Saturday, February 11, 2017

Cooking For Bachelors - Week One

I've known some really good cooks over the years, but I was never actually one of them. I was the sort of guy whose idea of cooking a fancy meal was putting hot dogs in my Kraft Dinner. Then a woman came along and ruined me. Now I eat vegetables sometimes - I mean seriously, what's up with that?

Thing is, I know a lot of young guys, as yet un-ruined by womenfolk, and they all cook like I used to(which is to say, visiting McDonald's). And much as I joke, this change has been very good for me - I eat healthier, the food is genuinely tastier, and I spend less. Heck, I don't even spend much more time on it than I used to all told. Cooking is a very useful skill, and I'm glad I've developed it.

I got to thinking, would it make sense for me to share what I've learned? There's a lot of folks out there who don't cook in large part because they don't really know how to do it well, and fast food is better for right now. And for people like that, the cooking advice that exists out there is spectacularly ill-suited. A few years ago, I saw a piece from one of my favourite bloggers on how cooking advice aimed at beginners was too advanced, which made a ton of sense to me...until she started posting recipes, and my first reaction was that she went from missing the point by a mile to missing it by half a mile. Yeah, it's better, but it's not good. If you showed 19 year old Alex the first recipe on that list, a 10-part recipe for pasta that requires a garlic crusher, "the smallest mozzarella balls in water", chopped tomatoes, and fresh basil...well, I don't know what I'd have done, but I sure as heck wouldn't have cooked it.

This is a series intended to fix that mistake. This is aimed at someone who thinks "broil" is a typo. This is the complete list of recipes I expect you to have mastered:
  • Cap'n Crunch for breakfast
  • Peanut butter and jam for lunch
  • Instant ramen noodles for dinner
I figure it's safe to assume even the most stereotypical of bachelors can handle that menu by themselves. I don't expect you to know how stoves or ovens work, and I don't expect you to even own cookware. And I know that the sort of person this guide is aimed at is probably both cheap and lazy, so I'll make one more commitment - this plan will be faster than fast food. Cheaper, too. I'm going to use every shortcut I know, every half-assed lazy-man approach, and every trick I've developed in the last few years of actually knowing how to cook to teach you how to get this done in a way that's so much better than McDonald's that you'll wonder why nobody ever taught you this before.

A few notes before I get into the meat of this. 
  1. My benchmark is someone who eats all their meals from fast-food places, except visiting the Cap'n for breakfast. I figure a decent fast-food meal costs $5 even if you eat cheap, and you'll spend 10 minutes going to the restaurant, waiting in line, and actually getting your food. Both of these are pretty conservative estimates in my experience, but I don't want to be accused of cheating. I don't want to stop your current habits cold turkey, so I'll leave you one lunch and one dinner a week out - McDonald's is still tasty even after you've learned to cook, after all, and you might have a date once in a while. I'm also assuming you eat a quick and dirty breakfast of some sort most days, so I'll only be giving recipes for Sunday breakfasts. This means 13 meals a week will be outlined, and thus my budget is $65 and 130 minutes per week. (And naturally, in a guide for bachelors, you're cooking for one)
  2. All prices are in Canadian dollars, which for any non-Canadians in the room mean that eggs and dairy products are grossly overpriced. To make things easy on the price-finding side, all the items I find will be sourced either from Walmart or Amazon, unless there's something weird that requires me to look elsewhere. You can probably do better if you shop around, but that's not very lazy. 
  3. I'm going to suggest a few ideas that sound grossly inefficient. This is intentional. If it bothers you, think of it this way - it's still way more efficient than hiring a bunch of teenagers to cook for you. Likewise, I may make mistakes - I'm no chef, I'm just a dude who thinks he knows how to burn water now. But while this guide may not be perfect, it'll be a hell of a lot better than fast food. 
  4. I'm scaling these recipes to my appetite, and to my usual meal-size preference of a smaller lunch and a bigger dinner. 99% of recipes can be scaled up or down quite easily, so if something seems off, you can either cook more or less, or just stretch the same food further/less far. 
  5. I use "bachelor" and refer to young guys, but this guide is for bachelors of all ages and genders. The recipes will be more appealing to stereotypical 20-something guys than stereotypical grandmothers, but I've cooked basically all of these for my bride, and she hasn't dumped me yet. Deliciousness has no gender. 
Stocking Your Kitchen
I'm assuming you have spoons, forks, knives, plates, bowls, and cups in your kitchen, and nothing else. In practice, you probably won't need all of this, but I want to be conservative.

