Two interesting things happened last week, which have brought me to this post. (Actually, lots of interesting things happened last week, but they are irrelevant in this context). The first was that I was the movie “Ratatouille” with my son, and the second was that I discovered that a bright, young thing was reading this blog in the hopes that she might learn to cook. Since the message of “Ratatouille” is that “anyone can cook,” and I tend to believe that, I thought I’d see what sage advice I have for a willing, but inexperienced cook.
I have found that if I keep my pantry and refrigerator stocked with a few essentials at all times, I can always come up with a meal that is satisfying and reasonably healthy. Here are the things I can’t live without:
- Kosher salt
- Pepper in a grinder
- Good quality extra virgin olive oil
- Red or White Wine Vinegar
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Onions (I always have a bag of yellow cooking onions, but I also like the big, white sweet ones like Vidalias)
- Fresh Garlic
- Parmesan Cheese (I like to grate my own, but pre-shredded is acceptable. The Green Canister is not).
- Chicken Broth (I get the kind that comes in boxes, preferably organic. If you’re a vegetarian, get vegetable broth).
- Rice (long grain, Basamati, Jasmine or Sticky/Sushi)
- Assorted long and short pasta cuts ( including a tiny variety like acini de pepe, Orzo or alphabets for soup)
- Good quality canned, crushed tomatoes
- Potatoes (Can be baking potatoes or Yukon Golds; red New Potatoes may not work as well in recipes)
- Canned Beans (I always have Cannelini, kidneys, black beans and Garbanzos)
- Plain Yogurt (I like Greek, but any is useful)
Here are some things you can cook if you have these “stock” items in your house, and pick up some additional items. All items not on the list of staples will be colored to make it clear that they must be purchased separately/additionally. All of these recipes are all easily made vegetarian, and most are quite inexpensive to prepare.
Bob’s Bean Salad
- 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
- 1/3 medium onion, chopped
- 1 (6 ounce) jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
- 1 (12 ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 (12 ounce) can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 (12 ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
- 2 ounces crumbled feta cheese
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/8 cup white vinegar or white wine vinegar
- 1/8 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
1. In a large bowl, toss red bell pepper, onion, and artichokes together with kidney, pinto, and garbanzo beans. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk salt and sugar with white and balsamic vinegars until completely dissolved. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Adjust seasoning as desired.
3. Pour dressing over bean mixture, and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least one hour before serving. Serve chilled.
I’d serve this with a good loaf of bread and some fresh fruit. If you have leftover feta cheese (and you probably will) it is delicious crumbled into a salad, scrambled into eggs, or broiled in a toaster oven on top of crackers.
Basic Tomato Sauce
Recipe adapted from Mario Batali
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 onion, 1/4-inch dice
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
- 1/2 medium carrot, finely grated
- 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
- 1 box Spaghetti, cooked al dente
- Whole basil leaves, for garnish (optional)
- Grated Parmesan, (optional)
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal.
During the time the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of water to a boil. During the last 10 minutes of the sauce’s simmering time, add a pinch of salt, and the pasta to the boiling water. Boil for 8-10 minutes (see what the box says), until past is “al dente,” or cooked, but not mushy. Drain pasta. Season sauce with salt and serve over pasta with grated Parmesan and Basil leaves, if you like. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.
When ready to use, the cooked pasta should be added to a saucepan with the appropriate
amount of sauce. Garnish with basil leaves and cheese, if using.
This is good with a very simple salad; maybe some mixed greens drizzled with olive oil, Balsamic Vinegar and a sprinkling of salt.
Recipe adapted from Alton Brown
- 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 3/4 cup diced onion
- 3/4 cup diced celery
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1/2 cup tiny pasta, cooked. (You can substitute bigger pasta broken into smaller pieces. To cook the pasta, bring a medium pot of water to a boil, add pinch of salt and the pasta, cook according to package directions, and drain. You can do this while you’re chopping the vegetables).
