In part one of this series, I gave you a list of what you needed to have a functioning kitchen. In part two, I gave you a shopping list of stuff you should always have on hand in your fridge and pantry. And now, in part three, I’m going to teach you everything you need to know to be a world-class chef!
Start With Great Resources
Okay, not really. Cooking well, like any other craft, takes practice and time. You’ll need to do your research, and with that in mind, there are two books you need to start with: The Betty Crocker Cookbook and Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here For The Food.
The Betty Crocker Cookbook is like every Chilton’s manual combined into one, except for food, not cars. The oldest edition I’ve got belonged to my great-great grandmother. If you want to make almost any American dish, Betty’s got your back.
I’m Just Here For The Food is an excellent, no-nonsense guide to the actual mechanics of cooking: what you’re actually doing to your food when you mix ingredients and apply heat. It’s an indispensable guide for the practically-minded chef, and it will help you understand the principles of food preperation, as opposed to simply following recipes.
Cooking is a lot like playing jazz: it’s all about learning how to improvise, to bob and weave, and to take the classics and make them your own. And like jazz, you learn how to do that by spending a lot of time learning the rules, so you can break them with grace and aplomb later, and by experimenting and making mistakes.
When I was in high school and first teaching myself how to cook, I decided to invite some friends over. My first big meal? A bunch of pan-fried venison dumped into a pan of overcooked rice and doused with Liquid Smoke and Tabasco sauce. One of my friends actually threw up after eating it.
But these days, you can drop me into pretty much any kitchen and I can whip something up, whether it’s a basic Denver omelet or a three-course meal. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, I’m not exactly Anthony Bourdain, but I’ve gotten pretty good at putting together dishes that might not hold up to the standards of the Cordon Bleu, but which keep my friends and family happy and well-fed. And you can get there too.
To get you started on your path, I’m going to share with you my recipe for spaghetti bolognese.
Get Ready to Start Cooking
Italy has a fine and rich history of beautiful, delicate pasta dishes, and there is a lot of debate about how much sauce a pasta dish ought to have, and what constitutes authentic sauces. And we’re gonna throw all that right out the door. This is spaghetti a la American suburbs, in a thick and hearty meat sauce that will stick to your ribs. It makes for an excellent meal for two to four people, or a couple of excellent meals for a bachelor who doesn’t mind leftovers the next day. And all of the ingredients come from the list I gave you in our last installment, so you don’t even need to run to the store.
- 1 package spaghetti
- 1 20 oz. can crushed tomatoes
- 1 4 oz. can tomato paste
- 3 lbs ground beef
- 1 package mushrooms
- 2 celery sticks
- 1 large white onion
- 4-6 cloves of garlic
- 1 large red bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon basil
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- Salt, pepper, balsamic vinegar, olive oil
We’re going to start by making the soffrito, which is the basis of the sauce. You’re going to chop your celery, mushrooms, onion, garlic and red pepper into fine bits — the finer the bits, the less “chunky” the sauce will be, so it depends on what you like. I usually go for 1/8″ chunks. You can chop them all together on your chopping board if you like, they don’t need to stay separated or anything. For added texture, save back some of the mushrooms and slice them into bigger slices, like you would for pizza.
Take a large, deep saucepan and put it on your stovetop on medium-high heat. Pour enough olive oil in to cover the whole bottom of the pan, but not too deeply. Let the oil heat. When it begins to shimmer, pour your soffrito veggies in and spread them evenly with a bamboo spatula or spoon. You’re only going to want to cook them for a couple minutes, until you can really begin to smell them.
Throw in your ground beef and, if you kept back sliced mushrooms, those as well. Mix everything up and let the meat brown. You don’t want it dark and crispy — maybe slightly less cooked than a McDonald’s hamburger. It will continue to cook as we make the sauce, so don’t worry about undercooking it. Just make sure it’s not pink.
When the meat’s a nice grayish-brown, drop in your big can of crushed tomatoes, and mix in your basil, oregano, salt and pepper. Taste it to make sure it’s to your liking. This is important: start with a little salt and pepper and taste before you add more — too much of either’s gonna ruin the sauce, so be cautious.
Once you’ve got it where you want it, use a spoon to get all of the tomato paste out of the can, and mix it into your sauce. It’s not going to want to go easily, so you’re gonna have to be patient and keep stirring until it’s not just a big clump of thick red stuff in the middle. At this point, throw in just a shot of balsamic vinegar — not too much, but enough to just give a taste.
As soon as your sauce is bubbling in earnest, reduce your heat down to low, so that it’s simmering rather than boiling. It’ll still bubble, but not nearly as much or as crazy. Do not put a lid on it right now.
Take another big pot and fill it halfway with water and bring it to a boil. (Yes, leave your other pot simmering while this happens. The longer your sauce cooks, the more it will break down the meat and let all the flavors combine for maximum awesomeness.) When it’s started boiling, throw in your spaghetti and make sure the noodles are separated, with your bamboo spoon. Cook the noodles until they’re al dente, which means they’re just a little bit chewy without being annoyingly so, but not soft and super-squishy. A good test is to take one noodle out and fling it against your wall or cabinet. When it begins to stick, you’re done.
If you’re ready to serve, drain your noodles, turn all your burners off, and ladle your sauce over your noodles onto plates. (If you’re not ready yet, you can cover both pans with lids and turn off the burners; both the noodles and the sauce will stay pretty warm for at least an hour). If you’ve got grated Parmesan, throw some on top of the sauce. (You can use the stuff in the big green can from the paste aisle of the store, but trust me, you really want to go with the freshly-grated stuff in the deli section.)
Voila! There you have it: a super-simple, super-tasty spaghetti sauce that anybody can make and that will let you totally impress your date or your boys with your newfound skills. That was pretty easy, right?
In our final installment of this series, I’ll give you a couple more basic badass recipes and links to some great online resources for learning to cook.
Enjoy your first homecooked meal!