Pots and Pans - You'll want at least two of each, in different sizes. For now, everything you buy should be non-stick. Yes, purists will bitch at me, but non-stick is cheap, more forgiving of most newbie mistakes, and about a million times easier to clean. It also keeps food from burning 90% of the time, which you will be very glad of. The only relevant care notes are that you should avoid cooking on super-high heat(nothing above medium unless there's liquid or a lot of food in there to absorb the heat), and avoid scraping the inside with anything metal or heavy scrub pads, both of which will damage the non-stick coating. Both ceramic and Teflon non-stick are mature, reliable technologies at this point, and you should go for whichever one is a better deal.

Cooking Utensils - To avoid scraping your pots and pans, buy silicone. It's a near-perfect material - withstands very high heat, easy to clean, and about the right stiffness for most purposes. You'll want a spoon, a spatula/lifter(names vary), and a pair of tongs, plus a pair of oven mitts and a pasta strainer.

Baking Sheets - For throwing things in the oven. You'll want a cookie tray and a baking pan.

Tupperware - Just like duct tape is the handyman's secret weapon, tupperware is the lazy cook's secret weapon. It's what lets you eat home-cooked without actually cooking that day. Get a good-sized set, one with a couple big containers and enough smaller ones to store at least half a dozen meals. (You don't need "real" tupperware for this - reusable takeout containers work perfectly well if you have them lying around)

Cleanup Supplies - Sadly, the biggest downside of cooking for yourself is cleaning up afterwards. You'll want a few supplies to make that easier - a sponge(either one with one side a bit rougher, or grab a second sponge for heavy-duty cleanup), dish soap, and paper towel. A cheap plastic pot scraper is not strictly necessary, but a great time-saver. If you have space, a drying rack is good. Also, while it's not used for cleanup per se, parchment paper is a really good idea. Use it to line your baking trays and make sure nothing sticks to them, it makes cleaning up bakeware a ten-second job.

A lot of this stuff is sold in sets of various sorts, so you may get a bit more than the above. Here's the best sets I can find on Amazon:

Pots, pans, and utensils - $83.63
Silicone tongs - $9.99
Oven mitts - $7.66
Pasta strainer/colander - $10
Baking sheets - $19.82
Tupperware - $26
Sponges - $7.99
Dish soap - $2.85
Paper towel - $1.99
Pot scraper - $1.99
Dish rack - $17.99
Parchment paper - $5.25

Now, needless to say, this is more than $65 on its own - the total, with tax, is $220.53. Stocking a kitchen isn't cheap. But even if you need all of this stuff, it'll be paid off over time in the form of cheaper food. I expect within a couple months the running cost will be below budget. Again, if you want to save money, you can probably find better deals on a lot of this stuff - the pot and pan prices seem particularly high to me(which is to be expected, given how much extra stuff comes in that set). Walmart is a good bet here for pots and pans, and a lot of the smaller stuff you can even get at the dollar store. But I like a challenge, so I'll use this price.

We're looking for basic supplies this week, generally. I'm not going to do anything too outlandish to start, but simple stuff like eggs and cheese and BBQ sauce needs to be bought. Here's the list, with prices:

Bread - $2.27
BBQ Sauce - $1.94
Ranch dressing - $3.97
Tortillas - $3.97
Chicken strips - $4.97
Tomato sauce(2x 680mL-ish jar) - $2.94
Pasta(2 lb) - $1.00
Ground beef(1 lb) - $4.50 - leave this in the fridge
Doritos(your favourite flavour) - $3.31
Eggs - $1.97
Pre-grated cheddar cheese(or cheddar derivatives - Tex-Mex type flavours work well this week) - $5.47
Processed cheese slices - $2.97
Grated parmesan cheese - $4.67
Margarine - $1.47 (butter also works, but it's more annoying to spread)
Frozen pizza - $6.97
Cooking spray - $2.77

Total price is $55.17. Not only is this under budget, but well over half of this food will still be in your fridge at the end of the week.

