How To Cook Just About Everything

I work with a lot of (excellent) college students, and right now is the time of the year where they are all settling into their new living quarters, and realizing that they need to depend on their own kitchen, rather than a dining hall, for sustenance.

So far, only one sorry kitchen tale has been brought to me (it was the story of a sweet potato that refused to cook fast enough), but as I eagerly await more, “Sarah, how do you cook?” questions, I figured I’d throw a post out there, dedicated new these new Kitchen Crusaders, in hopes that their kitchens soon produce delicacies finer than cup-a-soups, toast, and frozen vegetables.

Okay, before we get started…

Please make sure that your meals generally consist of vegetables/fruits, a grain or starch, and a form of protein. You know how to cook cereal, pasta, minute rice, salads, and sandwiches. You can probably do tacos, stir fry, pizza, and scrambled eggs really well. That’s all awesome. I’m going to walk you through some different (easy) preparations of foods that are healthy, inexpensive, and easy to find. Honestly, I googled most of these things when I first found myself in my own kitchen!

This is a very long post with a lot of information in it.  I’m hoping that this is everything you need to know to start really cooking for yourself all of the time! I’m trying to include the basic foods that don’t come with “this is how you cook this food” directions written on it, but let me know if I’m missing anything.

“Sarah, what should I have in my kitchen so that I can easily make a range of meals?”

I’m trying to envision my students shopping for groceries and things a week before my birthday. I want them to spend as little money as possible (so they can save up for my birthday, duh), and still be alive, happy, and healthy a week later. 

Food Items to have on hand

Olive Oil
Cooking Spray
Rice (I support brown, but not white, minute rice.)

pasta strainer & measuring cups obviously not pictured, as they are in a pile of dirty dishes.

Tools, Cooking Implements, Etc

This is my dry food cabinet. Top = baking stuff (that i never use), middle = grains, bottom = spices & teas.

A knife
A knife sharpener (no, really. Please get one)
A frying pan
A medium sized pot with a lid
A cookie tray and/or baking dish (with tin foil to cover it so you don’t have to wash it!)
A pasta strainer
A cutting board
A wooden spoon
A spatula
Measuring cups

If You Want To Get Fancy

Garlic (this is required in my kitchen)
Other spices that you like (Cumin? It’s interesting, and your use of cumin will impress your friends on meal plans)
A whisk (if you find yourself in a situation where you need one & don’t have one, well, whipping egg whites with a fork is not great.)
Teaspoon measurers (with regular spoons existing, and 1 tablespoon equalling 3 teaspoons and 3 tablespoons equaling half a cup, it’s really easy to avoid “needing” these).

“Sarah, how do I cook a potato?” 

These go for all shapes and sizes of potatoes, although I have never tried baking a russet potato or boiling a sweet potato… 

First, wash your potato (they grow in dirt. Get that off)

Now, this is a chose-your-own-adventure style list.

Boiled Potatoes

If the potatoes are big, and you’re in a rush, cut them into smaller bits.

Put your potato (es?) in a pot. Fill it up with water, so that all of the potatoes are covered, with about an inch of potato-less water on top. Add a pinch of salt, I think. Boil them.

The Fork Test

They’re cooked when they pass the Fork Test — stick a fork in one, and if the potato slides right off the fork, it’s cooked.

If you want to mash these, strain them, add a bit of milk, butter (if you want), salt, and pepper (and roasted garlic, if you want to get fancy), and mash them up.

Baked Potatoes (Sweet or Regular)

Put your oven at 350, stab some holes in your potatoes, and stick them in the oven. They’ll be done in 45 minutes to an hour, and the fork test applies.

Roasted Potatoes/Oven Fries

To me, the difference between roasted potatoes and oven fries, is simply the way the potatoes are cut. They’re both cooked in a hot (425 degree) oven, and covered in olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Here is a post on making oven fries.

For roasted potatoes, either use little potatoes, or cut a potato up into cubes (I usually do inch-sized cubes, or use fingerling potatoes).

Toss the potatoes in olive oil (about 2 tspn/person eating potatoes), salt, pepper, and any other spices you want, and then cook them on a baking pan/cookie sheet. Cover the pan in tin foil first, so that clean up is easier.

Use The Taste Test to decide when they’re cooked.

Microwave Potatoes

These are not as delicious as any of the above, but, in a pinch, it works for a quick “baked” potato.  Stab it a few times with a fork, put it on a plate, and cook it for 5 minutes on full power. Then turn it over, and cook it for 5 more minutes. Fork test it in between, if you want.

