I love Sundays, but not the way I used to. Time was, it was a day for sleeping in, going to brunch, watching sports, ordering a pizza, dicking around. But here's the new itinerary: Wake up early, go to the farmer's market, buy a boatload of awesome produce (produce being a thing I now consider awesome), rub and/or marinate animal flesh, tend to my herb garden, grill and/or braise and/or sauté something. Puree, roast, or steam something. Smoke, jar, freeze, slice, dice, pick, or pickle something. What a sad, dumb adult I am: I like to cook.
Here's the thing, though: Every day is not like Sunday. Most days, in fact, are the opposite. Between work, kids, chores, and masturbation, there's very little time left to even think about, let alone execute, a bit of cooking. But guess what: It doesn't have to be that way. You can cook for yourself, save tons of money, impress your mate, and not have it all feel like a huge headache. The secret is to make cooking easy and fun, just like masturbation (but less selfish). This handy non-tutorial is how you do that, its goal being to get you cooking relatively tasty things on most weeknights in little time using ingredients you have on hand.
I should mention up front: I have no technical training as a chef, and have never cooked in a restaurant. My biggest accomplishment in the kitchen is that I enjoy being there—it's my favorite room in the house. It wasn't always that way. It took demystifying cooking in order to make me do it on a regular basis, and that's my intent here: to change your perception of cooking from a dark art to something you're stupid not to do most days.
You will not be ready to win Chopped after reading this; you will not be Gordon Ramsey. The only thing I can maybe do is convince you that cooking is way easier than you think, and that if you want to go from being someone who stores books in their oven to someone who practices a legitimate form of sorcery, i.e. conjuring flavor where none previously existed, then all you have to do is get started. So let's do that.
First and foremost, embrace the magic of stock. Every home cook has an origin story, a moment when the light bulb went off and he or she realized there was no reason to feel powerless in the face of heat and ingredients. Mine involves turkey stock. At a Thanksgiving dinner more than a decade ago, the friend of mine who cooked the meal did the craziest thing: He kept cooking after it was over, removing the meat from the bird and dunking its bones in a pot along with some chopped carrots, onions, and celery. He then simmered the pot overnight, to the point where the bones were practically gelatinous, and the result was an absurdly rich, flavorful stock. That morning, he poured stock over some chopped jalapeño and scallion, and gave it to us as a hangover cure. Holy crap! The lesson was powerful: Cooking isn't a "Point A to Point B" thing, but something you're always doing, thinking about, strategizing around. In order to cook regularly and frequently, you want to train yourself to think like this. Making your own stock engenders this thinking.
Also: Stock is amazing. It provides a flavor foundation for all manner of sauces, soups, and braises. If you're going to cook most nights, you need to have building blocks like stock on hand. I always have some in my freezer. What I do is save the plastic to-go containers you get when you order Thai or Indian food (which you'll be doing far less of soon, right?), and use those for storage, meaning I have like three or four different portion sizes I can use, depending on whether I need a little (for a quick sauce) or a lot (braising meat). Some folks accomplish this with ice-cube trays, which is equally smart. What you want are portions of frozen, flavorful liquid on hand at all times. Make a huge batch of chicken stock once a month; branch out into beef and fish stock once you get into the Jeffrey Dahmer-esque habit of saving bones.
Another thing you're going to want is to keep a well-stocked pantry. Side dishes are a bitch to come up with on the fly, so dry goods are your friend. What I do is keep containers of polenta, lentils, couscous, quinoa, rice, and dried beans around. Combined with that stock you have in the freezer and a little salt and pepper, they all make a great accompaniment to whatever meat you're cooking. Again, it's all about building blocks, i.e. things you can whip up quickly and tweak to your heart's content.
Things you want on hand at all times, in no particular order: a selection of vinegars (white, red wine, and cider are a must, but I usually have some fancy-pants balsamic and/or champagne). Good olive oil, plus cheap cooking oil (like canola). Yellow + nicer mustard(s). Worcestershire. Honey. Soy sauce and fish sauce (yes!). Dried chiles. Flour and sugar (white and brown). Bread crumbs. Dried pasta. Canned tomatoes and tomato paste. And decent, cheap wine (red and white) you can cook with.
A note on spices: For starters, never underestimate the mileage you'll get out of simple salt and pepper. Moving up from there, I have a half-dozen chili powders, because I'm weird that way, along with cumin, curry and turmeric, various dried herbs, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Sometimes I'll go whole weeks without using any of these except for the salt and pepper, but as the saying goes, it's better to have a spice and not need one than to need a spice and not have one.
Here's just one reason you want all those things: Make your own salad dressing. Making a salad dressing is so simple, yet so empowering. Soon, you'll wonder: "Why have I been buying shitty salad dressings full of weird preservatives this whole time, when making salad dressing is up there with whistling and skipping on the list of easiest things a human can do?" Here's how you make salad dressing: Combine oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Blammo. From there, you can take it in a zillion directions: Add mustard, add honey (add them together!), add garlic, add herbs. You are Picasso, and that oil/vinegar combo is your canvas. Paint your Guernica, and put it on lettuce.