Holy Shit, You're Actually Cooking
We're finished talking about cooking, and so it's time to actually start cooking for real. It's Saturday morning, you've had your cereal and gone grocery shopping, and now it's time to start cooking like a bachelor, with two of the simplest meals in the world.

Saturday lunch: Grilled cheese. Get out a big pan, put it on a big burner on your stove(in general, you should always match pot/pan size to burner size). Turn that burner of the stove up to medium-high heat, i.e., halfway between medium and high. While it's warming up, take out four slices of bread, two cheese slices, and the margarine. Spread margarine on one side of each slice of bread, just like you would your PB and/or J, only a lot less of it - you just need a thin layer. Put two of the slices of bread on the pan, margarine-side down. Orientation is important here - the margarine being on the pan size of the bread is what makes the bread turn delicious and brown, instead of becoming a stuck-on disaster. Then put a slice of cheese on each, then put the other slices of bread on margarine-side up.

Leave each side cooking for perhaps 2 minutes, then flip it. If it's golden brown, you're done with that side. If it's not, that's fine - you can flip it back later. Don't wait too long to flip, or it could burn. Once both sides are a nice brown, the cheese inside should be melted, and you're done. Turn off the stove, throw the sandwiches on a plate, and give your spatula a quick rinse(it's the only dish you'll need to use twice this weekend, so you want it clean-ish without needing to do dishes). Then eat.

Saturday Dinner: Pizza. Turn your oven on to about 350F/175C, which will be the default temperature for most ovens. The pizza box will include instructions to preheat the oven(i.e., get it up to temperature before you put the pizza in), but that doesn't actually matter for 99% of recipes and it means another trip to the kitchen. Ignore it, put the pizza straight on the rack then and there, and set a timer for about 20 minutes. Go play video games. When the timer goes off, check the pizza. If the cheese is melted and the crust is a bit brown, you're probably done. If it's not, throw it in for another 5 minutes. (Food safety note: If the pizza had raw meat on it, you'll want to leave it in the oven a couple minutes longer just to make sure any bacteria are safely dead, but pre-cooked meat like pepperoni is generally safe).

When it's done, grab your oven mitts and pull it out straight onto a plate. Cut it into pieces, since you don't want to eat it all - you're saving some for lunch during the week. Toss the rest in a Tupperware in the fridge. Eat, with ranch as your dipping sauce if desired.

Side note: Ovens are set by temperature, not power level the way stoves are. In general, oven temperatures go from about 200F/90C at the low end, which you'd use for slow warming of things that overcook easily, to about 500F/260C at the high end, which you'd use for getting things crispy in a hurry. Most of the time you use an oven, temperatures should be somewhere in the middle, about 350. Also, some ovens need to be turned off when you're done. Don't forget!

So, that was pretty easy. Now you know how to use an oven and a stove, so we can get a tiny bit fancier.

Sunday Breakfast: Omelette. You want one nice breakfast a week, so let's start easy. Take your small pan, and like you did with the grilled cheese set it on medium heat while you're prepping the other ingredients. Because the eggs won't be covered in margarine, also give it a quick spray with your cooking spray - that'll prevent sticking.

You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, so let's figure out how to do that right. You crack an egg by hitting it against a solid surface hard enough to crack the shell but not so hard that you smash it. Start out a bit weak, you can always try again if the first isn't enough. Once the shell is cracked, there's a membrane underneath it that also needs to be broken, If the cracking didn't do that, stick your thumbtip in and break it yourself. The shell will stick to the membrane, so once it's broken, the egg should come apart easily. Use your thumbtips to pull the halves of the egg apart, and let the egg fall into the bowl. It gets a bit messy, but your hands will clean up easily with a bit of water.  Stack the half-shells in the egg carton, and do it again. You'll want about four eggs, depending how hungry you are.

Once that's done, throw out the shells, wash your hands, and then take a fork and mix the eggs up - you'll want to break all the yolks and get the mixture a bit more homogenous(it won't be perfect, nor should it be, but they should be mixed). Pour the eggs into the pan. Wait a few minutes, until the eggs are cooked through(i.e., the top is basically dry). Then take your spatula and flip it. Throw a handful of shredded cheese on half of the omelette, and wait until it's partially melted(about 1 minute). Turn off the stove, flip the non-cheesy half of the omelette on top of the cheesy half, and put it on your plate. Om nom nom.

