Cooking Sucks.

Fast, easy recipes and kitchen tips for those who hate to cook, but feel like they have to anyway.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Stocking Your Pantry

There are many pages all over the net with tips and notes for stocking a pantry. Most of these will be next to worthless for you, because they assume you would rather cook than have your teeth pulled, which is likely not the case. The number one rule for stocking your pantry/ kitchen shelves is this: there is no weakness in shopping for convenience. Remember that our goal is to meet or reduce 15 minutes of prep time with five ingredients per recipe, so that means we will rely a lot on boxed foods, canned goods, and one-skillet/pot meals in general. With that in mind, shopping becomes a lot less daunting, as we will certainly never need the appropriate “staples” required to grind our own wheat kernels into flour, or whatever ridiculous crap our “love to cook” friends will often do. Below, see the bare minimum listing. Below that, see some tips for “extras”.

Baking and Spices

• Salt and Pepper, natch. If you hate to cook, but cook to impress, I suggest a sea salt grinder and pepper mill, simply for the haute cuisine appearance of grinding your seasonings into the pot as you go. In addition, pick up some “targeted” spices, such as poultry spice, steak spice, etc. Then you don’t have to remember what goes on what.
• All-Purpose Flour
• Bisquick
• Crisco


• Mayo, ketchup, and mustard – the basics.
• Other condiments can be picked up ad hoc according to the recipe you are making. Avoid keeping everything you can think of on hand all the time – it wastes space, and if you hate to cook, it will likely go bad before you use it.

Fridge – Eggs, cheese, milk, and butter. Outside of that, shop for the fridge in terms of what you plan to do. If you follow this Blog’s advice, you’ll be creating a personal cookbook, and shopping weekly for it. If you go some other route (i.e., different recipe every day, etc.) then shop accordingly. Don’t fill your fridge – instead, fill an envelope with this month’s grocery money, and do your refrigerated shopping as you go. Rule of thumb: buy it to use it, not to stock up.

Freezer – the freezer’s different. You can shop till you vomit and fill your freezer with the meats from your personal cookbook (ground beef, steaks, chicken breast, bologna and other lunch meats, etc), frozen dough (bread dough, croissants, etc.), convenience foods (i.e., frozen waffles, microwavable taquitos, etc).

The advice above is minimal – however, I wouldn’t spank anyone who chooses to keep the following stuff on hand as well:

Garnish – Remember the old saw about real estate, where location is everything? In cooking, the same can be said about presentation. The simplest of recipes are elevated to grand status with a few tidbits of garnish. Now certainly, I’m not suggesting you learn to carve whales out of watermelons or make a rose from a radish, but even when serving a simple meal for Dad and the kids, a little sprinkle of this or that can go a long way. The easiest way to think about garnish is to consider colors and contrast. A little extra color does the trick, but always make sure your garnish colors contrast the colors of the dish. For example, when serving mashed potatoes (white), a tiny sprinkle of dried dill (green) on top will make it stand out. When serving pancakes (brown) a light dusting of powdered sugar (white) on top will give it that professional appearance. In most cases, your garnish will not alter the flavor of the dish at all, as you are only using a tiny amount for color. I suggest keeping the following on hand:

Parsley Flakes
Dried Dill
Dried Thyme (for poultry)
Paprika (great for picnic-type salads)
Powdered Sugar

Fancification – Similar to the garnishes above, these items are little tidbits you can toss into a dish to make it seem like you’ve got actual skill. Again, think contrast – serving a crispy green salad? Add some sliced almonds and chewy white raisins to make it extra special. Serving wild rice (savory) on the side? Stir in some dried apricot (sweet) and bask in the compliments of your guests.

Dried fruit (raisins, apricots, etc.)
Dried nuts (peanuts, soy nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamias, etc.)
Granola (btw, I’ve often found granola cereals to be cheaper than mixed bags of granola in the baking aisle)
Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, etc.)

– Be it Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, Lipton’s team mix, or coffee, keep ‘em on hand for a quick, add-water-and-stir solution that will make your meal a little more exciting.

Sweets – Always, and I say always keep some vanilla ice-cream on hand. Add to that a bottle of chocolate syrup or some fruit preserves, and you have instant dessert whenever you need it (“Honey…. I brought the boss home for supper!!!)

So there it is – a very short list and one big piece of advice: you don’t have to have a walk-in pantry in order to get by in the kitchen. Just keep a few things on hand all the time, and do a weekly grocery trip based on what you will be cooking.

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Easy Chicken Parmesan

Chicken is one of those things that can be used in so many ways that it’s really just freaky. Boiled, fried, baked, steamed, niked, etc. ad nauseum. It really goes well with just about anything, and takes just a minimum amount of effort to dress it up.