Bring stock to boil for 2 minutes in a large, non-reactive stockpot with lid on, over high heat. Add onion, celery, and garlic. Lower heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Add pasta and cook 5 more minutes. Season to taste, and serve.
This is a nice light lunch with some good bread and butter. If you happen to have some leftover chicken, cut it into small pieces or shred it and add it along with the pasta to make a heartier soup. You could also add a can of drained, rinsed cannelini beans with the pasta and top it with grated Parmesan.
- 1 baking potato or 2-3 smaller potatoes, peeled, cooked, and diced (you can microwave the potato on the day you make your Mess, or you can use previously cooked potatoes from a previous meal. Its all good).
- 1 big onion or 2 small onions, thinly sliced (can be sweet onion or yellow cooking onion depending on how much you like the taste of onion. I like it a lot).
- 3-4 eggs,beaten (If you are concerned about calories and/or cholesterol you could use 2 whole eggs and two whites)
- Shredded cheese (pick your favorite kind; cheddar is always solid, pepper jack is pretty amazing, and Swiss or Emmentaler gives a nice, mellow flavor. Its okay to use the 2% cheese but not fat-free).
- 5. 1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (optional, although I wouldn’t be without it)
- Butter, oil or cooking spray for pan
- Salt and Pepper
Heat a skillet or saute pan over medium heat, and add butter and/or oil if you’re using them. I usually use a little butter for flavor, but add a little oil to make the potatoes crisp up nicely.
Add the onions, garlic, and potatoes to pan. Cook until potatoes are getting crispy brown spots, like a good hash brown. Do not be tempted to raise the heat to move things along, or you’ll burn your onions and/or garlic and ruin everything. Depending on your pan, how the potatoes were cooked, and a variety of other factors, you may need to add a little more butter or oil if things are sticking to the pan.
When the majority of the potatoes have some brown crisp parts, smooth the potatoes, onions and garlic evenly across the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, if you like, then pour the beaten egg over the potato layer, and cook until eggs appear cooked and firm (no stirring). Its okay to poke them a little, to make sure.
The minute the eggs are done, sprinkle on the shredded cheese to cover everything. When the cheese is melted, you’re ready to eat!
This is pretty substantial on its own, but it would be healthier and make more of a meal served with a bowl of assorted fresh fruit, cut up and mixed with an 8 oz carton of plain yogurt and a teaspoon of sugar.
Beans and Rice
- 1. 4 cups of rice (2 cups, dry) made this way, omitting all herbs and spices
- 2 cans black, kidney or pinto beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 small or 1/2 large onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
- Olive Oil
- Salsa (optional)
- Shredded Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack or Chihuahua cheese (optional)
- Chopped, fresh Cilantro (optional)
While rice is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Sautee onion, garlic and green pepper until softening, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, add beans and cook, stirring gently until beans are heated through and combined well with other ingredients. Mix bean mixture with rice.
Since this is Absolutely Not Authentic, I always top my beans and rice with a handful of shredded cheese, some salsa and some chopped Cilantro. If you are concerned about the Authenticity Police, stick with just the Cilantro and you may get off with no more than a slap on the wrist.
I hope this is enough to get someone started in the kitchen; with time and experience come the discoveries that all of these “basics” can be tarted up and enriched by changing and/or adding ingredients. The bean salad could be a light, cool summer lunch or a side dish served with grilled meat, chicken or fish. The leftover tomato sauce can be popped in the freezer and brought out months later to make something completely different. The noodle soup, made with Ditalini pasta and Cannelini beans, and topped with Parmesan cheese becomes a version of “Pasta e Fagioli” soup, and the beans and rice with no cheese or salsa make a beautiful side dish for grilled meat with a Caribbean, Spanish or Mexican marinade.
One more thing: its probably wise to keep some cereal and milk, Ramen or crackers and cheese in the house for the times when the rice comes out crunchy, the sauce burns, or you get half way through the recipe and discover that you forgot an essential ingredient. “Anyone can cook,” but not necessarily without a little practice!