Another option is to cook a potato halfway in the microwave, and then finish it up in the oven.

“Sarah, how do I cook meat?”

Basically, you can cook all kinds of meat (I’m thinking chicken, turkey, pork, beef, and fish) in the  same different ways, and it’s just cooking times that vary. I haven’t ever tried cooking meat with bones in it in a pan, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.

All of these work for meat in burger form, also.

With beef, it’s okay if it’s rare and a pink in the middle. With chicken, pork, turkey, and fish? You want those cooked through. Fish is cooked when it easily flakes with a fork.

Past posts on cooking meat? Here you go:

Apple Turkey Burger
Hamburger Night
Marinades (in this case, with Tofu)

In a Pan

Spray your pan with pam, or put some olive oil in it. You don’t want the pan to be too hot, but you definitely do want it to be hot. Of course.

Decide if you’re going to cut your meat into strips, or if you want to cook a whole honkin’ piece. If you keep it together, it’s going to take a longer time to cook, it has the potential to be tastier, but it also has the potential to be a pain in the neck to cook. If you slice it up into strips, it’s so easy and fast to sauté.

If you’re going to cook meat in a pan, I recommend slicing it up into strips, and maybe sautéing it with an onion or something. And salt/pepper/spices. I am just not good at cooking whole pieces of meat in a pan. Except Burgers. I figured that out.

In the Oven

This is probably the easiest way to cook meat. Put your oven at 350, put your meat in a pamed baking dish, and sprinkle spices on it. Bake it. 

Baking time depends on the thickness of the meat — chicken breast is usually 35 minutes, but check any piece of meat (I just slice into it…) after 25 minutes, if you’re not sure how long to bake it.

If you want to get creative, cut slices in your meat and stuff it with different things — pork stuffed with scallion & apple is really good.

In Liquid

You can boil meat in water (well, you really want to simmer it) if you want moist meat that is easily shreddable. I boil chicken when I want to shred it for a pizza topping. The boil time depends on what you’re cooking — just google things.

You can also cook meat by just simmering it in a soup/stew. I find that this is especially good with a tomato-based soup/stew, but see what you like.

Just push the meat down in the tomato stuff, and let it simmer until the meat is cooked!

“Sarah, how do I cook vegetables?”

In a Pan

Pan + olive oil or pam + any kind of vegetable you want to cook + salt/pepper/spices = yum. Really easy.

In the Oven

Roasting vegetables is, without question, the most delicious freaking way to eat them. It takes a bit more time, I guess, than steaming or sautéing them, but it’s so good. Do it. Just toss veggies in olive oil, salt, pepper, and any spices you may want, and put them in a 425 degree oven until your kitchen smells magical. Beets and hard vegetables take longer to roast than, say, tomatoes or zucchini, so keep that in mind when you’re mixing veggies together. 

Steaming Veggies

You can steam veggies in a pot with a steamer, of course. Put an inch or so of water in the pot, put the steamer on top, throw the lid on, and get the water boiling. When it is, add your veggies in on the steamer. Cooking time varies by vegetable sort, but is generally under 10 minutes. I usually steam leafy greens.

You can also steam veggies in the microwave. Just put a little bit of water in the bottom of a bowl, add the veggies, and put saran wrap on the bowl. Zap it for like 3 or so minutes, and see where you stand. Then zap again, as necessary. I usually only cook broccoli and green beans in the microwave.

“What about squash?”

Squash is great. It can be roasted or steamed by following the same “steps” as roasting or steaming vegetables.

If you’re steaming squash, you’ll want to de-seed it, peel it, and cube it. I don’t think steamed squash is even 1/9 as good at roasted squash.

You can roast squash after cubing it (will take about 45 mins in a 425 degree oven), or you can just chop it in half, deseed it, and roast it, face down, on a baking tray, as I did in this spaghetti squash post.

You can cook squash in a microwave, too, but it’s just not as good. Cut it in half, de-seed it, wrap the open (as in fleshy) side with a piece of saran wrap, and cook it on a plate for 8-12 minutes.

Squash is cooked when it’s squishy squashy. If you want to mash it up, go for it.

“…and Lentils?”

Lentils are healthy, cheap, easy, versatile, and delicious, and I love them. They require a 3:1 water-to-lentil ratio. Bring (unsalted) water to a boil, add the lentils, and then turn the heat down so that they simmer for about 45 minutes. Stir them every once in a while. After they’re cooked, you can add spices or whatever flavor-givers you want.

