To the Class of 2007: School is out, but you've got one last lesson to learn — -- six basic recipes for the omnivorous new cook. With these easy, mix-and-match dishes, you'll be set at least for the next few years.
To the Class of 2007: You are about to move out on your own and take your first big job, right? You'll have your own apartment (or at least part of one) in the city. There will be a takeout deli on every corner and more restaurants than you can shake a credit card at. No problem, you can feed yourself.
Well, not so much. If you've been used to a full fridge at home with your folks, or the 24-hour feed trough of college, that table for one can come as a bit of a shock. I know. I've been there. After three months of the beige diet (ramen, bagel, pizza) and a king's ransom of takeout, you're going to start wishing you knew how to cook. But where do you start?
If you're like I was at 22, you dive for whatever cookbooks you happen to have around and quickly find that every one of them demands ingredients you can't get or equipment you don't have. Or they ask you to turn to page 314 for the recipes you have to make before you can make this one. Not going to happen.
The first time I cracked open Joy of Cooking — which I grant you, was not as user-friendly as it is today — I had the same sensation you might have upon opening your first organic chemistry textbook: something along the lines of "I have no idea what you're talking about, this isn't my idea of fun, and I really think I should go now."
But I'll tell you a secret. Even the best home cooks have half a dozen dishes they make all the time. Nobody notices because (a) they taste great; (b) you can vary the ingredients every day if you want; and (c) they're so easy you could make them in your sleep.
I doubt anyone will take up my idea of printing six recipes on the back of your diploma, but it might make that piece of paper more useful than it is without them. So here, by way of being helpful, are six basic recipes for the omnivorous new cook — five dinners and one dessert. The dessert is for when you get somebody else to cook.
What they are, and why you need to know them:
Stir-fry: You don't need to pay someone $6.95 to make it for you, and you don't need a wok to make it yourself. All you need is five snow peas, two stalks of asparagus and the half a chicken breast from yesterday that you're about to toss because you don't know what to do with it.
Pilaf: The rice pilaf is the little black dress of carbs: You can accessorize it six ways from Sunday and it'll always be good. You can use any dried fruit or nuts you have around. In fact, you could probably use trail mix and it would be fine as long as you pick out the M&Ms.
Frittata: You always have eggs. You probably always have too many eggs, even after gingerly breaking the carton in half at the store. Once you can make a frittata, you too can create the miracle that is dinner from a surplus of eggs and a deficit of time.
Pork chop: If you're intimidated by cooking red meat, make friends with the pork chop. This recipe — a variant of one from the venerable Silver Palate cookbook — was one of the first I learned, and I've probably cooked it once a week for 15 years.
Pasta: Learn to make one pasta and you've learned to make them all. As long as you have at least one strong-flavored ingredient around (ham, mushrooms, anchovies, olives, sun-dried tomatoes) to liven things up and make it a party, you can pretty much wing it.
Chocolate mousse: Because nobody can live without chocolate and you can't keep eating chocolate chips out of the bag forever. This version doesn't require a double boiler or gelatin, the two usual excuses for not making chocolate mousse.
I'm not even going to bother with a salad recipe, because you already know how to put some lettuce in a bowl and shake oil and vinegar together in a jar.
Here's your equipment list. (Parents, take note.) You don't need much, but make it count:
6- to 8-quart metal pot: for boiling pasta, making soup and (someday) simmering stock.
8-inch cast-iron skillet: Why cast-iron? It's cheap, it cleans up easily, (at worst, you have to soak it briefly), you'll have it for life. Best of all, it can take the heat. You can blast the bejeezus out of that puppy, or put it right in the oven — it'll just shrug it off. It's also useful to have a 10-inch stainless steel or cast-iron pan, but not essential for cooking solo.
Metal mixing bowls: One big, one small. You can always get more later.
Plastic cutting board, at least 14 inches long: Cheap, fast-drying and easier to clean than wood. It doesn't hurt to keep a weak bleach solution in a spray bottle by the sink, next to your detergent, to make it easy to sterilize after cutting raw meat.
Paring knife: Chances are you'll mostly use this for cutting butter, cheese and pieces of fruit rather than paring, but that's OK. You'll be glad you have it.
8-inch chef's knife: Hold the knife in your fist, with your thumb pressed forward for leverage. Feel the power. Once you get used to it, you'll use it for everything: chopping, mincing, mashing garlic. Just remember to start by making one flat side on everything you cut so you're not slipping and sliding on your board.
U-shaped plastic vegetable peeler: Don't even bother with any other kind. They're cheap, lightweight and the shape gives you leverage. Save your wrist tendons for whisking.
Metal slotted spoon: This is for stir-fries or any other situation where you don't want to get too close to something really, really hot.
Wooden spoon: For stirring the pasta, for pushing vegetables around, for scraping sauce, to use as a bookmark in cookbooks.
Grater: A Microplane for finely grating cheese, nutmeg and lemon zest. A box grater, too, for large shreds (carrots for muffins, cheese for nachos, zucchini for frittata).
Rubber spatula: To scrape anything whose consistency falls between that of lotion and mud.
Metal turner: Universally but mistakenly referred to as a "spatula" (spatulas are rubber scrapers — see above). If you can, get one with a wide, offset metal blade and a sturdy wooden handle. For eggs, for pancakes, for scraping anything the wooden spoon can't handle.
Egg beater and whisk: These are for the mousse — cheap, serviceable substitutes for a stand mixer.
Finally, here are the five tips that will make your transition from fumbling takeout fool to minor kitchen deity complete:
1. Take out all your ingredients and chop everything beforehand. The mustard hiding in the back of the fridge, the salt falling out of the cupboard and hitting you on the head will eat up your prep time and make you burn your dinner.
2. Preheat your skillet until it makes a water droplet dance if you want your meat to have a nice brown crust.
3. Keep a little bowl of kosher salt by the stove and one on the table so you can take a pinch when you need it. If your food tastes as if it has fallen asleep, chances are you forgot the salt. Don't try to sprinkle from the big cylinder of table salt. You will regret it.
4. Use your freezer. Freeze leftovers, unless you want to get a science project going in your fridge. If you bought too much meat, double-wrap the extra in plastic and freeze it. You can use your microwave (lowest setting) to thaw stuff, or just place it in the fridge if you have all day.
5. Don't leave your dishes for tomorrow. They'll be harder to scrub, and the bugs will come. Putting on music when you're washing up makes it go twice as fast. Independent studies have confirmed this.
The first couple times you make these recipes they will take about an hour, because you'll be reading the instructions. By the third time and subsequently, they shouldn't take much more than half an hour.
Once you get used to making your six recipes, you should be set for at least a couple of years. If you're still making them at your 15th reunion with your second kid in tow, that's OK, too. And when that kid graduates from college, with 10 packs of ramen noodles and a suitcase, you can turn to him and say: "Let me tell you a secret ...."