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Domestically Disabled

Hey Everyone! I'm a longtime lurker and this is my first post. While I love trying out new food, my own cooking skills are sorely lacking. Anytime I cook it turns into a disaster ( smoke alarms, melted plates, etc).

My questions to you are what are some extremely simple ( aka idiot-proof) meals that can be made in a very small prep space ( studio apartment kitchen) and what are the staples I should always have stocked in my kitchen?

I'd really like to start cooking some healthy and edible meals at home instead of eating out so much. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

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  1. Okay, someone, where is that long thread about the woman with the young baby who "fails" at everything she tries to cook. That has GREAT suggestions but I can't figure out how to search for it.

    9 Replies
      1. re: monfrancisco

        YES!!! Thanks.

        BTW, we're going to be in Sonoma not SF. Another time hopefully.

        1. re: c oliver

          Glad to help! And yes indeed, next time.

        2. re: monfrancisco

          That thread is an excellent place to start.

          1. re: monfrancisco

            Hi, Disabled! I know how you feel! I was the poster of that thread. Please read it, but disregard the comments telling me to give up and find something better to do with my time! There is much encouragement and assistance to be found there. Two of the best pieces of advice I received that completely revolutionized my cooking, changed my attitude, and inspired my creativity were these:

            Quit the recipe, for now. Put them aside. For two years I hadn't learned to cook anything because all I did was follow recipes. Put it away and just watch the food, smell the food, taste, taste, taste as you cook. Employ your senses. Even throwing out the meat thermometer helped me cook meat more accurately because I was touching it, timing it. As Julia says, if the chicken is slightly resilient to the touch, it's cooked perfectly. If it doesn't spring back at all then, well, it's overcooked and that's too bad. Trial and error. Take notes after each meal, if that will help you. Most importantly, watch and taste. Don't get distracted. Don't cook three different things if it will pull you away from accuracy. Keep it simple, and once you master one thing, build on that.

            The other thing that really helped me was a book recommendation: Ruhlman's Twenty. CHANGED MY LIFE! Now I follow his blog and have been making all kinds of wonderful, simple dishes. He has NEVER led me astray or disappointed. Check it out from the library where it's free.

            As for meal ideas, sautee or pan fry a meat, make a pan sauce if you like (pour out fat from pan or toss in shallots/onions, deglaze with wine or stock, add stock or water enough to make a sauce, reduce, taste, add seasonings and ever butter or cream off the heat) and roast a vegetable in a little oil. Done. Too much? Serve rice. Let it braise while you fry. Add a little butter and grated cheese, season, taste. Done. Roasted chicken: fryer chicken in oven at 450/425 for one hour.

            You can do this! Don't give up or lose hope! There is a great cook in all of us! Much luck and grace to you! God bless!

            1. re: HumbleFoodie

              I'm so glad you found some ideas that worked for you. I have to confess that I was a bit worried about you! you sounded so stressed and tired! Glad things are looking up for you.

              1. re: HumbleFoodie

                humble - I read and posted a little on that other thread, and I'm really happy to see this post. made my night.

                1. re: HumbleFoodie

                  How's the baby doing?...hope you are including the little one in the cooking experience!

                  1. re: HumbleFoodie

                    Wow ...that is quite the speedy turnaround! Sounds like it has all come together. Yay!!!!!

              2. My favorite simple meals are mainly pasta and sauce. I dice fresh tomatoes (I always peel them, but that's a preference,) season with fresh, minced garlic and basil, a little bit of salt. I boil some noodles, my preference is angel-hair, then drain the pasta. I use the warm pasta pot, put just enough oil to cover the bottom, and add the fresh tomatoes, cooking just long enough to soften them a bit. The tomatoes go over the pasta. I might add some chunks of fresh mozzarella if I have any. Served with a salad, this is a meal for me.

                2 Replies
                1. re: hippiechickinsing

                  In the summer, I do an uncooked 'sauce.' I put chopped tomatoes, capers, basil, anything really, drizzle with oo, s&p. Oh and some grated Parm or equivalent and dump cooked linguine over. Toss and eat.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    me, too -- the warmth of the pasta is enough to warm the 'sauce'

                2. look for videos and television shows -- even kids' cooking shows are a good start. The Food Network "How to Boil Water" is a pretty good one.

                  Find a good basic cook book or two -- I have friends who like "How to Boil Water" (yes, the same as the series above) -- and "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman.

                  start slow. Start with pasta. Heat up some jarred spaghetti sauce and nuke some frozen meatballs.

                  Dinner's done.

                  Keep in mind that less heat is almost always better than too much heat...Be patient.

                  And good for you for recognizing that it's good to be able to feed yourself -- for health and economic reasons.

                  May you come to enjoy cooking as much as the rest of us here.

                  (and yes -- come back and ask us more questions.)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: sunshine842

                    "Keep in mind that less heat is almost always better than too much heat...Be patient."
                    ~~~~~~~
                    Good point. Flavors concentrate as ingredients are cooked together. What doesn't seem spicy or too lemony when first added and tasted can intensify with a bit more cooking, leading to a "holy crap, this is too spicy/lemony for me!"

                    1. re: LindaWhit

                      Very good point ... and I think especially true where dry spices and herbs are concerned. I wait 5-10 minutes or so to discern the effect of the dried spices I added.

                  2. I suggest that you find a very patient cook who will spend time with you and show you some cooking tips or take some cooking lessons.
                    Pasta sauce is quite easy to make and you can customize to your liking. You need strained tomatoes in a jar, tomatoes, garlic, ground beef if not vegan.
                    Youtube has some great ideas for home cooking.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Ruthie789

                      Study your supermarket and you will find dozens of very good pasta sauces in jars. 1) Add to cooked pasta and frozen meatballs as per the excellent suggestion above. 2) Brown ground beef in frying pan with a little fat then add a little, not a lot, of the pasta sauce to make Sloppy Joe to eat on hamburger buns. 3) Now here is your magnum opus: lasagna. No kidding. Buy the "no boil" lasagna noodles, 2 big jars of pasta sauce, a pint of ricotta cheese, a package of italian sausage, and a package of shredded Mozzarella cheese. Fry up the sausage in a frying pan and drain off extra fat then add the sausage meat to your pasta sauce. Beat 2 eggs with the ricotta until well-mixed. Now take a big deep pan or baking dish and spray it with no-stick stuff like PAM. Layer in it the sauce + sausage, the ricotta, and the dry noodles, ending with sauce. Sprinkle the Mozzarella on top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours @ 350---after the first hour, remove the foil. You will end up with 8-12 portions of lasagna. After you refrigerate it and it gets cold and stiff, cut it in squares. Wrap each square in plastic wrap and put it in a plastic sandwich bag and freeze. Voila: many future dinners to be heated quickly in microwave---just make a salad to go with.

                    2. First, learn to fry eggs that are so good you won't want to go out for breakfast often. The keys are to use low heat and to avoid overcooking them. And to use good eggs, of course.

                      The first think I started cooking for myself was beef stew. The key here is to stage adding the vegetables to avoid overcooking any of them.

                      As for staples, I recommend starting simple: unsalted butter to fry your eggs in (I prefer one-lb bricks), all-purpose flour to make a roux (with butter) for the stew and other things to come. Salt and pepper. Use kosher salt for cooking (because it has a nice texture for taking a pinch and because it comes in a 3 lb box).

                      Get The Elements of Cooking by Michael Ruhlman. Don't get overwhelmed with recipes. Get a few recipes of things you'ld like to eat, that aren't too complicated, and do them again and again until you are satisfied with the results.

                      You have to be able to cook simple food well before moving on to more complicated dishes.