List of Ingredients

2 lb Chicken, breast
2 oz Cheese, parmesan, shredded
1 tsp Oregano

Instructions for Preparation

First Skin the chicken- Usually, the skin on chicken is a good thing (for this fat loving fool, anyway) but in this case, I really think it comes out better without the skin. Rub the oregano into the meat.

Second In a hot pan, add two tablespoons of olive oil and cook the chicken for 10 to 12 minutes per side on medium heat, or till tender and no pink remains in the thickest part of the breast meat.

Third Sprinkle the breasts with the shredded parmesan, and allow it to melt. I usually nuke it at this point as a matter of convenience (translation: I'm an impatient bastard).

Scarf it down, allowing it to cool long enough so that you won't scald the roof of your mouth. Oh come on. Like you've never done it.

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The Bad Cook’s Kitchen

Setting up a kitchen when you think cooking sucks is painfully difficult. The Bad Cook’s kitchen generally comes in two types.

1. The “I never even think about my kitchen” kitchen

2. The “If I buy more stuff, my cooking will improve” kitchen

The first template is often to be found in the home of the single person, or the home of a couple who are married/ shacked up, and have no kids, but you can find it in any home. These are the kitchens of those of us who are sublimely unprepared to so much as hard boil an egg. These are the kitchens with jelly jars for drinking glasses, one skillet with the non-stick coating coming off in the middle, mismatched silverware, and an unused toaster oven from the wedding 2 years ago.

The second paradigm is what I think of as the “tool-oriented” kitchen, which can be great for a creative cook who loves the art, but is crippling overkill when you hate to cook. Here, you’ll find too many pots and pans for the cupboard and 18 small appliances that allow you to create anything from sandwich pockets to riced potatoes to perfectly poached chicken breasts. Bad cooks in this category will rarely ever ask themselves if they actually need to shoot salad ingredients from a gun, or if they really need a special device just for making perfect pats of butter. They love to shop for the kitchen, and will buy a special counter-top grill that is strictly for making quesadillas without a thought to where they will store it when they get it home. They’ll buy a rotating, countertop pizza oven that collects dust while they continue to order from the local Pizza Kiosk because it turns out that cleaning the home pizzeria is a total bitch. They’ll pick up automatic garlic slicing doohickey, even though they never think to by garlic by the clove. Why do they make all these purchases if they hate to cook? Because they are on the hunt, my friends, for that perfect doohickey that will finally make cooking a tolerable exercise. If you have a whole cabinet or shelf devoted to bagel toasters, cotton candy makers, counter-top grills, and pineapple slicers, then this category is yours. Admitting you have a problem is the first step.

When you hate to cook, you have to supply your kitchen in such a way that you play to your strengths and admit to your weaknesses. On the one hand, cooking will never become something you will tolerate if you have to brown hamburger meat for the spaghetti in the wok that your brother picked up for you in Korea. Likewise, your family or loved one will never enjoy breakfast at home if they have to eat their cereal out of the blender jar. Extreme minimalism will kill the desire to cook and mutilate your attempt to serve a meal at home. Ironically enough, kitchen supply overkill will only do the exact same thing. Having too many dishes to eat and drink from will only give you the opportunity to put off doing the dishes for two weeks. 62 small appliances designed to only do one thing will take up too much space, overwhelm your meager creativity stores, and very likely only get used once.

Here are some basic concepts to help you supply your kitchen with what you need.

* If you hate to cook, you probably will not enjoy cleaning up the mess afterward either.
* If you don’t entertain often, you really only need enough plates and cutlery for yourself and your family.
* A huge variety of small appliances will not make you enjoy cooking all of a sudden, and the chances of your using a Tortilla Press on a regular basis is pretty slim.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of minimum essentials – designed to allow you to cook adequately for yourself or family.

Cutlery Forks, Spoons, and Butter knives. Buy enough to serve your family twice before you have to wash the dishes. One spoon size is plenty – you don’t need all those different sizes.

Dishware Large plates, small plates, cereal/ soup bowls. If you drink coffee, get two mugs for each member of the family that drinks it. Most department stores these days allow you to buy individual dishes instead of the boxed kit that always comes with coffee cups that are too damned small and saucers that you’ll never put your coffee cup on. You will, however, blithely eat an egg off of said saucers instead of washing the dishes. You know who you are.

12 ounce glasses, 2 for each member of your family.

Knives One decent chef’s knife (8 inch should do); a small paring knife; a serrated edge bread knife, and a set of steak knives.

Pots and Pans One skillet, 10 inch or so, non-stick. 2 quart saucepan; one Dutch oven, one egg pan.

