Cooking 101

Make meals that pass muster after moving out

Cooking 101
Alexander Bort of Phoenix demonstrates teen-level cooking skills. Photography by Dustin Peters.

Leaving the nest also means leaving the comforts of home, including the kitchen. Parents who want to help their kids make the leap should avoid adding flashy appliances and fancy gadgets to new living quarters. Basic tools, experts say, complement straightforward cooking techniques with simple ingredients that just about anyone can manage.

“You don’t need to spend the money on the Instant Pot,” says Jake Taub, culinary arts and restaurant management instructor at Ashland High School. “You don’t need a full set of pot and pans.”

A large and small stockpot suffice, along with a nonstick and cast-iron skillet. Cutting boards and basic utensils, such as a cheese grater, ultimately make more impact than a pricy food processor.

“Clean your cutting boards and keep them oiled,” says Marilyn Moore, a longtime local instructor of basic cooking skills for 9- to 15-year-olds, as well as adults in the restaurant industry. She uses mineral oil on her cutting boards and recommends different cutting boards for different foods. “And you must have a knife sharpener,” she adds.

Just as chipped and dull knives can be among the most hazardous items in a kitchen, other tools in poor condition aren’t worth inheriting from family or buying secondhand, even for cash-strapped college students. Avoid cutting boards crisscrossed with deep knife marks, which can harbor bacteria. Scratched nonstick skillets can shed particles into food, and chipped enamelware, such as vintage Le Creuset, can leach chemicals into food, says Moore.

A solid cast-iron pan, however, can be reconditioned fairly easily while new cast-iron is among the most affordable cookware on the market. An inexpensive Microplane is both Moore’s and Taub’s top pick for gadgets the make the biggest difference in the hands of a novice cook.

Fresh citrus zest grated on a Microplane brightens any food it touches. Similarly, fresh herbs enhance simple ingredients. Add each to mayonnaise, and it’s an aioli that transforms a basic turkey sandwich into a restaurant-quality meal, says Taub.

Another simple sauce, vinaigrette, costs pennies to prepare and infuses salads with global flavors just by swapping oils and vinegars. Use rice vinegar and sesame oil for Asian salads, apple-cider vinegar and avocado oil for salads with fruit and balsamic vinegar and olive oil for a quintessential Italian flavor, says Moore. “I love that BLT salad for dinner,” she says of cooked bacon and tomato on greens with homemade ranch dressing.

Vinegar, oil, salt and sugar are the only pantry staples needed to make vinaigrette. Rather than stocking a spice cabinet with myriad bottles that quickly eat into a grocery budget, keep a pot of fresh herbs on the kitchen windowsill or on a patio, say Taub and Moore. Herbs are easy to grow, maintain and harvest as needed for maximum flavor.

Keep basic vegetables on hand to use in a variety of dishes. Onions, carrots and celery are the foundation of any soup recipe, says Taub. Use all three, plus frozen peas, for an easy rice pilaf. Choose stock or soup base to punch up the flavor of any recipe that calls for simmering water, he says. He reaches for Better Than Bouillon brand.

“Obviously, Top Ramen is always going to be a college-student thing,” says Taub, adding that only half the seasoning packet is needed.

In just a few more minutes than instant noodles, a pilaf made with any whole grain likely costs just a few more cents, says Taub. It’s a dish that every student in his classes must master, and it doesn’t require a recipe. “You don’t need a recipe to cook most things.”

And cookbooks are less essential for today’s college-bound, given all the YouTube videos, many produced by celebrity chefs demonstrating countless recipes and culinary techniques, says Taub. Internet searches also yield numerous ways to produce the same dish, a frittata on the stovetop or in the oven, for example.

Less prominent in popular media are food-safety and sanitation measures, say Taub and Moore. In addition to keeping raw meats from touching ready-to-eat foods, beginning cooks should adhere to the adage “hot foods HOT, cold foods COLD.” That means keep food temperatures at 140 F or higher and 40 F or lower to prevent bacterial growth that can cause illness. The in-between range is aptly known as the “danger zone,” easily avoided by employing an instant-read, digital thermometer.

“Never leave food sitting on the counter,” says Moore of misguided attempts to thaw frozen meats.

And consult packaging to verify which foods should be refrigerated after opening, says Taub, who says he is continually shocked to find perishable items returned to the pantry in his culinary classes. “It’s insane how teenagers have no idea what goes in a fridge.”

And please, please, he implores teens: No matter how late you’ve been up studying and how ferocious your appetite, just skip the “pizza sitting on a dorm room floor for four days.”

Instead, keep a batch of this easy couscous pilaf with fresh lemon zest and herbs ready in the refrigerator. (See sidebar)

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Stock a kitchen with these essentials

  • Chef’s knife
  • Paring knife
  • Serrated knife
  • Cutting boards (1 each for meat and produce)
  • Nonstick pan
  • Cast-iron pan
  • 6-quart pot
  • 2-quart pot
  • Silicone steaming basket
  • Fine-mesh sieve
  • Sheet pan with rack
  • Digital thermometer
  • Microplane
  • Rubber spatula
  • Wooden spoons
  • Dish towels

LEMON VEGETABLE COUSCOUS

Ingredients:

2 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1/2 cup frozen peas (no need to defrost)

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 (6-ounce) box couscous

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup grated carrot

3/4 cup diced red onion

1/4 cup diced zucchini

1/4 cup diced tomato

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup torn mint leaves

Salt and pepper, to taste

Toasted, slivered almonds, for garnish

Directions:

  • In a saucepan, combine the broth, peas and 2 teaspoons of the oil; bring to a boil. Stir in the couscous, lemon zest and carrot; remove from heat. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
  • In a skillet, heat remaining oil and saute the onion and zucchini until crisp-tender. Fluff couscous with a fork and add to skillet. Stir gently to combine. Add the tomato, cheese, mint, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Stir again and transfer to a serving dish or plates
  • Top each portion with some of the toasted nuts.

Servings: 4

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