Most bad cooks eventually find something that forces them to be good cooks. It might be running out of money for takeout, it might be raising children, or it might be a global pandemic that forces you to stay home and not eat take-out every day. For me it was that last one. How many times can I cook the same grilled cheese sandwich, I asked myself, before my heart detonates inside my rib cage like an over-filled gravy-balloon?
The only thing to do was learn some real recipes — so I oiled up my cast-iron pan, ordered some groceries online, and got to work. Here are my favorite meals that are easy, delicious, and provide ample opportunities for self-expression and experimentation.
Chili is a great starter recipe because a) it’s almost impossible to screw it up too bad, and b) it keeps for a long time (you can even freeze it). My preferred way to do it is to start with one can of black beans, broth, tomato sauce and diced tomatoes, onions and half the other chopped veggies, coffee/beer and other odd ingredients (like just a tiny, tiny hint of Dave’s Insanity Sauce), and simmer that for a good hour or two. Then I add the browned-meat, carrots, a can of pinto beans and anything else about 30 minutes before I take the whole thing off the burner.
Why the two-pronged approach? Because for the first couple hours, you’re softening everything up into a delicious mush. Then you add the meat, some carrots, and some more beans to give it a more interesting texture. But this is mostly because I like my chili really spicy, and I like to have something to chew in it. I also really like everything Metallica released before “The Black Album” in 1991 — things really fell apart after Cliff Burton died.
The best part of chili is making it your own, and once you’ve put it together a couple times, you’ll have a better idea of what you want and really know how to put your own spin on it.
You’re going to notice two things about me as this goes on: first, I like things spicy, and second, I like listening to music or watching TV while I cook. I seriously can’t recommend “Hot Fuzz” enough.
The best thing about marinara sauce is that you can ease into how complicated it is. It’s perfectly acceptable to start with a can of basic tomato sauce (which is just pureed tomato with water and a bit of salt) and then just start adding ingredients as you go. Love olives? Chuck ‘em in there! Hate olives? Don’t! Wanna puree the fresh tomatoes yourself? Do it! Scared? Just go with canned! Or do a mixture of both! There are no laws! As long you remember to brown the meat before you add it to the sauce, and don’t forget the sauce on your stove for a few hours, you really can’t go wrong.
The only real complicated part is to learn to saute the onions and garlic, but that’s worth your time, because you’re going to be sauteing a lot.
The rest of Patton Oswalt’s stand up comedy specials, especially “Annihilation” (It’s on Netflix if you want to cry).
Fajitas are stupid easy, but look complex, which more or less makes them the holy grail of cooking. You cut the chicken breast into strips, fry them, season them appropriately, and set them aside. Then you saute (see!? I told you it’d be useful) the onions and pappers, and re-add the chicken. Next you heat up some flour tortillas, slap them on a plate, and voila: Delicious Mexican dinner that’s also more-or-less healthy (depending on how much salt you used).
Dutch Babies, or German Pancakes, are my favorite special-occasion breakfast — but they’re no harder to make than an omelette or normal pancakes, so you can probably get away with cooking these more often than that.
The first step is to make the coffee, and pour a generous helping into your favorite mug. Next step is to dump three tablespoons of butter into your cast iron pan, put that in the oven, and set the temperature to 400 degrees Farenheit. Take a sip of your coffee (which should be cooled off enough to drink) and then mix the eggs, milk, flour, sugar and vanilla extra together until it’s smooth (though you also want to be careful not to over-mix). When the oven is pre-heated, set your coffee to the side, remove the cast-iron pan and pour your batter inside it. Put that back in the oven, and set a timer for 15 minutes (it might be closer to 20 when it’s done, always hard to tell). Continue sipping your coffee.
The coffee is not for the Dutch Babies, the coffee is for you. When it’s fluffy and starting to get golden brown around the swollen edges, it’s time to eat your breakfast.
If you love refried beans but have never made them, I have great news: making them from scratch takes like 10 minutes, and is way more delicious. All you do is heat them up, mash them like potatoes with a fork or potato masher, and then season however you desire. Want them thicker? Drain the canned beans first! Want them more watery? Don’t do that!
When you’re done, your friends, roommates or partner will be like “wow this refried bean dip is amazing where’d you get it” and then you can laugh and say “I made it myself” and they’ll be all, like, “wow.” Be careful, though: once you’re addicted to that feeling — that feeling of making people happy with food — there’s no end to the concoctions you’ll dream up.
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Joshua Sargent is an editor for Hearst Newspapers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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