Think You Can't Cook? Think Again.
Don't Freak: It's Not That Hard
Right, so you’re living in an apartment on your own, or maybe with roommates, for the first time. You don’t have dorm food or Mom’s cooking to fall back on, eating out is expensive, and you’re sick of eating mac-n-cheese and ramen noodles. Don’t despair. If you’re capable of finding an apartment and keeping the bills paid, you’re capable of cooking a tasty, vaguely nutritious meal for yourself and others. You won’t need any fancy expensive ingredients or equipment (unless you decide you enjoy cooking and want to take it to the next level). And fellas, a tasty home-cooked dinner can impress your date more than eating at a fancy restaurant.
Here’s two different ways to make a tortellini-based main dish, one incredibly quick and easy, and one more involved but probably healthier and certainly more impressive.
Quick and Easy
Pre-packaged tortellini from the store. I usually use Bertolli, but whatever you like is fine. It’s you that’s eating it, right?
A bottle of Italian-style salad dressing. Newman’s Own makes many delicious varieties, but again, whatever you like is fine.
A pot big enough to hold both the noodles and plenty of water.
A way to drain the noodles. You can use a colander or just put the lid on the pot, hold it on, and turn it sideways over the sink. Be careful! The water and steam are really really hot! You’ll want to use a potholder or oven mitt.
You can use a separate bowl to serve the finished product on a plate if you want, or if you’re by yourself, just eat it out of the pot in front of the TV. (Do not do this if you’re cooking for a date.)
Here’s what you do:
Boil the tortellini according to the instructions on the package.
When the tortellini are cooked (you can tell by carefully taking one out of the pot with a spoon and tasting it), drain off the boiling water.
Dump a bunch of Italian-style dressing on the tortellini.
Mix it all up—get the dressing all over the noodles.
Easy, right? This is probably about the same level of nutrition as your basic mac-and-cheese, but it’s a nice change of pace and much more interesting. It is, however, slightly pricier.
More Involved, but Probably Healthier
Black Pepper (If you have a pepper mill, use it.)
Onions (either a bunch of green onions or one large white or yellow one)
Mushrooms (I like Portobello, but use whatever kind you prefer.)
Large Bell Pepper (preferably red, orange, or yellow if you’re using green onions)
A pot to cook the tortellini in, like the one above.
A way to drain the noodles thoroughly. You should use a colander for this one.
A sharp knife. I use a wide-bladed vegetable knife, but a steak knife will do in a pinch.
A cutting board. Wooden or plastic, doesn’t matter.
A large frying pan.
A spatula (optional).
A serving bowl.
A serving spoon or ladle.
Plates, napkins, silverware, glasses.
Here’s what you do:
Boil the tortellini according to instructions.
While the tortellini are boiling, cut up the veggies thusly:
Mince the garlic into wee little bits. Or crush it, if that’s how you roll. We’re trying to release the essence of the garlic, here.
Cut the onions up into bits. If you’re using green onions, slice them up into round bits about the width of a nickel up to about ¼ inch. Get into the green part, but not too high. You don’t want to use the leathery bit near the top of the green. If you’re using a regular bulbous onion, I like to cut it in half, then cut each half into thirds, then cut each third in half. The chunks will come apart as you cook them.
Cut the bell pepper up into bits about half an inch to an inch square.
Slice or quarter the mushrooms, depending on their size and your preference. If they seem small enough, you can even leave them whole.
Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil in the frying pan and turn on the burner. Put the garlic in as well. Soon, the glorious smell of garlic frying in olive oil will fill your kitchen. Once the garlic is bubbling away, throw in some basil and oregano, and grind some pepper into the mix.
Put the onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms in the frying pan. Slide the pan back and forth as the veggies cook to keep them from scorching. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try to toss the veggies in the pan using a sort of circular motion, as if you were flipping a flapjack. If not, use a spatula to keep the veggies moving around. You want to cook them through, but not so much that they go limp—try to keep a little body in there.
If you’ve timed everything perfectly, the tortellini will be cooked exactly when the veggies look ready. If you live in the real world, one will be done before the other. If the noodles are done first, drain them and leave them in the colander until the veggies are cooked. If the veggies are done first, just turn the flame down to the lowest setting (or move them to another coil if you have an electric range). In any case, once both the veggies and the noodles are cooked, drain the noodles thoroughly and put them in the pan with the olive oil and the veggies. (If your noodles are still dripping, the mix of olive oil and water will splatter. If it gets on you, it’ll hurt. Trust me on this.) You may want to add a little more olive oil. Use your best judgment. Jiggle the pan around to mix the tortellini, oil, and veggies. Use the flapjack method or the spatula, whichever you’re comfortable with. Once everything is well mixed, put it in the serving bowl and bring it to the table.
More Culinary Confidence Builders
Story of how a 20-something woman with no culinary training cooked her way through Julia Child's cookbook.
Julia Child's cookbook.
The film version. Great if you want to do dinner and a movie at home!
Easy recipes for neophyte cooks.
Putting it All Together
If you’re of age and so inclined, I recommend pairing this with a nice Pinot Grigio or another crisp white wine. If you’re cooking for someone special, you’ll want to have something else with this, like a green salad, or maybe stuffed mushrooms for starters (both are easy to make). If you’re feeling fancy, you can serve tiramisu or cannoli for dessert. I buy these. If you want to make them yourself, you’re on your own. If you don’t live near a place where you can get tiramisu or cannoli, hey, Girl Scout cookies are good, too.
See? Cooking can be easy. Don’t be intimidated. Once you’re comfortable making this dish, experiment with it. Substitute, say, zucchini for the bell pepper. Maybe use two or three different kinds of mushroom. Try sprinkling some shredded mozzarella over the finished product. Or Parmesan. Or crumbled Gorgonzola. Go nuts. Next time, I’ll show you some ways you can make a store-brand package of mac-n-cheese a lot more interesting.