1 casserole dish that is 9" x 13" is great – you can use it for casseroles, or the odd cake you may need to bake.

Coffee maker, toaster, can opener, microwave and Foreman Grill (the big one). I’ve owned several table top grills in my life, and I do suggest you splurge for the Foreman. Last but not least in the appliance department, pick up a good waffle iron. It will change the way you think about Sunday breakfast.

Linens 4 dishtowels, 2 rags, 2 potholders, 4 plate scrubby thingies.

Kitchen timer, meat thermometer, spaghetti server; slotted spoon; ladle.

Now I understand that the above list may seem rather minimal, and in fact, you may already have ten times this much in your hellhole, erm, kitchen. If you truly hate cooking, I strongly suggest you pare down your collection (give it away, eBay it, yard sale, whatever). You’ll appreciate the sense of liberation that comes with knowing that your kitchen is not glutted with wasted money in the shape of useless gadgets. It’s truly a great feeling to know that every dish in the house can be dirty but you still only have one load for the dishwasher. In all of this you have a single goal – to turn your kitchen into a nice, inviting destination, as opposed to a sinking pit of despair. The less clutter, the more goal oriented the better.

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When You Hate to Cook

What is life like when you hate to cook? At home (where the Mom is), it was easy. You dragged your lazy ass out of bed (or more likely, the bed dragged you, as they say in Soviet Russia), wandered downstairs, rubbed your little eyes with the back of a curled fist. You gazed at the dining room table, laden with pancakes, bacon and eggs, and the occasional hand-made buttermilk biscuits. Mom, bedecked in pearls and sensible heels, poured your juice for you, cut up your eggs, and spoon fed you such down-home goodness, all while marinating that night’s steaks and soaking the supper potatoes in salt-water.

Okay, so that scene sets off the bullshit sensor, I know, but the idea is still valid. For many of us, our childhood memories are punctuated by scenes of amazing home-cookery, be it from Mom, Granny Mother, or even Uncle Joe with his barbeque obsession. Uncle Joe had other obsessions as well, but we’ll not discuss that here. Once you left home, hating to cook still might not have been so bad. As a single young adult, the lure of the local fast food joint promises convenience and thrift. Eating an evening meal that consists of cheese puffs, pickles, and Mountain Dew doesn’t bother anybody, and besides, no one will know except your dorm mate or the cat.

Things can change as the years go by, however, and before you know it, you have two kids to feed, a husband who hates McDonald’s, a bank account that can’t afford Sunday breakfast for four at the local egg-joint, or a Mother-in-law’s shadow to live under. Maybe you live in a rural area, and eating out isn’t feasible, or perhaps you simply want to impress friends, or celebrate a special occasion. These are the times that hating to cook simply sucks, my friends; when the weekly grocery store trip becomes a hateful excursion into misery, and when the sight of your beloved family picking at the dinner you just made while mumbling insincere compliments can become heartbreaking.

When you hate to cook, you tend to stand in awe of the people who simply love it, like those persons listed above. How in flaming hell did Mom manage to keep the hash browns warm while she made the eggs? How did she manage to serve pancakes to 4 people, but none of them had to wait while the others got started? How did Uncle Joe know how hot his charcoal grill was without a thermometer? How did he manage to juggle hot dogs, sirloin strips and hamburgers all at once, and not burn any of it?

When you hate to cook, but feel as if you have to, you need to plan ahead, and plan around the swift, efficient use of the kitchen. Let’s face it – you simply are not hardwired to remember that basil goes great with tomatoes, or that rosemary is good for chicken. If that’s the case, why waste time planning for a magnificent seven course meal, or waste valuable cabinet space storing three complete sets of cookware (face it hon, if you burn water in an aluminum saucepan, you’ll still burn it in your brand new Visions cookware). Play to your strengths, admit your weaknesses, and plan to the future.

In future updates, I’ll help you:

• Stock your kitchen with only what you need
• Create strategies for Combat Shopping
• Stock your pantry for easy meals and emergencies both
• Develop a personal cookbook that doesn’t waste your time or riddle you with guilt (unless you’re Catholic – then the guilt is here to stay. Sorry about that)
• Master several handy techniques that will cut time and bolster your meager abilities in the kitchen

In addition, I’ll be on the hunt for quick and easy recipes – 15 minutes of prep time and 5 ingredients or less of both – so that you won’t have to look for them yourself. In between, and here and there, I’ll likely tend to rant and rave about various things that have me excited or pissed off at any given time, and may even wander way off topic once in a while.

Please feel free to comment on any entry – ask questions, suggest changes, or make requests. I won’t necessarily be here every day, but I will be here.

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