Cooking 101

So you say you can’t cook?  You are afraid to deviate from a recipe?  Let’s start changing that today with some simple tips and encouragement.

Cooking is like art.  It is fulfilling to see what you created when you are done and to see others enjoying it.  You don’t need to have fancy ingredients or have gone to cooking school.  My Dad was a cook in the Coast Guard and learned how to put together meals for his peers.  You use what you have.  I also learned this from my grandparents in Alaska.  You never waste anything and we can feed an army (ok well large family) on the staples in the house.

We were not rich and growing up in the 70’s trust me I had my share of casseroles and Jello molds.  I am still a big fan of casseroles and stews/ soups as you can take those leftover ingredients in your fridge and raid your pantry and come up with one hearty meal. I think it is only fair to share with you some of my favorite humble dishes from the past.

I look in the pantry and all I see is a can of Franco-American spaghetti.  My parents wanted to elevate it and make it more into a meal that can serve us.  Brown some ground beef with onion in a pan- add the canned spaghetti. Done.

Spam-  Yes, that canned meat.  We had a lot of spam, usually sliced and browned and eaten as a sandwich with mustard. Now I don’t know exactly how my mom made this casserole dish but she used the electric skillet.  I want to say it included a layer of sliced potatoes, a layer of sliced onion, and spam.  I am not sure what else but used to be something we ate a lot.

The simplest of Shepards Pie…ground meat and corn mixture covered in mashed potatoes. YUM.  Mrs. Thatcher made this simple dish the best!!!!!

Now we also had dishes that I didn’t care for…Cowboy Stew…..To this day I don’t know what was in it.  I do remember a funny story of my mom making Cowboy Stew for dinner.  We were not excited.  I actually think my dad didn’t enjoy it either.  Well mom forgot it on the stove or in the crockpot or something and it burned.  I remember the house smelling really mad.  Then Dada said, “Who wants Pizza!!”

So now that I reminisced a little let’s back to encouraging you not to be afraid of the kitchen.

  1. Recipes are guidelines (except for baking).  With computers these days you can find easy substitutions for something you don’t have on hand.  Think of it this way:  How can there be so many recipes for the same dish?  Everyone uses different amounts and maybe different spices.  So don’t feel like you have to measure everything exactly or you don’t have a certain spice so you can’t make the dish.
  2. Start small.  Spaghetti sauce.  If you are afraid to make from scratch (it is easy by the way) then buy a cheap store brand and then make it your own.  Add your own spices (thyme, basil, oregano, Italian seasoning), maybe add some spicy peppers or red pepper flakes to kick it up.  I always add about a cup of red wine. Experiment!  You see the sauces at the store with vegetables in it so cut up your own and sauté and add to your sauce.  By switching out the meat if making a meat sauce will change the taste…you can use the ground beef but you can also use any ground meat or a combination.  Crumble some cooked sweet and hot Italian sausage in the sauce.  I usually make my sauce from scratch but I have had to use a store bought one in a pinch and always make it my own.  My sauce never tastes the same as I use what I have on hand.
  3. Simples switches:  When making rice you can substitute a stock.  I recommend chicken or vegetable stock.  It will impart some of the flavor into the rice.  I sometimes even add in some diced onion, tomato or a package of Goya seasoning into the water.  I know a lot of people are afraid of cooking rice.  Maybe because we had rice at every dinner in Alaska (Filipino and Tlingit Indian heritage) but rice is very easy.  Here is my way:  2 cups of liquid (water or broth), bring to boil, add 1 cup of white rice, turn heat wayyyyyy down to low, cover.  Should be down in about 20 minutes.
  4. Recipe calls for white wine and you have none- use chicken broth.
  5. Speaking of cooking with wines.  Don’t waste your money on small bottles of cooking wines.  I keep a big bottle of white and red drinking wine.  Yes and it can be a cheaper brand. Also, you can buy the bigger bottles of Marsala and Sherry in the wine section.
  6. I add red wine to my spaghetti sauce and chili.  You can also make a quick marinade using some red wine, olive oil and seasonings for red meat.
  7. White wine I use when making pan sauces for chicken, pork, and fish.  It also can be used in making of a marinade for chicken or pork.  Of course, you can also use the handy salad dressing as a marinade.
  8. Don’t have sour cream or plain yogurt:  you can substitute each for the other.
  9. The most important thing is knowing the basics.  For example realize that if you use 1% milk you are not going to get a rich creamy texture as you would using whole milk or cream.  I have substituted using 1% and heavy cream or half and half when I didn’t have enough whole milk.
  10. Always taste your food as your cooking.  This is your friend and best tip.  You can adjust seasoning as you cook.
  11. Using canned products?  Just remember that usually a lot of salt is added.  You may need to rinse off the product.  If I am using any canned beans I always rinse.  This doesn’t include baked beans or beans in a chili sauce.
  12. Sauce too spicy and you want to sweeten a little—add honey.
  13. Salt is your friend but don’t add too much too early as you may end up with too much. Salt brings out the flavor in food.  You can always add a little at the end.

I try in my recipes to give helpful tips so read my posts, get creative and start to enjoy cooking.


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