Let’s face it: Some of us hate cooking.
Yes, I’m going there.
The Food section always has been a haven for people who enjoy nourishing others with delicious cooking and welcoming friends with creative entertaining. You inspire us. You’re great at it, and we are grateful to you and for you.
Then there are the rest of us. We cook because we are supposed to, and we do our best, but we’d rather be doing almost anything else. We want nutritious food that tastes good, but we’re just not into chopping and measuring after a long day at work, and we don’t consider cooking to be particularly enjoyable or relaxing.
The Food section is here for us, too.
Now that people are staying home and many restaurants are closing temporarily to avoid potential exposure to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus and help prevent its spread, there will be plenty of folks in the kitchen who’d really rather not be there. I feel your pain. And the quickest of glances at social media in the past week or so proves that there are more of us than we’d ever realized.
That’s why I’m starting No-Cook Cooking, a new column for people who aren’t crazy about cooking but do like results. If you’d rather change your oil than prop open a cookbook, you are not alone. If your normal schedule is frantic, and your favorite pre-social-distancing thing to make was reservations, spending more time in the kitchen may be a good thing. If you get to do things your way at your own pace, you may discover aspects of cooking that you can enjoy. And by the time restaurants resume table service, we’ll all have a deeper appreciation for the magic that local chefs, cooks and servers work on a daily basis.
I’ll be sharing some ideas for dishes that are simple enough not to require formal recipes or fussy prep work. I’ll focus on items that I still see in the grocery stores, and I welcome your suggestions for easy dishes and stress-free dinners.
Do you have some simple suggestions for beginners, or for folks who haven’t done much cooking in a while? Some go-to side dishes that never go wrong? Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll share them.
Think of it as an opportunity. Have you been wanting to experiment with meatless meals, new international cuisines or the discipline of baking? Now you have time, motive and opportunity to explore.
We’re all in this together — and right now, that means in the kitchen.
Snack or salad?
There are still great finds in the produce section. There’s a whole world of delicious raw vegetables out there, so you aren’t stuck with iceberg lettuce and bottled dressing every night. Texture is part of the secret to making meals appealing, so if you tend to make the same side dishes over and over, try mixing it up by serving both a cooked vegetable and a raw vegetable with your main course.
• Here’s an easy snack to keep in the refrigerator: Slice a large cucumber and three or four radishes into the thinnest slices you can cut. A mandoline slicer will make quick work of it, but be extra cautious and attentive to protect your fingers.
Layer the slices in a glass bowl with a lid that fits tightly. Cover the slices with white wine vinegar, and then add small sprinkles of whatever spices you like. Salt and pepper work just fine; my favorite combination is dill weed and mustard seeds. Some folks will prefer to savor the fresh veggie flavors without any spices, especially when summer’s produce becomes available.
Place the tight lid over the bowl and leave it in the fridge for at least two hours to let the flavors blend.
• Another favorite raw veggie choice at our house works as a snack or a side dish. Take a broccoli crown or half a head of cauliflower and slice or break it into bite-sized florets.
Divide the florets among bowls, one for each family member or friend, and sprinkle each bowl of florets with olive oil, salt and pepper. I usually use a little adobo seasoning instead of salt, but if you still have the Himalayan pink salt that was so trendy a year or so ago, that works well, too.
Stir gently to coat, and let it sit for 15 minutes or so before serving. It’s kind of habit forming, so, next time, try adding some thinly sliced red bell pepper and tinkering with the spice combination.
• If you’re wondering what to do with that bag of baby carrots now that you aren’t packing school lunches, try mashing them.
Steam the carrots for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they’re tender enough to mash with a fork. Some folks like to use an immersion blender to get them nice and smooth.
Then it’s time to get creative. If you’d prefer a savory side dish, add a little vegetable broth, chicken broth, butter or margarine and salt and pepper. If you’d rather play up the sweetness of the carrots, add a tiny bit of cinnamon and brown sugar and a handful of golden raisins.
• Food columnist Hilde Lee reminded us a few weeks ago that celery isn’t just for crudité trays. If you’ve never tried cooking celery as a vegetable before, the flavor can seem fresh and different.
Peel the strings off the celery and slice it the way you prefer. Some folks like the traditional stick shapes; I like thin slices. Sauté with cooking spray or butter, or steam in vegetable broth until tender. Another easy way to make cooked celery is to put it in the pan while you’re roasting a chicken. Keep in mind that celery doesn’t need much salt.
• A deconstructed spin on your favorite Buffalo wing appetizers puts celery in an easy, change-of-pace entree. Cook boneless, skinless chicken breasts with your favorite bottled hot sauce and serve with sautéed celery and a sprinkle of crumbled blue cheese.
• Summer will be here before we know it, and zucchini will be everywhere. There are many variations on zucchini fries out there, and you can customize them to suit your taste.
An easy way to make them is to slice three zucchini squashes into sticks, dip them in a liquid processed egg product or a beaten egg, and roll them in a mixture of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese. (Add a little paprika if you want.) Line a baking sheet with foil, give it a very light spritz of cooking spray, and bake the zucchini fries at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove them carefully from the foil.
Spice it up
Now that you’re experimenting a bit more in the kitchen, try different flavorings. The supermarket baking aisles and international aisles usually have plenty of spice blends, so start with those. More salt-free spice blends and pepper blends are popping up these days. If you’re doing more of your shopping online now, Penzeys is famous for its variety of blends.
Build a collection over time, and you’ll always have a way to liven up steamed vegetables, meats, tofu and all kinds of sides.
If I had to pick only two multi-purpose favorites, I’d recommend Chinese five spice — a blend of star anise, ground anise, cinnamon, cloves and ginger that’s wonderful in oatmeal — and Mrs. Dash’s salt-free Spicy Jalapeno, which is sublime in everything from stir-fries to chili to steamed veggies but can be hard to find on store shelves.
Spice blends eliminate guesswork and introduce new flavor profiles. But before you know it, as you feel more comfortable and confident in the kitchen, you’ll be creating your own combinations.
As my Zumba teacher used to call out during dance routines, after teaching us basic choreography and turning us loose, “Bring your flavor.” Here’s hoping cooking will start to feel like less of a chore and more of a chance for some creative expression.
Share your favorites
Calling all chefs and amateurs alike: Have an easy, foolproof, flexible recipe that you’d like to share in this space? In particular, do you have a favorite meatless entree? A dish that children home from school can learn to cook for the family? Any tips for beginning cooks or cooks who’ve gotten rusty? What are your favorite time-saving appliances and tools that make meals easy? Send them to me at email@example.com.