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For a fundamental task everyone should be able to handle by the time they reach adulthood, the word "cooking" strikes fear into a LOT of people. I personally have the opposite reaction with that word. I LOVE cooking. Like seriously. It's the career I 100 percent want to pursue for the rest of my life. But this isn't about me. This is about YOU. When I ask people if they can cook, some popular answers are; "I can make a mean bowl of cereal," "I can boil water, that's about it," and "Box mac and cheese is my specialty." If you are someone who has any response similar to the examples above, this post is for you. And even if you do dabble in a bit of cooking now and again, here are some tips to take simple foods to the next level, or just improvise in a pinch. Because let's face it, we're not all Gordon Ramsay. The best of us can't afford to stock our kitchens with the finest gadgets and ingredients out there. But that's ok. Because throughout years of taking the struggle bus express to create amazing dishes on a budget, I've picked up individual tips and hacks that you'll have access to right here.
1. No cheese grater?
Box graters aka cheese graters are great for shredding... well cheese! But also other food items, the potato being the first that comes to my mind. It easily shreds for those golden delicious potato pancakes. But graters can be a tad expensive, and the cheap ones usually don't get the job done (believe me, I've tried). A tool that essentially yields the same results (but may take a bit longer) is the vegetable peeler, something you probably already have deep in a drawer somewhere in your kitchen. But if you don't, most only cost a few dollars. So instead of wasting money on a dull dollar store grater, spend it on something that actually works. I personally love to get a block of cheddar cheese, and peel ribbons from it to easily melt into a fresh cheese sauce for homemade Mac and Cheese.
2. "Doctoring up" Jarred tomato sauces
If you can boil water (which I really, REALLY hope everyone knows how to do), you can make boxed pasta. And if you're also able to open a jar of pasta sauce, then congrats, you can make a nice bowl of spaghetti. I personally always make a meat sauce, but we're keeping it simple here. Jarred sauces are OKAY, but if you're looking for a little more flavor, or to not be disowned by your Italian in-laws, follow these simple steps. Assuming you're using one jar of sauce, grab a small onion and two cloves of garlic (use more or less for your personal preference). Fresh onion and garlic is honestly such a useful base for a huge variety of dishes. If you have this combo going, your dish has at least SOME potential. Chop up the onion and mince the garlic ("mince" means to cut into VERY small pieces). Put a little bit of olive oil into whichever pot you want the sauce in. Heat the pot on medium, then add the onions, and then garlic a minute later. Add some oregano and basil (or Italian seasoning), and black pepper. Let it cook another minute or so and you'll start to get a wonderful aroma coming up from that pot. That's when you add your jar of sauce. Mix it all together, let it continue cooking, and there you go. Your supermarket, pre-made sauce is now 1000 percent times more flavorful and SO much closer to that authentic Italian taste.
3. CRISPY Home-fries
It happens too often at houses and diners alike, that I encounter mushy potatoes. NOT mashed potatoes, which are delicious. Mushy, chopped up potatoes that were probably intended to be "hash browns" or "home fries" or simply "fried potatoes." But think about this. What's the thing people love so much about fried chicken? Or fries? Or fried anything? That CRUNCH! That crispy, flavorful exterior, usually followed up with a tender interior. So when you're frying up some potatoes, they better be crispy! And I know just how to accomplish that.
Ok so you know the first step; peel and chop the potatoes to desired size. The very next steps are what make most of the difference between potatoes and POTATOES!! After your potatoes are chopped, put them in a bowl and fill it with cold water. Leave the potatoes there for a few minutes (but you are able to refrigerate them however long you want). This releases the starch from the potatoes (you'll see white stuff appear on top of the water; that's the starch). After a few minutes, drain the potatoes. But that's not it. You need to squeeze them dry. And I mean squeeeeeze. Professionals use what is called a "cheese cloth" to squeeze the moisture out, but I am not quite a professional (yet), and you probably aren't either. So chances are neither of us owns cheese cloths. But what I DO use to get my friends raving over my crispy potatoes is the humble dish towel (please use a clean, dry one). Put as many potatoes that will fit into the towel, pull the ends up so it's like you're holding a sack of potatoes, and twist and squeeze the heck out of them. Repeat if all of them couldn't fit at once. THIS is what will get you your properly fried, crispy on the outside, potatoes. No special equipment or skills needed. Season those bad boys up, heat some oil, and get to frying!
4. Egg and Buttermilk Substitutions
Quick breads, baked goods, desserts; everyone loves at least some of them. And maybe you want to make some of your own. Maybe you're feeling like fresh pancakes for breakfast, or biscuits with your chicken dinner. But you look up a recipe, and you're missing one thing. Buttermilk! To be perfectly honestly, I have, never in my life, ever seen buttermilk in any grocery store. Maybe I skip over it every single time, or maybe it's just not there at all. But buttermilk is quite useful. It adds an extra tang to your baked goods, and also helps quick breads (pancakes, muffins, cornbread etc) rise more. So buttermilk is beneficial, but you can't find, or don't feel like buying it. That's ok! Because you can make your own (well a substitute with basically the same effects). All you need is two ingredients; milk and distilled white vinegar. For every cup of milk you're using, add one tablespoon of vinegar. Mix them up, let them sit for at least five minutes, and your buttermilk sub is ready for use.
Another baking ingredient you might be missing is eggs. You're positive you have one egg left, but you open the carton to see it's cracked and essentially glued itself to the bottom. Never fails to disappoint. Or maybe you're just trying to go vegetarian/vegan. Either way, your dish usually calls for egg, but you're not going to be using any. The substitute I most often use in the place of egg is oil. Vegetable oil, canola oil, or corn oil, etc. Possibly olive oil, but I'd be extra careful around extra virgin olive oil. Depending on what you're making, the flavor could be overwhelming. And I doubt anyone wants an olive oil flavored chocolate chip cookie. For every egg the recipe calls for, use one tablespoon of oil. I use oil in cookies, doughs, pancakes, and muffins, and it works wonders. Just remember, this egg substitute is primarily for baked goods, where the egg is just there for structure/binding. PLEASE for the love of God, the universe, or anything decent in this world, DO NOT try to make an omelette out of vegetable oil. It will 1000 percent not turn out the way you want.
So there you have it, some tips to make both your fear of cooking, and the actual end products, not quite as scary. This is far from an encyclopedia, but I love sharing my knowledge, and will continue to do so as I gain more of it in my studies and work experience. If you found this page interesting, don't leave it at that. Go out and actually try some of these things! Make it so you can have both cereal AND a pretty awesome spaghetti in your culinary arsenal. And lastly, don't be afraid to mess up. It happens. I know you've seen Gordon Ramsay yell and throw things at PROFESSIONAL chefs. Everyone messes up. And you don't have to worry about being verbally attacked in the comfort of your own home. So get in the kitchen and make something. And if you need another tip or recipe or two, come back to my page, because I'll always be expanding.