The other day I overheard on a public radio program the surprising results of a recent study — alas, that only 10 percent of the American public enjoy cooking, while the remaining 90 percent are either ho-hum about it, or would just like to run the other way. Hard to believe with the explosion of Food Network shows, Iron Chef competitions for all ages, cooking blogs, websites and YouTube videos growing faster than a colony of brewer's yeast, along with the swelling of the slow food movement, and organic farms throughout the land. Putting on my "Kitchen Shrink" toque, I'm going to wave my magic spatula, reverse this current trend, and crack open a window for joyful cooking.
Until you fall in love with cooking avoid complicated, mostly chef-constructed recipes with lengthy and exotic ingredient lists, and multiple steps. Even experienced cooks can feel overwhelmed by all the prepping, spicing, marinating, blanching, shocking, searing, braising, garnishing, decorating and plating up. Start with fresh, simple ingredients that can be counted on two hands or less, and recipes with straightforward and easy directions, especially one-pot wonders — the kind that contain everything including the kitchen sink like vegetarian and carnivorous stews, soups, both chilled and hot, tagines, casseroles and ragus. Main meal salads topped with a substantial protein such as grilled wild-caught salmon, jumbo shrimp or a chicken breast, blending greens with grains are also an easy and laid back lunch or dinner. When you feel more comfortable in the kitchen you can branch out with more challenging dishes.
To take the pressure off, prepare a meal for only yourself or a small group. Cooking for a crowd, especially for holiday meals (unless you're doing a well orchestrated potluck) is stressful for all of us. And kitchen-test your dishes before unveiling them to even friendly critics to prevent any glitches.
Where possible, buy seasonal, local, and organic produce so they're at their peak quality and flavor, fresh herbs over dried ones, along with wild-caught instead of farm-raised for fish and seafood, free-range and organic chicken, and grass-fed beef. Always have a well-stocked pantry with plenty of pastas and other grains, tomato sauces, beans, assorted oils, wines, herbs and spices cutting down on trips to the market mid-stream during cooking preparation.
Make sure you have some basic tools of the trade, particularly a sharp set of knives. Use a serrated knife for slicing bread, a paring knife for peeling fruit or trimming fat, and a chef's knife for slicing and dicing. Grasp the blade handle with thumb and forefinger, making an "O" formation. Hold food in place with your free hand, curving knuckles inward, claw-like, away from danger. Slice away.
Make clean-up cheerful instead of a chore by singing along to your favorite playlist or listening to books on tape. As well, cook multiple dishes on the same day, double-line sheet pans with foil and parchment paper, cut down on glass and flatware service, use non-stick sprays on pots and pans, and enlist a family member to pitch in for easier clean-up.
The lucky novice now has at his or her disposal obliging supermarkets and farms that deliver and package by order or subscription entire grocery lists ready to be transformed into meals. They also provide everything from hard-boiled eggs that are even peeled, cut fruit, and trimmed, pre-marinated and seasoned meats, fish and poultry to prepared salads, sides, hot and cold main dishes, along with baked goods of all manners. You can do it better, so give it a whirl, and treat yourself to a quirky apron to make a fun cooking day.
Recipe: Seared Scallops & Spaghetti in Wine Sauce
• Ingredients: 1-pound large, wild-caught scallops; 1-tablespoon olive, grapeseed or walnut oil; 1-tablespoon unsalted butter; 1 1/2 cup white wine; juice from one lemon; 2 garlic cloves, minced; 1-tablespoon fresh chopped Italian parsley; 1/2 pound spaghetti, cooked to desired consistency, drained.
• Method: In a skillet or saucepan, heat oil on high and sear scallops until brown on the outside and firm to the touch (3-5 minutes each side). Remove from pan. In the same saucepan, combine wine, butter, garlic, lemon juice and pepper. Bring to a slow boil, then simmer for about 10 minutes until it thickens. Toss scallops and spaghetti with sauce. Garnish with parsley. Serves 2.
— Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org