10 Easy Recipes for the Novice Cook
Almost a year ago, I finished a master’s program in England and moved halfway across the world to San Francisco to start my first real job. The move came with a series of huge changes, many of them anxiety-provoking– I was no longer in school, I was farther away from my family than I’d ever been, and living in my first real apartment. One major change, was, however, less scary: our apartment had a real gas stove, oven, and freezer. I’d shunned the college cafeteria during my master’s, preferring to use the simple kitchen (electric stovetop, toaster, communal fridge, kettle) to cook cheaper, healthy-ish meals, i.e. lots of salad and pasta. Finally having an oven and a freezer was a revelation: I could bake! I could cook regular portions of food and freeze leftovers! I could buy meat in bulk, thus making it affordable!
I’ve since become somewhat of a cooking and baking junkie, acquiring all sorts of kitchen equipment (Amazon price alerts are a godsend, people) and making things like bagels and ricotta gnocchi, which are not actually that hard but seem to convince people that you know what you’re doing. (to which I say – if you think I know what I’m doing, check out how bad I am at dicing onions.) I firmly believe that 90% of the reason that people think cooking is hard is that they randomly google recipes that aren’t thoroughly tested. Discovering a handful of excellent blogs and cookbooks has transformed my cooking life; you’ll notice that many of the recipes I share below are from just a handful of sources (namely Serious Eats, Smitten Kitchen, and Julia Turshen’s wonderful cookbook, “Small Victories.”)
Much of what I cook does not actually require any fancy equipment. However, there are two things you should probably consider investing in:
If you’re going to be cooking meat or deep-frying things, a good instant-read thermometer is a must. I initially bought a cheap, slow one on Amazon. Don’t do that. The plastic on the monitor melted and I could never get an accurate enough reading to be truly sure I wasn’t about to poison myself with raw chicken. After reading a series of glowing reviews on Serious Eats, I got a thermapen on sale earlier this year and it’s been a game changer – expensive, but worth it.
If you love to bake or to make pizza, do yourself a favor and buy a digital scale – it’ll make all your proportions far more accurate. My sister gifted me this compact, affordable tripod model for Christmas last year and it’s been a revelation.
Without further ado, here are the ten recipes I make most often. They’re easy, delicious, and mostly pretty healthy. You’ll notice that none of them have to contain meat and only one has fish; that’s because despite my Costco membership, meat is still pretty expensive and I tend to reserve it for weekend experiments (like this incredible Serious Eats carnitas.)
Mujadara (Budget Bytes)
Mujadara is a simple dish of caramelized onions cooked with spiced rice and lentils. I first ate it at a middle eastern restaurant in São Paulo, Brazil, thought it was delicious, and cooked it the next night from a New York Times recipe. I made it so often that summer that I think the smell of cumin probably still strikes fear into the heart of my host. These days, I usually use the recipe from Budget Bytes, though I’ll still add in some spinach or other greens at the end if I have any in the fridge. You can caramelize the onions in just 15 minutes using this Serious Eats guide, and feel free to mix up the spices- I usually add in some curry powder and red pepper flakes.
I learned this recipe back in high school from my mom, and it’s still one of my favorite ways to prepare salmon. Essentially: stick a big piece of foil on a baking sheet, plop down a piece of salmon, add seasonings, wrap it all up, and bake at 375F for 12-20 minutes, depending on the size of the filet – 12ish for one or two portions, more like 20 for an enormous piece of fish. If I’m feeling lazy, the seasoning is just olive oil, salt and black pepper; on a good day, I might add in some soy sauce, or lemon juice and garlic. If you’re not one of those barbarians who likes their salmon bone-dry, err on the side of a shorter cook time — salmon goes from perfect to dry almost instantly. Bonus: the foil makes cleaning up a five-minute affair.
Thai Vegetable Curry
This was one of my mom’s favorite things to cook when I was a teenager, and it’s still one of my favorite things to make today — pretty quick, dead simple, and a crowd pleaser.
You will need:
1 tbsp canola oil
Vegetables of your choice, sliced as thinly as you can manage. For example: onions, red peppers, broccoli, snap peas
Red or green curry paste
1 can of coconut milk (Reduced fat is OK)
Fish sauce (optional)
Heat the canola oil in a pan (I use a nonstick skillet) over medium heat.. If it sizzles when you flick in a drop of water, it’s hot enough.
Add vegetables in the order they take to cook, frying for a few minutes after each addition until all the vegetables are softened. With the example above, that’d be onions first (because I like my onions done to death) then broccoli, then peppers and snap peas. With vegetables like broccoli which take ages to cook, you can stick them in the microwave in a microwave-safe bowl with some water in the bottom and cook for a few minutes before adding.
