How I Learned to Be A Good Cook (With 3 Fail-safe, Versatile Dinner Recipes)

May 29, 2020 7 min read

2 Comments

I've shared my favourite reads in the past, and today I'm sharing some faves to cook.

This is not a cooking blog (obviously) and I haven't styled any plates or hired any food photographers. I am no expert, but I do cook great food. This assertion is not self-congratulatory! I have little (no) inherent skill and I attribute all of my good cooking to 1) other people's excellent recipes, 2) access to fresh, reliable, & varied food, and 3) time (ie. the time I currently have currently to cook AND the many years of practice).

A Little Background:

I did not cook growing up, and when I was dating my husband, I asked his roommate if I could help out with any dinner prep, "like, stir the rice or anything?" He outright laughed at me. 

Now, at age 36, I have come a looong way since my rice-stirring days! Here is why:

1) My mom's assertion: "If you can read, you can cook." 

Amazing recipes abound! In this era of video content, I would even extend this statement to: if you can follow directions, you can cook. There are so many qualified chefs out there who have developed and tested extraordinary recipes.

For me, it started with Williams Sonoma recipes. I have cooked literally hundreds of WS recipes (from books or their online resource), and I think only 2 turned out badly. Trusting in a good source for recipes has allowed me to follow them to a T and thus... approximate good cooking (even though the only skill I brought to the mix was an ability to understand & follow the directions*) 


*this has been a learning curve, too. Once, at 9pm on Dec. 23rd, I had to do a Youtube dive into "how to knead dough" when I was midway into a cinnamon bun recipe 🤷‍♀️


2) Spending too much money on groceries, for a time

For 3 years at the beginning of my career, my job was marketing on a small team for a local chain of quality grocery markets. With access to amazing ingredients and expertise from people in the food business, my skills grew exponentially!

As two working professionals with no kids, we were out a lot; I had no idea what was in my fridge at any given time. Besides, I did not have enough of an awareness of ingredients to "use what I had" to "make something".

Every time I needed to cook, I would find a recipe (usually 10 mins before the end of my work day), then head downstairs to the grocery store beneath my office and buy the ingredients I needed.

It was not the most efficient or cost-effective way to eat...  I spent way more than I can even imagine now for 2 people! To my shame, I'm sure I wasted plenty of fresh produce, too.

But, I think of it all as educational costs for the skills that I have learned that will serve me over a lifetime. 


3) So. much. practice. 

There are some people who are born with the skill to cook: to understand ingredients and the dynamics of salt, fat, acid, & heat. That is not me. Or, some people grow up in a home where they learn these elements seamlessly. Also: not me!

But, over ~15 years, I have been able to practice and learn enough skill that I can finally do a little bit of substitution & going off the page. I know what is in my fridge, and I understand at least how I could put things together (though mostly, I still prefer a good recipe, followed closely!).

If you are a free-form cook who can throw in a bit of this and a bit of that, and it works out beautifully — power to you! And I'm sure my experience seems absurd.

All I know is that some people can sit at a piano and hear how notes work together to create something beautiful. They practice and become extraordinary. Others can practice piano, and play decently — maybe even get to the baseline of someone with natural talent... but they just don't have *the thing* that makes the skill easy, natural, and (with dedication) exceptional. That is me — and, I think, many others! — with cooking.

 

Phew! Blah blah blah, thanks for coming with me on that wordy journey.

 

On to the recipes!

These are powerhouse recipes! Each one I have made 20+ times, and have been asked for the recipe. Enjoy!

Chicken Shawarma with Tahini Sauce

Original recipe: from Williams Sonoma

Why I love it:

  • I usually have all of these ingredients on hand already
  • The variety of elements makes this a perfect dish for kids, and for entertaining (and, especially, for entertaining friends with kids)
  • The chicken can be seasoned/marinated 15 mins ahead of time or 1 day ahead
  • Very flex for allergies: can be dairy- & gluten-free
Ingredients:

For the chicken:
(multiply for a a larger amount)

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 tsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 2 lb. (1 kg) total, thinly sliced
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper


For the tahini sauce:

  • 3/4 cup (more or less) plain yogurt
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • 2 Tbs. tahini
  • 1 Tbs. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • * if you use Greek yogurt, you'll also need to thin it out with some olive oil and water, probably.

For the rest of the meal:

  • 1 red onion, halved and cut into slices 
  • pitas or naan
  • I like to serve with rice
  • Veg that you might like in a wrap: chopped cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce
Directions:

In a bowl, stir together 1 Tbs. of the olive oil, the curry, cumin, garlic and lemon juice. Add the chicken, season well with salt and pepper, and toss to coat thoroughly. Let stand at room temperature for 20 minutes. (Or do this in the morning, the night before, or when you buy the meat & throw it in the freezer.)

