My Cooking Tips For People Who Never Cook

Despite growing up with a stay-at-home mom who cooked amazing meals for us every night, I rarely lifted a finger in the kitchen as a kid. I mean, I sometimes followed directions (ie, stir this, fetch that, don’t stand on the counter), but never actually stored the information to my mental hard drive. Cooking was a chore adults had to do, so I would avoid it as long as possible.

Like so many of us, that all changed when I got married. Now, of course, there’s no rule that says marriage = cooking. But luckily for me, I landed a guy with some restaurant experience, so we equally divide the burden of weeknight dinners. After three years, I’ve gone from an apathetic rookie in the kitchen to an apathetic-but-competent cook.

I don’t love cooking, but I am proud of my accomplishments. So for anyone who feels completely awkward around a stove, here are some practical tips that might give you an edge.

NOTE: There’s lots of common advice for beginners that I’m gonna skip. Common advice includes learning how to menu plan, using basic spices, and investing in a good set of knives.

1. Don’t start with Bon Appetit recipes.

Pie For Dinner, Bon Appetit Magazine, February 2015, Volume 60 Number 2

Maybe when I’m retired, I’ll have time to braid a pie crust…

While a few of their recipes are simple, many of their dishes are best attempted once you’ve mastered the basics. Almost every Bon Appetit recipe I’ve made has used terminology I’ve had to google (example: bain-marie) and required me to buy a random ingredient I will likely never use again (looking at you, poppy-seeds gathering dust on my spicerack).

Plus, their advice tends to use a lot of “ALWAYS” and “NEVER”, which can be intimidating to beginners who don’t realize that their meringue probably won’t be ruined just because they didn’t use room temperature eggs. Bon Appetit is a great resource, but better for intermediates, in my opinion.

May I suggest Food Network in the meantime?

2. Water takes forever to boil

Question: You are making chicken nuggets and box macaroni and cheese (it’s been a rough week). The nuggets take 14 minutes in the oven and the macaroni needs 7.30 minutes in boiling water (the Kraft box is very precise). Which should you start first?

Image result for water boiling in potAnswer: Always put the pot of water on the stove first. For some reason, water takes a ridiculously long time to boil, so by handling it first, you’ll probably end up having both foods ready at the same time.

If you’re in a rush, spend an extra ten seconds waiting for the tap water to get hot before filling up your pot. You’ll shave minutes off your time.

3. What ingredients are your instant recipe killers/winners?

For us, we tried a bunch of casseroles with sour cream and never really enjoyed the results, so now we just avoid those recipes. On the other hand, we’ve discovered a fondness for sauces with cream cheese.

4. Cornstarch can make you cry

Image result for cornstarch

Cornstarch is often used as a thickener for gravy because it’s faster than alternate methods. However, this is one shortcut that has backfired on me MANY times. Sometimes the moment I add the cornstarch into my gravy, it seizes up into large lumpy flakes. It’s scary and once it has happened, there isn’t much you can do to salvage it except spend 15 minutes spooning out the lumps.

Experienced chefs will probably tell you, “Oh, just mix your cornstarch with cold water before dumping it into the sauce”, but even after lots of practice, my gravy still seizes up 50% of the time. Don’t avoid this ingredient forever, but until you’re more advanced, stick with the old butter/flour technique (called making a “roux”)

5. Your oven (not you!) might be the problem

There’s a good chance your oven heats unevenly. This means that some spots are hotter than others. To test it, try baking a box cake mix. If you have some sections that are burnt and others that are raw, that’s your oven’s fault, not yours!

One way to help this problem: Fill a baking dish or tray with water and put it in your oven to preheat. Then put your cake pan in the warm water bath (also called a “bain marie”) if you’re feeling fancy). This will help create a more even heat around your food. It won’t fix severely uneven ovens, but it can help.

6. Trying new recipes is expensive & will take extra time

We’ve always noticed that our grocery bill seems to increase significantly on weeks when we’re cooking a new recipe. This is because we usually have to buy ingredients that aren’t in the pantry already. Sometimes it’s a fancy cheese (looking at you, edam!) that we use the first time and then later substitute for a cheaper alternative. Other times, it’s because the recipe wants you to use 3 lbs of chicken and you didn’t realize that will feed like 8 people and you only have 2. The next time you make the recipe, you’ll cut it in half and save money.

I probably don’t need to explain why it takes double the time to make a new recipe, so my advice is to do your experimenting on the weekends when you have plenty of time to read each line four times. Eventually, you’ll get the process streamlined and you’ll be breezing through a casserole on a weeknight, but give yourself time the first go ’round.

A Few of My Favorite Starter Recipes:

meatballs and spaghetti

  • Meatballs: Add 1/3 cup parmesan inside the meatballs to make these SO much better. I love it because it’s literally dump everything together in a bowl and roll balls. So easy and you can use them for leftovers in sandwiches, spaghetti, or Swedish meatballs. https://www.thespruce.com/easy-meatballs-480711

If you have an HEB grocery store near you, this is our favorite brand of crumbs (the

garlic flavor is addictively amazing).