                      21 Replies
                      1. re: GH1618

                        I actually tried baking eggs in a muffin tin tonight. I know it is a cheat, but hey, they were edible, although they did stick to the tin a bit. Thanks for the advice.

                        1. re: NShewmaker

                          Rub them with some butter and it shouldn't stick.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            I used cooking spray. Granted, my cookware is fairly shoddy, so that might be the culprit.

                            1. re: NShewmaker

                              I've no experience with this so I hope others will speak up.

                              1. re: NShewmaker

                                Try Bakers Joy instead. The store brand is cheaper and works just as well.

                                Also, a non stick skillet is your friend. Don't crank the heat up so high.

                                1. re: miss_belle

                                  Baker's Joy has flour in it...won't help you at all on baked eggs.

                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                    I know it has flour in it but since cooking spray didn't work on a "shoddy" muffin tin I thought it might be worth a shot. Guess not:-)

                                2. re: NShewmaker

                                  Ditch the spray and use butter. Get one small nonstick pan used only for eggs, and take care of it. No metal utensils. No dishwasher. No scouring cleanser. Hand wash.

                                  1. re: NShewmaker

                                    Re: your cookware - try and replace ONE item every month, if your budget allows. It all doesn't have to be matchy-match when you're first starting out.

                                    OR if you can spring for it, buy a small set of basic Farberware Classic pots and pans (or other GOOD stainless steel pots/pans - the pot/pan should have a bit of heft to them). I've still got mine from a purchase I made about 30 years ago. Well, except for that one 3 qt. pot that I had to replace because I put it on the stove with a steamer basket inside....and forgot to put water in the bottom, so it melted to the electric burner when I got distracted with something else. ;-)

                                3. re: NShewmaker

                                  Baking is much easier than frying, so good idea. I bake an egg every morning for breakfast in the winter, absolutely nothing wrong with that. I use a little individual handled ceramic casserole, line with a piece of thinly-sliced ham, and also throw in some cheese. The ham prevents sticking. I also bake at a low temperature (320-325).

                                4. re: GH1618

                                  Or cook the beef stew's vegetables separately, as I've always done. That way you can control their doneness.

                                  1. re: LindaWhit

                                    Here's one I've fixed. The carrots and potatoes are added halfway through and the peas at the very end. Very tasty.

                                    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/668648

                                    1. re: c oliver

                                      I'm just one who doesn't want the potatoes and carrots cooked in the gravied stew, c oliver. I'd rather add butter to the potatoes after they are cooked separately, and then add a smidge of gravy should I want it. But I do agree to adding the taters and carrots halfway through the beef's cooking time frame.

                                      1. re: LindaWhit

                                        So then you really don't like stew but rather braised meat with the vegetables on the side?

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          Yes, I like stew. I just don't combine the veg with the beef if it's a basic beef stew. If I make Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon, it has the pearl onions, but no other veggies.

                                          1. re: LindaWhit

                                            I guess I think beef stew includes vegetables.

                                      2. re: c oliver

                                        My xperience is that carrots must go in before potatoes. Celery at the very end.

                                        1. re: GH1618

                                          I really love the carrots, onions, and potatoes braised with the meat. Some carrots and potatoes hold up better than others, however.

                                          When I make brisket, I completely fill the baking dish with carrots--really cannot get enough of beef-infused root vegetables <3

                                          1. re: GH1618

                                            except for the celery leaves, which I sometimes throw in at the beginning, as they give good flavor.
                                            I've also been known to put in carrots, onions, and celery at the beginning, then fish those out and discard them when they're spent....then cook fresh ones in the last 45 min or so.

                                            Then I end up with long-cooked flavor without long-cooked texture.

                                            1. re: sunshine842

                                              I find that globe carrots hold up really well ... onions sometimes almost dissolve, but I don't really consider that a bad thing--I think it enriches the gravy. Potatoes turning to mush can be an issue ...

                                              1. re: foiegras

                                                totally agree on all points...

                                                Potatoes can thicken the sauce, though....

                                    2. As well at first keep it simple, do easy things, build up your skills.

                                      1. Don't focus too much on recipes: you don't want to be at the mercy of someone else's taste when you've got only a few random things in the fridge and no time to go to the grocery store. Instead, learn techniques: start with roasting, braising, and sautéing, which will take you very far. Rulhman's books are great for this, and I also recommend Julia Child's The Way to Cook. But seriously, you don't even need books: you can google these terms and get a feel for them. Once you know the whys, you'll be able to make meals that work for your taste and your space.

                                        Also, do not underestimate the importance of knife skills and advance preparation. Mise en place, or putting everything together and prepped in one spot before you begin to cook, is paramount in a small kitchen. I had just one 2x2ish counter in my last apartment, and I got by just fine because I was always organized.

                                        6 Replies
                                        1. re: caseyjo

                                          I hear a lot about knife skills here, so let me just hurl myself into the line of fire.

                                          I have decent knives (thanks to a recommendation here), and I can use them safely and quickly to do what I need to do. I have never taken a class, or been informally taught 'knife skills' by anyone. I do have a scar on a knuckle of my dominant hand, self-inflicted with a knife when I probably wasn't yet 10 years old, and I would still love to know how I did it.

                                          So we're trying for edible and no smoke alarms here ... are knife skills really in play, assuming the OP can use them safely and relatively effectively already? In my mind, chef-level precision isn't really needed for normal home cooking ... it may be that my onion dice isn't absolutely consistent, but that has yet to ruin anything I've cooked over at least 4 decades.

                                            1. re: foiegras

                                              but we're going to hope that OP's knife skills manage to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time and without blood.

                                              From the OP's description, that may be assuming a lot.

                                            2. re: caseyjo

                                              For someone who's just learning how to cook, recipes provide structure and guidance. I think suggesting that someone learn to cook via techniques first is like suggesting a non-swimmer learn swimming by jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool. Cooking can be overwhelming for people who have minimal exposure to it. Sometimes it's best to start out at the shallow end and work your way up to the deep end as you gain confidence that way.

                                              When people ask me about how to cook, I tell them find an excellent but simple cookbook or two and cook from it, such as the Joy of Cooking. Follow the recipes (they're there for a purpose), accept that you will make some mistakes along the way, and see why some things work and why other things don't work. Once you've mastered the recipes, you're halfway to mastering the techniques. Once you've mastered the techniques then you don't need recipes anymore.

                                              1. re: Roland Parker

                                                Well said. 'Cept I will always be a recipe follower :)

                                                1. re: Roland Parker

                                                  I learned how to cook by technique, almost without recipes, but I don't know that it's the best way to learn.

                                                  It's good to recognize that when you've mastered a recipe, you've also mastered at least one technique.

                                                  For some reason I keep wanting to mention this, so I will ... one of the techniques I remember using a lot as a teenager is making a white sauce. I wouldn't call it necessarily a beginning technique, but it is very useful. There was always canned tuna in the house, so I knew that if all else failed, I could make creamed tuna. And if there was no bread for toast, I could bake biscuits, because there would be flour and butter. Once you can make a white sauce, you can also make a cheese sauce, or a cream of anything soup. I find it a very satisfying thing to do. However, I do find low heat essential at points in the process.

                                              2. Thanks for all the replies so far, everyone. I intend to pursue all of your suggestions. I'm a little too old to continue living like a ragtag college student, lol.

                                                I just moved to a new city (Chicago), so I figured not only did I need to watch my wallet and waistline, but being in a city known for its food, I should probably gather a few basics and stop setting my kitchen aflame ;)

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: NShewmaker

                                                  Check out Trader Joe (17 locations in Chicago), Mariano's (opening new ones almost daily in ex-Dominicks locations), Patel's (Indian, on Devon just west of Western), Al Khayam (Arabic, Kedzie just south of Lawrence), Tony's Finer Foods (Hispanic, several locations), Shop & Save (leans Polish), and Middle Eastern Grocery (Foster one door west of Clark) and, of course, Jewel, our baseline store, for inspiration---this is an intoxicating food shopping town and you can learn a lot about cooking just studying grocery stores and markets and reading packages. Also, see what farmers' market is near you. And, welcome.

