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TANGENT Get behind me, pizza!

Tired of the same old thing? Here are three simple ways to start cooking better meals in your apartment or home.

By Matt Russell

mrussell@postbulletin.com

Sooner or later the day will come, if it hasn't already, when you'll find you need more variety in your home-cooked meals than throwing a DiGiorno pizza into the oven instead of a Tony's.

But where do you go from there? Getting started cooking better, healthier meals can seem daunting, but it doesn't need to be. Here's some tips to get you started.

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1. Skip the doodads.

It doesn't take a lot of gadgets and knickknacks to get started doing some serious cooking, but Shea Byrne, chef at Jaspers Alsatian Bistro and Wine Bar, said the two most important things you can have in the kitchen are a decent sauté; pan, which he called "your most versatile cooking device," and a good chef's knife.

Byrne suggested buying a nonstick Teflon pan. "I would recommend taking it up a little bit, splurge a little bit the first time because it will last you forever if you take care of it," he said.

He also suggested looking for a knife with a forged steel blade because it will hold its edge better than other knives, adding you should buy a sharpening steel and have someone at the store demonstrate how use it if you buy another kind of knife. Byrne also said you should look for a knife that fits comfortably in your hand.

Jaspers owner Cynthia Daube, who suggests buying a cast-iron skillet for use as your basic stovetop pan, also recommends owning a larger pot for cooking pasta. Such pots are versatile and can also be used for cooking stocks and soups, she said.

2. Cook simple and fresh.

Don't know where to start? Both Byrne and Jenpachi Japanese Steak House chef Jorge Mendoza suggest learning how to make stir fry, a basic dish that can be modified in many ways by trying different meats, vegetables and sauces.

Using fresh ingredients whenever possible will also make whatever you're cooking, no matter how simple the recipe, taste better. At the same time, fresh fruits and vegetables are perhaps the simplest, tastiest and healthiest additions you can make to a home-cooked meal.

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When looking for fresh produce, always keep an eye out for what's in season because not only will it the flavor be at its peak, but the prices are often lower, said Rochester Produce owner Bruce Timmerman.

Timmerman added that you can spot what's in season either by watching what stores are marketing most aggressively or by asking produce section workers. Jaspers chef Byrne also said that if don't know how to determine the ripeness of something, ask someone at the store to give you some pointers.

3. Learn the basics

"The thing that I've really run into since I started doing classes is people are confused," said chef Jon Anderson of Rochester, who has taught several local cooking classes.

People get confused about cooking, Anderson said, because different recipes tell them to do things in different ways, a problem that could be prevented by learning more about how cooking works. Anderson suggests using a simple cookbook to start, such as "The Joy of Cooking," that clearly explains the basics. He also said beginners should pay attention as they cook so they can understand how recipes work and how ingredients work together.

Certain shows on the Food Network -- but forget Emeril or "The Iron Chef" -- can also be helpful for beginning cooks. Try watching "30 Minute Meals," in which host Rachel Ray routinely gives simple, usable tips and techniques, and "Good Eats," which delves into the science of cooking in an entertaining and accessible way.

Anderson encouraged beginning cooks to not only get away from constantly following recipes, but also to experiment with everyday food such as a can of tomato soup (he suggests adding broccoli or zucchini).

"I think what's really important is even if you can't always make things from scratch, try to do something to whatever it is you are eating to call it your own," he said.

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Looking for new recipes?

They've never been easier to find. Just go online (two of the best general recipe sites, foodnetwork.com and epicurious.com, will keep you busy for a long time). You can also Google your favorite cuisine or ingredient and find several recipes to try.

Try the library as well -- it has just about every kind of cookbook you can imagine and will save you from spending $20 on a book you may only pull a few recipes from.

Tasty Tangent extras:

• Check; out Jenpachi Japanese Steak House chef Jorge Mendoza's basic home-style stir fry recipe and stir-fry tips at www.postbulletin.com. Scroll down to the Tangent section.

• Also; online, Rochester chef Jon Anderson gives advice to people who routinely cook for one.

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