If you want, cook lentils with a grain that also takes about 45 minutes to cook (like brown rice or barley) — just remember to include extra water for the grain to use!  You can also include chopped up veggies with the lentils & grain right from the start, to make it more of a complete meal or stew-type thing. But we’ll get to stews in just a second.

Here’s my old standby lentil/barley dish.

If you’re into lentils, try cooking your own beans instead of buying cans of them. Yum.

You can easily freeze cooked lentils in individual portions, too.

“Okay, I get this all — what about combining these things together?!”

When you get to the point in the culinary journey where meals aren’t all made up of the 3 items (grain, veggie, protein) separated on your plate, you’ve really made it. Here are some ways to combine the different parts of your meal into a big bowl of dinner. I find that these are easier to transport, more fun to eat (and cook!), and easier to clean up.

This stew includes Veggies, Barley, and chickpeas. I just simmered it until the barley was cooked.

Soups and Stews

It’s very easy to make soup/stew/etc. Just combine delicious raw things in a pot (include a grain, protein, and veggie if you want it to be a meal on its own), add liquid, bring it all to a boil, and then turn the heat down to let it simmer until it’s cooked. It’s hard to mess this up (unless you forget to stir it every once in a while & things burn to the bottom of the pot) (or you forget that you’re cooking it and all of the liquid boils out).

Experiment. See what you find. Cook large amounts of these stew and soups and freeze individual portions in zip-lock bags for easy go-to meals.


Summery Italian Fish Stew Type Meal

White Bean And Green Stuff Soup (this is the ugliest meal I have ever invented)

adding brown rice to a pan of onion, pepper, and imitation vegan beef stuff for a Bowl Of Mash

Bowls of Mash

Make rice or pasta (or quinoa or another grain). Add it to a sauteed mess of protein & veggies. Mix it all up. Add any spices you want to the whole thing. Boom. Bowl of Mash. Delicious. I make these a lot, but it would seem that I rarely take pictures of them, because they are not always attractive.

Bowl of Mash can also be known as Fancy Pasta Dish — Here are two examples of Fancy Pasta Dishes.

“Fancy” Pasta Dish #1

“Fancy” Pasta Dish #2

Have fun with the Bowl Of Mash dishes! Let your culinary creativity free all over your stove. It’s really hard to mess these up.

Interesting Plating Combinations

Keep getting creative! Here, I used lentils as a topping for a baked potato, and cut the broccoli stalk into Broccoli Oven Fry shape. 

Figure out how to combine healthy food that you enjoy in new & creative ways so that you never get tired of eating the same basic foods!

“Sarah, I’m too BUSY to cook!”

I hear you! But you can save so much money and eat much healthier food if take a few hours (even just 1!) to cook for the week. Make a few baked sweet potatoes, wrap them up in tin foil, and store them in the fridge. Bake a bunch of chicken breasts and use them in sandwiches, salad, or just eat them straight up throughout the week. Roast a ton of veggies, and eat them all week. Make a big pile of rice, and eat it all week. Throw any of these things in tupperwares and in your book bag when you need to have food to go.

Stock up your freezer! Mine has individual bags of a lot of different cooked grains (brown rice, barley, wheat berries), a ton of frozen beans, and some bags of frozen stew/soup. Double (or quadruple) recipes every time you cook to easily feed yourself in the future.

Yes, cooking takes time, but if you spend a few hours planning and cooking your food for the week, you won’t  have to worry about it all week, and you’ll be able to focus your energy on being a great college student, instead of on how you will next feed yourself. Plus, I promise, this is a million times cheaper than spending $8 on bagel/salad lunch every day.

“What if I mess up?”

Who cares? If you cook a terrible meal, it’s still made up of healthy ingredients, and it’s only one meal — eat it (unless you messed up by using rancid food). You’ll quickly learn what you like, and what you don’t. You’ll get better at cooking (and BSing your way around a kitchen) with practice & with time.

I hope this was helpful — please tell me what else you guys want to know!


2 Comments to “How To Cook Just About Everything”

  1. Even though I run the food blog, your entry here basically sums up the first thing I tell anyone who tells me they can’t cook: food + heat = cooked food. No specifics needed, just throw a piece of meat in the oven at 350 and it will cook! I promise!

    On a similar note, everyone should check out the $5 Challenge. All you need to do is pledge that you at home will try to make a meal for yourself for $5 or less out of fresh ingredients. Proof that you can eat healthily at home for just as cheap as a value meal at McDonalds!

  2. bulk food section… learn it, know it, love it. Spices, nuts, baking supplies, beans, pasta are all much cheaper in bulk.

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