Side note: Any meal where you flip it halfway through, you generally want to wait until the top is at least very close to dry. Otherwise, the wet food flies all over the place. You'll get better with time, but for now, wait until it's dry. 

Sunday Lunch: Nachos. Nachos sound like a lot of work, but they're actually stupid easy. The secret weapon here is Doritos - they're tortilla chips, but already covered in delicious flavours. You can get fancy, and in a few weeks when we discuss spices I will, but for now we're doing two-ingredient nachos. Preheat the oven to 350, then grab your baking pan(if you got a set, the mid-size one, 9"x9" or so, is good). Grab a handful of Doritos, spread them around the bottom of the pan, then sprinkle shredded cheese on top generously. Then grab another handful, and make another layer. Usually, 3-4 layers fit in a baking pan. Toss it in the oven for 20 minutes or so, until the cheese at the top is a bit browned, and not just melted, because that'll mean the inner layer is melted too. Pull the pan out with oven mitts, stick it on a plate to prevent burning the table, and eat.

Sunday Dinner - Pasta in Meat Sauce. This will be the biggest and fanciest meal you cook this week, and it'll provide the bulk of the leftovers you'll be eating through the work week. But hey, there's no garlic crusher or tiny mozzarella balls.

Grab two pots. Put the smaller one on medium heat, and throw in the ground beef. Break it up with your spatula, and let it cook. While the beef is cooking, fill the big pot about 2/3 full of hot water, cover it, and put it on max heat to boil. Turn the beef over every few minutes, trying to put the red bits on the bottom to cook as best you can. Once the beef is browned through, grab a few paper towels and run them through the beef(using the spatula, not your hand - burns are no fun) to pick up all the extra grease the beef drops when it cooks, then throw them out. Try to leave one corner dry so you can grab the paper towels and out them in the spoon, to avoid grease drops on your kitchen floor as you run to the garbage. Once you've done that, put the tomato sauce in the pot, cover it, and reduce heat to medium-low. Stir it every few minutes, to make sure it heats through evenly. Sauce is done when it's warm - as a lazy man's way of checking, stick your fingertip in. If it's too warm for comfort, the sauce is done. (Food safety note: Ground beef is not necessarily 100% cooked even when it's brown. But since you're cooking it in the sauce for another 10-15 minutes after it's already brown, you'll be fine.)

When the big pot hits a boil, which may be before or after the meat's done, drop the heat to medium and put the pasta in. Some long pastas, like spaghetti, may need to be broken up to fit properly - just grab a handful and snap it. You'll want to stir it with your cooking spoon right away, and again a minute or two later - that way it doesn't stick to itself too badly. Pasta is done when it's the texture you like, so grab some with a fork and eat it when it looks close - if it's at the correct level of softness for your preferences, turn off the heat and drain it through the strainer. If the strainer fits in the pot, put it in the pot to contain dripping. Otherwise, leave it in the sink or put it on a plate.

Because you're cooking two dishes, making sure they're both ready at the same time is a bit of a challenge. This is one of the bigger concerns for practical kitchenomancy at all levels of skill. Thankfully, both sides of this recipe are quite forgiving. If it looks like one will be ready before the other, adjust the heat of the sauce to compensate(though don't go above medium, or it might burn). If the pasta is done before the sauce, spray it with cooking spray and mix a bit to prevent it from sticking to itself(cooking spray is just canola oil, so this is fine), and cover it with the pot lid to prevent drying out. If the sauce is done before the pasta, turn the heat down to the lowest setting, and leave it on to keep warm.

Spoon out the pasta, cover it in sauce, and sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. This recipe should be good for at least five leftover meals as well as the main dinner, so break out the tupperware.

