“I don’t cook.”
Those words baffle me whenever I hear them – and they do crop up in a surprising number of conversations with other young people my age. Sometimes these non-cookers seem proud of their lack of skill, shrugging it off as if preparing food were not necessary at all: “We just eat out a lot.” I try not to look too stunned and leave my thoughts unsaid: “Good luck with ever saving any money and maintaining a healthy weight.”
I’m one of the lucky few in my generation whose parents made sure to teach me how to cook from a young age. To this day, it’s the most useful skill they’ve ever taught me – far more so than 15 years of violin lessons.
I’ve come to realize that cooking doesn’t have to be a big deal. We as a society have never been more obsessed with the idea of cooking. We cook vicariously through the Food network, Top Chef, and Hell’s Kitchen. The problem is that these shows present an overly glamorized version of cooking, and almost make it appear too difficult for us non-celebrity chefs. These shows do no favours for the would-be home cook, who would be much better off sitting down with a copy of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything and starting from page 1.
If I could give my non-cooking friends any advice, this is what I would tell them:
1. Cooking from scratch can be fast and easy.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. On busy weeknights, do the absolute minimum. Tackle the basics – steamed rice, boiled potatoes, pasta. Sauté vegetables, serve with some meat or eggs, and you’ve got a fast, tasty dinner. Remember, it’s better to cook simply every night than make elaborate meals once in a while.
2. Cooking from scratch will save you so much money!
Whenever my family eats out, the bill comes to at least a quarter of our weekly grocery bill, which is why we only do it once or twice a month. It’s far cheaper to buy groceries once a week, keep a well-stocked kitchen, and cook from scratch on a nightly basis. (Or cook just a few times a week and eat the leftovers.) If you can save that much money, why not learn the skill?
3. Learn some cheap shortcuts to save even more money.
Dried beans and lentils are very cheap and easy to prepare: simply soak, boil, and season. Ask your butcher for tough cuts of meat, which are just as delicious as pricey cuts if cooked for a lengthy time in stews or soups; they’re especially simple to use in a slow cooker. Buy seasonally to keep the cost down. Plan your weekly menu in advance to cut down on wasted groceries.
4. There’s a lot more to pasta than just tomato sauce.
Unless you’re making a quick homemade tomato sauce… But seriously, the sky’s the limit when it comes to pasta. Cream, butter, and Parmesan can create a quick Alfredo sauce. Olive oil, toasted breadcrumbs, and cheese are a delicious combo. Add a beaten egg, ham, and more Parmesan for instant carbonara. Pesto, chopped leftover roasted vegetables, smoked fish, fresh tomatoes with basil and mozzarella – try everything!
5. Boxed baking mixes are a waste of time and money.
If you actually look at a homemade brownie or cookie recipe, you might be surprised to see how few ingredients it contains. My favourite brownie recipe uses a single pot and takes under 5 minutes to mix up – and it tastes way better than a boxed mix ever could.
6. Making bread from scratch takes time, not work.
Bread-making shouldn’t be so intimidating. There are wonderful no-knead recipes that require almost no work – just some initial measuring and stirring – then you let them sit for hours with minimal attention. The result is divinely delicious, not to mention much cheaper than storebought artisanal loaves.
7. Master a few recipes and use those.
Start by establishing a small collection of foolproof recipes that you can always fall back on, i.e. roasted chicken, a fine pasta dinner, a vegetable soup, a good omelet, an awesome steak. Branch out as you can, but don’t stress out about knowing how to cook everything all at once.
8. Good, basic cookbooks are a great investment.
As I mentioned above, Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything is an invaluable reference book, with 2000+ recipes for everything imaginable. Other personal favourites are the Canadian Living cookbook, the More with Less cookbook (which dates back to the ‘70s and focuses on frugal shopping/cooking), and my annual subscription to Fine Cooking magazine, which never fails to provide great meal ideas.
9. Last but not least, buy a fabulous knife.
A high-quality chef’s knife can seem very expensive, but, in my opinion, it’s the single most worthwhile kitchen investment you’ll ever make. When chopping becomes effortless, cooking anything becomes a whole lot easier and you’ll be more inclined to do it.