                                                  1. re: NShewmaker

                                                    Yes, welcome to Chicago. The Chicago Tribune will be publishing it's annual "round up" of cooking schools on 8/8/14 (http://my.chicagotribune.com/#section...).
                                                    You may want to keep an eye out for that.

                                                    1. re: masha

                                                      Correction, as noted in the link, the article will be appearing on August 13 (not 8).

                                                  2. Keep in mind that "cooking dinner" doesn't have to be an overwhelming two hour long cooking session either. Assembly style meals like salads are still "cooking" if you ask me and will also help you practice knife skills.
                                                    If sauteeing on the stovetop makes you nervous due to previously mentioned smoke alarms and such then start with meals that are baked or broiled. There are a bunch of recipes called sheet pan suppers that could be a good starting point for you.
                                                    http://www.nytimes.com/recipes/101602...

                                                    http://www.buzzfeed.com/rachelysander...

                                                    Staples vary person to person, you will figure out quickly what it is you need to keep on hand. A jar of peanut butter is a good idea just in case you do have a recipe disaster ;)

                                                    1. Some will throw the electronic rotten tomatoes my way for this, but the early Rachael Ray stuff was what I learned to cook from. Her early cookbooks are definitely aimed at the entry level cook.

                                                      As far as kitchen staples, so much depends on what you tend to cook. Our "emergency" food tends toward the Italian flavors, so pasta, canned tomatoes, frozen meatballs are always around for a quick meal. I tend to keep salsa, shredded cheese (in the freezer) and tortillas around for a tex-mex evening too

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: autumm

                                                        absolutely -- RR's personality grates on me like nails on a chalkboard, but she has shown an enormous number of people how to cook real food from real ingredients in no more time than it takes to order pizza, and for that, she gets a pass on the trash-talking.

                                                        By the way, OP -- there are TONS of RR videos out there, and no shortage of books...she's a good start, too.

                                                        1. re: sunshine842

                                                          One caveat to some of her recipes, especially the more recently published/posted ones: they seem VERY disorganized to me, and I'm a relatively experienced cook! I find that I have to read through them once or twice, sort out the directions in my head, and then make some margin notes to keep everything straight. OP, I suggest you do the same if you find a RR recipe you like. (She has a ton of different kinds of meatball recipes - we really like the chicken parm meatball subs; you can use jarred spaghetti sauce or skip the sauce entirely if you are anti-tomato: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ra... )

                                                      2. What do you like to eat? start there. I mean not Lobster Thermidor or Timpano but something simple like Tacos, or a basic pasta dish. Start with something simple you like.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: JTPhilly

                                                          this. You're going to have to eat whatever it is, so pick a fairly simple food, and work from there. I'd also recommend Jacques Pepin recipes.

                                                        2. My grandmother taught me that the single most important skill in the kitchen was READING.

                                                          If you can read you can cook. If course she assumed that included following the recipes. Start with something you like, hopefully something simple. Read 3 or 4 recipes for that dish to get an idea of what it's all about. Then pick the one with the clearest directions and follow it to the letter. Now is not the time to be creative or to take bits and pieces from different recipes. That comes later when you have more experience.

                                                          If you follow the directions, don't substitute the ingredients, and take the time to do each step deliberately - especially any prep work then your meal should turn out fine.

                                                          In the meantime pay attention to what you eat when you go out. Watch old episodes of Julia Child's The French Chef or Alton Browns Good Eats. Both were designed to give basic skills and a basic understanding of how cooking works.

                                                          And finally don't be overwhelmed by your mistakes. If it's a total disaster call for pizza and while you wait go re read the recipe to figure out where you went wrong (oh, it was supposed to be a teaspoon of salt, not a tablespoon)

                                                          Good Luck & Enjoy

                                                          1. A lot of learning to cook is just practice and paying attention. I remember my early attempts in the kitchen were mostly pretty awful ... but I got better, and now I'm a pretty good cook most of the time (who still makes plenty of mistakes, but only seldom a horrendous fail).

                                                            Two really good, really easy recipes are:
                                                            (1) Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce with onion and butter (I usually cut back on the butter a bit) http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/10...

                                                            (2) Thomas Keller's simple roast chicken (I skip the trussing, the butter and the mustard) http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                                                            Since it is summer, it seems like some hearty salads might be in order. Quesadillas are also quick and easy. And eggs (spend the money for good ones if you can afford it, it makes a difference!). When I was single and just feeding myself, I would eat this kind of thing more often than not.

                                                            People are of two minds about whether it is better to learn by mastering techniques or by following recipes ... I myself have always found recipes to be helpful. But either way, with practice you will get to the same place. One caution: there are a million recipes available on the internet. Some are good, some are bad, and when you lack experience it is hard to tell by reading the recipe whether it will work. So I would start with a trusted, dependable source.

                                                            For staples -- if you can identify some things you would make on a regular basis, then the ingredients for those items can be your staples. That way you can build your pantry as you build your skills and experience.

                                                            1. Do you think you might be able to recount a time when things have gone wrong so we can figure out what the problem is? One thing that's important is when you're cooking, you can't leave the kitchen. (Well, you can if you're braising something in the oven for hours, but not if you're scrambling eggs.)

                                                              34 Replies
                                                              1. re: foiegras

                                                                I suppose my biggest problem is that I have very long days and so when I go grocery shopping, I usually only grab sandwich stuff, some frozen veggies and a box of cereal. Which, is great, but I also don't want to eat turkey sandwiches every single day.

                                                                When I do have the time to cook, I usually don't have half of the ingredients needed for even really basic meals, which is why I asked what my staples should be.

                                                                In general, I tend to burn things on the stove, even when turned to a lower heat. I suppose the fact that I wing a lot of what I make ( due to lack of ingredients) is also a part of the problem.

                                                                Just in general though, my pasta ( box kind) tends to turn out gloppy and no matter how many times I try to make rice ( testing different ratios ), it's still too crunchy or way too mushy. Usually I just throw my veggies in and eat it anyway, but it's not very appetizing.

                                                                1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                  To solve one of your problems, I'd suggest getting a simple rice cooker. They can be had for about $15. I'm a decent cook but rice drove me nuts. No longer. Two cups of water and a cup of rice, cover, hit the button. It will turn itself to warm when the rice is done.

                                                                  1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                    I personally don't keep too many staples on hand, but I always have a good selection of pasta (mostly deCecco), onions, parmesan (good imported stuff which I grate myself). Good canned tuna (I use high-end Starkist chunk light most of the time, which is a solid piece) and tomato products (like diced, puree, sauce, paste) are all good. Rice. I also have all the spices I use on hand, and my own fresh basil growing on the porch. (The bulk department is your friend--you can get all this stuff with a minimal investment.)

                                                                    Do you have a reliable timer? For pasta, I time it under what the package says for al dente, and then start tasting. If underdone, I wait 30-60 seconds and taste again. Perfect every time. You want plenty of salt and good pasta.

                                                                    As for rice, I cook it in a cast-iron saucepan (Le Creuset) that doesn't allow water to boil off. I put twice as much water as rice in the pan + sprinkle of salt and bring to a boil, then add rice. Like I mentioned before, you must stick around (and a good pan helps too), otherwise your water will boil off. Add the rice, turn the heat way down to low (about mark 2 on my stove). After 12-15 minutes I check it. I typically never need to add water, but that is a possibility. Easiest may be to heat in your teakettle first. In my case, it's often still a little wet and I let it cook for another 3 minutes or so.