Sunday Dessert - Goddamn Dishes. We have, unfortunately, come to the shittiest part of cooking - doing the dishes. It's not that bad, really, but it's a hassle. A few basic tricks are good here.
  • Dishwashers are a miraculous invention, and you should get one if you can - it instantly cuts the job in half. 
  • Soaking dishes is a great way to loosen up a lot of crap off of them, but it should be pointed out that soaking is a process that properly takes about two minutes, not a month and a half. If you put something in warm water and do a few other dishes, you'll get about 95% of the value of an eternal soak by the time you finish those other dishes. And, as a bonus, it won't have time to grow mold like some of the truly foul dishes in my university houses. 
  • If you don't know whether something is clean, run your finger across it. If it feels smooth and non-greasy, you're probably good. (Side note: Nonstick pans will develop holes in the coating that feel like stuck-on food over time, from times you hit them the wrong way with a fork or whatever. These can't be cleaned. Don't worry too much, just replace them every few years when they start getting too beat-up to stay truly nonstick). 
If you have a single sink, turn the water on to warm, and wash dishes in the stream of water. Pour a bit of soap into your sponge, and use the spongey side to clean everything. The outside of pots and pans just needs a quick five-second pass, but the inside takes a bit more work. Don't use the scrubby side on nonstick surfaces, but for metal/ceramic/silicone it's fine. If you stop getting suds, just add more soap. When you're done with a dish(which doesn't normally take more than 20-30 seconds even for a big pot unless something is burned on), rinse off the soap suds in the water, and put it in the drying rack. Towels on the counter can function as extra drying racks, as can the stovetop.

If you have a double sink, you can do it the same way if you like, but there's a more water-efficient option. Fill one sink with warm water and use the other one for rinsing off the soap suds. Wash dishes from cleanest to dirtiest, so it doesn't mess up the water.

Also, while you're doing this, give a quick cleaning to your kitchen surfaces, particularly the stove. Even just a wet paper towel with a tiny bit of soap and 30 seconds will prevent filth from accumulating too badly.

Monday Lunch - Leftovers. This is why we cooked so much on the weekend. We have at least 6 meals of leftovers in the fridge(5 pastas and a pizza), and you can nuke them up in the microwave in two minutes to have a fast, hot, and cheap lunch at work or at home.

Monday Dinner - Leftovers. 

Tuesday Lunch - Fast Food. Hey, I said I didn't want to break you of all your habits overnight. Go have that Baconator.

Tuesday Dinner - Leftovers.

Wednesday Lunch - Leftovers. 

Wednesday Dinner - Chicken Wraps. You're probably a bit tired of leftover pasta, so let's mix it up a bit. Take your cookie tray, cover it in parchment paper, and cook half a dozen chicken strips per the instructions on the package(generally ~400F/205C for ~20 minutes). When they're done, take them out and grab three wraps, the shredded cheese, BBQ sauce, and ranch dressing. Put some ranch in the middle of the tortilla, from one edge about 2/3 of the way to the other edge. Sprinkle shredded cheese on top, then put down two chicken strips, more cheese, and BBQ sauce. Fold the back third of the tortilla(with no stuff on it) towards the front, then fold the two sides into the middle. You should get something that looks sort of like this. Then you'll want to throw them back in the oven for a few minutes to crisp up the wrap and get the cheese nicely melted. If you have toothpicks you can use them to hold the burrito closed, otherwise just stick something on top(even something as basic as a knife will work here, just don't burn yourself with it). Once the bread is lightly browned, you're done. Two are dinner, and one is a leftover for tomorrow's lunch.

Thursday Lunch - Leftovers.

Thursday Dinner - Leftovers.

Friday Lunch - Leftovers.

Friday Dinner - Restaurant. You've got a hot date, or a cool concert, or a buddy in town, or something. Or you're a sad bastard who wants to order in pizza and watch Bloodsport for the 47th time. Hey, who am I to judge?

Since this is the first week, the spending was way out of line from what we'll do going forward. $220.53 on kitchen equipment plus $55.17 on food is $275.70, on a budget of $65, or $210.70 over budget. It'll go down over time, don't worry.

On the time side, you should have spent 5 minutes buying that stuff on Amazon, 20 minutes grocery shopping, 5 minutes on your grilled cheese, 5 minutes on your pizza, 10 minutes on the omelette, 5 minutes on the nachos, 20 minutes on pasta, 15 minutes on dishes, 10 minutes on the chicken wraps, and 15 minutes heating up leftovers through the week. That's 110 minutes of actually dealing with food, instead of the 130 you spent on fast food. I promised you this would be faster than fast food.

Come back for Week 2, where I write a post like a third of this size and not a 4300 word monstrosity.

No comments:

Post a Comment