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Teaching Others to Cook

I have volunteered to teach a couple of women I know some basics of cooking. We are all trying to eating healthier, and one of the women is considering becoming a vegetarian/vegan. We will probably get together every couple of weeks, on a weekend afternoon to practice and enjoy eating the results.

The criteria are

1. Ease of cooking: Both women are very intimidated by cooking and they tell me that, in the past, when they have tried to cook they have bought a bunch of expensive ingredients and gotten underwhelming results in the end. So I need stuff that's pretty simple and doesn't require them to have fancy cookware or buy a ton of ingredients they will use only for a single recipe.

2. Healthy options: We are all trying to eat better and I'm thinking this will challenge me to focus on cooking healthier while I teach them to make food that tastes good, but is solid nutritionally. Right now, both of them rely pretty heavily upon take-out, fast food, and convenience foods like frozen pizza and health is a big motivating factor.

3. Flexibility: One of the women is single and has a very busy schedule with work and hobbies. The other woman doesn't work outside the home but stays very busy with her 4 kids and volunteer work. Food that will work for kids and can be made in larger quantities is necessary for her, obviously. None of us have a ton of money.

Here is my thinking for now

I'll pick a "theme" each week we are able to get together. That will allow me to show them how to use the same set of flavors to make a variety of recipes that they could use throughout the week. It also allows us to enjoy a meal together at the end of the day. I can introduce new spices and techniques as we go and also show them ways they can use the leftovers or do the whole cook once/eat twice style of cooking.

So far, I'm thinking Mexican, Asian, and Italian would be good and accessible places to begin.

We're going to start next Sunday and here's what I am thinking of cooking

1. Teach them how to make crockpot carnitas. I know it's not completely authentic, but that's not really the purpose. We can use the meat for tacos on Sunday, but I can give them suggestions of other fabulous ways they can use this same meat. It also freezes well, which is something both women are interested in learning.

2. Make a green chili and chicken mixture. One the day we're together, I can show them how to make it into simple enchiladas but it would also be a great base for chicken and white bean chili during the winter. It's also something that can be made quickly, with very little prep work and can be turned into a dinner as simple or as fancy as you need.

3. Arroz Verde. I love it, it's delicious, it's not totally standard, and would go well with both meats, or could be used for delicious and healthy lunches with a can or beans and some salsa. I also plan to buy radishes for the tacos and I love using the green tops in this rice.

4. I'll probably go over how to make quick quesadillas. I'm especially partial to mango and shrimp in mine and would provide a different flavor than most people think of when they make quesadillas.

Most of these foods can be used a few different ways and the ingredients can easily be used up. For example, leftover tortillas are delicious with refried beans and a fried egg. Especially if you have a little fresh lime or cilantro to toss on top. The rice can easily be mixed with things for lunches. Etc.

So, thoughts on this? What would you show people how to make? Would your list look about the same or completely different? Would you take a totally different approach? I've never done this before and I don't want to make them MORE scared of cooking! I feel like I need to do it in a way that the payoff is pretty immediate as well, in that they walk away knowing how to actually put meals on the table that meet their needs as opposed to learning the difference between roasting and braising.

I'm excited and I'd love for this to go well! Help me out!

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  1. Well, apart from having some bandages and booze hanging about, I'd probably start with some basics, like knife skills, mise en place, how to work with eggs, how to sear and so forth.

    You've laid out some recipes, which is nice, but the potential issue with that is that they may "learn" the recipe and not be able to adapt techniques and process from that point. Or they lock themselves into a very specific recipe and won't be able to adapt.

    If you teach a technique, you can show very small basic recipes which make use of a technique which can them be extrapolated to more complicated preparations.

    1. I think it's great that you are helping them learn to cook, and I bet you will have a lot of fun too! As wattacetti points out, you may want to include some technique, but I wouldn't focus too heavily on that...I would get them a little more comfortable with a few basics before they worry about whether they are doing everything "the right way". Nothing leads to more confidence like a little success. I would also spend a little time with vocabulary. It's amazing how many people aren't familiar with basic terms (fold, saute, deglaze, etc), which makes it difficult to follow a recipe.