                                                                    These are two things you can totally get right :)

                                                                    1. re: foiegras

                                                                      Regarding pasta, I have a thought. The recipes almost invariably say "while the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce....." That for quick cooking things. I NEVER do that. I get my sauce ready, turn the heat way, way down and then cook the pasta. Then the pasta isn't waiting for the sauce and suffering from that wait.

                                                                      1. re: c oliver

                                                                        Very true. The only time I fire up the water first is when the sauce is ready to go & only needs to be heated. It also makes a difference whether your pasta is going to take 5 (macaroni) or 10 (spaghetti) minutes to cook. That works for spaghetti, but might not for a faster-cooking pasta. Freshly-cooked pasta waits for no one!

                                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                                          Exactly. With all of my OCD in the kitchen I am a slow cook. So many procedures. But I enjoy it. That's the way I do it. Sauce will be ready for the pasta..

                                                                      2. re: NShewmaker

                                                                        I have been cooking 65 years and still can't cook rice without an electric rice cooker. Buy one. They are about $20 or less all over Chicago vd Walgreen's ads in Sunday paper, or try Target....If you work long days, think of cooking something that can be eaten several times and just gets better, like chili or a big pot of pasta...Pork tenderloin (on sale this week buy one get one free at Jewel) can be baked in an hour and then devoured many times for hot sandwiches with barbecue sauce, or in tacos, or with pasta, or with stuffing made from Stove Top, or with whole baked sweet potato busted open and filled with butter and brown sugar.

                                                                      3. re: foiegras

                                                                        So I suppose my main question should have been more about the staples needed to start a kitchen from scratch that would enable me to try a variety of simple recipes while learning to cook well.

                                                                        1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                          ok! in the fridge: eggs, cheese, butter, maybe some cream or greek yogurt
                                                                          condiments: mayo, dijon mustard
                                                                          lemon juice
                                                                          pantry: all purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder (if you want to try baking something), evaporated milk, tomato paste, tomato sauce, pasta, olives
                                                                          for fruit and veggies, I go with whatever is in season
                                                                          look up substitutions for things if you're trying to make a recipe and don't have something. I never have buttermilk, but I think you can sub regular milk and some lemon juice

                                                                          1. re: joycebre

                                                                            I know different recipes call for unsalted butter and some call for salted, but which is better to always have on hand? In non-baking situations, is there a major difference?

                                                                            Thanks for the tips.

                                                                            1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                              you can always add salt but you can't take it out

                                                                              1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                I use salted and skip the salt in recipes that call for unsalted butter. This is only because salted butter keeps better than unsalted, and I can't add salt to butter on toast, which is where I usually eat it. YMMV according to your eating habits. :)

                                                                                1. re: joycebre

                                                                                  We recently had some very good bread in a restaurant. In addition to the unsalted butter we got a little bowl of kosher salt.

                                                                                  1. re: joycebre

                                                                                    Why can't you add salt to butter on toast? Just salt it...I do. I use kosher and it's yummy, those little bursts of salt with the fresher butter.

                                                                                    1. re: sandylc

                                                                                      I've tried it, but I'd rather just have salted butter. :)

                                                                                      1. re: sandylc

                                                                                        That's exactly why it was SO good. Those little 'bursts' :) I NEVER buy salted.

                                                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                                                          I only buy, and this only occasionally, salted whipped butter for toasted things. I pretty much buy unsalted butter 90% of the time, store in the freezer, and just keep in the fridge what will be used that week. (Today's butter just sits out on the counter.)

                                                                                          And yes, I salt my toast sometimes; it's a mood thing, and depends on the bread.

                                                                                          And there is little in the bread world more awesome than a German Salt Roll with Caraway seeds, spread with slightly cool Unsalted butter. Yum.

                                                                                          1. re: mcsheridan

                                                                                            I had a small lunch and that description made my stomach rumble :)

                                                                                      2. re: joycebre

                                                                                        This is what I do, although I typically do buy salted butter as well when I plan to bake. But, I just substitute salted for unsalted & omit the salt if the urge to bake comes upon me and I am out of salted.

                                                                                      3. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                        In my opinion, it's not a huge deal in recipes that call for unsalted. For Christmas baking, I buy extra butter, unsalted. Otherwise, I keep salted on hand. Tastes better for everyday use.

                                                                                    2. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                      Why not sit down this weekend and pick a few recipes that sound good (use epicurious or the COTM recipes so good I've made them 3 times thread links) and then make a grocery list. This will start you onto a pantry that you'll find useful (since the things you'll pick will be things that appeal to your tastes). You'll have these things for the next time, and you'll find that each time you pick a new recipe, there will be less you'll need to buy in terms of staples.

                                                                                      I tend to love Asian flavors (and I've found that they give the most bang for buck on easy recipes too), so my pantry started with things like soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, rice. Good luck!

                                                                                      1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                        OK! If you wanted to make pasta with tomato sauce (I recommended marcella hazan recipe above), you would need.

                                                                                        Box of pasta (de cecco or similar good italian brand)
                                                                                        28 oz can/container of tomatoes (I use Pomi, other good brands are Muir Glen or if the can says San Marzano, that should be good too).

                                                                                        Butter
                                                                                        Parmesan cheese (get good quality italian parmigiano reggiano)
                                                                                        Good quality olive oil
                                                                                        Sea salt
                                                                                        Black peppercorns
                                                                                        A pepper mill (so you can have freshly ground black pepper)

                                                                                        1 yellow onion (not a huge one)
                                                                                        bag of salad greens

                                                                                        Either red wine vinegar or a lemon

                                                                                        To make the pasta: Put a large pot of water on to boil, salt it generously (water should taste like sea water). When it is boiling, add your pasta. 1/4- 1/3 bag should be enough for you. Cook for the length of time suggested on the package - when it is one minute to go, check to see if it is done. To do this, bite a piece of pasta in half and look at it. You will see a white line in the center of the piece of pasta. The pasta will be done when the white line is almost ready to disappear or when it just disappears (depending on how al dente you like your pasta). When pasta is done to your liking, drain in a colander in the sink. Do not rinse.

                                                                                        To make the sauce, empty your tomatoes into a smaller pot. Peel the onion, cut it in half through the stem, put the halves in with the tomatoes, add 4-5 tbsp of butter, cook until done, about 40-45 minutes. You will need to add salt to taste. How much salt to add depends on how salty your tomatoes are -- they vary a lot. But in general, if the sauce is tasting a little flat, add more salt.

                                                                                        Serve the pasta with sauce and cheese on top.

                                                                                        To make a simple salad, empty greens into a bowl. Sprinkle salt over the salad, drizzle on a very small amount of vinegar or lemon juice, drizzle on a bit more olive oil, add freshly ground black pepper if you like, toss and taste. If it needs more salt, add more. If it needs more vinegar/lemon, add a bit more. If it tastes good but is too dry, add a bit more vinegar and a bit more oil.

                                                                                        And there you have a delicious dinner! One of my emergency standbys.

                                                                                        1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                          These days it seems the recommendation is to not salt until the water is boiling and you're ready to add the pasta. Also I always make my salad dressing in a little bowl so I can adjust it before it goes on the salad. And, yes, I agree this is the easiest dinner ever.

                                                                                          1. re: c oliver

                                                                                            I hadn't heard that about waiting until the water boiling to salt. Why is that? I'm liable to forget at that time so I usually salt while I'm filling the pot with water.

                                                                                            1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                              One of my pans came with instructions not to do it as it could pit the metal. Well, I've been doing it that way my entire life so I figured if there was any pitting I'd just have to deal ... but guess what, the pan is just fine.