Meanwhile, make the tahini sauce. (I do it in a mini chopper, starting with the garlic. Otherwise:) In a bowl, stir together the yogurt, garlic, tahini, cilantro and lemon juice; season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Heat a grill pan or frying pan over high heat or prepare a medium-hot fire in a grill. When the pan or grill is very hot, add the onion and grill, turning occasionally, until nicely browned all over, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm. Do not wipe the pan clean.

Add the chicken to the pan or grill and grill, turning once, until opaque throughout and lightly browned on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.

Serve in bowls or on a platter & everyone can do what they like: make a wrap, create a platter, etc. 


Other options: buy hummus or tzatziki instead of making the sauce. Season chickpeas instead of chicken for a vegetarian version. Grill the chicken on skewers, if you like. Skip the onions. Use pork tenderloin or shrimp or chicken thighs. Eat with spinach or on salad greens instead of the grains. This recipe is perfect in its original form, but it can also stand up to many variations!

 

Spring Roll Bowls

Original Recipe link: Pinch of Yum + me (that seems unlikely... but, even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while)

Why I love it:

  • Fresh, bright, and feels like summer. 
  • Again, the versatility of elements makes this a perfect dish for kids & hosting
  • Gluten-free (Not a concern for me, but I cook regularly for people who are)
Ingredients:

For the sweet garlic lime sauce:

  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup agave or brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • 1/3 cup lime juice
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil

For the bowls:

  • Rice Noodles or Sticky Rice — prep either or both of these according to the package, or some internet directions
  • Basil, Mint, and Cilantro (all three or whatever you have)
  • Sliced Peppers (like serrano or Jalapeno) or chili garlic sauce (like Sriracha with the green lid, only comes in a jar — if you like heat
  • Chopped Peanuts
  • Avocado
  • Veggies –> like carrots, bell peppers, and cucumbers
  • Protein –> turkey/chicken/pork (recipe below), shrimp, tofu

For the meat:

  • ~1lb/500g ground/minced turkey or chicken 
  • 1/2 a large or 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • can of sliced water chestnuts, chopped into little pieces
  • soy sauce
  • sesame oil
Directions:

If you have a mini chopper, chop the garlic, then add the rest of the sauce ingredients and blend it all up. If not, mince the garlic finely and mix it all up in a jar or bowl.

Prep all the veg; it will probably take longer than you think, so enlist help if you can! Also, prep the rice/noodles, and everything else you want for the bowls.

For the meat: Use a medium or large skillet/pan. Add a small bit of veg oil and fry the onions on med-high for a few minutes, then add the meat & continue on high until it is cooked through. Drain the fat if you need to (turkey & chicken is very lean & it won't be necessary). 

Add the water chestnuts. You want to cook it all now just enough to warm them up, so you might want to turn the heat down a bit. This gets very non-recipe-ish, but... just add some splashes of soy sauce and some sesame oil until it tastes delicious. Err towards less, as you can always add it bit by bit.

 

 

Bon Appetit's Best Carbonara

Original recipe: from Bon Appetit

Why I love it:

  • It's delicious
  • It's inexpensive
  • It's indulgent
  • I use the leftover egg whites to make Samin Nosrat's meringues.

Notes:

  • Definitely needs some veg or salad on the side 😂
  • The original recipe (link) calls for guanciale (salt-cured pork jowl). I'm sure it's delicious, but it sounds bougie to me, and I've never seen it at my grocers'. I use bacon, and it is more than adequate! Once, I used pancetta, but I actually preferred bacon as there were more little flecks throughout the dish. 
  • Yes, this recipe really does use 8 eggs

Visual learners: Here is the video


Ingredients:
  • 1 package (1lb?ish) bacon, chopped into pieces about the width of a finger
  • 7 large egg yolks
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 lb bucatini, rigatoni, spaghetti, or pasta of some kind
  • kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan (the good kind), plus more for garnish
  • lots of fresh pepper
Directions:

Cook bacon in a skillet over medium-low heat, stirring regularly, until it is close to crispy. Remove with a slotted utensil, or pour the whole thing through a fine-mesh sieve set over a heat-proof bowl (to catch the drippings).

In a large bowl, add egg yolks & egg; whisk to blend. 

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water (salty like the sea!), stirring occasionally, until al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup pasta cooking liquid.

Immediately add pasta, 2 Tbsp. pasta cooking liquid, and 1 tsp. bacon drippings to egg mixture; toss to coat. Working in batches, gradually add ½ cup cheese & pepper, stirring and tossing to melt between batches. Toss until sauce thickens, adding more pasta water by tablespoonfuls if needed.

Taste & season with salt and pepper.

 

What is a fave, powerhouse recipe of yours? Share below or email me.


2 Responses

Katie
Katie

June 01, 2020

I’m not a natural cook either but I also don’t like following instructions! So my fave recipes are more like formulas. I love the Lazy Genius Change Your Life Chicken. This is a recipe that makes me look like a good cook!

Amanda
Amanda

May 31, 2020

Thanks so much for sharing! I’m excited to these!!!

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