Cooking is not hard. Call me an optimist, but I operate under the belief that everyone can cook delicious food. You may not always sling out beautiful Michelin Star quality, but if you are literate and have a timer, then the fire department shouldn't be on standby.
The first time I recollect having pride in dish, it was chicken parmesan I cooked specifically to impress some ladies. The sauce was Prego, I didn't even fry up the chicken, and it was topped with shredded mozzerella. Hardly rocket science, but I felt like the motherflippin' man.
1. Stock your kitchen with the staples
A fridge full of condiments is just sad. With a little bit of forethought, you can end your dependence upon other humans for sustenance. There are a lot of basic ingredients that show up often in recipes. As I will dive into later, you want to be able to layer and adjust every dish. Furthermore, nobody likes driving to the store every 5 minutes. Always have these things on hand and you'll be able to whip up countless dinners:
- Salt, Pepper, Paprika, Italian herb mix, Tony Chachare's creole seasoning
- Olive oil, vegetable oil, vinegar, red/white wine, Worcestershire sauce
- Frozen meats of your choosing
- Wide assortment of canned vegetables, tomato paste and chicken/beef stock
- Flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, milk, butter
- Onions & Garlic
- Dried rice and pasta options
If you give me $100 worth of this stuff, I can go weeks without needing a store run. In fact, when Allison goes out of town, this very challenge is what I call a fun night in.
2. Season and taste everything
If you serve people a meal that you have not tasted beforehand, then you must be trying to poison your guests. Seriously, this is why the vegetarian always goes out early on cooking shows. Even if I have made something 100 times, there is still that feeling of uncertainty when people take that first bite (wait, I'm supposed to be making this sound easy - forget I said that). Lessen that insecurity by at least knowing for sure it meets your standards. Just wipe the spoon between tastes or else people will think you are gross.
The best cooking advice I ever heard was from Mario Batali: "season every layer." Sure you can wait until the end to panic and adjust, but when the components all taste right, you leave little mystery. If your boiling pasta water smells like the ocean (salt), your tomato sauce has the right level of acidity (sugar), or your roux has just the right thickness (flour) then you can easily ensure that you are headed toward a kickass meal.
3. Buy an instant read thermometer
I'm sorry. I already told you to buy things and now you're like "Chappy apparently just wants me to spend all my money." But for $20, you can get a tool that will guarantee your meats don't go to waste. That's basically one overzealous steak purchase worth of insurance.
When you are about to apply heat to a hunk of animal, do a quick Google and figure out what temperature you are gunning for. Then check semi-regularly and pull off 5 degrees below that reading. Otherwise, you are left battling a lot of unknowns (conduction, convection, heat transfer coefficient & other nerdy jibber jabbers). If you are a pro and have mastered the doneness-by-touch method, then please ignore this part, but everyone else be for real and do as I say, goobers.
4. Follow instructions
If you can't do this, then maybe kitchen failure is the least of your troubles. Maybe back in the day one needed a decent catalogue of recipes, but we are blessed these days with the internet. And, until cat videos use up every available kilobyte of bandwidth and plunge us into the dark ages, we will have millions of simple recipes at our fingertips.
My oven lets me type in a temperature, the cooktop knobs are labeled high/medium/low and there are at least 5 ways for me to set a timer from our kitchen. If you too can navigate such treacherous demands like time, heat level and temperature, then little can stop you. Admittedly, even with the best intentions, the aspiring food blogger and yourself may achieve different results. No biggie. If you ascribe to Chappy's rule #2, this won't be such a big deal.
5. Don't skimp on the butter
About nine and a half years ago, I married into an Italian family. Being a generic Anglo-Saxon of disparate bloodline, it was intriguing (but also somewhat frightening) to legally join a crew that largely had singular ties to a large island in the mediterranean where the mafia is still known to exist. One thing was immediately apparent, though - they could cook.
The pasta, meatballs, veggies and meats - all delightful. There was a time (we call it the "fat Chappy" phase) when they would sit around and just watch me eat in utter bliss. It seemed miraculous that one could coax so much flavor out of any dish. How was all this food miles beyond than what I had experienced previously? I mean, how does one take a brussels sprout - smelling vaguely of farts - and make it delicious? The answer is butter, salt, fat and sugar (somewhere, Paula Deen is saying "yeah, I flippin' told y'all").
That perfect steak at that restaurant you like is excellent because they heavily crust it in salt, render tasty fat (fat = flavor) in the pan, and baste like crazy with butter. Doritos are the shizzle because smart people back at the chip lab know that drunk you will crave these same basic tenants of flavor. Humans are not machines, but whether we are dropping $250 on a dinner flush with truffles or $7 on a sack full of Taco Bell, we are scratching the same itch.
There's no shame in embracing these basic tenants of human predilection, just don't give people the runs or put them into a diabetic coma. Over time, you'll get the hang of how to apply final touches that seem effortless but leave your crew impressed. A decent dish can be excellent if you finish it off with a discerning tongue and the bag of tricks Chappy is giving to you.