You’ll get a feel for the timing.
Tip: Chicken cooks slowly. Always cut deep into a piece to make sure it’s fully cooked. If it’s still pink inside, it’s not cooked.
When the chicken looks like it’s ready, churn your heat up to 390F / 200C, put the broiler on, and sizzle it up so the skin gets crispy—about ten minutes. Keep your eye on it at this point or you will ruin the entire meal if you overcook!
If you don’t know which symbol on your oven is the broiler, use this guide — just keep in mind that the British call a “broiler” a “grill.”
Easiest Cream / Cheese Sauce for Any Pasta Dish
Do the garlic as above in a small pot. Use a spoon of butter for this one.
When the garlic has a nice aroma, add more butter to a total of about 4 ounces / 100 grams of butter. Melt it down.
Stir while the butter is melting, and do not leave the pot alone while you catch up on your tweets. That much butter will splatter if it gets too hot and you’re not stirring!
Once the butter is melted, add one or two cups of milk. Also add about 3 fl. oz. / 100 ml single cream or half and half or heavy cream — you choose.
Cheese: Muenster, Jack, Gouda, Mozzarella or Edam. Chop up 7 ounces / 200 grams of it into small cubes. Drop the cheese into the sauce and stir over medium heat.
When the cheese starts to melt, add oregano, perhaps a bit of pepper, maybe basil if you want. Although oregano is the only must here.
WARNING: Do not take your eye off the pot or the milk might boil over! Reduce heat if it does, and always keep stirring. Immediately take it off the stovetop if it looks like it’ll boil over.
Once the cheese is melted, pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into the sauce. Not vital.
Pour the finished sauce into the pot that has your spaghetti / pasta in it. Mix it in.
You could also cut up any choice of ham you have at home and throw it into the sauce at any point.
If you have some in your fridge, grate some Parmesan cheese over the pasta after it’s served.
Minced Meat / Ground Beef
Garlic as above — lots of garlic is better for ground beef.
Then put the ground beef into the pan with the garlic. Fry until the meat is cooked through. No fat needed because it’s very greasy.
Strain some of the grease out at this stage if you’re looking for a healthier meal.
Throw in onions, diced green or red peppers, maybe some canned mushrooms.
The key is the spices: Pepper and marjoram are a must. Use marjoram liberally. Coriander is great as well. Add these at the end and stir them in.
You can add sweet corn as well.
Oh, and salt, of course. But not too much! Sometimes I sprinkle some beef stock onto the meat. Just mix it in well.
Serve with rice.
Simple Fish Recipe
We’re not big fish eaters because fish is expensive where we live and I’ve personally never loved it.
But I’m Portuguese. And when visiting family back home we eat fish more often than not.
The only way I know how to make fish is in the the oven, and even then only when it’s butterflied.
The secret here is, you guessed it, garlic and butter.
Slice up the garlic, place it on the butterflied fish meat. Lay the butterflied fish in the oven and broil for about 45 minutes at 360F / 180C.
Don’t hold me to that time. I don’t have the experience for this particular meal. Just keep your eye on it the first time you cook it, and check it regularly.
Yes, you can open the oven door to check on these meals as often as you want. You just can’t do that with cakes.
When done, drizzle some lemon juice onto the fish. Delicious.
Incidentally, this is also the entire recipe for gigantic tiger prawns (“shrimps” to you Americans), although I haven’t done it myself. I’ve eaten them cooked this way plenty of times before, however. And the only thing you have to get down is how to butterfly the prawns but the rest is the same: Put the garlic and butter on the meat, then broil in the oven. Serve with lemon juice.
For prawns, lemon juice is an absolute must.
Easy Vegetable Soups
Which vegetables do you choose? Whichever ones you want, but the following are good staples:
- Carrots — three or four
- Fennel, chopped up
Fry the garlic and the onions beforehand if you want that garlic flavor without the stinky breath. (Although this is touch and go on soup. Either way, frying it beforehand always gives you better chances. Skip the garlic if you have a date later.)
