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Help My Resolution to Cook More... PLEASE!

There comes a time in life when you must abandon the ease of "Easy Mac," the absence of toppings on "Top Ramen," and when "Hot Pockets" are just not so hot anymore. For me that day is today.

I've been inspired by the rapidly approaching new year and my upcoming apartment move to change my eating habits. I want to cook more at home to not only be more frugal and a better chef, but to also protect a waist line that so far has been helped by my 20something year old metabolism.

But where do I begin? I assume the first place would be to stock my pantry and refrigerator appropriately, and the best way to learn how is to read what you yourself have as staples in your kitchen.

Care to share and help me with my resolution?

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  1. Start slow and build upon successes! Pick something that is simple and classic that will serve as a base point for other meals and lunches; My suggestion is learn to roast a chicken first. You will have wonderful leftovers and you can feel good about the success, also it does not involve a lot of expensive items. I like Anthony Bordaines simple roast chicken. Likewise, learn to make a breakfast dish like omelets or pancakes.

    I tend to be a daily type of shopper, going in and picking up the special sale items, what is in season etc. Things I tend to keep on hand are salts, noodles, broths/stock, ( I made those on cooking weekends and freeze in usable portions) onions, carrots, celery,other condiments fish sauce, soy, hoisin, roasted garlic. I am also a cheese freak so I tend to have several type on hand always. If you can shop thrift stores, hunt there for cookbooks. Sometimes an old handwritten recipe survives in a book, bonus!

    And make it fun! If you have friends who are in a similar situation, plan a cooking weekend together! Pick several base dishes you all want to learn and cook them, helping each other. Then, everyone gets a mix of the results to take home. Lasagna chili, gumbos, roast ham are great things to do this way.

    1. Congratulations! First, think about what you like to eat and then stock up on the ingredients to make those things...spices, rice, pasta, veggies & whatever protein you like or want to work with.

      Then get yourself a good cookbook..my favorite is The Joy of Cooking but there are tons of others out there; check out a good bookstore or amazon.com to look over their selection. So that you'll have a steady rotation of books, you can check some out from the library for zero price. You might want to consider a subscription to a food related magazine so that you'll have fresh ideas & inspiration each month; I have Bon Appetit and I get hungry every time I take it out my mailbox..

      Don't forget to have the right equipment to cook with: a couple of different sizes of saucepans, skillets, a baking sheet, baking dishes, some mixing bowls; essential tools like tongs, spatula, etc.

      Keep in mind that experimentation is part of becoming a great cook; don't be afraid to put together flavors you think will work well ..it may be a home run, it may not but from that you'll either tweak the recipe or move on to something else but the point is that you'll be learning..Once you learn the basics, the rest will be gravy! And you can always come to Chow for advice & help...have fun!

      1. Congratulations on a great resolution for '10!

        When you "start" cooking (I'll bet you already do SOME - toast?) you'll quickly realize what you don't and do need. I remember my mother coming to visit me one year and making the comment, after looking in my pantry, "Oh! You have salt AND pepper, now!" Ha!

        Start with the basics as others have mentioned, chicken, eggs, ham, etc. Start with what you like and move on from there. Pancakes? Good. Now try a crepe. Basic pasta? Good. Now try lasagna. You get the idea.

        I think, the life saver for me was to check the weekly specials and pick one or two on sale items that I wanted to try. Usually, on the weekends when I had more time to really peruse the recipe(s). You'll fund some keepers and start stocking your pantry in the meantime.

        One thing that may force you to expand your repertoire is consider going to your local farmer's market or joining a CSA. Nothing like finding out that not only do you LIKE collard greens, but that you can cook them several different ways, to give you the confidence and motivation.

        Let us know how it goes and shoot any questions on this site. 'Hounds are truly a wonderful resource.

        1. Cooking should be fun. Start slowly, add one dish only after you feel you have mastered one.
          If you like Italian, do an easy pasta dish. There are tons of online "free" recipes to use, so no need to invest into a cookbook until you want to.

          When I was very young, my future MIL taught me a few things, spaghetti sauce/gravy, lasagna, and an antipasto. It was a very good start.

