Cooking 101: Baby Steps

Probably the most common thing I hear from people who don’t want to (or don’t think they can) cook on a regular basis is that they don’t know where to start. I’d say the number two comment is that they don’t see why they should cook, when there is so much prepared food available. Before I give a little advice on how to take some first steps into home cooking, I wanted to share why I think cooking is important, and why it feels so good to do it.

I have a friend who is from cowboy country, and every time he goes home for the holidays, he and his family go hunting. I asked him once why he likes hunting so much, especially since hardly any Americans need to spend hours, or even days in the woods shooting animals for food.  His answer surprised me.

He said it’s the one thing he gets to do in his modern, city-dwelling life that feels completely human. It makes him feel connected to his ancestors, and the rest of humanity, when he thinks about the immeasurable years that people have been hunting. It feels as if there is a switch that goes off after he’s spent a few hours in the woods, and his mind slows down, and he feels human.

Putting aside for today the gender issues involved (man hunt, woman cook, grunt grunt), you have to imagine that people have been cooking their food since about five minutes after the discovery of fire. There’s a reason why I get a happy feeling every time I cook for myself, my spouse, or a group of friends. It’s because cooking and feeding your loved ones is an essential human activity.

Say you want to start cooking at home more but don’t know where to start. While I don’t embrace her entire philosophy (I’m not kidding I really don’t), you could take some inspiration from Sandra Lee and her “Semi-Homemade” empire.

Years ago, as a fresh-faced college grad, I found myself alone for dinner at my friend’s Mom’s house, where I’d been crashing for a few weeks, and I said to myself, “cook something.” So, I cobbled together a little half-homemade pasta sauce by sautéing some garlic in olive oil and then tossing it in with the jar sauce. Hardly revolutionary, but it was tasty, and an encouraging beginning for me.

Combining pre-made ingredients with some homemade touches isn’t just easy; it’s an important first step in becoming comfortable with cooking. It’s the easiest way to learn what goes into a dish, and what little additions can make it better. It’s a great way to build your confidence in the kitchen, knowing that you can’t mess it up TOO badly with most of the meal pre-done. And, you can strengthen your skills on the basics without worrying about having too many balls in the air at once.

Perhaps most important for some of you, doing things halfway at home saves a LOT of time. Pre-cut, pre-washed vegetables. Boneless, skinless, bloodless chicken breasts. Shredded or grated cheese. Frozen burger patties. All of these things let you skip most of the prep and get straight to the cooking. After a crappy day at work and a long commute, this can really be the only thing that keeps you from ordering takeout again.

You have a lot of options as to how to start with this first step, and you can decide what you want to do based on your skills and comfort level. If you’re good with vegetables, like I am, you might want to start by having the “homemade” portion of your meal be a great salad (with your own dressing!) or a side of stir-fried, baked, mashed or steamed vegetables.  If you are more comfortable with meat, then you can work on different techniques (grilling, broiling/baking, sautéing) let the veggies be your microwave’s problem.

Another completely different angle is to focus on dressings and sauces. You can have a perfectly mediocre frozen hamburger, but if you top it with some delicious corn and black bean salsa or fresh guacamole, you won’t even notice or care.  Homemade salad dressing is almost ridiculously easy if you keep oil, vinegar, and some spices in your kitchen, and it will taste great even on greens that may be past their prime

So, start exploring the world of not-quite-from scratch cooking. You’ll learn a little bit about your strengths and weaknesses as a cook, you’ll get a sense of what you want to have stocked in your kitchen, and you’ll see how good it feels to have a little more ownership of your own meals.

Do you want some recipe ideas? Let me know in the comments or email me and I’ll do a post with some sorta-homemade recipes.

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