Before I get into how I learned to cook, I thought I’d point out that if you’re reading this somewhere other than on my site, like a reader, you might be missing out on seeing our lovely new family photo in the header. We recently did a mini photo shoot with the talented and lovely Whitney Loibner, and I’m thrilled with how the pictures turned out. I highly recommend a mini shoot if you have toddlers– 15 minutes was about all my kids could handle, and we were outta there and off to get pancakes as a treat in no time. And if you have a talented photographer like Whitney, you’ll still get plenty of great shots in a short amount of time.
Now back to your regularly scheduled blog programming:
I’ve kind of become notorious among my friends for Instagramming my food. One friend joked that whatever we have on Friday night, they have on Saturday. Others have joked about their dinners being “one-upped by the Orsborns.” Another Instagrammed her dinner last night and said I inspired her to do so. For all the hating posting food pics can get, most of my real-life feedback has been that my friends like my dinner posts and don’t want me to stop. Thank goodness, because I wasn’t planning to! (There’s a reason I joke that my Instagram brand is “all the things you hate:” kids, food, drinks, selfies, pets.)
Another question friends have asked is when I’m going to teach them how to cook. While I would like to occasionally host some kind of cooking party where everyone walks away with a couple freezeable dinners, that’s not really in my plans anytime soon, either. But what I can tell you is how I learned to cook.
I grew up in a house where we ate dinner together every night– it may have been on TV trays in front of Wheel of Fortune, but it was always home made and usually home-grown too. Still, while I helped out from time to time, I never really cooked a meal beyond eggs before I went off to college.
When Jon and I were dating, we were both students and pretty much broke, so we often cooked meals together as dates instead of going out, because it was so much cheaper. This wasn’t anything complicated, usually marinated meat cooked on a George Foreman grill, veggies cooked in a skillet on a hot plate, and potatoes baked in a toaster oven– did I mention he (and later we) lived in a studio with no real kitchen?
When we got married (and had a real stove installed in the studio), we continued cooking together, but I also got interested in learning to cook on my own. Someone had given me a Rachael Ray 30 Minute Meals 2 cookbook and her Express Lane Meals, and those were my first real cooking school. People may knock Rachael Ray for not being a real chef, or for “dumbing down food” (whatever that means), but to me, she had fast, easy recipes that weren’t too intimidating for a total beginner in a studio apartment. As a plus, most of her recipes are simple and based around whole, largely unprocessed ingredients. I’d flip through the book, pick out a dinner, and walk the block to the grocery store and still have dinner in an hour or less. Her recipes gave me confidence and fueled my interest in cooking, and what started as a necessity, feeding us, became a hobby– my husband found himself largely kicked out of the kitchen as I experimented.
From there, I got a Real Simple magazine subscription as a Christmas gift, and I came to really love their recipes for using just a handful of ingredients and having fast and often vegetarian/pescatarian options. I still use their No Time To Cook app on a regular basis to make meal plans.
There were a few epic screw ups. The time we got a clove and a head of garlic confused. The times I epically burned stuff and cried on the kitchen floor. The time I basically made mustard gas out of mustard greens. But those were the exceptions.
Eventually I discovered food blogs and started watching Top Chef, and now nearly 9 years after I first really started cooking, I feel like a comfortable, competent cook. I like to look at recipes and cookbooks just for inspiration. I dissect dishes in restaurants in my head trying to learn more about how flavors and textures work together. I can wing it and often succeed, I feel no stress about feeding guests, and I’ve discovered that I really do love to cook. It challenges me, it interests me, and it serves as a creative outlet.
I know not everyone feels that way. For some of you, getting food on the table is just a thing that needs to be done, quickly and easily if possible, and you’re not quite sure where to start. I’d still point any beginning cook to Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals or Real Simple’s vast online repository of recipes (or use their app).
In case you don’t have one of the RR cookbooks or access to the Real Simple app, here are a few of my favorite easy recipes that I think a beginner could tackle (I literally flipped through my old beloved books and torn out magazine pages to give you my actual faves):
- Rachael Ray’s Leeky Chicken and Couscous (possibly my first super smash success of a meal, made this many many times)
- Rachael Ray’s Three-Vegetable Penne with Tarragon-Basil Pesto (one pot!)
- Rachael Ray’s Spinach-Artichoke Cheesy Tortellini (add a grilled chicken breast or shrimp if you want to make it heartier, serve it with a salad if you wanna be healthy)
- Rachael Ray’s BLT Soup (great with a grilled cheese sandwich)
- Rachael Ray’s Italian Tuna Casserole (made this last night and my girls each went for seconds)
- Rachael Ray’s Green Minestrone Soup
- Rachael Ray’s French Onion Mac and Cheese (feel free to sub in shredded swiss for gruyere to save some money)
- Real Simple Red Bean and Spinach Burritos (use whatever beans. take it to the next level by grilling it in a panini press if you have one.)
- Real Simple Curried Eggplant with Tomatoes and Basil
- Real Simple Sautéed Chicken and Peppers with Coconut Rice (I often make the coconut rice to go with the beans from their Cuban Black Beans recipe when I want to go meatless)
- Real Simple Garlicky Broiled Salmon and Tomatoes (serve with rice or a baked potato or a veggie side like sautéed green beans or steamed broccoli)
- Real Simple Glazed Salmon with Broccoli Rice
- Real Simple Salmon Salad with Roasted Lemon Vinaigrette