Cooking At Home - Getting Started

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If you are an off-campus college student or a young professional, you may have noticed a room in your apartment filled with metallic-looking equipment, closets, and drawers. The rental/real-estate agent probably didn't spend too much time discussing it with you aside from assuring you it was recently remodeled or otherwise won't embarrass you when you bring home a romantic interest. The room also probably has the faint whiff of nostalgia, as if someone important to you once did something important to your very survival in a similar room. But it's not really clear to you what you are supposed to do in there.
Don't worry because you are in good company. The foodist (is that a word yet or did I just coin it?), Michael Pollan tells a story about his daughter while staring into her refrigerator recently packed with purchases from the farmer's market saying "Dad, why is there never any food in the fridge?"
This mystery room is your kitchen. And you can cook food (yes, the kind you eat) in it. In reality cooking at home doesn't require much. It doesn't even require a kitchen and the benefits include spending less on food (or saving more for partying), better health (even otherwise unhealthy food is usually healthier when made at home), reducing waste (fewer take-out boxes stuffing your garbage bags), and being more interesting to other people (I still get kudos for a summer barbecue I hosted in college).

The Basics

Cooking is based on the creative value of breaking down food before it gets to your mouth. The breakdown usually takes the form of one or some combination of the following:
Heating (or any kind of temperature change) - Preparing food with heat or fire is an activity unique to humans, and some scientists believe the advent of cooking played an important role in human evolution but temperature changes up or down by any means (like microwaves and the sun) can still break down food.
Crushing (or any application of pressure) - In a way, this method does some of the work for your tongue and gut. Sugar is pressed from the otherwise largely undesirable sugar cane and flour is made by crushing something measured in millimeters until it is something measured in microns.
Cutting (or other kinds of shearing) - Likewise, cutting or tearing is a more powerful version of your teeth's function. It exposes parts of a food that were covered by another part of the food and generally increases the surface area available.
Marinating (or other kinds of mixing) - It may be unsurprising that foods near each other have an effect on each other, but it's still pretty remarkable. For instance, did you know that the best way to ripen a fruit is to put it in a bag with an apple? The apple gives off high levels of the ripening signal common to all plants.
Peeling (or other kinds of separation) - Some parts of food are more desirable than others or need to be addressed differently for the best effect. This is what "separating the wheat from the chaff" is referring to.

Your first dish

Now that you know what makes up cooking, you are ready to try it for the first time. Here are a couple tips when selecting a recipe to try:
Cook something you (would) eat often - This suggestion will hold true almost your entire life as a cook. I think restaurants are a better venue for eating something you only eat infrequently because it makes the whole experience special. However the bigger reason to learn to cook something you would eat often is you'll have more chance to practice.
...that use only a few ingredients - Many are the aspiring cooks who are reminded of the "event" that resulted in the 30 spice rack they bought sitting on their counter gathering dust and yet still mocking them. There are over 70 three ingredient cookbooks on Amazon, more than enough yumminess there for starters. Most importantly, remember food isn't about the number of ingredients, but what you do with them.
...requires few tools/vessels - likewise it is tempting to get caught up in all the different gadgetry, pots, and knives. While I wouldn't recommend going all archaic just yet, maybe you could check out one of the over 70 one pot cook books on Amazon. Again if you only have one pot to clean you are more likely to cook it again.
(sidenote to self: it would be really helpful to cross reference the one pot and three ingredient cookbooks into a simple cooking master list)
...and doesn't take a long time - it surely feels easier to get take-out from your favorite joint, since there is just two steps, make the call then run there and back (or answer the door if you splurge for delivery). But here's the thing, it still takes the restaurant time to make the dish, even if they are not making it from scratch. If you learn dishes that are quick, you will choose to make them rather than wait for takeout.
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I agree with the oft made suggestion of an omelet as a first foray into the kitchen. I ran a theme camp at Burning Man for six years called The Big O that cooked omelets for hundreds of people every year, and we chose omelets as our contribution to the playa for exactly the four reasons above. We had people come everyday for an omelet sometimes twice a day. You only need eggs (we added a few other ingredients for fun, like wasabi peas) and an 8 inch pan. Most important it took only minutes from start to finish
We always had new people who wanted to help and instead of shuffling them off to do clean up or other supplementary tasks we could get them in front of a burner their first day. The camp is no more, but you can watch Julia Child's demo then give it a try...

I suggest doing it on a Saturday morning. You aren't rushing off to work, you can't decide where to go for brunch, and you'll have the whole day to feel satisfied with your accomplishment.

Room to Grow

Yummy eggs, but what else? Salads, stews/soups, and rice/pasta dishes are other good ones to learn. Why not ask some friends for suggestions on Recipeer.com
Remember, it may be months or years before cooking becomes easier/faster than ordering from a restaurant — but in as little five mintues you'll be having more fun! Welcome to your kitchen!

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