Lentil soups are the easiest to make, are tasty, and are high in protein. You need to eat them with rice or bread to make a complete protein.
Red lentils have the fastest prep and cooking time because you don’t need to soak them overnight. Soaking them for an hour beforehand and cooking for thirty minutes gets you there.
Other lentils need to be soaked overnight, and my wife tells me you need to change the water—twice. I just do what my wife tells me to do and don’t ask any questions, so I can’t tell you exactly why the water must be changed. (This is the secret to a happy marriage, by the way, for anyone who’s paying attention.)
The basic recipe is as follows:
- Put the lentils in fresh water after soaking them. Also the carrots. Carrots take long to get soft when cooking, so add them in the beginning.
- Bring to a boil then simmer for an hour (30 minutes if it’s red lentils).
- After that time, drop the other vegetables in there. You don’t want to overcook those.
- Now add some stock, but less than recommended in the packaging. Try get the flavor from your herbs and the vegetables instead. Stir the stock in and taste the soup after five minutes. If insipid, add more stock.
- Add herbs. I usually add mostly marjoram, basil and pepper. Stir and add more as needed in a few minutes. Jockey these two steps until you get a flavor that you like.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
The trick is to taste and test as you go along. It’s really very difficult to screw this one up unless you’ve added too much salt.
You could add the onions at the end instead, with the other vegetables, but I prefer them fried at the start. No risk of funky breath if they’re fried beforehand and then cooked for so long.
If you want to have some meat in the soup, stick any kind of smoked sausage in there toward the end.
Better (but more work) is to fry goulash beforehand — fry it really hot until all sides are brown, then put the meat in the water at the beginning, with the lentils and carrots. The trick with goulash is that it has to cook for a really long time to get soft — you’re looking at about two hours’ cooking time to get it really soft. The meat will taste even better the following day.
Skip the goulash if you’re using red lentils — not enough cooking time for that tough meat.
Adding fresh parsley right at the end goes a long way, if you have some handy.
Adding chopped sweet potato to red lentil soup gives it a phenomenal flavor. Add it about halfway into the cooking.
If you make a large enough pot of this, you can freeze a bunch and eat it again on a later date when you’re strapped for time.
Pea soups take longer to make — much longer — because peas cook so much slower. And the lentil soup is so much tastier.
Cheese, Cheese, Melted Cheese — Your Second Secret Weapon
Melted cheese raises the most mediocre of recipes to the level of respectable.
Melted cheese on steaks. Melted cheese on cubed turkey or chicken and vegetables. Hell, melt some cheese and put it on a toast with some slices of tomato, onion and some sprinkled oregano and you’ve practically got a pizza.
Speaking of pizza, add cheese and oregano to your next frozen pizza before sticking it in the oven and you’ll turn it into something Papa Joe’s could be proud of.
When in doubt, melt cheese and serve it with anything.
“Cheese Potatoes” in the Oven
This recipe has a fairly long cooking time, and peeling potatoes always adds prep time. But it’s freaking delicious, and so filling. And you don’t have to be in the kitchen all the time because it’s an oven recipe.
Also, you can fry the leftovers the next day for breakfast.
Peel a bunch of potatoes (you decide how many, although we usually make a huge portion). Cut them up into smallish pieces (about 1½ inches on the longest side) and put ’em in a large casserole dish. Sprinkle salt, pepper, rosemary (optional) and basil on them.
Slice up some butter and lay it across the potatoes.
I don’t see the point in preheating an oven for this, but you could. That’s what the “pros” always recommend.
Set the oven to 360F / 180C with the fan on. Place the casserole dish inside and leave it for 45–60 minutes.
Open the oven and move the potatoes around. Reduce heat slightly if some of them are turning black already.
Put the potatoes back in for another thirty minutes.