Breadcrumbs.jpg

We put them in everything from meatballs to mac and cheese. Speaking of mac and cheese…

  • Quick Mac & Cheese: The recipe claims this is like Kraft mac, which hasn’t been my experience…although, I never have been able to find noodles in that very specific shape. Even though it’s not Kraft-like, it’s still delicious. Top with breadcrumbs for extra yumminess. https://www.thenest.com/content/homemade-mac-and-cheese-recipe
homemade mac and cheese recipe

Actual results will probably NOT look like this, but don’t worry 🙂

  • Ham & Cheese Bread Pudding: Breakfast for dinner = the best thing ever. This recipe won’t work for a weeknight because it has to bake for an hour, but everything else about it is a breeze (cut stuff, beat eggs, dump it all together, stick in the oven, bam, you’re done). Plus, it’s one of the few recipes that will turn out Pinterest-perfect on your first attempt. Easy peasy and great for impressing guests. http://www.theworktop.com/breakfast-brunch-recipes/savory-bread-pudding-ham-cheese/

 

 

  • Chicken & Bacon Pasta: Don’t forget to cook the bacon while the pasta water heats so it’s ready in time–or make the bacon ahead of time. Also, we usually substitute ground beef instead of chicken because we already have a TON of chicken recipes. Lastly, we tend to favor bow tie pasta instead of penne for this one, but it works well with both.): http://www.plainchicken.com/2011/05/chicken-bacon-pasta.html

Chicken Bacon Pasta - grilled chicken and bacon served over a creamy cheese sauce - The BEST pasta I have ever had. Seriously better than you'll find in any restaurant. You can make the chicken ahead and reheat it.

Good luck and let me know how it goes!

 

 

Carpe Diem! Joining the Dance.

It dawned on me this week that querying is changing my life in ways far beyond writing. I’ve always been good about actively pursuing my goals and sniffing out opportunities instead of waiting for them to come to me. However, I’ve always taken the lone-wolf approach–learning the ropes by reading books, researching on the internet, and taking pride in doing everything on my own. The key here is that I was really quiet going about it, especially on the internet, leaving no tracks while I soaked up the websites’ advice. I never commented, never subscribed, never shared pages I thought were interesting.

That all radically changed the moment I started sending out queries. It started with me following agents and authors on Twitter. I don’t really like Twitter, but for keeping up with publishing people, it’s priceless! You get to hear about what state they’ll be in next, what they watch on tv, and what writing pet peeves they have. Then I started this blog and realized I have a ton to talk about. Weirdly, I became almost as enthusiastic about this blog as I am about my stories, and I kinda sorta really wanted people to read it. And how do you get other people to read your blog? Read theirs, of course, and leave a comment. If you scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours, and you’ll sometimes make a new friend.

I suppose this is called networking and everybody knows about it already. But to me, it’s participating and being part of the performance, not just an audience member.  I could never do this sort of thing in person, I’d be mortified. I’m naturally confident and talkative, but get painfully shy if I’m required to spontaneously introduce myself to someone who doesn’t know me. I hate forcing myself on people. That’s why I love the internet. Nobody gets annoyed if a random stranger decides to jump into a  forum and put in their two cents. It’s less exposed, but you are sprinkling yourself around, starting to feel comfortable not being anonymous. Next thing you know, I’m leaving feedback on places totally outside my sphere of expertise. I even wrote on the food magazine Bon Appetit’s site because there  was a funny article about Star Wars cereal. After getting over the daunting hurdle of sending out a query to an agent, these small endeavors seemed invitingly easy.

Yes, those are the kinds of thing that makes me feel bold and adventurous :-\ BUT I also filmed a video for youtube’s “Life in a Day” project, when I would normally have thought, “Hey, that’s a great idea…but too much of a bother”. I’ve been taking more chances in my life, trying new foods, traveling, entering contests, having long conversations with people on planes. Heck, I even made a tiny, yet drastic change in my novel: I decided to change the good guys from “Mages” to NotSureYet . Mages was too fantasy-ish for a sci-fi novel and I never liked it in the first place. Only problem is that now I have to change my title of my novel from “Earth Mage” to AlsoNotSureYet. I’ve got lots of title ideas, I just have to pick one. This will be the 3rd title change on this project! My friends/family are going to be SO confused, the poor dears.

The important thing is I’m making the most of my time. Even more, I’m making lists of stuff I missed out on this year and I want to be ready for next year. And it feels great! This is why I love summer, because I have the brain capacity to stretch myself like this. I can seize each day and make a significant footprint in it. Carpe Diem!

Quick update on the querying: I haven’t sent out any more queries because I’m revising my query letter to make the tone more quirky, like my novel. I still haven’t heard back from 2 agents, but that’s not all that strange.

Possible names for my No-Longer-Mages (Feel free to suggest others):

1. The Medwin

2. The Virote

3. The Xantara (Shantara?)

4. The Khalon

5. The Tavor

6. The Gifted

7. The Sotirios

8. The Pareil

Basic Background: These are elite warriors who defend the Atlantean solar system with their mental power called Telos (named after the prefix of their skills–telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, etc). Their enemies are the Dantes (previously called Sorcerists), who are usually fallen Telos users. The Mages serve the light Telos entity called Eliah and the Dantes serve the dark Telos entity of Ifara.