      For specifics:
      The very first meal I remember cooking was a roast chicken. Easy, easy, and then you could discuss ways to use the leftover meat for different meals. Likewise, chicken breast can be grilled and then used in multiple different recipes.

      Soups! I am amazed how many people don't realize that soup doesn't need to come out of a can. So easy and versatile and can easily be frozen.

      Anything with beans. Again, most people are very afraid of dried beans, which are so inexpensive, filling, and nutritious. Again, once you make a batch of beans they can be used in so many different recipes.

      Other suggestions:
      I'm not sure where you live, but I think growing herbs is one of the best ways to make great tasting food on a budget. It avoids the problem of buying something expensive for one dish.

      Good luck!

      1 Reply
      1. re: mountaincachers

        wish I lived where you do. beans are expensive around here. (easily a dollar a pound, if not two)

      2. I always like to show people how to make chili, Bolognese sauce, and a good yellow cake with cocoa & confectioners buttercream.

        1. 2nding roast chicken and soups. Soups are endlessly versatile, and leftover roast chicken can easily be turned into soft (rolled) tacos.
          Crock pots will definitely be a tool to use here, given the time constraints. Show them some sort of basic brown and braise stew, either with beef or pork. Last year during Hatch chile season I totally pulled a green pork stew out of my rear end, and it actually ended up being good! I think I'm in hock to do it again this year.
          Do you have access to a grill? Salmon on a cedar plank is dead simple if you know how to check your fish. I just use a poke test. Same goes for a big ole sirloin (not on a plank, just on the grill).
          Do give tips on things like techniques, knife skills, etc. It's becoming my experience that cooking is about 90% technique and 10% recipes.

          1. I have taught cooking to large groups of people. If I had the chance to cook with just a couple, I would certainly start by finding out what they already knew how to do and what tools they had to do it. Everyone should bring a set of knives so you can be sure they have decent, sharp ones--then see if they know how to dice, slice, work with onions and garlic. I would then work on a really simple meal that would show me their cooking skills. Maybe a sauteed chicken breast with mashed potatoes and green beans. From that I would learn how they work with heat, how they season foods, how do they determine "doneness", can they put together three separate dishes to create a meal that gets on the table warm and tasty. Only after that would I feel comfortable moving forward, knowing where their strengths and weaknesses were. Otherwise, you are just an in person show that is giving them more recipes.

            2 Replies
            1. re: escondido123

              I second escondido here. Most of us on chowhound have a base level of knowledge that is far beyond what a person who really doesn't know how to cook would have. For instance, escondido's suggestion of the really simple meal of sauteed chicken breast and mashed potatoes. I have friends who wouldn't have the faintest idea of where to begin with that - and I mean they wouldn't know what to buy at the supermarket (chicken breast with or without bones and skin? Russet potatoes or red? Butter, oil, milk, cream, chicken broth?) Then, they wouldn't know if you needed to boil the potatoes first or bake them, or peel them, etc. You need to find out just how inexperienced they are, and then you can decide on which techniques to start with!

              1. re: biondanonima

                also, this is ten ingredients by the time you're done. I'd focus on things with three or four, myself. Go with easy, it builds trust.

            2. If they are true beginners, go slow and be patient : )

              Try not to teach more than 3 new concepts at a time, more than that can be overwhelming and difficult to remember.

              Try to balance the negatives with the positives. Burned the onions? Too bad but they were a nice medium dice...

              My Italian Grandma (dad's side) came to visit a few times growing up, and my mom has good memories of being taught the Italian classics in a very non-judgmental way. Grandma's approach was to show her 'this is how I do it', meaning that you might find a slightly different way that works for you, this is just what works for me.

              I think repetition is key, like if they've never diced an onion, work on dicing a several times before moving into julienne. Think about building on and reinforcing solid basic techniques instead of trying to demonstrate as much as possible so they have time to practice and can connect that braising pork shoulder for chile verde is not so different from braising chicken legs with mushrooms.

