I was typing up an email for a friend on food survival when neither you nor your significant other/roommate are used to the kitchen, and I figured this knowledge should be more widely shared.
Now, I’m a pretty darn good cook by this stage in my life. I’ve conquered a lot of the milestones and made my own bread, jam, and pie (which are stupidly easy, despite the fog of glory that surrounds them). But there was a time when I wouldn’t have ventured that far, when my kitchen knowledge was restricted to Hamburger Helper and the five family cookie recipes my mom taught me how to make so she wouldn’t have to be responsible for them at holidays any longer.
I hit the ground running with being able to bake and having a rudimentary knowledge of how to make things boil and how not to burn scrambled eggs, but it wasn’t much of a head start. Even now, when I’m capable of much more, I still fall back on a lot of my anti-starvation, college-era shortcuts.
So here you are. Things To Prevent Starvation, Save Money on Ordering Out, and Not Be Too Terribly Unhealthy:
1. Bisquick, mofos. I spent several years recently poo-pooing it, saying it was ridiculous to buy when I already had all the ingredients on hand anyway. But then I needed it for an emergency pie recipe at Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t find frozen pie crust and did not have time to make my own. Then I remembered that it’s sort of like Miracle Gro for your kitchen: you don’t *need* it, exactly, but it’s damn useful, the recipes are right on the box, and it makes your life easier. I’m not going to go through all the trouble of looking up biscuit recipes and trying different ones out when I know the Bisquick one works and it’ll take me two minutes to stir together, if that. It’s just useful.
2. Steam-in-the-bag frozen veggies. God, I love these. Look, I prefer to cook with fresh vegetables, but that isn’t always practical when you’re busy. I inevitably forget them in the crisper, and they rot, and then I have to clean all that up while whining about how bad a person I am for wasting a perfectly good bundle of green onions. But frozen veggies I can steam in my microwave in 4 1/2 minutes? Sold! These are great. I keep a variety on hand to add onto the dinner plate next to a chicken breast, or stir into pasta.
3. Boxes of pasta. Lots of boxes of pasta. Cook it, drain it, stir it together with other things and eat.
4. Skinless, boneless chicken breasts. I cook a lot of these. I pan-fry them, I bake them, make chicken strips, whatever. Keep them in the freezer, throw a pack in the fridge to thaw the night before, cook for dinner. Pan frying takes no skill – add a bit of oil or butter to the pan, set to medium, add chicken. Flip occasionally. Cook until you see no pink, and if you’re not sure, saw one in half to check. It’s your dinner, you’re not Martha Stewart, what do you care how it looks? Add seasoning of choice. Speaking of:
5. Seasoning blends. There are a handful of seasonings you should always have (oregano, basil, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, cayenne pepper, onion powder, garlic powder). Aside from that, invest in different seasoning blends (I currently have a Hot Madras Curry Powder and a Mediterranean Spice Blend in my cupboard). Add these to pasta with a little olive oil and butter, with some steamed vegetables and top with grated Romano, and you’re in business. Or at least not eating Ramen.
6. Quick non-meat proteins. This usually means cheese and legumes. I usually have a block of cheddar (for grits & cheese, scrambled eggs, whatever) and a hunk of Romano (I used to buy the kind of Parmesan and Romano that come in glass containers with a shaker top, but the boyfriend put his slightly Italian foot down on fresh Romano, and I’m certainly not arguing). I also always, always have cans of black beans and chickpeas. The Goya brand has a great black beans & rice recipe on the can, and chickpeas can be added to anything. If I’m adding chickpeas to pasta (which I do, frequently), I boil them in a bit of chicken broth in a sauce pan, with seasoning added liberally to them – then I toss them with unseasoned pasta, olive oil, maybe butter, and steamed veggies.
7. Broth. I use Home Basics (a great tip from another friend led me away from Swanson to them – so much better!) which you can usually find in most grocery stores. Their chicken stock is good enough to use for chicken noodle soup without adding anything to it. I’ll sometimes just cook rice and add the heated broth to it when I’m feeling a bit under the weather.
8. Rice/Grains. Look in your grocery stores for the containers of select grains, like a wild rice blend. Something that’s just the grain itself. It will often tell you how to cook it on the back label. I use these instead of the Uncle Ben’s or Zatarin’s or any dishes like that, so I can season how I want it and I don’t get the MSG (I get migraines, so I tend to avoid weird preservatives and heavy salt).
9. Breakfast: Oatmeal. Just grab a container. Quaker cooks in 1 minute, there’s no need for instant. Same for grits – it takes 3 or 4 minutes to cook grits. For healthier breakfasts, and because I don’t much like cereal, I keep cottage cheese (I also don’t like yogurt much), granola, and bananas. If some of your bananas go black before you can eat them, google a recipe for banana bread.
10. Fruit! Let’s not get rickets. I keep apples and oranges on hand because they stay good for ages. I’ll get grapes and cherries in season, and strawberries too, but the trick is to clean and cut them up as soon as you bring them home, otherwise you’ll forget about it and it’ll just sit in the fridge.
So those are my basic Things You Should Keep In Your Kitchen ideas. There’s also a great cookbook called “Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!” that I heartily recommend looking up on Amazon. Other than that, just start amassing a collection of recipes you try and like. Don’t be discouraged by failures – keep the pizza delivery info handy just in case when trying out a new skill (let’s not talk about my lumpy potato soup failure). Pinterest is a good place to surf for recipe ideas, and then start following food blogs you like. Also, don’t be afraid to google a term you don’t understand in the middle of a recipe. We have smartphones for exactly this kind of shit. I had to look up “temper” as in “temper in the egg” because I had no clue what the crap that meant (it means stir in the cold thing to a bit of the hot thing, then keep adding hot things to bring the cold thing up to temperature so it doesn’t curdle or cook prematurely), even though I had done that exact thing before.
That’s it for the Anti-Starvation: Pantry Basics edition. I’ll start sharing some simple recipes soon, too.