I want to talk to you about something that has made meal planning and cooking so much easier for me and I think it will be helpful for you too. Planning meals and figuring out what to eat for dinner is something almost everyone struggles with. Even if you’re a good cook and have plenty of time to prepare a meal, it can be difficult to come up with something appetizing and nutritious day after day, week after week! It’s no wonder so many people choose to eat out or get takeout so often.
I first learned to cook mostly by watching the Food Network shows a decade ago when I first moved in with John. I was working part time and had a decent amount of free time on my hands. I thought it would be fun to attempt to cook for John a few nights a week so when I was home during the day, the TV was almost always on a cooking show (Barefoot Contessa, Everyday Italian, Good Eats and 30 Minute Meals were my favorites). I’d watch these folks cook and then run to the computer to get the recipe, hit the store for ingredients and cook!
While fun, cooking was also kind of stressful at first because I really had no idea what I was doing and felt I had to stick to the recipe and follow every little word or it would be a disaster. Most of what I made turned out ok and I gained confidence and a new hobby that I loved. I had always been a foodie and now I could actually make my own stuff! After a while I was cooking every single night and got better at planning meals without a TV show telling me what to make. But something that I had a hard time letting go of was the idea that I needed a recipe to get started. I focused so much on what I was in the mood for or each little step and the amount of ingredients that I missed something that is essential to becoming a good home cook – learning cooking techniques.
Instead of learning techniques, I learned to follow and rely on recipes (and felt glued to my recipes like they were a safety blanket). Meal planning was sometimes frustrating if I couldn’t think of a recipe to make. I knew how to make complete recipes if I followed them to the T, like: gorgonzola and mushroom lasagna rolls, lime cumin salmon with corn and pepper salad and chicken marsala burgers with arugula and onion salad. But if someone asked me how to cook salmon I had no idea. How to grill a burger, I had no idea! If I hadn’t been hyperfocusing so much on the details in the recipes, I would have noticed that most of these shows actually teach basic techniques that all cooks should have and recipes is secondary to having those skills.
If you learn some basic techniques and keep a well stocked pantry and fridge, you can whip up a decent meal pretty easily and without too much fuss. Will it always be inspired and fun? No, even the most accomplished cooks have flops or meals that are just boring. It happens! But if you learn some basics and get confident with them, you’ll never have to worry about what you’re making anymore.
When it comes to meat, poultry and fish, some of what you’ll want to know how to do is grill, bake, broil, pan fry, poach or braise. With vegetables, to start off it’s good to know how to steam, saute and roast. For sauces, learn to make a simple marinara / tomato sauce and how to do a pan reduction (delicious gravy from the juicy bits from the meat you’ve cooked). It’s also good to know some basic prep skills – like how to chop an onion, or the differences between chopped, minced and julienned. Learn to make homemade broth and stock – you’ll be able to make soups and sauces easily and with more flavor!
There are a lot of different places where I’ve learned techniques over the years and I thought about creating a big resource here with lots of links for specific things but I think that might feel overwhelming to some of you, especially those who might just be starting out! So I’m going to keep it simple and give you just two links to focus on:
Stella Culinary School – How to Cook
This is an amazing resource. It’s full of free professional videos on everything from how to blanch veggies and clarify butter to really advanced stuff like curing your own charcuterie! The videos are short and easy to follow. There’s a forum if you have questions and they videos are available for free on itunes too so you can take them with you! There’s even recipes that put together all the techniques you will learn and some videos on flavor profiles which is helpful if you are someone who isn’t sure just yet what herbs and spices go well together.
Food Network – Good Eats
I love me some Alton Brown. This show is no longer on the air but there are still some episodes up on the Food Network site and I think Hulu also has some too. While some of the show is super silly, Alton goes over the science of why he chooses the methods and ingredients he does for each episode which can really help you lock down some basic and amazing skills. This is the man that taught me how to caramelize onions properly and everyone who has ever eaten them will tell you that they are amazing. He’ll teach you how to cook a turkey and how to slow roast ribs on the grill – once and for all.
I recommend picking one or two techniques to learn every few weeks. Decide what you want to learn to do (perfectly grilled chicken? Baked fish in parchment paper?), watch the videos and practice the technique. Focus on how each technique is done and try it a couple of times until you don’t have to think about it anymore. Then try something new. Before you know it, you’ll have a huge arsenal of fancy cooking talents that you can brag about to all your friends (or keep to yourself!).
If you’re like me and like to read sometimes instead of watching videos, I’m a big fan of Cooks Illustrated Magazine. The subscription is a little pricey but the recipes are excellent and it’s different from other cooking magazines in that they explain how they came to their version of that recipe (through many attempts using different methods). Your local library may even have copies you can borrow. It has taught me a ton!
I realize that learning techniques still leaves some of that “but what should I make?” question unanswered, but if you can cook protein, a vegetable and a complex carbohydrate of some sort (and use some fat and spices) – dinner is done. Don’t over think it. Techniques like broiling a fish fillet will save you on those days when you just can’t fathom being creative. I wish someone had told me to focus on techniques when I was learning. It would have saved me so much frustration and time!
While I still have days when I just don’t feel like cooking, I have the skills now to put something together in just a few minutes and no recipe is needed. John comes home from work and has a tasty meal on the table that he thinks I slaved over, all because I know how to do a few things well. You can too – and then eating healthier will be way less of a challenge!