                                                                                              1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                                If you salt the water before adding heat - it will take a lot longer to come to a boil.

                                                                                                If you add heat to unsalted water? Comes to a boil faster. Then once you see a boil, sprinkle in the salt!

                                                                                                http://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/li...

                                                                                                1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                                  I learned this here and if you search you'll find tons of references. PS: I don't always remember to do it :)

                                                                                                  1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                                    Salt dissolves faster in hot water than cold. In cold water, the salt will sit on the bottom where it can cause pitting.

                                                                                                    1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                                      Just salting when the water is near or at boiling protects the stainless steel.

                                                                                                  2. re: Westminstress

                                                                                                    Salt tolerances vary greatly. We've found that the "seawater" saltiness is way WAY too much for our pasta cooking. I cook in unsalted water.

                                                                                                    1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                                                                                      Serious Eats did a Food Lab on this not long ago, and they determined that seawater salty is too much. Full details here: http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/05/ho...

                                                                                                      1. re: mcsheridan

                                                                                                        This supports my hypothesis that the ideal salinity for pasta cooking water is the same as for human blood. "Normal saline" is what hospitals use to hydrate patients. It is 9 g/l NaCl or about .9% salt.

                                                                                                        1. re: mcsheridan

                                                                                                          Thanks, that was interesting and made me realize that I don't think I ever make my pasta water as salty as seawater actually is ... So I will stop saying that! I think perhaps the saying is not meant to be taken literally and instead is reminding us to salt generously.

                                                                                                          1. re: Westminstress

                                                                                                            And I, for one, have not and will not be tasting boiling water!!! :)

                                                                                                2. This might sound condescending or obvious, but it really helped me to figure out how my burners worked when I first started cooking on my own. They ran a lot hotter than the stove I grew up with. If you have a package of chicken or a dozen eggs or a pound of tofu-just keeping track of whether it set off the smoke alarm or took three hours to cook, and how did it do three notches lower, turned out to be really beneficial to me.

                                                                                                  Getting one of the cooking bibles is also good. I don't really use it anymore but my mom gave me The Joy of Cooking when I moved out and it was tremendously helpful for things like "how to I poach an egg" or "how to cook a pork chop."

                                                                                                  Also I think it is useful to learn to do one thing at a time at first. I grew up with the 3-item plate: meat, starch, and veg. But cooking was a little stressful for me when I first became responsible for it, and getting three things done at once just adds to it. There are plenty of one-dish wonders out there, and sliced raw veggies are a perfectly wonderful side. Soup can be a great one-disher, and full-meal salads, and casseroles. I think things often get incinerated when you are trying to make several things at once.

                                                                                                  8 Replies
                                                                                                  1. re: ErnieD

                                                                                                    You know, I still really dislike trying to cook a bunch of things at once, and I think soup is a great idea. I'm buying ingredients for a vegetable soup tonight. I'll use the field peas I froze, and the fresh-frozen peas I've got, and either stew beef or chicken tenders.

                                                                                                    1. re: ErnieD

                                                                                                      Not condescending at all :)

                                                                                                      Growing up, my family viewed the kitchen as more of a decorative area than anything, and my last apartment had an electric stove, so my interaction with my new gas one has intensified the adversarial relationship between myself and the smoke alarm.

                                                                                                      1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                        LOL - I learned to cook on a gas stove, still have one, and find it almost impossible on an electric cooktop when visiting relatives!

                                                                                                        Do you have the instruction manual for your stove? Most gas 4-burners have one very high-powered burner (often front right) intended to be used to bring pasta water to boiling. And may have one "simmer" setting burner intended to keep sauces or rice barely simmering. So "high" or "low" control settings will give you different results, depending on which burner you use. Oven temps, in my experience, NEVER match the setting dial. Get an oven thermometer and use that to learn whether your's runs 25 - 75 degrees high/low, then adjust how you set the dial.

                                                                                                        1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                                                                                          This never even occurred to me. I will try to track down a manual for my stove. Thank you.

                                                                                                          I only ever use the front right burner ( and I scorched the porcelain the first time I used it). I actually opted not to use any of the others if I didn't have to so I wouldn't ruin the entire stovetop :/

                                                                                                          1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                            Sometimes you can find them online.

                                                                                                            1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                              Most stoves are tough. That porcelain might clean up with a good soak (leave a moist dishrag on it 15 minutes) and scrub with a "magic sponge" - those designed to take crayon/pencil off painted walls.

                                                                                                              And if your front right burner is the one designed to be the max-power one, it fully explains why you're having a tough time and burning things. I use mine, but set it on medium-low / low for almost everything.

                                                                                                              1. re: MidwesternerTT

                                                                                                                I'll try that as well. I threw every cleaner I had at it, but I just assumed I wouldn't be getting my security deposit back.

                                                                                                                1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                  Try mr clean magic eraser or barkeepers friend -- two nontoxic miracle cleaners I keep on hand for the really tough jobs.

                                                                                                      2. Here is a basic, though not foolproof, recipe for pan-roasting just about any protein (chicken breast, pork chop, fish fillet, steak): Heat your oven to medium-high, about 350-375. Put a fry-pan on your stove over medium heat. Add oil or butter. Salt and pepper the meat. When fat is hot, put meat in pan. After five minutes, turn the meat over and put the pan in the oven. Check after five minutes, but it might take ten or more, depending on the thickness of the meat and the degree of doneness desired. Serve with a salad and crusty bread.

                                                                                                        1. OP, you said: "When I do have the time to cook, I usually don't have half of the ingredients needed for even really basic meals, which is why I asked what my staples should be."

                                                                                                          Something that may help you in this respect is menu planning. The day before you go grocery shopping, plan out what you are going to eat for the next several days or week till your next shopping trip. Write it all down - Monday = sandwiches, Tuesday = spaghetti with salad, etc. Start small - plan to cook just once or twice in a week, maybe on a weekend when you have more time.

                                                                                                          Once you know what you'll be cooking, plan your grocery list. For each recipe, read the ingredients list and see what you already have at home. (Salt? Pepper? Breadcrumbs? Parmesan cheese?) Anything you don't have goes on the grocery list. That way, when it comes time to cook from the recipe, you will already have things at home. Over time, your collection of "staples" will grow - the four items I listed above are ones I consider staples. Substitutions can be okay, but I'd suggest a quick google search to get methods, amounts, and a sanity check. (Milk + vinegar/lemon juice instead of buying buttermilk, for example.)

                                                                                                          Good luck!

                                                                                                          1 Reply
                                                                                                          1. re: truman

                                                                                                            What truman describes is very close to what I do. I think about what I have on hand in the fridge or freezer that I'd like to use, and I plan menus for the next week to week and a half. I try to shop/cook for leftovers--typically I will have a meal or a variation on it about 4 times during a 2-week period (and then I may not make whatever it is for quite awhile).

                                                                                                            Buying a box of mixed greens is a nice shortcut to a side salad, or a main dish salad. If you just throw them in a bowl and dress it, you can have a side in 60 seconds.

                                                                                                          2. Two possibilities: 1) Buy a whole frying chicken (its weight will probably be about 3 1/2 lb). Wash its insides under running cold water and if you don't like giblets, toss the little package. Put the chicken breast side up in a baking dish or pan. Sprinkle on some salt. Bake it at 350* for an hour or a little more until you can easily pierce the breast meat with a fork. If you have an instant-read cooking thermometer (good investment) the internal temp of the meat should be 180* Fh. This chicken will now be available for several meals, tacos, sandwiches, whatever. (Tacos: corn tortillas, cooked chicken meat, a can of refried beans, chopped lettuce and tomato, salsa from a jar.) 2) A slow-cooker (crock pot) is excellent to have because you can put food in it and go to bed or to work and your meal will be magically cooked in your absence. Example: ground beef, canned kidney beans, canned tomatoes AND tomato sauce, chopped onions, chili powder, cumin, and a little hot red pepper will result in a big pot of chili. And no, you do not have to brown the meat first although you can if you want. Don't let the gourmet cooks make this too complicated for you.

