Mar 24 2008
The Bachelor’s Guide to Brilliant Cooking: How to Go from Microwave Dinners to Quick and Easy Restaurant-Quality Meals Every Night
By THEBOSTONBACHELOR.COM / March 24, 2008
It was my senior year of college, and I had had enough. If I ate another Stouffer’s microwave dinner, Pop Tart, or cup of ramen noodles, I would have disintegrated into a mound of MSG, sorbitol, and Yellow 6. So that Fall I made a decision. I would learn how to cook.
Of course, being the stubborn person that I was, I learned not through courses at your local community college or cookbooks, but through hundreds of nights standing over the stove. What follows are some of the most important lessons I discovered during this 4 year odyssey of trial-and-error.
The goal here is to provide concepts, rather than individual recipe. I will also mainly focus on stovetop cooking (i.e. pan-frying, steaming, boiling) as opposed to baking (never had the patience for it) or other means. So if you’re the type of person who’s burned off his eyebrows on more than one occasion trying to make a simple omelet, stick to the microwave, you clumsy bastard.
THE 5 BIGGEST REASONS WHY YOUR COOKING BLOWS:
- Overcooking: Yes, I’m concerned about e. coli just as you are, but that doesn’t mean you need to go Fallujah on the damn meal. The biggest victim of overcooking is usually chicken breast or fish.
- Improper Heat Levels: Preheat not only when using the oven or broiler, but when using the stovetop as well. This is crucial if you plan on searing any kind of meat. I’ve also noticed that people tend to set the burner too low for meats and too high for vegetables, soups, and other side dishes. I prefer to set the burner to medium-high when searing any kind of meat, whereas soups and vegetables really don’t need to be set higher than medium-low. Use common sense and as long as you’re not burning down the house or contracting a case of salmonella poisoning, you’re golden.
- Over-agitation: Turn the meat as FEW times as possible, especially when pan-searing chicken breast, lamb, pork, or any kind of steak. Learn to flip the meat only once during cooking. Otherwise, leave it alone. Why? If you’re constantly stirring the damn thing around, you’re never going to allow the meat to seal and develop that caramelized crust with the tender inside.
- Inattentiveness: Yes, we’ve all done this before, but running back and forth between the kitchen and living room during commercial breaks is not going to cut it. Set aside the time you need to cook the meal, especially if you’re a beginner.
- Not Trusting Your Five Senses: There’s a reason why I usually prefer the stovetop to the oven, and it’s more than just the time savings. It’s the up-close-and-personal relationship you get with the food. I can easily see, smell, touch, taste, or even hear if the meal is coming along as it should, and adjustments can be made in a split second. Remember, egg timers, measuring cups, and recipes are nothing more than tools; use them in addition to, rather than as a substitute for developing a chef’s intuition.
- The 3 biggest ways restaurants make their food taste better: more butter, more cheese, more butter, and more salt. Any asshole can learn how to add a quarter stick of melted butter to a dish and make it taste better. But for the sake of your health, learn how to cook without using all those artery-clogging cheap little fixes.
- Know thy oven. Each oven is a unique creature, so adjust cooking times accordingly instead of blindly following the recommendations on the back of the DiGiorno’s box.
- Invest a quality stainless steel cookware set. Teflon tends to break down at high heat and reportedly contains carcinogens (I’ll let you do the research and come to your own conclusions). For the price, Wolfgang Puck makes a pretty decent 9 piece stainless steel cookware set. You may also want to pick up a cast iron frying pan than can be used both on the stove and in the oven.
- Watch out for weevils and moths in your pantry and dry starch goods.
- Don’t cut, stab, or poke holes in the meat while it’s cooking, unless you want it to dry out prematurely.
- Grilled-cheese sandwich makers and calzone makers can be worthwhile investments for those lazy Sunday afternoons.
- Trader Joe’s is your friend. Not only are most of its products’ healthier than the typical supermarket selection, they’re also cheaper and taste noticeably better. The Trader Joe’s brand also shares the same supplier as many Whole Foods’ brands—but at much more reasonable prices. Plus, you don’t have to deal with all those Whole Foods snobs (anyone who’s been to a major metropolitan area Whole Foods knows what I’m talking about).
- Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is one of the greatest foods known to man. Never buy lite olive oil, olive oil, or any of that cooking spray crap. Look for cold-pressed or first-pressed EVOO in glass or metal containers only (plastic containers react with the oil). Like wine, EVOO tastes different per region, so find a brand you like. However, the hardest thing to determine about EVOO is the veracity of its origin and even content, as past international scandals have indicated. Spanish and Greek EVOO may be a more authentic bet than Italian EVOO. If you can afford it, go for estate bottled EVOO. As for my personal picks, I’ve yet to find a favorite, but Bertolli is probably the worst I’ve tasted.
- It’s ok to wear your girlfriend’s apron to avoid being splattered by grease, but expect to be publicly ridiculed for it.
- Go for a quality brand made from 100% durum wheat semolina. No egg noodles. Barilla typically gets the most recommendations from pasta aficionados, but personally, I’m not a huge fan of the brand. I’ve found that Barilla and De Cecco have a short life-span; I’ve opened boxes a few months old to find live larva or larva exoskeletons inside. Instead, I prefer San Giorgio or Trader Joe’s pasta.
- DO NOT skimp out on the sauce. Chances are, if your pasta dish sucks, it’s because of the sauce more than anything else. If you buy your sauce at the supermarket, avoid brands like Ragu, Prego, Classico, Francesco Rinaldi (sorry V), or Stop & Shop (though their homemade canned soup is actually a hidden gem). The only quality mass-market brands of red sauce are Victoria (the marinara in particular) and the Trader Giotto’s (Joe’s) line (look for the ones made from “imported Italian plum tomatoes”—my personal pick is the Bolognese). Finally, Trader Joe’s used to make a brilliant sun-dried tomato pesto sauce before it mysteriously vanished from shelves a year ago; if you know where I can find the original supplier or similar brand, I’ll add you to my Christmas e-card list.
- Make sure you use plenty of water when boiling pasta; I cannot stress this enough. Add salt to the boiling water BEFORE you add the pasta. The salt will help the pasta retain moisture.
- After the pasta is cooked, do not cold rinse the pasta unless you plan on using it in a pasta salad. Keeping the pasta warm after draining will make any sauce or olive oil stick much better to the pasta.
- Before combining the pasta with the sauce, add some flavor to the pasta using garlic and extra-virgin olive oil. Heat up some EVOO in a pot, add some garlic, some crushed red pepper flakes (if you like a little spice), then add the pasta once the garlic begins to brown. Stir/toss the pasta and coat evenly, then add the sauce, coat evenly once again, and remove from heat.
- You don’t have to come up with some brilliant marinade to make chicken flavorful. Some of the best chicken I’ve had was seasoned simply with extra virgin olive oil, pepper, and salt. This being said, those three condiments should be the minimum used when prepping the chicken.
- Pan-seared chicken breast is one of the simplest things to do, though it took me a few years to figure this out. Add some EVOO to the pan, preheat to about medium-high heat, and then add the prepped chicken. Leave the chicken alone. No touch. When the raw meat becomes cooked halfway through (you’ll see this with your eyes as pink turns into white), flip it over. The side that was face-down should be nicely seared. Leave the chicken alone again. When the juices run clear and both sides of the chicken breast look just as nice, you’re done. Remove from heat and cover, letting it rest a minute or so before serving.
- The fresher the catch, the less “fishy” it smells. (Insert joke about the blind man walking past the fish market here.)
- Plan on preparing it the same day you buy it, or the next day at the latest.
- The key to making good salmon lies in keeping it moist and preventing it from drying out. If pan-frying, adding a little additional butter or extra-virgin olive oil during the cooking process can help accomplish this.
- When possible, let the meat reach room temperature before cooking.
- Use a dry rub prior to cooking. This usually consists of some EVOO, black ground pepper, (garlic) salt, and whatever else you prefer. For rib eye I highly recommend Emeril’s Essence. I’d stay away from dry herbs such as parsley leaves, which can easily burn in the searing process.
- Pretty much the same course of action as searing chicken breast, ‘cept this time you halt the cooking according to your desired level of doneness.
- Rinse in cold running water first.
- Vegetables should be pretty impossible to fuck up, as you can get away with overcooking them much more than you can with overcooking meat. They’re also much more versatile and can be steamed, boiled, stir-fried, roasted, etc. The only vegetable that proves to be a bitch from time-to-time is asparagus. If you don’t cut off the stiff stems or overcook them, asparagus can turn out to be a chewy mess. On a side note, a little balsamic vinegar goes well with asparagus.
- Save yourself a giant fuckin’ hassle and get a rice cooker. Trust me. Who’s the Asian one, you or me? Now if I can only find an Irish reader to add a section on potatoes to this article…
Your politically correct neighbor,
-The Boston Bachelor