Slice up enough Edam, Jack or Muenster cheese (or Gouda for us Europeans) to cover the potatoes.
Keep checking on them in thirty minute intervals. Stick a fork in them to see if they’re ready — they should be soft and stick to the fork tines.
When they’re cooked, lay the cheese out on them — the more the merrier.
Stick them back in the oven with the cheese until it is all melted.
If you’re feeling adventurous, put the broiler on and pump the heat to 390F / 200C for ten minutes so the cheese gets slightly crunchy and burned on top. But keep your eye on it while doing this so it doesn’t set off the smoke alarms!
Rice Which Doesn’t Taste like Cardboard
It’s difficult to get flavor into rice. My mother sometimes used to put raisins, sweetcorn, celery and anything else she could think of in a pot to perk it up.
Basmati rice is my favorite because it cooks quickly and has a nice flavor.
This article has some good tips on bringing flavor out of rice. The tip about frying it in butter or oil works well. Some chicken stock in the water also works well.
I found that adding pepper doesn’t do shit. Skip it, because all the pepper floats to the top and doesn’t actually sink into the rice to give it flavor.
Turmeric, however, does give it flavor. You might want to add this spice to the “nice-to-haves” in your kitchen cupboard.
Easiest Gravy Ever
My stepfather taught me this: After frying a steak, deglaze with milk. Use a spatula to get all the greasy bits off the pan and mix them into the sauce.
Add some freshly ground black pepper.
Let the milk boil, then take it off the heat.
Sometimes I add cream as well. Delicious.
The Only Salad Dressing You’ll Ever Need
Olive oil, vinegar and salt is all a salad needs to taste delicious. It’s also healthy.
As for the salad itself, simple is best: Lettuce, cucumber, tomato are the basics. Add feta cheese if you want some protein and fat.
Black olives also go a long way in a salad.
Knorr Sauces and Gravies
My wife is not a fan of these, but I am, especially seeing as they’re now available without artificial flavoring or preservatives. She doesn’t understand the pain of trying to come up with several good meals a day, every day. (Just as I don’t understand the pain of keeping a house clean with me tracking dirt in all the time.)
I can’t help gain a slightly bigger head whenever she tells me she prefers my pasta sauce (as described above) to Knorr’s. And she really is being honest.
Still, I must recommend these sauces and gravies (provided you go for the ones without the artificial flavorings and other crap in them). They’re quick and easy to make and can turn an otherwise bland meal into something amazing.
Knowing the Basics Is All You Need to Know
The trick is to know a few things well and move on from there. Google for recipes, but don’t get caught up in following them precisely unless you’re trying to become a chef. The recipes will give you ideas, like adding sliced pears to a meat dish—fry the pears lightly in the pan, after the vegetables and meat are done.
I’ll never learn much more than what I know above because I simply don’t have the time. I cook many other things, but they all revolve around the basic tools above.
I cook out of necessity, but I also like to eat good food.
Gnocchi are nice to eat. You can serve them with the cheese sauce above. Or get a Knorr sauce for them.
I made spare ribs the other day. All the recipes I found online were tl;DR so I just looked at the oven time (it’s about three hours at low-to-medium heat) and skimmed through everything else because, with a twenty-month-old daughter running around the house and a wife five weeks away from our second baby’s due date (guess what — I’m also doing the cleaning these days!), I simply didn’t have the time.
So I improvised on the ribs recipe and mixed up marjoram, pepper, salt and vegetable oil, rubbed it into the ribs, wrapped them in foil (that was in the recipe) and put them in the oven.
Damn. They were freaking incredible!
Just get familiar with the easy stuff, the basics, the things you’ll be cooking with day in and day out. Leave the professional cooking to those who have the time and inclination.
For the rest of us — we just want to eat well without having to pay through our noses or give up our day-jobs to learn how to do it.
And the others? Well, for the others there’s McDonald’s.