Cooking is a form of self-expression, just like painting or music. Unlike with singing an aria or copying a Monet, though, it’s often really, really easy to get outstanding results. Why do many people believe that it’s hard?
Part of the blame can be put on celebrity chefs who are more interested in showing off their skills and personal brands than teaching basic skills (Mister Ramsey, I’m specifically not talking about you here, please don’t hurt me). Additionally, TV programs aim to tantalize your tastebuds and please advertisers, not show you all the ways a dish can go wrong.
Restaurants, too, profit from the public’s ignorance. If they can throw in a few French words and a couple of easy tricks to charge $20 for a dish that costs $2 to make, why wouldn’t they?
A more basic problem, however, is that many people believe that classy cooking is simply beyond them and never even make the attempt. The simple truth is this: if you can use a knife without injuring yourself and understand basic instructions, you can prepare delicious food (and at least half the time, following the recipe closely is optional).
A special occasion is always around the corner. When you want to express your feelings for someone in a way they can touch, taste, and smell, cooking is the perfect vehicle to do just that. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Just like the first date can set the tone for an entire relationship, the first course of any meal should be exciting without being too in-your-face. This can be a fine line to walk, but hopefully your date will find the following recipes surprising yet delightful.
Bruschetta is what garlic bread wants to be when it grows up. The crunch when you bite into one by itself almost makes it worth it, and you can top it with nearly anything: sautéed (i.e., fried) mushrooms, chopped pickled eggs, thinly sliced raw tomato with fresh basil, whatever kind of cheese you prefer, and even seafood or cured meats.
Monika from My Food and Happiness has a few topping ideas to get you started, though for reasons best known to herself she regards garlic as an optional component of this dish.
- Cut the bread (preferably self-made) at an angle for larger slices and a more elegant look.
- For maximum crispiness and flavor, the bread should be toasted to just short of burnt. A toaster oven with a clear door is perfect for this, though you can also place the bread on a hot griddle or pan.
- Rub the garlic over the bread while it’s still hot to let the greatest possible amount of flavor melt in. Don’t worry about making your bruschetta too garlicky.
- You’re welcome to prepare the toppings well ahead of time, but toast the bread just moments before serving.
French Onion Soup
If you look online, you’ll find that the ongoing argument about how to make the authentic French white onion soup is a lot like a riot in Paris: most Anglos don’t understand what’s happening, there’s lots of shouting, and occasionally something catches fire.
For purists, the final product should contain hardly anything but onions, salt, and water. Adding some ingredients for flavor actually makes this soup easier to cook, though. There’s also plenty of room to make this recipe your own: why not toss in a couple of sage leaves, a splash of Worcestershire sauce, or a few drops of sesame seed oil?
Chungah at Damn Delicious tells you exactly what to do. Some people will prefer to substitute chicken stock for beef to get a less heavy flavor.
- Though simple, this is by no means an instant recipe; the whole point is to cook the onions thoroughly and only then add liquid, which takes some time to extract and concentrate the flavor. Figure on things taking at least one hour, with two being better – a slow cooker produces good results.
- If you serve this without large, cheesy croutons, we’re probably not going to get along. Combining textures and thereby engaging more of the eater’s senses is very important.
- Gruyère cheese is traditional, but any fairly mild melting cheese, including mozzarella, will work as long as it gets slightly charred on top.
- Not all soup bowls are happy with going into the oven. If you’re not sure, toast the croutons and melt the cheese separately, but gently dunk them under the soup’s surface before serving.
There’s absolutely nothing complicated about this dish: use half an avocado as a bowl, fill with shrimp and add a creamy sweet-sour sauce to tie the two together. It looks elegant, tastes delicious, and will almost make you feel guilty about how easy it is to prepare.
The people from Love my Salad has a nice recipe for the dressing, which, curiously enough, contains a splash of whisky.
- To tell whether an avocado is ripe, gently pinch the neck near the stem. If it’s rock hard, it needs a few more days; if it’s soft but the skin hasn’t discolored, it’s probably okay for guacamole but not a ritz; if it’s firm but yields a little, it’s ready.
