COOKING SIMPLIFIED How to replace fear with fun

Why Wok with me?

Fear may be a little too strong a word but would you like cooking to be FUN? Have you been searching for some sort of missing ingredient or pot that will make it a whole lot easier? Are you tired of having to go back to the grocery store before you start in on a recipe? Have you wondered what made the main dish at a restaurant or even the salad at a pot-luck gathering taste so great?

Well my friend, you have arrived at the right spot if you have been asking these questions. I was given the absolute best lesson anyone could ever hope for when learning to cook that I'll share with you here today. Above and beyond that, I will attempt to take the mystery out of that seemingly secret ingredient that added such a special 'pleasing to the palate' touch. I'll also give you a few tried and true ways to WOW guests - both for the joy of hearing compliments and allowing you to eliminate the 'timing crunch' crisis that can sometimes blow your whole evening with friends.

In addition of course, if you're afraid of cooking (and this isn't to insinuate you stay out of the kitchen, just a mini comparison similar to why 4 year old children jump on a computer while we may procrastinate - they don't have ANY picture of it messing up at all), replacing fear with fun - or better yet, fear with love, will change every meal from here on out.

My mom was great at cooking but she seemed to detest the fact that it was expected of her. Not enjoying it until later on when she no longer 'had to', she cooked slight variations of the same old meat and potatoes with boiled veggies almost every night. As a young athlete with a slow metabolism, eating became synonomous with a nightly struggle to finish everything on my plate. As a result, I wasn't in the least interested in cooking until I moved out in my teens. Since then I've heard so many comments about how someone's mother never taught them - that's why they don't cook or can. Relax, let the joy of being self taught take over - it is easy. It may also be a whole lot more exciting and better because you'll learn to cook for you, your taste and your loved ones.

Since I promised ‘simplified’ I will do my best not to turn this into yet another long involved cook book with every tip and secret I’ve learned in the last 12,000-13,000 days. Those long ones make even me think it's so complicated and I have to remember everything and yikes! I do have a few hundred cookbooks though, if you can't find a recipe you're looking for after this, just ask.

Instead of 'complicated', here are the main categories:

How to simplify the cooking process

The “secret” ingredients

Some suggestions and which appliances/pots are best for you

Timing is everything

Recipes or recipe books to choose and why

Corned Beef Brisket

Brisket, a few potatoes, carrots, celery, broth to cover & 3 bay leaves as the added "yum". Didn't have cabbage handy - Keep it simple
Brisket, a few potatoes, carrots, celery, broth to cover & 3 bay leaves as the added "yum". Didn't have cabbage handy - Keep it simple

How to simplify the cooking process

What lesson was I so fortunate to learn right off the bat? Two great friends of mine, almost adopted brothers - great cooks themselves with an exceptional chef as a father - gave me a cook book called "EAT IT!". Wish I could find it now but it was almost written with a hippie style, Hawaiian hang loose attitude, so they probably enjoyed a one time printing run back in the early '70s.

Unlike the recipe books of today, it's recipes had little or no exact ingredients at all. For meat loaf it would say, "Take some hamburger meat - mash it up - add an egg and some bread crumbs - throw in an onion or pepper if you have one - add a little salt, dash of pepper and whatever herb is handy. Put it in a bake safe dish and cook at 375 for about 45 minutes or until it looks done."

You can laugh but to this day, I can cook about anything I can get my hands on. Those simple recipes had all the main elements you need to know for how to cook anything: What are you cooking; what to add; what temperature do you cook it at; and for how long. "Until done" will become as easy as paying attention to how long after you think "gee that smells good" is needed. If your sniffer isn't strong, looking at it or investing in a thermometer and a box of long matchsticks you can use as cake pokers will ensure success.

For example: if you prefer turkey, grab some ground turkey instead of hamburger meat and do the same thing. Cooking a whole turkey means cleaning out the insides, tying it together and knowing what temperature to cook it at and how long per pound. If unsure and you haven't invested in a thermometer yet, get one with the pop out thermometer already in it. I know, you've heard you have to baste it every half hour etc. but this isn't true either - we found a roaster for $29.00 that cooks it perfectly every time.

The only time my cooking hasn't turned out, is when I've added fear as an ingredient!