          For my pantry items, I would have a few spices, kosher salt, peppercorns and grinder.
          I always have on hand fresh garlic, but when I first started I used garlic powder. But, that was over 40 years ago, when I couldn't always find fresh garlic. But, it was a good substitute, as long as you buy your spices from spice shop and not a grocery market. Don't go overboard and buy a lot of spices, they will sit there unused unless you have a particular liking for anything in particular.

          For pans, I started with a 10 inch non-stick skillet, heavy duty. I own a Staub Dutch Oven which I use for most everything, it's a 6 quart size I believe. It may be a big investment, but you will have it for a lifetime. A small sauce pan is also good to have on hand, again heavy duty. When my son was starting out, I bought calphalon pans on sale from Amazon.com, and he still has them after 5 years. So, I think they were a solid purchase for a beginner.
          My hand utensils are a whisk, spoonula, spider, different size spatulars, tongs, and a wooden spoon, and instant read thermometer. I have more, but those are the ones I use the most.
          Good kitchen knives, a couple of small paring knives and a good Chef's knife will do you.
          I don't advertise any blogs, but some to me are better for starters. thepioneerwoman.blogspot.com, could be useful to you, she has step by step fairly easy to try recipes. A couple more are: smitten kitchen, all that splatters, chocolate and zucchini. Do go and read for some wonderful ideas and tips. And when you visit blogs, there is usually a column of their favorites and you could spend an entire day searching through them, lol!
          Good luck, have fun and may you learn to love your new passion!

          1. i agree with the posters who mentioned the following advice:
            -start slow. start with something easy, and that will build your confidence.
            -have a decently equipped kitchen. having the right tools (non-stick pan, sharp knife, silicone spatulas, tongs, microplane, etc.) makes things so much easier.
            -have a decently stocked kitchen with "basics" - dried pasta, beans, onions, garlic, good olive oil, canned tomatoes, eggs, etc. use these relatively cheap items to experiment with in new recipes.
            -join a csa or split a share with a friend (some can be quite large). this is a great way to eat locally and seasonally. most csa's will provide some recipes or ideas on how to use their produce. you'll also be exposed to many fruits and vegetables you probably never knew existed!

            don't be intimidated that you have to give up easy mac and ramen right away (or ever!). i consider myself a decent cook, and i still sit down to a bowl of ramen every once in a while - although i spruce it up with some vegetables, meat, my own seasonings, etc. you'll also find ways to be more frugal and less wasteful. for example, saute those beet greens instead of tossing them in the compost. freeze your leftover bread and use it later for croutons or bread crumbs (i love to toast bread crumbs and sprinkle them on pasta). zest your fruit before squeezing and freeze the juice if your fruit is starting to go bad. you'll eventually come across recipes that will ask for these "random" things!

            also, if you're following a recipe, read the entire recipe first, then start. there have been plenty of times when i've read the list of ingredients, said to myself "yup, got it all", and started, only to find out later that oops, i needed that butter melted, or i needed to let something cool before i could move on to the next step.

            lastly, get inspired! i love to poke around on chowhound, visit sites like foodgawker or tastespotting, and i love to flip through cookbooks. also, walk around your grocery store and see what looks good. pick a "new" ingredient to experiment with, and HAVE FUN!

            good luck!

            1 Reply
            1. re: lschow

              I conpletely agree about picking a new ingredient (whether I see something I don't recognize at the market or something is mentioned on chowhound I know nothing about). Oftentimes a single ingredient will require I learn a new cooking style, experiment with new spices/seasonings and sometimes sides. It;s a great excuse to broaden my horizons. Good luck!

            2. What I always, always have on hand: boxes of sodium-free Trader Joe's chicken stock (add your own salt), pasta, rice, garlic, onions, olive oil both extra-virgin and extra-promiscuous, butter, tins of whole peeled tomatoes, tomato paste, vinegars, eggs and hard cheeses like Parmigiano and Romano.

              I don't actually have tons of kitchen gadgets. I live in a small condo and don't have room for it all. The workhorses of my kitchen: paring, chef's and serrated bread knives. Wooden spoons and silicone scrapers with handles. Three skillets: cast-iron, normal and non-stick, a large pasta/stock pot, a Le Creuset dutch oven and two saucepans. A mortar and pestle, a spice grinder, a stick blender, a stand mixer and a food processor. Wooden and plastic cutting boards, plastic and metal spatulas. A rolling pin and biscuit cutters, and metal and plastic mixing bowls. That's not everything but it's everything that's at the top of the drawers and cabinets.