Add curry paste, at least 1 tbsp but more if you’re a fan of spice, and fry for a minute until glossy. Mix together with the vegetables.
Add the can of coconut milk. Simmer until the vegetables are soft. If you want to add greens like spinach, dump them in near the end and put the lid on until they’ve wilted.
Serve over rice or rice noodles.
NB: You can totally add chicken or beef/pork to this; I’m just weird about chicken and too cheap to use more expensive meats on a weeknight.
Curried Red Lentils (Julia Turshen)
I discovered this recipe last September, and since then it’s become one of my favorite low effort weeknight dinners. It only takes about half an hour to turn pantry staples into a filling, comforting meal that makes your whole kitchen smell awesome.
I never have shallots, so I just use half an onion instead.
When I buy ginger, I slice it up into 3 inch lengths and then store them in my freezer, so when I need a knob I can just fish one out and dunk it in a glass of water to defrost while I slice the onion.
If you don’t have all the individual spices, you can use curry powder; it has everything in it anyway.
I make this with Trader Joe’s reduced fat coconut milk, and have good results. If the calorie count on a can of full-fat coconut milk also makes you cry, reduced fat is totally OK.
Okonomiyaki – Japanese Cabbage Pancakes (Budget Bytes)
I’m 100% aware that this probably isn’t at all an authentic recipe, but it’s filled with veggies, ridiculously cheap, quick and very tasty, which gives it major points in my book. As Sam remarked the other day, “you just like this because it’s made of vegetables but tastes like you’re eating carbs.” Amen to that. We usually eat these drizzled with soy sauce and Trader Joe’s wasabi mayo.
Foolproof Pan Pizza (Serious Eats)
What if I told you that tomorrow night, you could be eating unbelievably good pizza made entirely from scratch, with no kneading required? It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not – if you have a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or other oven-safe skillet, you can make this incredible pan pizza. Mixing the dough takes about five minutes, then it rises overnight in a bowl on the countertop, and spreads itself out into a well-oiled pan. Use the time you’ve saved to make your own tomato sauce. This is one of my favorite recipes to make when I’ve got company – it leaves you plenty of time to chat with your guests, but is still delicious and way more impressive than throwing a frozen pizza in the oven.
Vegetable Quinoa Soup (Damn Delicious)
This is probably the recipe I make most often to take to work for lunch – it’s one of those kitchen sink soups that allow you to use up literally any vegetables you have just sitting in the fridge slowly going off. Don’t be put off by the specific list of vegetables: make sure you have garlic, quinoa, spices and lemon in there, and feel free to mix it up with the specific veggies. Last week I realized that I’d bought too many vegetables before going on holiday, so I made it with broccoli, zucchini, red and green cabbage, and then froze it all! Although homemade chicken stock is awesome, there’s no shame in using store bought or even (gasp) a stock cube — just don’t add any further salt.
Mixed Cheese Quiche (Serious Eats)
This Easter, I decided I wanted to have two lunches: one with a proper roast, and a vegetarian one to accommodate two of my best friends who don’t eat meat. On a whim, I decided to make this cheese quiche I’d happened upon while trawling Serious Eats, and it turned out wonderfully. Quiche is amazingly customizable — I added caramelized onions that first time, but I also love doing one with finely chopped sautéed broccoli and bacon. You can use store-bought pie crust or, if you have a food processor, make this easy homemade pie dough from Serious Eats.
Double Chocolate Banana Bread (Smitten Kitchen)
I am not exaggerating when I say that this takes 15 minutes of hands-on time – 20 if you have to throw a few frozen ultra-ripe bananas in a bowl of water to defrost. I make this in a cake pan (which makes the bake time more like 30 minutes) and it really tastes more like a banana-y chocolate cake than banana bread per se. It’s also a great beginner’s recipe because the bananas keep the bread moist and protect it from drying out if you overbake.
Bakery-Style Cream Scones with Milk Chocolate (Serious Eats)
These scones are now my go-to when I have guests for brunch, need a quick and delicious dessert, or just feel like baking something I know my coworkers will enjoy. They’re incredibly simple, look amazing, and always get rave reviews! A few weeks ago, I made plans to have breakfast with a friend at the last minute; when she showed up at my apartment 20 minutes later, they were already in the oven. If you’re using semi-sweet chocolate chips rather than chopped milk chocolate, bump the sugar up to a full tablespoon.
There are so many more recipes I love that I couldn’t include here – I’ve tried 47 new recipes in 2017 alone. If you don’t already, I strongly encourage you to subscribe to the Smitten Kitchen and Serious Eats newsletters, and to hunt down copies of The Food Lab (an absolutely essential cookbook) and Small Victories. If you try any of these, let me know how they went! What are your staple recipes?