- It’s easier to use a pair of sharp-nosed scissors, rather than a paring knife, to de-vein shrimp.
- Shrimp cooks in only a few minutes: once the flesh has turned opaque, take them off the heat.
- The above recipe calls for store-bought mayonnaise, which is neither healthy nor tastes great. Making your own is fantastically easy, though.
However tasty it is, the starter is only there to say “How do you do?” The edible conversation only really starts when the main dish is on the table: substantial and (hopefully) a delight to the senses, it’s worth spending a little more effort on this part of the meal. Of course, if you can take shortcuts and still serve up something worth remembering, you’d be a fool not to, which is what this article is all about.
This hearty dish combines some oomphy flavors with a velvety smooth texture that will make you feel much less guilty about just how many calories you’re actually consuming.
This is not, however, actually an Italian recipe: pasta sauces with cream in them are usually the result of foreigners trying to improve on what has worked for centuries. In this case, the most interesting feature of the dish is that the eggs are added raw and are actually cooked by the heat from the pasta.
BBC Good Food walks you through the process step by step. It isn’t complicated, but you will want to pay attention or you might end up with scrambled eggs.
- This recipe uses spaghetti, though the mouthfeel and consistency of creamy sauces may go better with fettuccine. Bonus points for making your own pasta, which is a lot easier than you probably think.
- Use fresh eggs, of course, but don’t worry too much about getting food poisoning. Eggs only need to reach about 140 °F (60 °C) to cook, and the hot pasta manages this easily.
- It’s cool if you don’t know how to separate eggs, just use three whole ones.
- The ratio of sauce to pasta is pretty important if you want to achieve the delectable texture that distinguishes this dish. The noodles should be fully coated without leaving a big pool of liquid in the bottom of your bowl.
- Although you can serve this on its own, you may want to tone down the heaviness with some steamed broccoli drizzled with lemon juice or a simple tossed salad on the side.
Another meal that looks insanely complicated but is actually child’s play to make is ceviche. This is more or less the South American version of sushi: pickling seafood instead of cooking it allows more of its delicious natural flavor to shine through.
Sara shares her take on ceviche at Dinner at the Zoo. Hers has a Mexican twist with jalapeños and avocado, but you’ll find that there’s very little you can’t do with this dish.
For texture’s sake, it’s always a good idea to serve it with tortilla chips, chifles, or anything else that provides a little crunch.
- Presentation is half the battle, especially with this salad-like concoction. Take some time to plan how your plates should look for maximum visual impact: all the ingredients mixed together, or kept separate?
- “Ceviche mixto”, unsurprisingly, refers to ceviche with a mixture of seafood. This recipe is for shrimp, but you can follow the exact same procedure with clams, fish, or what have you as long as it’s in small pieces.
- Peruvians will sometimes serve toasted, boiled, and marinated corn kernels in the same dish to mix up the texture; you can just use canned sweetcorn if this seems like too much trouble.
- It goes without saying that the seafood used for this dish must be 100% fresh. If it smells at all “fishy” instead of like the sea, pass.
Roast Vegetable Medley
Vegetarians have a reputation as being difficult to cook for; also, the sun sometimes rises in the west. Excluding meat from your diet permanently may require a major commitment, but cooking tasty vegetarian food is not at all hard.
The key is often to allow the ingredients’ natural flavor to shine through instead of trying to pound it into submission. Once this is done, you can go wild, perhaps by serving the basic dish with sauces like tahini, mayonnaise, lemon butter, and refried beans.
Julie Wampler at Table for Two tells you everything you need to know about roasting vegetables. In particular, she makes the point that you don’t need to restrict yourself to parsnips and potatoes: nearly any vegetable can be roasted to crispy perfection.
- Meat is easy to overcook, but you can relax with veggies: it will probably turn out okay even if you forget to set a timer.
- You can do this in the oven, but using a hot grill produces a smokier, richer flavor.
- This is a very low-calorie dish, which is great for some. Others, however, might find it a little too insubstantial, so pairing it with a bean side dish is in order.
