To say that cooking is one of my hobbies would be inaccurate, as that would imply that I actually know what I’m doing. It’s far more accurate to say that learning to cook is one of my hobbies. I’d literally never made anything more complicated than pasta and jarred sauce until 2007, and 2010 is the first year I actually made an active effort to try and become a decent cook. And you know what? I’m still clueless, but I’ve gotten better at faking it. I still get nervous about the slightest recipe modification, fear unusual (to me) ingredients like flour and kale, and take 50 minutes to make a 30-minute recipe. But I’m no longer subsisting off of Sabra hummus and pre-packaged salad, so that’s progress, right?
So for all the novice (or experienced but lazy) cooks out there, I’m posting a few of my favorite successes. All of these are doable as long as you are capable of chopping vegetables and turning on appliances, and most are relatively quick. Oh, and sorry about the lack of pictures– I didn’t know I’d be writing this when I cooked these dishes– but I believe all links have pictures if you click through.
1. Sassy sausage and black bean soup
This is literally my first unqualified success, from back in 2007. It’s still the easiest, most foolproof recipe in my rotation, and it tastes miles better than anything this simple has any right to. Basically, you sautee some onions and garlic, then dump in a bunch of canned things, and you’re good to go. If you need an easy win, this is the way to do it.
2. Brazilian black bean stew
Who’d have thought mango, sweet potato, black bean, and chorizo would go so well together? I mean, other than anyone who actually understands how cooking and flavors work? It’s simple to make, comes out hearty and flavorful, and freezes really well– seriously, it couldn’t be easier to love. I don’t bother with the ham, but I keep the chorizo. The recipe author suggests skipping both to make it vegetarian, but that just makes me glad I’m not vegetarian.
3. Sriracha buffalo wings (two recipes: one for sauce, one for wings)
Dear God yes. I love classic Frank’s Red Hot wings as much as the next gal– more, probably, as I really fucking love Frank’s Red Hot– but Sriracha is one of my favorite hot sauces as well. If you make this, keep in mind there is a huge difference between the amount of spice you can handle in tiny samples while you cook, vs. shamelessly slathered all over hot wings– I didn’t, and I just about died from the heat. (Worth it.) If you love Sriracha, you need to try this.
4. Tilapia with mango salsa
This is the kind of elegant dish that makes people think you know what you’re doing in the kitchen. In reality, it’s a little time-consuming, but pretty easy as long as you don’t mind a lot of chopping. (Tip: The salsa-making process is much less dangerous if you know the right way to slice a mango.) I like to bake the fish instead of broiling it, because I don’t know how to use my broiler. To bake, put the fish and marinade into a pan, cover it with foil, and bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Then uncover, and put back in at 375 for another 10 minutes.
5. Angel hair pasta with eggplant-tomato sauce
I made this dish for the first time this year, and it’s the exact turning point at which I realized I could eat way less meat and be happy. I used vegetable broth instead of chicken broth, which made it vegetarian. It turned out to be the kind of vegetarian recipe where you don’t even realize it’s vegetarian until someone points it out because it’s tasty and satisfying and doesn’t involve any suspicious meat substitutes. I’m still not vegetarian and probably never will be, but I have cut my meat intake by maybe 40%. I can’t say I’ve felt at all deprived.
6. Guacamole (from Joy of Cooking– scroll to bottom for recipe)
There is no excuse for bad store-bought guacamole when the homemade version is so easy and so much better. Yes, home-cooking advocates say this about everything, but in the case of guacamole it’s actually true. It’s almost unfair that something so amazing could be so simple, but I consider it payoff for all the times I’ve sunk my time and energy into complicated recipes that turned out to be crap. The other great thing about guacamole, of course, is that it involves no heat whatsoever– perfect for sticky August days when the stove is your worst enemy. Tip: To keep leftover guacamole green, put in a tupperware container and cover with plastic wrap, pressing down so the wrap is actually touching any surface of the guacamole that would otherwise be touching air. Then put the tupperware lid on.
7. Aloo phujia
The tastiness to effort ratio in this vegan(!) dish is off the charts. It’s also the kind of thing that makes for great leftovers the next day. I don’t imagine it’d freeze well (potatoes rarely do, right?) but I’ve never had leftovers for long enough to find out. It can get pretty spicy, so if you’re a spice wuss I suggest cutting down on the cayenne. But if you’re like me, the recipe made as is hits that sweet spot between kicky and painful.
8. Key lime pie
I’m not a dessert person. I love sour, salty, and bitter, in that order, but sweets have never been my thing. This key lime pie is sweet enough for people who actually like desserts, but lime-y (read: sour) enough for people like me. And if you don’t insist on making the crust yourself (I don’t), it’s very, very easy.
Honorable mention: Pernil
Pernil only gets an honorable mention because I didn’t actually make it myself; I’ve only watched the boyfriend make it. (His cooking expertise is probably similar to mine, which is to say, fairly low). If you have a slow cooker and can figure out where to get pork shoulder– like, say, the butcher shop– it’s a very simple recipe that makes a ton of juicy, flavorful pork. It’s also super versatile– you can use it in burritos, with barbecue sauce, in stews…
Guacamole (more or less as written in Joy of Cooking)
- 2-3 avocados
- Juice of 1-2 limes
- 1/4 cup onion, chopped (I like red onion, but any kind works)
- 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-2 dashes hot sauce (any kind)
- 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
- Salt & pepper “to taste,” i.e., until you have determined that it is salty and/or peppery enough.
1. Mix everything together in a bowl.
Note to novice cooks: The wonderful thing about guac is that as long as you have avocados, it’s pretty impossible to screw up. So don’t panic if you add too much or too little of any one ingredient.