Pantry Staples and Basic Meals
Although I never learnt to cook in my teenage years – the kitchen was my mother’s (your gran’s) domain – I’ve come a long way since the culinary tragedies of my early adulthood.
(I’ll explain: Avie, when you godfather Waz and I first went overseas, 20 years apiece and green as all hell, we attempted our first meal: spaghetti bolognaise. It comprised one kilogram of pork mince, one packet of spaghetti and nothing else. As we sat in a hostel common room eating the dry, slightly burnt, near-toxic rubble we pondered why the hell we’d vacated our mothers’ bosoms.)
I’ve cooked many of your nightly meals, and it’s an honour to do so – even if at times you barely touch what’s on your plates. And while there’ll always be a meal for you under my roof, one day – a long, long way down the track – you’ll fend for yourself, and that includes preparing your own dinner.
It’s likely, too, that you will have to do so on the cheap, especially early on (or forever if you’re looking to save for a house), so I thought I’d clear the way a little.
Firstly, you need to stock up on re-usable items. Get your pasta and rice in bulk. You’ll need half-decent olive oil, butter, beef and chicken stock (for soups as well as pasta dishes), flour, tinned tomatoes. Onions and garlic. Cracked pepper, salt, sugar.
Check out your local Asian supermarket; they’re cheap and usually reliable for fruit and vegetables, and particularly good for items that give meals a kick along: soy sauce, ginger, lemons, chillies if you like spice (buy a freezable bag; will last you 12 months or more). Get to a nursery and buy some herbs for the windowsill and your pot; basil and parsley are especially versatile.
Never get to thinking complicated is better – especially when it comes to cooking.
Simple, delicious and wallet-friendly, it’s a classic for a reason. Everyone’s got their own take, but I like using half beef, half pork. Fry off an onion and a clove or two of garlic until soft, add meat until browned, a can of tomatoes, a spoonful of tomato paste or tomato sauce and a cup of beef stock. Season with salt and pepper and simmer for at least an hour. Add a dash of milk just before serving with pasta. Top with parmesan (or whatever cheese fits your budget).
Just on pasta: the possibilities are endless.
There are hundreds of pasta dishes, and hundreds more to be invented. If you have the aforementioned staples you’ll never be caught short; for example, for a quick, delicious meal, fry some garlic in olive oil, add some lemon juice, butter (perhaps a drop of white wine), parsley and, without worrying too much about excess water, toss your favourite pasta through the sauce. Top with more parsley and parmesan. Also, vegetables have become very versatile, led by the likes of zucchini ‘spaghetti’ and cauliflower ‘rice’. No doubt when you hit adulthood there’ll be other crazy – but coherent – creations.
The evergreen stir-fry.
Another wonderfully versatile pleaser that’s made for gatherings – whether we’re talking flatmates or family. Chicken breast and rump steak are ideal, even if the former isn’t cheap (in which case, thighs are fine). If you’re vegetarian, tofu is a great alternative. A good stir-fry is about getting the timing right. Fry onion and garlic (and chili if you like spice) until soft, add your meat (if using tofu, season and fry off first, remove, then add after the onion and garlic); when the meat is three-quarters cooked add chopped vegetables and a good slug of soy sauce. Don’t overcook the vegetables; the crunchier the better and all the more nutritious.
Salad (iceberg wedges tossed in lemon and olive oil).
Salad seems more of a hit with women than men, but that’s not to say we blokes don’t appreciate a nice, fresh green ensemble with a perky dressing. There are endless salad recipes, but I’ll pass on the most basic one that I’ve made for your mother time and time again. Grab a fresh iceberg lettuce, cut into wedges the size of small fists, wash thoroughly, transfer to a bowl. Drizzle with the juice of one lemon, a glug of olive oil, some cracked pepper, and toss. That’s it! As a glossy side to some lean meat on a summer’s night, it’s perfect. Never get to thinking complicated is better – especially when it comes to cooking.
Somewhere along the line I’ll buy you each a cast iron pot to match the blue one you once bought me for Father’s Day, and that I’ve got so much use out of. Slow-cooked casseroles or stews are easy on the wallet, filling, and almost always result in leftovers. And you can have fun with them; cooking doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – a chore. Here’s a recipe that’s great for a wintry Sunday, and while it requires a bit of preparation, it’s worth it. If you’re in a share house open a bottle of wine (not that I’m advocating that any of you drink) and get everyone involved! Coat a kilogram of chopped meat (go for chuck steak or gravy beef) in flour. Fry some chopped onion, carrot and garlic in butter with freshly chopped rosemary. When softened, sear the flour-coated meat. Season. Add two or three tablespoons of tomato paste, the same of Worcestershire sauce, and a couple of beef stock cubes. Stir in 500ml water and simmer for three hours. Stir occasionally; add water if it’s in danger of sticking to the bottom. Serve with rice or bread.
2-minute noodle variations.
Strange choice, yes, but if you’re on a shoestring, these little packets are a god-send. Throw away the seasoning mix and add some spring onions, steamed vegetables, peanuts and soy sauce and you’ve got yourself a passable meal.
Gotta run, the kitchen is calling – and so are your tummies.