              What I do is go through the market (farmers' or otherwise) and buy whatever looks good. I cook it usually pretty simply. You can make an astounding array of pasta sauces. Start with dried pasta but then upgrade to a fresh long pasta now and then (in the refrigerated section at most larger supermarkets in LA).

              Examples of meals planned on the fly as I went through Wholesome Choice this week (the farmers' market was closed for the holiday):

              Rigatoni con la norma (oven-roasted eggplant, diced feta in place of ricotta salata, garlic, olive oil and a little bit of the pasta cooking water) and steamed broccoli rabe with vinegar and a pinch of sugar to cut the bitterness.

              Chiles rellenos de pollo (shredded chicken—I bought bone-in breasts and roasted them but I often buy rotisserie chicken and shred it myself—simmered in canned diced tomatos, a split head of garlic, and some cumin, and stuffed in oven-softened chiles pasillas)

              Chopped salad (romaine, celery, cucumber, tomato, green pepper, onion, zucchini, rinsed tinned chickpeas, mozzarella, salami and chicken dressed in mustard vinaigrette)

              Good luck!!

              1. Great resolution! I know I am happier for knowing how to cook what I like for myself and my loved ones. It saves money and calories, and is just a satisfying thing to do.

                My first advice: find a friend who likes to cook and is good at it, and trade lessons. They show you how to cook, maybe one dish a week, and you teach them something, or do something for them. This could be fun! it's way easier to learn to cook by watching someone do it.

                As for staples and so forth, you will learn what you need to keep around by what you like to cook. My list of must-haves is different from someone else's. But what you should do is make sure you have decent cookware and tools to start with. Like anything, without the right tools it's much harder.

                Have fun!

                1 Reply
                1. re: visciole

                  These are all great suggestions. If you don't have anything to trade, you can at least offer a "Come for dinner -- I'll buy the food if you help me learn to cook it" deal. There are a lot of people who like to cook who would be happy to help, or you can even round up another newbie cook and muddle through together.

                  Other things I was going to suggest (some of which have already been suggested)

                  --start with things you want to eat

                  --don't run out and buy a lot of stuff, start with a few basics and then add what you discover you need for your particular cooking style

                  --that goes for kitchen equipment, too: don't go out and buy a set of fancy cookware. Buy a few basics (you can even buy them at garage sales and thrift stores) and then expand/upgrade when you determine your actual needs

                  --don't think everything you make has to be gourmet; simple can be good; just being able to walk in the front door and have something hot and edible in front of you in 20 minutes can be good

                  --don't set your goals too high; you don't have to be cooking restaurant-worthy dishes: if you're happy with it, then you've succeeded

                  --read the recipe; then read it again; walk through all the steps in your head; do like chefs on TV and gather, prep and measure out all your ingredients before you start cooking

                  HAVE FUN!

                2. Lots of fantastic ideas in this thread. A couple of other thoughts:

                  For cookbooks, or, even DVD's of old cooking shows, don't forget to check out your local library.

                  Another thing I recommend is participating in the Cookbook of the Month (COTM) on the Home Cooking Board. Here's a link that describes how it works: http://www.chow.com/cookbook_of_the_m...
                  It's a fun way to just dive into cooking, where you can get a lot of feedback from more experienced home cooks. We'll be cooking from Patricia Wells' "Trattoria" and "Bistro Cooking" in January. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/6694...

                  Good luck!


                  1 Reply
                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                    Nodding at the solid ideas here and adding one more suggestion, similar to visciole's: if you have any pals that like to cook, ask them for their favourite simple "for one or two people" recipes. They will be flattered and eager to share, I bet. Then you get tried-and-true options, often with helpful notes tacked on like "feel free to substitute x for y, or leave out z altogether," invaluable tips that they have learned from experience.

                    When I first started cooking, I sometimes found cookbook recipes a bit daunting because they assumed I knew more than I did. In the age of Google etc it is much easier to find out what braising means if you don't know, of course, but nothing beats having a seasoned cook to talk to directly :-). I still call/email my mum and MIL regularly for cooking tips after decades of having my own kitchen. So if you have any rellies who are good in the kitchen, they can be a great resource too.