                                                                                                            4 Replies
                                                                                                            1. re: Querencia

                                                                                                              My grandmother grew up on a farm, and I don't think she ever didn't start with chicken on the bone. However, the extra trouble drives me crazy. I can often get chicken tenders for less than chicken breasts, so since I typically am not using them whole, I get what to me is the better cut for a better deal. If you like a whole chicken, you can of course make your own as described or buy a rotisserie chicken. However, IMO, an excellent rotisserie chicken can be a bit hard to come by (I don't particularly care for the ones my gourmet grocery store makes). But what I really hate is having to pick the meat off the bones.

                                                                                                              1. re: foiegras

                                                                                                                I make roasted, bone-in, chicken breasts from a Chow recipe and it's fantastic.

                                                                                                                http://www.chow.com/food-news/54292/t...

                                                                                                              2. re: Querencia

                                                                                                                I never cook my chicken to more than 160-165. Also OP may want to check out the Zuni Cafe roast chicken recipe.

                                                                                                                http://www.today.com/id/4401342/ns/to...

                                                                                                                You're lucky to be able to regularly find chickens that small. Even at WF, it's always 4 or more #s.

                                                                                                                1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                  that's a sure fire smoke detector setter offer! the oven needs to be immaculate, even then it's no guarantee!

                                                                                                              3. I'll plus one on the rice cooker idea. They really are convenient, and you can buy small ones that will work for one person. I haven't tried the microwave rice cookers, but I know people who use them. (but I don't know how well the rice turns out.)

                                                                                                                1. My wife is also domestically disabled. She has people clean the house, do the laundry and eats 80% Of meals at one of the family's restaurants. Although she can cook most anything, and clean . ...it's not part of the program.
                                                                                                                  Any why,
                                                                                                                  I would suggest picking out 4 or 5 things you would like to learn how to cook good. Make them simple, it is a learning experience. Then watch 3 or 4 different videos on Youtube, each showing their take on how to cook a certain food. Watch them until you can pick out how each is doing the same thing but differently. Youtube is a good teacher if you spend the time to try and learn.

                                                                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                                                                  1. re: genoO

                                                                                                                    I think that's a good idea ... what are some of your favorite things? Something I think is pretty easy to make at home is various stirfrys. I use either rice or noodles, but noodles are probably easier for you. Some of them you just boil the water, noodles in, fire off, drain at the appropriate time. I buy prepared Asian sauces and chili oil, and the results largely depend on the quality of the sauce. Fire up the pan, add oil, put in your pieces of meat, later the prepped veggies, sauce and basil, then noodles ... it all comes together really quickly and is healthier than a lot of takeout.

                                                                                                                  2. Off the top of my head here are things I liked to to have on hand at bare minimum to be able to make a quick meal back in grad school days when I had no money or time to really spend on food

                                                                                                                    Aeromatics :
                                                                                                                    Onions+Celery+Carrots (you now can build a flavor base for any dish)
                                                                                                                    Garlic (makes everything better)

                                                                                                                    Fats:
                                                                                                                    Olive Oil
                                                                                                                    Butter
                                                                                                                    Mayo

                                                                                                                    Acids:
                                                                                                                    Vinegar (apple cider and red wine are pretty versatile)
                                                                                                                    Lemons or lemon Juice

                                                                                                                    Herbs and Spices:
                                                                                                                    Salt & pepper grinders - disposable plastic kind
                                                                                                                    "Italian seasoning" or Herbs De Provence (both wont kill ya)
                                                                                                                    Paprika
                                                                                                                    Garlic
                                                                                                                    Chili powder

                                                                                                                    Liquids:
                                                                                                                    Canned tomatoes
                                                                                                                    Canned or boxed stock/broth

                                                                                                                    Dairy:
                                                                                                                    Hard cheese (ie grated parmesan)
                                                                                                                    Soft cheese (ie Cheddar)
                                                                                                                    Milk
                                                                                                                    Plain Yoghurt or Sour Cream
                                                                                                                    Eggs

                                                                                                                    Carbs:
                                                                                                                    Dried pasta
                                                                                                                    Rice
                                                                                                                    Tortillas
                                                                                                                    Breadcrumbs
                                                                                                                    Flour
                                                                                                                    Sugar

                                                                                                                    Proteins:
                                                                                                                    Canned Tuna Fish
                                                                                                                    Froezen Seafood of choice (defrost quickly - salmon filets and shrimp are my choice)
                                                                                                                    Canned Beans (white beans are versatile)

                                                                                                                    Condiments:
                                                                                                                    Hot Sauce
                                                                                                                    bbq sauce
                                                                                                                    ketchup
                                                                                                                    mustard

                                                                                                                    Veggies:
                                                                                                                    Frozen Veggies (peas, spinach)

                                                                                                                    Most of this stuff is either shelf stable or has a reasonably long shelf life
                                                                                                                    Buy meat as needed fresh - chicken ground beef etc
                                                                                                                    and fresh green veggies for salads and the like

                                                                                                                    assortment of quick easy pasta dishes, casseroles, tacos, burritos, frittata, Chili, Soup, Stews etc. You can make marinades, rubs or toppings for grilled or roasted meats, make salad dressings etc -As you experiment with new recipes you will naturally add spices and oils to your larder and I am sure other's have different essentials but the listed things are what I think I could pretty much get by with to make a broad range of foods.

                                                                                                                    1 Reply
                                                                                                                    1. re: JTPhilly

                                                                                                                      Good list. If OP has a food processor that's how I always make breadcrumbs and it makes a world of difference.

                                                                                                                    2. Everyone, thank you again!

                                                                                                                      I have a long weekend, so I made a list of basics and went to the grocery store with a plan for a week of meals. Tomorrow I plan on hitting Barnes and Noble for some cookbooks and hopefully I can eventually report back with a few minor successes.

                                                                                                                      Still open to any other suggestions, so feel free to keep chiming in and I greatly appreciate the enthusiastic response to my first post.

                                                                                                                      -NS

                                                                                                                      6 Replies
                                                                                                                      1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                        Your local public library should have some/many books and you can save $$$.

                                                                                                                        1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                          That's true ... it's a good way to find out which ones you like and will use.

                                                                                                                          I have The Joy and still refer to it ... it's a great basic reference, like for how to boil eggs. It also has essays about things like poultry, or comparing and contrasting similar ingredients or techniques. You can learn a lot. Mine is vintage, more the age of my mother's. Let me check the date ... 1967, my own vintage as it happens. I had a new one at one time, but it had a plastic comb binding that broke, and I didn't like it as well as the one I grew up with.

                                                                                                                          You can find a lot of rated recipes on the 'net--allows you to crowdsource your dinner!

                                                                                                                          1. re: foiegras

                                                                                                                            I have MY mother's from the 1930s. It starts with things like "first pluck the chicken" :)

                                                                                                                            1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                              In the case of my grandmother, it was first catch the chicken :) I'm assuming she viewed a whole chicken from the grocery store (so many steps eliminated!) as just as convenient as I perceive buying the exact cut I want.

                                                                                                                              1. re: foiegras

                                                                                                                                Well, they DID live in Atlanta :) Although born "in the country."

                                                                                                                                1. re: foiegras

                                                                                                                                  LOL for my grandmother it would have been "first order the chicken" she is in her 90s now a born LES-Manhattanite (now in West Palm) prides herself on being "modern". The only thing that touches her stove is a duster.