- Assuming that you’re using a barbecue, cabbage wedges wrapped in foil and bell peppers stuffed with cream cheese can be cooked at the same time and won’t disappoint.
Pastries and desserts can be some of the most challenging dishes to prepare. During a private, romantic dinner, though, your lover’s eyes will ideally be on you for most of the time. This means that you don’t need to create a work of modern art, just something that looks delicious and tastes good.
Pears Poached in Red Wine
This absolute darling of a dessert will add a touch of French style to the end of your meal, yet this dish basically cries out for homemade custard, which the French refer to as “the cream of the English”.
You’ll have no linguistic difficulties with cooking it, though: Nadia Lim shows us that all you really need to do is add pears to wine, sugar, and flavorings and give them some time to make friends with each other.
- How much you want to spend is up to you, but using a better wine will always result in tastier food.
- Though this isn’t required, you can bake the pear slices in the oven before stewing them for a different texture, or dry them out in a dehydrator so they’ll suck up more of that yummy wine mixture.
- Nadia uses a classic blend of lemon, vanilla, bay leaf, and star anise/cinnamon, but you can really add whatever spices you want.
- Especially if you use white wine instead of red, you can apply this recipe to several kinds of fruit almost word for word.
Mousse is already pretty cool. When you combine it with several versions of the same fruit in one cup, you’re well on your way to winning dessert.
Rosemary at An Italian in My Kitchen likes to layer her simple, blender-made mousse over some pureed strawberries.
You can go one step further, though, by first preparing strawberry jelly, letting it set (i.e., solidify) in the bottom of the container, and then going from there. You can use bottled juice for this, but squeezing it from fresh fruit gives you at least twice the flavor.
- Where the recipe tells you to “fold” the fruit puree into the whipped cream, it means do not stir. Take a spatula and pick up some of the heavier puree from the bottom of the bowl. Gently place it on top of the mixture, turning the spatula to release it, and repeat until you have a fairly homogeneous mixture that hasn’t had all the fluffiness knocked out of it.
- This particular recipe is for strawberry mousse, but the exact same thing should work with almost any soft fruit.
- It’s essential to cool a mousse like this in the fridge for at least an hour to allow the cream to set – otherwise, you run the risk of it turning into strawberry soup.
Pancakes with Compôte
Anyone can remember the recipe for pancakes (or crumpets if you’re of the British persuasion). It’s pretty much one of everything:
One cup all-purpose flour,
One teaspoon baking powder, and
One milk is however much you need to add to get the batter as runny as you want: the thinner the mixture, the thinner your pancakes will be. Spoon out a little on a hot non-stick pan, wait until bubbles appear on the top (about 1½ minutes), flip it over, cook it for about the same length of time as you did the first side, and you’re done.
You can also add sugar, melted butter, and other ingredients, but the “one of everything” approach works pretty well. Making compôte is a little more involved, but not by much: simply boil some berries or other fruit in sugar and water until you have a kind of chunky, silky sauce. This goes way, way better with pancakes than any kind of bottled syrup.
Amy from Healthy Little Foodies goes into a lot more detail, but that’s the gist of it. To serve, simply put a smear of cream cheese on each pancake, spoon over a generous helping of fruit, and you’re ready to go.
- If your pancakes are burning, chances are that you’re not cooking them at a high enough temperature. If a dry crust can’t form quickly, the batter will stick to your pan or griddle.
- Compôte lasts only a few days in the fridge, but if you want to make it a regular part of breakfast, you can freeze some in ziplock bags or store it for months in sterilized jars. A pressure cooker is very helpful for the latter.
- It’s very important to balance the sweetness of any compôte with some tartness – in this case, by using orange juice and not adding additional sugar.
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With any luck at all, at least one dish in each category appeals to you, giving you access to a three-course menu that takes only about an hour and no special skill whatsoever to prepare. Once you’ve succeeded at making any of them – and with only a little common sense, you will, as none of them are easy to bungle – you can spread your wings and start experimenting with new and unique variations. You’ll most likely find that getting creative in the kitchen is a lot easier than you thought, and that the effort is always noticed and appreciated.