A millennial’s reflections on his first year in the kitchen, plus a culinary call-to-arms
A year ago I got a job and moved out of my childhood home. This understandably necessitated a lot of changes. For example, I now do all of my own ironing and spend much more time wearing only my underwear. I’ll leave you to determine if the two trends are linked.
The biggest change, however, was that I became responsible for one hundred percent of my own meals. There was no dining hall to fall back on, and no parent to cook for me. I was armed with a bunch of hand-me-down kitchen utensils, a smaller-than-average refrigerator, and an electric range.
My first two months of producing my own meals were inefficient, to say the least. I bought too much food from the grocery store. I pulled out every pot and pan I owned to make the simplest dishes. I started cooking some nights at 6 pm and finally sat down to dinner at 9 pm. I nearly had the fire department at my door after cooking chicken piccata for the first time—it turns out the lack of a range hood was a serious drawback I should have considered when I signed my lease. I got heartily sick of Zataran’s beans and rice and sloppy joes.
So I began to experiment with “real” cooking: transforming raw ingredients into a cohesive meal. The trick, I found, was to keep things resolutely simple. “As long as you have eggs in the fridge you have dinner,” my dad told me before I left. Quiche was an early conquest. Omelettes soon fell under my purview as well, though I have yet to cook the perfect one. Pasta and accompanying sauces were next. Sometimes these meals came out underdone, or too salty, but with each successful dish my confidence grew. Cooking went from a chore to an activity I looked forward to, especially on the weekends, when I had ample time to prepare food and no commitments early the next morning.
What I came to realize is that cooking, at its base, is a skill, which means that with enough repetition you’re capable of becoming fairly good at it. As I made more food, I began to look at cooking as similar to playing jazz. You spend a lot of time learning fundamentals with jazz: practicing scales and analyzing chords. It’s only after you’ve put in this initial effort that the notes start to give up their secrets to you, and you find that rather than being fixed in patterns and formulas, they are in fact highly versatile. The same goes for recipes.
For quite a few months I kept cooking for four, because I wasn’t confident enough to adapt proportions to my own needs. As I began to understand how flavors worked together, though, and familiarized myself with common kitchen conversions—oh for the metric system’s simplicity!—I became liberated from the recipe. This is when I begin to see cooking as art, more right-brained than left.
This mental exercise helped fill a gap left by the end of my formal education. In the kitchen I found it much easier to take risks than in the office, and I was beholden to no one but my own taste buds. I can’t claim to be a culinary innovator, but the feeling of looking at a nearly empty refrigerator on the day before grocery shopping and knowing that you can feed yourself with the remaining ingredients is a powerful one.
Twelve months later I know how to cook. I would not claim that I know how to cook well, but I feed myself using more than just Kraft Mac and Cheese (though I do always keep a box in my apartment). I still order pizza and jump at the chance to have someone take me to dinner. But mostly, I cook. And you can too.
Like I said, it’s a skill, which means you can learn it. And that means that you are a better cook than you think. If you can follow instructions, you can cook. You don’t need cookbooks or formal training; the Internet will tell you how to do everything from chopping an onion to making flan. Google “recipe website” and you’ll get 127,000,000 results. Julia Child would have gladly stewed her cat for that sort of variety. Surely there is a recipe on one of these websites that you are capable of making. The unattractively named but delicious “Chicken in a Sack” is a personal favorite. I prefer to call it “Parchment-wrapped Chicken”—see my version below. This gnocchi-tomato-sausage skillet has only five ingredients. That’s only two more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You can do this.
Not to mention there are things that you are spending money on at the grocery store that you can easily make yourself. You don’t even have to cook salad dressing. Pasta sauce takes about forty minutes to cook and costs far less than anything you’ll find in a jar. Save your pennies; spend it on beer—though you can make that yourself too.
There are a lot of recalcitrant cooks among the under-30 set. I’ve seen plenty of fridges that only contain take-out and beer. I get it—it’s so easy not to cook. We have a variety of apps that will bring food to our doors in a few minutes. We live in dingy apartments with small kitchens and no dishwashers. But most of our twenties are going to be spent doing things that are difficult, because we are trying to become self-sufficient people (otherwise known as an “adult”). And if you rely on others to feed you, that will never happen.
You don’t have to graduate Le Cordon Bleu. Like me, you don’t have to have great knife skills. In the beginning, you don’t even have to cook especially healthy. Just make a commitment to cook for yourself one night a week. It will be a chore at first, and you will eat some gross food. The cleanup will just about kill you some nights. But you will improve, and maybe even find yourself eating out less, eating better, and spending less money.
You will eat every day until you die, so you might as well have some control over it—and, you know, maybe have some fun too.
Parchment-wrapped Chicken for Two
(adapted from Rachel Ray, http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/rachael-ray/chicken-in-a-sack.html)
This is the ideal beginner’s recipe: tasty, relatively nutritious and relatively foolproof. Just make sure you buy parchment paper. Wax paper won’t work!
-2 boneless chicken breasts
-poultry seasoning mix
-salt and pepper
-6 ounces green beans
-1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
-1.5 tablespoons olive oil
-2 cloves garlic, chopped
-1.5 shallots, chopped or 1/2 Vidalia onion
-2 tablespoons butter
-splash white wine
Special equipment: parchment paper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Lightly pound chicken breasts, sprinkle poultry seasoning, salt, and pepper on both sides of the chicken breast.
In a bowl combine green beans, tomatoes, onion or shallot, garlic, olive oil, and a further sprinkle of poultry seasoning. Toss until olive oil coats vegetables uniformly.
Cut two pieces of parchment paper, about 12 inches by 16 inches. Divide vegetable mixture evenly between the two pieces of parchment, centering the mixture on each piece. Place one chicken breast on top of each pile of mixture, along with one tablespoon of butter and a splash of wine.
Take the two longest sides of the parchment sheet and bring the edges together. Fold the edges over as you would the top of a lunch bag. Take the other two ends of the parchment paper and twist. Your goal here is to make a packet that will prevent liquid and vapor from escaping as the ingredients cook. Place packets on a cookie sheet.
Roast chicken for about 30 minutes, then remove from oven. Place packets on plate, and carefully unwrap. Slide the contents out, and discard the paper. Serve with baguette for soaking up the juices.
A modified version of this piece originally appeared on The Good Men Project