                                                                                                                                  but I love those old cookbooks with instructions for skinning squirrel and the like...

                                                                                                                                  for the op

                                                                                                                                  Jaques Pepin - everyday cooking - eazy thrift store or amazon find - a bit dated but really nice into to simple, doable, but elegant dishes and very adaptable.

                                                                                                                        2. "Learning to Cook" by Marion Cunningham was written for kids - but I have given tons of copies to adults. It is so well written and user friendly.

                                                                                                                          http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Cook-M...

                                                                                                                          I also like a year of slow cooking. My husband wants to help with the food prep, is clueless, but anything he has made from this book is tasty. (I am referring to the first cookbook from this website.

                                                                                                                          )

                                                                                                                          http://crockpot365.blogspot.com

                                                                                                                          For what to have on hand? Garlic, onions, canned tomatoes, parmesan, canned clams, canned tuna, chicken stock. If I have those ingredients, SOMETHING can happen!

                                                                                                                          2 Replies
                                                                                                                          1. re: happybaker

                                                                                                                            M. Cunningham's "Fannie Farmer" is pretty excellent too, really instructive and clear much more reliable than recipes pulled off the web. heck if I follow instructions form it I can even bake which always is a small miracle to me.

                                                                                                                            1. re: JTPhilly

                                                                                                                              Oh indeed, her Fannie Farmer ROCKS!

                                                                                                                              But her learning to cook has taught two friends of mine who swore they could never make biscuits, to make them.

                                                                                                                              And helped me to truly understand roasting a chicken.

                                                                                                                          2. Hi! Congratulations on your first post :)
                                                                                                                            The list of items to keep in your pantry will depend on what you like to eat. NO sense in keeping diced tomatoes if you are allergic, for instance.
                                                                                                                            Anyhow, I would recommend a visit to either a used bookstore or public library, for a copy of "cooking for one or two" sorts of books. Browse the recipes before purchase, just to see whether or not you like the sounds of them.
                                                                                                                            Depending upon your location, the local public school or community center might offer cooking classes. You'd learn something AND meet some people in your new city. Or, post a request for basic cooking classes on the Chicago board. The cooking supply/kitchen shops in my region offer classes; they are moderately priced, and included samples. (I teach in one of the local shops)
                                                                                                                            The major grocery stores in our city offer "nutritional" store tours and cooking demonstrations.

                                                                                                                            Some items I like to keep on hand:
                                                                                                                            Freezer...
                                                                                                                            Butter (salted 'cos it's cheaper in my region), cut into 1/4 pound (it's a half-cup!) pieces, wrapped and in a ziplock bag.
                                                                                                                            Bread, sliced, for guests - I don't eat bread
                                                                                                                            Ground beef, 1/2 lb or so
                                                                                                                            Shrimp or fish fillet (1 or 2 portions)
                                                                                                                            Ice
                                                                                                                            Peas or green beans (or your favorite)
                                                                                                                            Fridge
                                                                                                                            small container of plain yogurt
                                                                                                                            cheese, 2 or 3 kinds that I like, including a block of parmigiano; some people like boursin
                                                                                                                            pickles, because pickles add crunch and acidity to meals like tuna sandwiches or mac & cheese
                                                                                                                            mayo
                                                                                                                            eggs
                                                                                                                            lemon and lime
                                                                                                                            sparkling water or soda water
                                                                                                                            gin and vermouth
                                                                                                                            sparkling white wine
                                                                                                                            onion, celery, carrot and a couple of potatoes
                                                                                                                            Dry goods/non-refrigerated
                                                                                                                            ketchup
                                                                                                                            mustard
                                                                                                                            flour
                                                                                                                            cornstarch
                                                                                                                            sugar
                                                                                                                            salt and pepper
                                                                                                                            olive oil
                                                                                                                            cider vinegar
                                                                                                                            balsamic vinegar
                                                                                                                            chicken or vegetable boulion powder or concentrate
                                                                                                                            packet of gravy mix :)
                                                                                                                            tuna in oil, or salmon (if you like fish)
                                                                                                                            tomato paste in a tube
                                                                                                                            milk powder OR uht milk in small tetra boxes
                                                                                                                            cooking spray
                                                                                                                            Other stuff
                                                                                                                            foil, ziplock bags, parchment paper
                                                                                                                            tongs, with solid tips, not the ring-shaped ends
                                                                                                                            non-stick frying pan, heavier rather than lighter
                                                                                                                            2, 3 and 4 quart pans, with heavy bottoms
                                                                                                                            rimmed baking sheet/cookie sheet
                                                                                                                            scissors
                                                                                                                            peeler, a paring knife, chef's knife
                                                                                                                            cutting board, not glass
                                                                                                                            I stuck a chalkboard on my fridge so that I can keep track of things; such as shopping list, or ideas for menu, or a recipe I'm making up

                                                                                                                            Good luck, and happy eating.

                                                                                                                            1. As others have suggested, consulting a good beginner's cook book would be an excellent idea. There are many. Your post made me think of "The Campus Survival Cookbook," as it was one of my husband's first cookbooks, along with the Joy of Cooking, when he was an absolute newbie, living in a studio apt with a tiny kitchen. The recipes are fairly basic but it includes chapters on stocking your kitchen, both in terms of staples and cookware, and a month's worth of recipes, as well as instructions on basic technique. And used copies are available on Amazon for a penny, plus shipping, , http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listin...

                                                                                                                              Once you master the basics, you will outgrow the recipes. But since you are looking to master the basics, it's a good place to start.

                                                                                                                              1. Welcome to CH! No one is born knowing how to cook, we've all been beginners. My initial cooking experience resulted in burning down a portion of my parent's kitchen. Knowing nothing about cooking, I put a black iron skillet on HIGH heat, added a stick of butter and some bacon slices, turned on the fan and walked out of the room. Needless to say, disaster followed and I met a lot of very nice firemen that day.

                                                                                                                                If you haven't made these acquaintances, you are ahead of the game.
                                                                                                                                NB: I went on to study in France and make various sections of the F&B business my career for more than 40 years.

                                                                                                                                If you don't have an accomplished cook who can tutor you, your road will be a bit bumpy but you'll learn a lot if you stick to it. Humor is important in this process, so is paying attention. So far, it sounds like you've got the humor part well in hand -- congratulations!

                                                                                                                                A copy of the book Lora Brody wrote for her sons is widely available on Amazon (used books) for a penny + shipping. Highly recommended. It will take you step-by-step, including introducing you to the room where food prep takes place.
                                                                                                                                "... On cleaning an oven - Manual cleaning oven, unfortunately, does not mean that a guy named Manual will come and clean your oven".
                                                                                                                                Yep, this is a basic book and perfect guide for someone starting from the floor on up. Chapters on stocking a pantry, necessary gear and plenty of simple recipes.

                                                                                                                                Full disclosure - Brody is a friend but that does not diminish her worth to you.

                                                                                                                                Good luck on your quest. Please let us know how you are doing. This is a caring and forgiving forum, we'd all like to help you join us.

                                                                                                                                Edit: on your quest, try to learn to read something extra into a recipe. For example, when there is a fruit-meat combination, ex: chicken with lemon, think about possible variations. "What would happen if I used orange instead of lemon? or substituted pork medallions for the chicken? Hmmm, maybe I'll use pork with apples or tomatoes ..." Using this technique, you can develop a wide range of dishes from a single 'recipe'.

                                                                                                                                3 Replies
                                                                                                                                1. re: Sherri

                                                                                                                                  Beautifully and perfectly said, Sherri.

