Monday, October 18, 2010

Learn to Cook Lesson #1: Inspired by the pleas of a new cook...

Tonight I made a Swiss chard and Hubbard squash gratin with a coconut milk bechamel sauce, based loosely on a recipe I found on a cute blog.  I posted what I was making for dinner on my Facebook page, and almost immediately had this response:

"Lori I'm starting to cook but I can not even begin to pronounce half of your ingredients let alone find them in Montana. I need a menu that someone of my caliber can tackle - any suggestions?"

This inspired me to start a series of blog posts for the beginning cook.  You know who you are...your Mom/Dad always tried to get you to learn some cooking skills but you were too busy with basketball practice, watching TV, washing the cat, etc.  Or maybe your parents didn't cookWhatever the reason, here you are, needing to make a meal and not having any clue how this whole cooking thing is done.  In part, I blame Food TV, because most of the shows are on people eating food, and the shows where people are cooking food deal with ingredients like octopus liver.  It seems intimidating and overwhelming.  Not only do you have to know how to cook something, but you need to find a recipe, gather the ingredients, set aside the time...awwwww screw it, let's order Chinese!  But I promise that you don't have to be anyone special to be able to put together a really delicious meal.  Everyone starts from the same place, they really do.  

First of all, there are some tools that you absolutely MUST have to be a successful home cook.  The first of these is a good knife.  I received a J.A. Henckel santoku chef's knife as a gift many years ago, and words cannot describe how much easier everything is when you finally have a good knife in your hands.  I recently purchased a 4" chef's knife to match, and am finding that I could really use a paring knife as well.  But, these things are very expensive, so I would recommend starting with a 8" chef's knife.  Go to a cooking store and tell them you are a beginning cook and you want a good quality chef's knife.  They will pull out their collection for you to handle.  The knife should be heavy and well-balanced, and feel comfortable in your hand.  Henckel is my choice, but it may not be yours.  I would definitely recommend handling these in person before purchasing--it is an investment.

The second "tool" you need is a very basic cookbook that will have basic instructions for how to boil, bake and steam any kind of vegetable and meat.  It needs to have a basic sauces section, a primer on beans and grains, and pictures are a MUST.  My #1 recommendation is the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.  It is my go-to reference.  Do you think I just learned how to make a bechamel sauce from thin air?  Nope, BHG cookbook, baby!  This cookbook also has a nice section on selecting cookware, so I'll save myself the typing and let you read it for yourself.  Check it out from the library if you don't want to buy it right away.

My third MUST have tool for the home cook: the crock pot.  It is a miracle.  They come in all sizes and all price ranges.  I have one from a garage sale that holds about 6 quarts.  I use it several times a week for everything from whole chickens to fish in foil packets to pots of soups, stews, chili, and beans.

Ready for your easy meal #1?  Here's one of my stand-by recipes for when I want a hearty meal that tastes good and doesn't much effort at all.

Baked Chicken in Pasta Sauce
  • Ingredients: jar of your favorite pasta sauce, boneless skinless chicken breasts, shredded mozzarella cheese
  • You will need a 9x13 baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic (not metal).  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Put raw chicken breasts in pan, cover with pasta sauce, top with shredded cheese.  Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the chicken is tender enough to pull apart with a fork.
  • 20 minutes before the chicken is done, start boiling some water.  10 minutes before the chicken is done, boil some pasta.  
Serve the chicken with sauce over pasta.  For a side dish, microwave one of those steamer bags of broccoli/cauliflower (whatever you like, just make sure you balance out your meal with a fresh veggie that isn't a starch like corn).

If you have a crockpot, put the raw chicken in the crock, cover with sauce, and cook on low for 8 hours.  You don't even have to thaw the chicken--just make sure to never put frozen ANYTHING in a hot crock or you risk cracking it (cold food, cold crock)

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