Since moving to New Orleans, and starting a blog, it has come to my attention that not everybody knows their way around a kitchen. I have met countless mamas here who are terrified by their role as ‘family cook.’ And it kills me. I just can’t stand the idea that there are mamas, papas, or just anybody at all out there staring at the fridge, intimidated by cooking dinner.
I’ve written about this before, but I just keep coming back to it I guess. I got a new cookbook titled The Commonsense Kitchen by Tom Hudgens. I had hoped (I always do) that this might be the one. I could just recommend it to y’all and call it good. But of course, though his philosophy is reportedly simple, the book is 608 pages. I mean…. The people who like and need a 608 page cookbook are not the new cooks of the world, am I wrong? I love a 608 page cookbook (although it is sorely lacking pictures), but I think you new cooks out there need a cookbook with about 25 pages, 50 tops. You need straight forward, thorough directions for a few dinner table basics, with no confusing, intimidating extras.
Of course, who am I to talk about keeping things brief? I could dissect a recipe down to it’s most infinitesimal detail, and sometimes I do. That’s why I feel that there needs to be two distinct kinds of cookbooks in the world. Simple, brief, almost-anything-works cookbooks for new cooks, and uber-wordy, in-depth books for more experienced geeks like me.
But publishers don’t want to limit their audience. On the contrary they want to make people believe they have some kind of magic book, just what every cook, at every level needs to own! Maximize audience, maximize profits.
Here at Apron Stringz, I don’t have to worry about a publisher. I also don’t have to worry about a book. I get to make singular little posts, my individual offerings up into the greater world of cookery. So today, I’d like to dedicate this post to you beginners out there.
How to be a Good Home Cook in Three Easy Steps:
Step 1: Tear down the myth. I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it until we all believe it in our bones. A good home cook has nothing to with knowing how to make a hollandaise sauce, julienne a carrot, or bake a souffle. Being a good home cook is about figuring out a way to get the most high quality food into your family’s bellies on the most frugal budget, day after day, without burning out. High quality food tastes good, so you don’t have to do much to it. Fancypants cooking is fun for sometimes, to keep your spark, but in no way defines a good home cook.
Step 2: Buck your food taboos. Pretty much everything I used to think was taboo turns out to be the what one or another culture considers the norm. Seemingly unlikely combinations (to an American brain) often turn out to be, not just good, but divine! All the chic artisanal foods were once just some mama in a kitchen figuring out how to use up whatever was going off in the cellar. Play around, have fun, open you mind.
Step 3 (the most important of all): Cook. People get really stuck thinking they have to learn how to cook. Like, learn first, cook second. No, the way to learn how to cook is to cook. A lot. All the time. Read cookbooks when you have the time and inclination, watch experienced friends or family any chance you get, but otherwise just go fuck around in the kitchen. Allow yourself to cook simply. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Allow yourself to order pizza when you burn dinner beyond recognition. You are learning. It’s a long process, with many fine dinners along the way.
Now, in case you do not have one of your own locally available, let me be that experienced friend. Come hang with me in my kitchen while I make a very basic, easy, and delicious dinner.
First, in case anyone didn’t even learn how to eat dinner in their growing up home (which I fear is increasingly the case), what is dinner anyway?
dinner = protein + starch + vegetable
This can help simplify things in your mind when you are trying to imagine what dinner will be, out of what might feel like an infinite sea of possibilites. Look around your kitchen and fridge and see if any one of those quotients are pre-determined. If you have something that needs using up, you can work out from there.
For tonight’s dinner, I knew I wanted to make hamburger patties. Burger is the most economical cut of meat you can get. Become familiar with burger, it is the foundation of a frugal, ethical carnivores diet. Burger can go into almost any dish you could want to cook, but just frying it up in patty form and setting it on a plate is simple and satisfyingly down home.
In the fridge I found a burly looking bag of carrots that really needed using up, and my family does love some glazed carrots. With a starchy root already on the menu as “vegetable,” I didn’t feel like potatoes for “starch,” so I decided on brown rice to complete the meal.
One thing always lacking from cookbooks is a practical timeline for the meal as a whole. I’m going to give you that first, then describe the preparation of each dish below.
I started prepping for dinner, as I often do when I’m being a good mama instead of a good blogger, during the Babe’s nap. I quick-thawed the meat while I measured out all the other ingredients for the patties, then mixed it all together and stuck it in the fridge. I cleaned the gnarly carrots, cut them up and left them in the big skillet, ready to cook. If you have kids, I really recommend prepping ahead as much as you can, it makes everything go much smoother come 4:30.