                                                                                                                                  1. re: c oliver

                                                                                                                                    Thank you for your kind words. I hope that you will keep those nice thoughts when I tell you that I added an "edit" after you penned the compliment.

                                                                                                                                    1. re: Sherri

                                                                                                                                      plus a mil :) And good advice for all of us.

                                                                                                                                2. For pasta - pasta continues to cook a bit after you drain it. So you want to stop cooking when it's slightly underdone. That could be why your pasta is mushy.

                                                                                                                                  For rice - rice cooker! Cheap, easy to use, and nearly foolproof (you have to measure correctly and remember to turn it on).

                                                                                                                                  For the gas cooker - a heat diffuser might help, if you have trouble burning stuff. Mine gas stove will not do a low simmer without it.

                                                                                                                                  1. Hey Everyone!

                                                                                                                                    Just wanted to give a quick update, since I appreciated the warm welcome and lovely advice. Things have been going a little more smoothly. I managed to make a tasty basic pasta and tried out an egg casserole ( picture included).

                                                                                                                                    The casserole isn't the most pleasing thing to the eye, but it was definitely tasty. Working my way up to some slightly more complex dishes this weekend :)

                                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                    13 Replies
                                                                                                                                    1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                      And you can all see one of my horribly scorched pans in the photo. Don't worry, I'll be getting new/better ones soon.

                                                                                                                                      1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                        FANTASTIC! And the pan I cook lasagna in looks just like that. And I'm not replacing it. It's a 'tool' for me, not a work of art :)

                                                                                                                                        1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                          Thanks for the update- that egg dish looks AWESOME!!
                                                                                                                                          And most of my pans look like that- it just means they've been loved ;))
                                                                                                                                          Keep at it and be fearless!!

                                                                                                                                          1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                            Yes, that is seasoning. My mother's pans looked like that when I was growing up. It's a good thing ...

                                                                                                                                            1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                              Absolutely nothing wrong with pans that look like they've been used. And that egg casserole looks fantastic!

                                                                                                                                              1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                it does indeed look good, anyway spotless pans always mark you as a t/o or eat out person and you don't want that now, right?

                                                                                                                                              2. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                Congratulations and thanks for reporting back. Both dishes sound terrific and it will only get better and easier. Just keep taking it one step at a time.

                                                                                                                                                1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                  Casserole looks plenty colorful to me. And It tasted good? You're home free.

                                                                                                                                                  1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                    I dunno -- I think the egg casserole looks pretty good!

                                                                                                                                                    1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                      Yay, glad the pasta worked out! And the egg casserole looks good too. Pasta and eggs ... can't go wrong for quick basic dishes. If there's something else you'd like to try, please let us know, we are glad to help! (May I suggest roast chicken ... maybe in the fall when the weather cools off a little.)

                                                                                                                                                      1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                        Looks very good! And yes - use the weekends to putter in the kitchen, since there's more time to putter then. :-) That's when you can make a BIG pot of meat sauce for spaghetti over the weekend, and freeze the rest for a baked ziti dish later on.

                                                                                                                                                        Or make a meatloaf, and then you have meatloaf sandwiches or the beginnings of a pressed panino for later in the week.

                                                                                                                                                        1. re: NShewmaker

                                                                                                                                                          That looks good, and tasty. A well used pan is a beautiful thing because practice makes perfect.

                                                                                                                                                        2. Welcome to Chowhound, NShewmaker! Here are some "pantry staples" threads that might help you with that issue. Keep in mind that everyone has a different idea of what *should* be a pantry staple, depending on the type of food they tend to cook (Asian, Italian, whatever). So perhaps these lists can help you formulate your own list.

                                                                                                                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/339069
                                                                                                                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/978666
                                                                                                                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/277668

                                                                                                                                                          As for idiot-proof meals?

                                                                                                                                                          Meatloaf and mashed potatoes
                                                                                                                                                          Roast Chicken
                                                                                                                                                          Hamburger Stroganoff (recipe linked here - if you need measurements and quantities of ingredients, please let me know, as I usually just wing it now, having made this so often over the years)
                                                                                                                                                          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8926...
                                                                                                                                                          Pasta and Sauce - could be red sauce, could be white sauce. Put a salad and some store-bought garlic bread with it, and you've got dinner!

                                                                                                                                                          1. Staples - that's a wildly personal thing. What you will want to keep in your pantry is not going to be the same as everyone else.

                                                                                                                                                            To give you some ideas, here's what I find necessary:

                                                                                                                                                            Salt & pepper
                                                                                                                                                            chilli powder (lots of it since I go through this faster than anything else - probably use about 1/2 pound a month for two of us)
                                                                                                                                                            turmeric
                                                                                                                                                            cardamoms
                                                                                                                                                            coriander seeds
                                                                                                                                                            cumin seeds
                                                                                                                                                            fenugreek
                                                                                                                                                            dried chillies, chilli flakes
                                                                                                                                                            tamarind block
                                                                                                                                                            Maldive fish flakes
                                                                                                                                                            belacan (fermented fish paste)
                                                                                                                                                            kejap manis
                                                                                                                                                            coconut oil
                                                                                                                                                            basmati rice
                                                                                                                                                            lentils
                                                                                                                                                            chickpeas
                                                                                                                                                            kidney beans
                                                                                                                                                            mung beans (aka moong beans, green gram)
                                                                                                                                                            jaggery & treacle
                                                                                                                                                            five or ten varieties of hot sauces - sambal oelik, tabasco sauces, Louisiana hot sauce, sriracha, peri peri sauce
                                                                                                                                                            potatoes, onions, shallots
                                                                                                                                                            dried pasta
                                                                                                                                                            flour, sugar
                                                                                                                                                            cocoa
                                                                                                                                                            coconut milk/cream
                                                                                                                                                            molasses
                                                                                                                                                            canned tomatoes
                                                                                                                                                            canned fish

                                                                                                                                                            ...and it goes on from there. It's a bit of an eclectic mess.

                                                                                                                                                            In this house, I cook a lot of curries, mostly Sri Lankan (the husband is Sri Lankan), but also I cook Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai food. Hey, I live in the region (Malaysia currently), so it makes sense to take advantage of what's available locally. I also cook a fair bit of European food - Italian, German, whatnot - as well as Middle Eastern. I'm also old and have been cooking from scratch since I was, I kid you not, five years old.

                                                                                                                                                            You will want to adapt your pantry to suit your cooking preferences. You'll sort that out over time as you figure out what you like to cook and eat.

                                                                                                                                                            As for starting to learn how to cook... My suggestion is to always start with the kind of food you like to eat. So pick one of your favourite dishes, the simpler and easier the better, get a recipe, and attack.

                                                                                                                                                            1. To the OP: The older editions of "The Joy of Cooking" (eg written in the 1950s) were actually written by Irma Rombauer and not by various other people, with the advantage that the reader profits from her motherly advice. Her directions are very specific and she throws in other bits like (as we arm ourselves to attempt Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast) "Let's make something good out of this!", not bad general life advice. Anyway, fool around on amazon and see if you can turn up one of the old editions. When Ms Rombauer died, her obituary read "She leaves behind her generations of cooks". Join the gang.

                                                                                                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                                                                                                              1. re: Querencia

                                                                                                                                                                I love J of C but you do have to 2nd guess some of the recipes esp. in the 1970's edition like the one for pasta dough. (a weird side note a friend's husband is somehow related to Rombauer!)

                                                                                                                                                                1. re: Querencia

                                                                                                                                                                  Much as love my Joy (I even had to buy a new copy, because my old one was falling apart - I loved it to death)

                                                                                                                                                                  It's probably not what I would suggest to someone as a total newbie to the kitchen. Once you have the basics down, it will become a go-to, but for really basic recipes, I'd head for one of the other suggestions.