Starter kitchen: Easy recipes and advice for new cooks

Pick a shape for resealable containers, square or rectangle, and stick with it. If you stay with...
Wendy Yang/Charlotte Observer/MCT
Story by Kathleen Purvis
(McClatchy Newspapers)
Fri, May 20, 2011
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June ought to be called the freshest month. College graduates move into their lives, newlyweds set up house, and a new crop of cooks hits the kitchen.

New York food writer Brooke Parkhurst has been there. When she graduated from Davidson College in 2002, she moved to New York for a career in TV journalism. Instead, she became a novelist with “Belle in the Big Apple,” and married a chef, James Briscione.

Today, Parkhurst and Briscione have their own cookbook, “Just Married & Cooking” (Scribner) and a website, justmarriedandcooking.com.

Parkhurst’s first advice for new cooks is simple:

“Get in the kitchen, begin with simple meals and practice.

“Don’t be overly ambitious. Don’t go for the chateaubriand for your first time. Work your way into things. Good results will encourage you to keep cooking.”

The following tips come from Helen Schwab and Kathleen Purvis of the Charlotte Observer, Andrea Weigl and Felicia Gressette of The (Raleigh) News & Observer, and New York food writer Brooke Parkhurst.

5 TOOLS EVERY KITCHEN NEEDS

1. Tongs. Preferably locking tongs. They should be long enough to keep your hand away from spattering skillets, but short enough that they’re easy to maneuver. Try the OXO 12-inch stainless steel locking tongs ($12.99).

2. A set of cake pans. You do a lot of things in a cake pan even if you don’t have a full set of cookware.

3. An enameled, cast-iron Dutch oven. They’re heavy, they last a lifetime and when you make your first pot roast, you may find yourself addicted to cooking for life. Try the Lodge Enameled Cast-Iron 6-quart Dutch Oven ($60).

4. A fine-mesh bowl sieve. They’re more useful than colanders with big holes, and they double as flour sifters (easier to clean than a sifter, too). Try OXO Good Grips Double Rod Strainer ($22).

5. A really sharp zester from Microplane, which cost $13-$15. They’re easier and faster than getting out a big box grater. Parkhurst uses hers to grate garlic: “It will melt into a dish when you grate it. You get the essence without crunching into bits.”

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5 COOKING DOS

1. Decide how you will organize your recipes, before you have a big, messy pile of torn-out recipes you’ll never use. How you organize isn’t as important as having a system.

2. Clean as you go. It saves a lot of time, and cooking is more fun if you don’t have a disaster to clean up when you’re done.

3. Find a really good cook who will let you hang out, watch closely and ask a lot of questions.

4. Read recipes all the way through before you start — no matter how big a hurry you are in.

5. Pick a shape for resealable containers — square or rectangle — and stick with it. If you stay with one shape, they can be nested for efficient storage. Forget round ones. They waste space.

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5 COOKING DON’TS

1. Don’t buy sets of knives. You’ll waste money on specialty knives you’ll never use. Spend the money on the best 8-inch chef’s knife, 4-inch paring knife and 12-inch serrated-edge knife you can afford. We like Messermeister and Henckel brand knives. Those three knives will cost $130-$150.

2. Don’t waste expensive extra-virgin olive oil for frying. It can’t take high heat. Use cheaper vegetable oil and save the good olive oil for vinaigrette.

3. Don’t be afraid to get a big skillet or roasting pan. You can cook something small in a big pan, but you can’t cook something big in a small pan. A Lodge 12-inch pre-seasoned cast-iron skillet will last a lifetime for $25.

4. Don’t be afraid to change recipes. It uses beef and you like chicken? It calls for tarragon but you have thyme? Don’t worry, try it.

5. Don’t waste time wiping mushrooms one by one. They won’t absorb that much water if you rinse them and drain them well, no matter what the recipe says.

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5 BOOKS FOR STARTING OUT

1. “How to Cook Everything,” by Mark Bittman (Wiley, 2008). It lives up to the title, and it’s available as an iPhone app, too.