Use fresh ingredients - easy to grind or grate fresh too

Nutmeg lasts longer this way and adds ZING
Nutmeg lasts longer this way and adds ZING
Fresh Rosemary - ask a friend with a bush who doesn't spray = saves money
Fresh Rosemary - ask a friend with a bush who doesn't spray = saves money
Fresh pepper   yes! Sea salt freshly ground is healthier too
Fresh pepper yes! Sea salt freshly ground is healthier too
Bay leaves are SO handy and add a very special flavor!
Bay leaves are SO handy and add a very special flavor!

Easier than you imagine to impress & have fresh herbs handy year round

The “secret” ingredients

Loving salads, I used to make them daily and felt almost righteous eating so healthily. One day a friend, who was a decided expert on proper food combining, made lunch and WOW – what did he do to bring his salad to life? I longed for the secret!

You will read in the best books that starting with fresh ingredients is a definite key – they are not kidding! Of course, most salads are all made with fresh ingredients, so what did he do? My friend had simply added a couple fresh herbs and the difference between the salad he made and the ones I used to make was like night and day. The same holds true for almost every recipe I have managed to figure out from a restaurant –> fresh ingredients and a simple added herb/spice or two.

So how do you know what herbs or spices to use? This my friend, is why there are billions of cookbooks from every country, region, and cook in the world. Sure, there are recipes and books galore to cook different types of food but when it comes right down to it, it is a matter of taste, customs, region etc. The most important fact of all this is – what is your taste?

For example, playing around with a simple fondue I discovered that adding Rosemary to meat is divine! Personally, I love Cardamom and it can change iced tea or rice pudding into an unusual and delightful treat – but my Honey cannot stand it. Curry, loved by many, cannot be found in my kitchen at all. One day it hid the fact that the chicken was old and bad. There and then, it was banned from my preferred list.

This is how you can really have fun! Make a dish (other than chutneys) and take the time to try a little of each herb with that same dish at the table. Infusing it into the cooking once decided you like it, will simply make it stronger when you cook with it. After doing this, you'll also easily recognize a flavor in that restaurant dish you like so much :)

Here again, fresh is best. For example, freshly ground nutmeg can put a scrumptious zing into a dish but if old, it may not be noticed enough to bother. Here is where I hear you groan, “You mean I have to keep fresh herbs around all the time?” In a word, yes. It’s easier than you think. Going back to the Nutmeg example, I keep the actual nuts, grinding when needed and they’re still good after 2-3 years. The same holds true with pepper – keep the peppercorns around and grind, as needed – huge difference! Be sure to see money saving tips on Food - SAVE MONEY, TIME and your HEALTH. You'll see a great connection on there but just in case, let me add a link on here for you too. It's for the San Francisco Herb Co. They are wonderful to deal with and buying in bulk can save a whole lot of money!

Rule of thumb: all dried herbs will last 6 months. If it is a little older than that, add more in the cooking. If older than a year – toss it, it is just taking up space. You ought to be able to rub an herb between your fingers, in plant form or from a jar and smell it. If you enjoy having a gorgeous cooking or dining area, I highly recommend adding a AeroGarden – it’s easy and having actual fresh herbs year round is not only healthy but will indeed invite compliments – lots of them!

Stop fretting, turkeys can be easy!

Some suggestions and which appliances/pots are best for you

Please, take a moment and write a few of your lifestyle choices along with your greatest detriments or reasons cooking is inconvenient.

Examples: Lifestyle: 1) Busy & spontaneous Detriment: Planning tough, don’t know what I’ll be doing; 2) Limited space don’t have room for a lot of appliances; 3) Single/couple most recipes too large; 4) Lazy don’t like prep work

Your turn, take a moment – this section will be helpful if you personalize it.

____________

____________

____________

Let’s start out with how to WOW your guests, avoid the time crunch crisis - and solve MANY detrimental reasons for not cooking more.

Slow cooking a variety of meats and dishes turns tough to ‘fall off the fork’ delicious. Very little preparation is required and can be done either four -10 hours in advance. That means you can throw it in before heading to work and return to a home that smells (and will taste) as though you’ve been cooking for hours. There are varieties of slow cookers available on the market. Choose one to suit you, the size of your family or even if you want the recipes built right into it. With only two of you or if space is limited, get a small one.

I recently gave my daughter a time-saving, space saving, multi-purposed 3-set that was reasonably priced. It had one base and three pots: a 2 qt, 4 qt, and 6 qt. They all fit together, offered a range of appetizers, meals, soups and desserts that could be made and the pots doubled as server warmers – can you beat that?