Now, just as you made your own salad dressing, you can now use innumerable combinations of the above ingredients to make meat marinades and quick sauces—what we'll call "flavor liquids." Stock plus wine (red or white) plus salt & pepper, reduced on the stove by half, equals a sauce your guests will think is restaurant-caliber. Go nuts from there, experimenting with herbs, spices, and mustards etc. to make the sauce your own. Same goes for meat marinades: Mix acid (e.g. vinegar), oil, salt and pepper. Taste it. Add stuff. Tweak it. Get in the habit of tasting and tweaking: Flavor liquids are rarely unsalvageable. Learn what flavors balance others out. The more confidence you have in your ability to wing it, the less intimidating cooking becomes, and the more likely you are to do it.
As for hardware, get a good knife. Note that I said good, not expensive. I have a set of Shuns that I treasure, scolding guest cooks in my kitchen if they so much as point one at the dishwasher, but the knife I've been using lately is a refurbished 9-inch chef's knife I got from my local butcher for $20. The thing feels like a lightsaber in my hand; it makes me feel like a Kitchen Jedi. This is what you want/need: one kitchen tool to rule them all (sorry to mix sagas there). That tool is your knife.
Knives don't need to cost a lot—they simply need to be appreciated and taken care of. So keep it sharp with a honing steel ( here's how), don't put it in the dishwasher where it might clank against plates or glasses, and always use a cutting board. (You think this last thing is obvious, but my dad, for one, is the worst: He'll slice cheese on a marble countertop, causing little nicks only a professional knife-sharpener can hone out). I agree with Cook's Illustrated that this is an amazing all-purpose knife that's cheap at twice the price.
Learn to love your freezer. Since it's about to free of Lean Cuisines and DiGiornos, you'll have plenty of space in there to store perishables, mainly meat. Here's what's in my freezer right now, ready to be defrosted and turned tasty: chicken breasts, chicken thighs, tri-tip, various steaks, chuck roast, pork butt, bacon, and pork loin (I have a normal freezer, btw). Storing meat in your freezer does not mean you can't still buy it fresh on your way home from work, but it does ensure that you won't be SOL if you forget or don't have time. While a few cuts of meat, like NY strip, are designed for specific preparations, a lot of this stuff is multi-purpose and should be treated that way. You should have at least 10 things you can cook in 20 minutes with chicken breasts, from stir-frys to paillard. Likewise for pork loin: Slice a three-quarter-inch piece for chops that are super easy on their own, pound 'em and bread 'em for schnitzel, then be like, Check me out, I made fucking schnitzel!
Learn to smell. I know, right: Learn to smell? WTF? But trust me: Just like how dogs and bees can smell fear, you can tell a ton of things about how your food is doing just by smelling it. This sounds so simple as to not be worth mentioning, but really it's a skill, and one you hone. Cooking quickly and efficiently is like conducting a symphony: Everything's playing its own part, and you have to be able to hear each instrument individually. In cooking, you do this with your nose, and once you get good at it, you can smell things burning before they burn, as if you had ESP or something. It's awesome.
And finally, embrace vegetables. Probably the single biggest thing that taught me how to cook was signing up for a CSA, which stands for "Community Supported Agriculture," which stands for me being a light-in-the-loafers liberal, but w/e. Joining a CSA meant I got a box of produce every week. I never knew what was going to be in the box, and sometimes the stuff was weird: kohlrabi, yellow wax beans, bok choy. Whatever it was, though, I cooked it, and in so doing learned another valuable lesson: If you have food on hand, there's always something you can make with it. So just buy fresh produce once a week. Knowing you have eggplant or spaghetti squash on hand will cause you to concoct schemes as to how you might cook it. You'll start looking up recipes in waiting rooms and envisioning what might go good with what, based on the ingredients you have in your fridge.
There's so, so, so much more, but this should be enough to get you started: Your pantry is stocked with everything you need: You have proteins on hand, either fresh or frozen, along with plenty of produce and sauces and spices. This is when cooking gets fun; this is when you get to jam. You are now equipped to cook something on any night, in under an hour. I highly encourage you to do this, then do it again, and again. You'll get better every time, and more efficient. Not only will combining food items no longer scare you, but you will come to understand that cooking is not an exercise in coloring between the lines, but rather an open-ended process with all the attendant triumphs and failures. Becoming a pro will require discipline and practice, but at least now you won't serve McDonald's to your kids when your wife goes out of town, or try to convince yourself that Taco Bell is good for you because they use lettuce. You are the master of your own culinary destiny now. Go forth and cook.
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter.
Image by Sam Woolley.
Adequate Man is Deadspin's new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.