2. “The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook” (Wiley, 2010). Everybody needs a go-to cookbook with simple recipes and lots of step-by-step photos. The cookbook with the red-plaid cover has earned its place in kitchens for generations.

3. “The Classic Italian Cookbook,” by Marcella Hazan (Ballantine, 1989). It’s simple, useful (the blender pesto is a must), and Italian is the one cuisine that every person you know probably likes.

4. “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion” (Countryman Press, 2003). A go-to baking book. “When you first get into cooking, you really enjoy desserts,” says Parkhurst. “You have something really impressive that you can make early on.”

5. Fine Cooking magazine. A magazine subscription instead of a book can give new cooks a chance to find out what they like. This one is simple, elegant and always reliable, with a lot of how-to information every month.

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15-MINUTE MARINARA

From “Just Married & Cooking,” by Brooke Parkhurst and James Briscione (Scribner). You can change this up by using fresh tomatoes instead of canned, and use it as a base for any pasta sauce.

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed San Marzano tomatoes (see note)
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 cup water
  • Pinch of granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, cut in strips (optional)

Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion and slowly cook until almost translucent. Add the garlic and season well with salt and pepper. Once the garlic is aromatic, after about 2 minutes (don’t let it burn), stir in the tomatoes.

Add the oregano and dried basil and cook over low to medium-low heat for 10 minutes. After the sauce has thickened, add the water and stir.

Cook 5 minutes longer and remove from heat. Stir in the sugar and taste. Adjust seasoning with herbs, salt, pepper and sugar if necessary. Finish by stirring in fresh basil if using.

Toss with cooked pasta.

Note: In the summer when you have good tomatoes, particularly roma or plum tomatoes, peel and chop them to use here. You’ll need about 3 cups.

Yield: 4 servings.

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SIMPLE ROAST CHICKEN

A basic roast chicken is like a great black dress: You can always rely on it, and you can do a lot with it. From “How to Cook Everything,” by Mark Bittman.

  • 1 whole (3- to 4-pound) chicken, preferably kosher or farm-raised
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs or 1 teaspoon dried (thyme, rosemary, marjoram, oregano or sage)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Trim excess fat from around the cavity and tuck the wings under the back. Don’t worry about trussing the legs, but you can tie them if you have kitchen string.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place the chicken, breast down, on a rack in a roasting pan. (If you don’t have a roasting pan or a rack, you can use a heavy, oven-safe dish such as a pie plate.)

Place the chicken in the oven. Mix the olive oil, herb, salt and pepper in a small bowl.

Let the chicken roast about 20 minutes. Spoon some of the oil mixture over it, turn it breast-side up and spoon some of the oil over the top. Return to the oven for 10 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and baste again. Roast about 30 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 160 to 165 degrees. (An instant-read thermometer is the most reliable way to tell if it’s done, but if you don’t have one, check to make sure a leg wiggles easily and the skin is pulling back from the end of a leg.)

Before removing the chicken from the pan, tip the pan to let the juices from the cavity flow into the pan (if they are red, cook 5 minutes longer). Remove the chicken to a platter and let stand about 5 minutes.

Pour the juices into a clear measuring cup and pour or spoon off as much of the fat as you can. Reheat the juices and serve them with the chicken.

Yield: 2 to 3 servings.

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BASIC VINAIGRETTE

Every cook should know how to make one. Besides dressing salad, you can use it as a marinade or pour a little into the hot skillet after you cook fish, chicken or meat to make a quick pan sauce. You can also change it easily, by using a different oil or vinegar or adding fresh or dried herbs.

  • 2 tablespoons vinegar (preferably red wine or sherry)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • A pinch of salt (preferably kosher or sea salt)
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Place a small bowl on a folded dish towel (that will hold it steady). Whisk the vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper with a whisk or fork.

Place the oil in a measuring cup with a spout or a small cup. Starting with just a drop at a time and slowly increasing, whisk it into the vinegar mixture until you have a thick, smooth blend. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding a pinch of sugar or fresh or dried herbs as desired.

Note: A vinaigrette that is whisked together slowly will stay together without separating. But if you don’t have time or aren’t ready to try that, put all the ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake to mix. You’ll need to shake it again just before you use it.

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