Saving time and energy with preparation is as easy as grabbing a food processor. They even have ones on the market these days that spit the food out instead of having to go through the trouble of taking the top off to get at it. Sounds like I’m being facetious (like the watch with different time zones to save the anguish of mental arithmetic), but I’m not. Clean up can be a detriment and with both processors and juicers, the models that toss the food out can save a LOT of time in cleaning (and you will utilize them more often).

The aspect of cleaning is huge when considering all appliances in my book – even without being lazy. I’ve purchased smaller appliances like sandwich makers or grills that don’t come apart but you’re not supposed to get the motor wet – what a pain! This applies to the previous slow cookers too – make sure whatever you have to wash is separate! Otherwise, you may end up with many extras in the kitchen that rarely get used.

True versatility, FUN, and ease can be found with those “Magic Bullets”. You can whip up about anything if you have ever watched the commercials. My brother says it is not great for smoothies because they seep into the motor at the bottom but other than that, I can vouch for their versatility, space saving and easy benefits! Their cookbook is about the best I’ve ever seen accompanying an appliance. Available for $100 or less (see eBay sidebar), the set can save you hundreds in the end. Like anything else, it works much better out of the box so play with it and get used to it, try the recipes and voila – you’ll use it more than you can imagine.

A casserole dish can help you wow your family and save money, more than most other appliances put together. As long as your leftovers are still good, you can throw them together, add a cheese topping and a little herb or spice to vary the taste from the original and *poof*: insta dinner – even better than most of the frozen stuff.

Amazingly, let’s address the rest of your list in one simplified paragraph. Whatever you prefer eating on a regular basis, get the best appliance to suit that need. If you are health conscious for example, there are sets of pots that require no grease or butter. For speed, other sets cut one’s cooking time in half or look into a Wok which takes less than 20 minutes to cook just about anything. Having an aversion to aluminum, I found a rice cooker that also steams on top so I can toss in both frozen fish and/or vegetables and they are ready when the rice is done – cool - a whole meal ready all at once without a timer.

Bottom-line – it doesn’t have to be complicated. If money is an issue, talk with your friends or family to split an appliance. After we got the roaster, even though cheap, we loan it out to family members to ease their cooking too – who says you have to wait for Thanksgiving for turkey? It’s inexpensive, great and can carry you through many different meals. Do not forget to boil the bones for a few hours too – using broth instead of water could be considered another “secret ingredient”.

Timing is everything

That says it all! I could leave it at that to simplify things but all the time spent writing this for you will have been for nothing if you run off still scared. As mentioned above, use your sniffer and eliminate the fear. I’ve watched people who’ve cooked for decades, don’t vary from a recipe by even 1/8 of a tsp ruin many a meal by not trusting themselves and their nose. Ranges vary, microwaves vary, BBQs vary – if you trust a generic recipe more than yourself, things are bound to burn or be undercooked.

I mentioned getting a thermometer and box of large matchsticks above – don’t think I’ve needed anything other than those and my eyes and nose for years. Too simplified? OK, ease your mind a little more by consulting the next section on recipes and cookbooks.

Have a recipe or 2 you'll carry for years to WOW guests

Apologies for "used" look - it has been. BEST carrot cake I've ever tasted!
Apologies for "used" look - it has been. BEST carrot cake I've ever tasted!

List price lower than current? Well worth it! Best chef ever

Turn cheese 'n' crackers into a gourmet meal!

A recipe from Oded Schwartz - be the first to grab it or force them into a reprint - you won't regret it!
A recipe from Oded Schwartz - be the first to grab it or force them into a reprint - you won't regret it!

Recipes or recipe books to choose and why

Listening to QVC one day I got sold on this best 30 minute cookbook and of course, took advantage of the quantity discount thinking, “GREAT, my daughter could use one, a few of my friends…” – BIG MISTAKE. The pitch was that they had researched for two years and only the tried and modified to be best recipes were in there. Why don’t I like it? Just about every recipe has something even I, as a now gourmet chef and canner haven’t heard of. What is “Garam Masala”? It reminds me of the huge map books they offer without thinking about the illogical aspect of having to flip to 14 disconnected pages while driving – it becomes easier to stop and ask at a local gas station or in this case - head to a restaurant.

