The Secret to Cooking Well

So there’s a line from Pixar’s Ratatouille, the catchphrase of the dead chef’s ghost that the murine main character (as opposed to the hominid main character) keeps hallucinating, which goes “anybody can cook.”

And it’s true.  If there was ever a time when cooking was particularly difficult for humans, then we have certainly naturally-selected the bad-cooking trait out of the gene pool in the thousands of years between “hrm, fire make meat taste good” and “hey, I can pour hot water in this styrofoam cup and get delicious ramen!”

The thing is, there are only a few basic ways to cook food.  People who know about cooking simply know how to get the most out of those ways.  But boiling, baking, frying, steaming… those are really all you need to cook, and cook things that taste good.

So what’s the secret?  Two things:

– Know what you want.

– Don’t try to be too complicated.

Today I came home to a chicken breast that I’d forgotten I’d left to defrost in the fridge.  It probably had a few more days left in it before it had to be cooked, but I don’t have time to cook during the week.  So tonight it was.

Now what can I do with a chicken breast?  Boiling chicken is best done when there’s lotsa bones.  Steaming chicken… well, I want to say that’s silly, but I did that last week.  Baking will take a while, and for one breast that’s not worth it.  To the frying pan.

Grease the pan?  No need, it’s meat.  Meat’s plenty greasy as-is.  Spices?  Probably a good idea, but I’m kinda rushed.  Normally I’d mix something up, likely with garlic and then two or three other things that go together, but my roomate’s got “chicken barbecue spices” so I figure what the heck and sprinkle some of that stuff over the breast as I wait for the pan to heat.

Some of you who know how to cook may be saying, “What?  You need to let that marinate!”  Yeah, well, here’s proof that you don’t: I didn’t.  Marinating would have made the flavor penetrate into the meat, yes, but if you just want something to make the chicken not taste bland, flavor only on the outside is perfectly acceptable.

Before the chicken goes in the pan, I slice up a garlic clove and toss that onto the pan.  Chicken goes over the garlic.  Also not necessary, but it was quick and helped to offset the fact that kosher meat is rather salty.

While I did this, I seared some rice in a pot (raw rice in a pot, a couple drops of cooking oil, mix the rice with a wooden spoon a bit until all the rice is bright white, or some of the rice is a bit brown), then added some salt, another sliced garlic clove (garlic is amazing), and some frozen green beans before adding water, about a quarter more than I would if it was just rice.

The messing around with the rice gave the first side of the chicken enough time to cook.  So I flip the chicken, then go away to watch a short poem about mental health and a song performed on toy piano (warning: turn your volume down for the first five seconds, he rings a bell loudly twice).  Has the water in the rice boiled down yet?  No.  Okay, let’s play with the chicken.  Flip it again, cut it open to see if it’s cooked.  It isn’t.  Has the water in the rice boiled down *yet?*  No?  Geez, what’s wrong with this water?  Okay, flip the chicken again.  Tap foot.  Check Facebook.  Check rice.  Flip chicken again and check it.  Okay, the outside’s looking like it doesn’t want to take too much more abuse, but the inside’s still undercooked.  Lower heat on the chicken, check rice again.  Okay, water’s gone.  Turn off the flame, close the lid, and go away for a while.

When I come back, I have fully-cooked chicken, rice, and green beans.  Healthy, well-balanced, and tastes almost as good as I’d get in any restaurant.

Now why did I go into all that detail if the point was not to be complicated?  Because a lot of that wasn’t necessary.  I did it because I knew how, but I didn’t need to.  I’ve got six years of successfully cooking for myself under my belt, so I’ve done a lot of experimenting and figuring stuff out.  But, and I know this because I didn’t always have six years of experience, I could have just as easily slipped an unseasoned chicken breast into an oiled pan, tossed an unmeasured amount of water into a pot followed by just the rice and frozen green beans, and then followed the toy-piano-and-Facebook portion of my recipe and I’d end up with a perfectly acceptable meal that A) wasn’t too complicated, and B) was what I wanted.

So, while yes it’s good to learn and enrich yourself with new cooking techniques, even if all you know is how to throw something into a frying pan there is no excuse for not trying to cook for yourself.

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