About an hour before dinnertime, start the rice and the carrots to cooking (the directions are coming next). Then take a minute to set the table and wash up a few dishes. Or alternatively, scrape the kids off of your legs and give them the attention they’ve been demanding while you started the rice and carrots. At about 20 minutes out, start cooking the patties.
Ground Meat Patties (or meatballs or meatloaf)
You can certainly cook hamburger patties straight up. That’s how my mom did it when I was a kid. But since I buy locally raised goat burger, and it’s price corresponds to it’s ethics, I like to stretch it a little.
I mixed up what is basically a meatloaf recipe, but formed patties and fried them in a pan. Very delicious if you have the extra five minutes. This recipe made enough for two large and two small sized patties, plus enough extra for meatballs which I served the next night.
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of ground meat
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup quick cooking or “3-minute” oatmeal (not instant or old fashioned), or breadcrumbs
- 2 teaspoons worchestershire sauce, soy sauce or 1 Tablespoon A-1
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed or minced
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, if you have it
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 cup yogurt, optional
You can add herbs if you like, fresh or dried. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme would all be good options.
Mix all the ingredients up thoroughly, and then chill until ready to cook.
Form patties while heating your big skillet on medium. Add a bit of oil if you used very lean burger, otherwise you shouldn’t need it. Cook on one side for about ten minutes, or until browned, then flip and cook on the other side for ten minutes (if you try to flip before they’re browned they might stick). To check if they’re done, press down on one with a pancake flipper, if the juice that oozes out has any pink color, keep cooking. If they are browning too fast, turn the heat down to medium low. You do want them to brown though, so don’t turn it down too low.
It sounds silly to give a recipe for rice, but I’d rather bore the experienced cooks (go read another post, this one’s not for you anyway) than worry that someone out there doesn’t know and is afraid to ask.
I actually think rice is a big, mean joke in the kitchen. It sounds like the very simplest thing in the world to cook. But, especially with brown rice, there is a vast difference between perfectly cooked rice and mushy or still-hard rice. Not to say that cooking rice is hard, but if you aren’t at first satisfied– try, try again. It’s not just you. It’s trickier than it sounds.
The amount of water seems to be the key issue. For my brown basmati I like to add just a bit more than 1 3/4 cups of water to 1 cup of rice (which makes enough for 3-4 people). Put both water and rice in a pot with a good fitting lid (that’s important), add 1/4 teaspoon of salt, bring to a rapid boil, stir once, and then turn the heat down as low as it will go. Now, just leave it there, undisturbed for about 45 minutes. The rice is done when all the water has been absorbed. Stick a fork down one side to check. If there’s still a bit of water at the bottom, put it back on the heat. If the bottom looks dry, taste a few grains to make sure they are done. If they’re still too hard, add a few Tablespoons of water, put the lid back on, and return to low heat. Don’t be tempted to proclaim still-hard rice ‘finished’ or your family might decide that they don’t like brown rice.
Always serve brown rice with plenty of butter, and put the butter on while it’s piping hot. I like soy sauce too, even if the meal isn’t remotely Asian.
These will become a family favorite, beloved by kids and grown-ups alike. These are sublime with garden carrots and even pretty danged tasty when you use old, crappy, fridge carrots.
Heat up a large skillet over medium. Put a good tablespoon of butter in, and cover the pan with a single layer of sliced carrots, plus a few extra for good luck (and to account for shrinkage). Let the carrots sizzle for a few minutes, then throw in a few tablespoons of water, a sprinkle of salt and a small spoonful of honey. Put a lid on, but don’t go outside to hang the laundry and forget about it like I did. In ten minutes or whenever the water has all evaporated and it’s sizzling again, give it a good stir, add a bit more water, cover and cook another ten minutes. Repeat until the carrots are just cooked through. There should be some brown, caramelized colors going on, but hopefully no black ones like mine.
The only problem with this recipe is that you’re limited by the size of your skillet, and a large skillet makes barely enough for our family of four. If you want to make a larger quantity, use a sheet pan in the oven. Bake at 375.
If you, like me, do not feel satisfied with dinner unless there is something green going on, toss up some salad while those burgers cook. Those baby greens are expensive, but if you use them up in a timely manner (ie: don’t let them start to rot) they are as simple as ‘add dressing,’ and oh so delicious. I have for years made a deliciously garlicky vinaigrette that’s pretty quick and easy. But not as easy as my newest salad addiction, from Erica over at NW Edibles. Toss leaves with a tiny drizzle of olive oil, until evenly coated. Squeeze on a smidge of lemon (pop the rind into your water glass) and sprinkle a whisper of salt. That’s it. It is so good! I do miss the garlic, but the flavor of the greens shines through much better. And, did I mention? it’s so easy!
Well, there you have it, dinner. Simple. Wholesome. Frugal. Satisfying.