So many cookbooks these days offer such unique combinations, it can be a guessing game as to whether or not their palate is anywhere near what you enjoy. Moreover, of course, because of that you have to run to the store before trying any of them. So, which books can you trust, which will suit you? Which ones are necessary and which are simply a waste of money becoming shelf help in the cooking game rather than something you cannot wait to get back to? After over 3 decades of collecting cookbooks, I do have a few suggestions.

Primarily, no-matter what stage of cooking you’re at, a must is a major “everything” cookbook. A book that definitely includes the time, temperature and what to add for almost anything. The ones to trust for this are the ones that have been around forever it seems. My mom used the “Joy of Cooking” (ironic isn’t it). Julia Child’s reputation is earned; the New York Times is no muss no fuss etc. I have a couple handy although if your one is really good, it's the only one necessary. Make sure it has conversions too if, no-matter what I say, you intend to stick with exact measurements – don’t worry, I’ll forgive you in advance.

The best way to test any before purchasing is to look up a few recipes you’ve wanted to make, or, if looking on the net, look for added suggestions of accompaniments - what to serve with it etc. Most chefs will want you to know this. The great chefs will let you know the degree of difficulty and/or cooking time and prep required (and no, the 30 minute cookbook does not include the hour of prep after returning from the store). With the extra information, you will not be caught off guard thinking it was easy, or adding it as a dish for guests and having your timing thrown.

The ones I have come to enjoy the most are the older ones. This isn’t because I’m older but because they don’t have all these added unknowns, or such specific details that you wonder if it’ll turn out. I spent some time offering bulk organic food and realized one of the reasons new ones aren't as nice is because they always seem to include that element of fear. Yes, you may have to cook the pork chops twice these days if you buy looking for a special “manager’s discount” or something = not bargains in the health aspect but I promise not to go off on that tangent.

One of the examples of an “older cookbook” is the “Ball Blue Book – guide to home canning, freezing & dehydration”. It is amazing – did you know you can can without a pressure cooker? Talk about wowing guests when you pull out something you canned up 6 months ago and is the “perfect touch” to a meal!

With a few hundred cookbooks, I could write for days but suffice-it-to-say, KEEP IT SIMPLE (another great oldie but goodie by Marian Burros). Really, that is the key - keep it simple. When a cookbook keeps it simply, and you’ve tasted different herbs and spices to find out what you like, you can always add to it. With too many details, who knows what it’ll taste like if you have to skip a few. I would say that if there are too many pictures, chances are they’ve spent more time on presentation than they have in the kitchen but Oded Schwartz blew that theory right out the window!

Save time with this tip

If you make this 4 dozen worth, simply freeze in 6-8 each bags. 10 minutes (from frozen) @ 375 and you'll have home-made delicious cookies anytime
If you make this 4 dozen worth, simply freeze in 6-8 each bags. 10 minutes (from frozen) @ 375 and you'll have home-made delicious cookies anytime

Alrighty then - now that you trust me to trust yourself and have fun, you're ready for the absolute best, ultimate secret ingredient. Promise you won't say it sounds corny? Add a pinch of love - it'll make it taste better EVERY TIME!

Let me know if you're searching for a particular recipe - I'd be more than happy to help out. Also, if you'd like me to write an "EAT IT" hub, or which herb has a better chance with which foods, or how to properly combine food so it tastes better and is healthier etc., simply put in your request. Anything becomes a passion of sorts when we're not afraid of it and have fun - cooking's no exception.

And by the way, if you feel you HAVE TO cook and it's robbing the fun out of it for you, tell the family you prepared granola for dinner. After all, who says it has to be your turn every night?

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Comments 4 comments

hilltrekker profile image

hilltrekker 7 years ago

Hi Sem, this hub is great. I am going to try the things.


SEM Pro profile image

SEM Pro 7 years ago from North America Author

Thanks Hilltrekker. I love all the recipes posted so much I've been re-making them for years - which says a lot about them coming from a spontaneous cook.

Thanks for stopping by - always great to hear from you!


chefsref profile image

chefsref 5 years ago from Citra Florida

Hey Sem

I'm still looking around at your stuff, you give some good advice here

Up and Useful


SEM Pro profile image

SEM Pro 5 years ago from North America Author

Thanks for stopping by and your endorsement chefsref :) Its wonderful to share the passion of playing with food to create delectable delights! Looking forward to reading your hubs and trying your recipes - especially your peach 'n' pecan pudding! We'll meet again soon :)

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