              It seems like the beginning home cooks I've known need the most help with putting together a shopping list including ingredient ID, use, and substitution; how high heat to use and when; testing for doneness; and what seasonings go together.

              1. your stuff seems way way too complicated. I'd do jheera rice, and maybe some sauteed zucchini. Quick, easy - good diet food (and you can't ruin it by walking away for a bit!). And simple to the point of "why haven't I been doing this before?"

                I'd emphasize less about "reusability" and more about "made in bulk, eaten whenever" A slowcooked lentil daal might be good.

                After that, I'd pick an herb (dill!) and then show how to make a nice dip with it. Dill and garlic plus some sour cream. Cheap, easy, filling. Also, really hard to screw up, and really really tasty.

                Might try a few sauces, with the emphasis of "it'll keep" "it'll freeze" and "it goes on everything" (a good tomato/pepper sauce, a good cheese sauce, a lemon pepper butter sauce, a sesame soy sauce)

                1. One other thing I'd suggest: don't call it diet food or diet cooking.

                  Better to emphasize taste, "light", seasonal, easy etc etc

                  1. I'd put emphasis on technique and de-emphasize recipes and specifics.

                    Take them to a market and pick out the ingredients together. Whatever looks good and draws interest. Discuss the plan while going back to the kitchen. Once home, finalize the plan and mies en plas. I'd have them do all the prep work and cooking; after all, we best learn by doing.

                    I believe in going through all the steps, but showing others the flexibility/creativity involved in the process. When you're busy, you don't always have time to get everything you want or do something that takes a long time. By teaching the process, they can learn how to make it all work for them.

                    1. What do they expect from the class? If they're used to fat laden, highly salted processed foods, good home cooking is definitely different.

                      The first thing I would do is ask what they would like to learn. A specific dish? A technique?
                      The second is to start with the very basics... How to cook a pot of rice. How to cook pasta. Baking a potato... etc.

                      Work together so they all have a chance to learn some skills.

                      Emphasize that there is no one way to cook a dish. Also, mistakes are no big deal. One cares if a recipe calls for a 1/4" and you do 1/2" dice.... etc.

                      Maybe you all can check out a book from the library to use as a common reference.

                      Regarding your four recipe ideas, I think those sound like easy dishes.

                      1. Here's a similar thread which has some good perspectives on the subject: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/731992

                        1. What a great friend you are! That is a wonderful gift you are giving them--your time, knowledge, and experience. I hope you have lots of fun while doing so.

                          I agree with the idea of keeping it simple and non-intimidating. If you find they catch on quickly, you can work up to more complex recipes as you go. I think it is human nature to get discouraged if a person feels like they fail to "get it" from the start, so giving them an opportunity to succeed and enjoy the product of their effort right away is key.

                          I also agree that techniques and particular skills are probably more important than actual recipes. For example, if someone knows how to marinade and cook chicken in the oven, they can translate that to different types of meat and use different types of marinade. So essentially one skill will provide them a basic that they can use for a wide range of meals. Same with sauteeing, grilling, poaching, etc.

                          One additional thought: if a person hasn't had much (or any) experience cooking, there are certain things that can be intimidating. In my early cooking days, I was terrified of food poisoning people by serving undercooked meat. If you can find out ahead of time if they have barriers in their mind to cooking effectively, you can target those things and help demystify things for them.

                          One last thought: giving them the chance to repeat and practice what they learn should help cement the cooking experience for them and give them confidence. Practice, practice, practice.

                          1. When I taught cooking, I would have people come back for more of my classes. I asked a couple of them what they had cooked from my classes. They all laughed and said nothing, they came to cooking classes because it was fun and interesting, not because they really wanted to learn how to cook. Another perspective on the subject.

                            1. Thanks to everyone for your advice. Because they really want to see results quickly, they want to walk away with recipes. However, I will be sure to incorporate technique into the cooking, and keep an eye on them as they prep the food just so things that seem intuitive or second nature to me don't get skipped. I've also got some good ideas for things to show them how to prepare and things I should focus on during the lessons.