Judith's Cookbook for the Desperately Poor

(The REAL Basics)

To live a good life, you need to give yourself an hour or so to cook, once a week, once every couple of days, or once a day. You can eat leftovers for lunch and cold cereal or other breads for breakfast, but you should cook something at night if you can. (That doesn't mean you should eat your biggest meal at night. A big breakfast is more useful and healthier, but we don't usually have time to cook them any more. I myself try to do the Indian thing of eating a big noon meal wherever I can -- it replenishes you after the morning and stokes you up for the rest of the day. Then eat a smaller dinner. But eat one.)

Things you really do need to have in your kitchen: 1

and four spices/herbs: 2

For the terminally confused who will go no farther: 2

Start with Beans! 2

Recipe: Refried Beans (Moosewood) 2

Recipe: Rachel's Mujaddarn! 3

Recipe: Julia Child's Black Bean Soup 3

Recipe: New Basics' White and Black Bean Salad 3

How to Eat 4

What kinds of starches? 4

Recipe: My current favorite pasta trick (with capellini or orzo): 5

Protein! 5

Veg-o-rama 6

A good healthy recipe: Fruit Smoothies 6

Dairy 7

How to Cook 7

Cooking meat is the hardest part -- and even that's a snap 7

HEALTH ALERTS: 7

Other food health rules: 8

Cooking Starches 8

Recipe: Elizabeth's Never-Fail Rice (courtesy of Elizabeth Van Couvering) 9

Sauces 9

Recipe: Turkish Garlic Yogurt Sauce 9

Recipe: White Sauce (Béchamel) 9

Recipe: The easiest salad dressing in the world 10

Recipe: Jude's Meat Rolls 10

What Now? Good Cookbooks! 11

Things you really do need to have in your kitchen:

and four spices/herbs:

Cumin, ground

Coriander, ground

Sage

Dill

Cumin is the spicy spice that makes Chinese and Mexican food smell and taste so good. Beef, chicken, fish, all love cumin.

Coriander is the ground seed of the coriander plant, also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley; you can often buy the leaves fresh in your produce section, and I don't know of a cuisine on earth that doesn't use them and love them. Well, Russian and British, but they're hardly known for their cuisines, are they? The ground seed (do buy it ground) has a slightly lemony flavor and is great on almost everything.

Sage is a dried herb leaf and is what makes turkey stuffing smell so good on Thanksgiving. All poultry is better with sage in or on it. It also has its moments with fish and lamb.

And Dill (dill weed, the leaves of the dill plant, dried) is that wonderful stuff they make pickles with. It adds a great flavor to chicken or fish -- it was born to go in tuna or egg salad-- and is great in salad dressings. (Some oil, vinegar, mustard, and dill swished in a bowl is a salad dressing.) Whenever I'm in doubt, I add some dill.

For the terminally confused who will go no farther:

Start with Beans!

Recipe: Refried Beans (Moosewood)

  1. Soak one pound of pinto beans, overnight. (That's a little more than 2 cups, by the way.) Soak in a plastic or glass bowl, never metal. You can leave it on the counter.
  2. Drain. Put them in a decent sized pot (to hold them all, now that they've swollen, and plenty of water to cover.)
  3. Boil for 1 and 1/2 to 2 hours.
  4. When they're soft (test one!) drain them and mash them with a big wooden spoon or a potato masher.
  5. This is good therapy.
  6. In a skillet, put in a slosh of olive oil (3 tbsp, if you're measuring) and:
    • 1 and 1/2 C. chopped onion (a large onion, or a medium onion and a half)
    • 1 C. green pepper, chopped small (half or 3/4 of a pepper)
    • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped small (peel them first!)
    • 1 tsp. of ground cumin
    • 1 tsp. pepper
  7. Now turn on the heat under the skillet and stir this stuff around periodically until it looks cooked to you. (Onions are translucent when they're cooked.)
  8. Throw this stuff in with the beans and mash it around, adding salt to taste. It's done! Yay!

This makes massive amounts (eight servings or more) so you might want to do half the recipe or have friends over. Makes GREAT leftovers, though.

Now you're ready to make Tostadas:

  1. If you can find them, get flat hard corn tortillas. (Otherwise you can cheat and use taco shells or flour tortillas. If it's flat, it's really a tostada.)
  2. Spread in your beans.
  3. Put on some grated cheese. (It will melt on the beans! Yes!)
  4. Add chopped lettuce or cabbage, olives, salsa, sour cream, whatever you like.
  5. Eat until you're full.

Recipe: Rachel's Mujaddarn!

The easiest. It ain't pretty, but it tastes good, is very filling and is nutritious too. Score!

  1. Cook 1/2 lb. lentils. (Instructions are on the package. Lentils don't need soaking, just boiling. Don't boil them TOO hard or they'll turn to mush. A light boil will do.)
  2. Cook 3/4 cup brown rice or 1 cup white rice. (My never-fail rice recipe is at the bottom of this page. You can't live without rice.)
  3. Chop up 3 large onions. (All three.) Sauté them in a little olive oil or another oil. Add 2 tsp. ground cumin, and plenty of salt and pepper. (Despite all the onions, this is a very mild dish. It'll need the salt and pepper.)
  4. Add the cooked onion to the cooked lentils and rice; stir up a bit. There you are!

I like to sprinkle this with Worcestershire sauce or a little Tabasco, or soy sauce. It's also good with a little dollop of yogurt on it. It's heavenly with the Turkish Garlic Yogurt sauce I give you below. Serve with a salad and you're set. If you're not going to make a salad for just you, eat some raw celery or cucumber with this.

Recipe: Julia Child's Black Bean Soup

This is the simplest black bean soup I've ever seen, and it tastes just dandy.

  1. Soak overnight a pound of black turtle beans. In a glass or plastic bowl, please.
  2. Drain, and put in a pot with 4 quarts of water. (Check your pot. It may say on the bottom that it's a four-quart pot. That doesn't mean fill it to the brim, that means fill it up to within an inch or two of the brim. That's four quarts of water. It's also 16 cups of water.)
  3. Boil for 2 hours.
  4. (Julia says to then cover them and let them sit for exactly 1 more hour, but I never do this.)
  5. (If you let them sit, bring them back to a simmer on the stove.)
  6. Add 2 cups chopped onions, 1/2 cup each chopped celery and carrot, and a generous dash of salt.
  7. Let cool for a little.
  8. Puree in a blender. (You're going to need a cheap blender after all. I lied.)
  9. SERVE that puppy. You and your friends can sprinkle chopped scallions, cucumber, peppers, hard boiled eggs, or grated cheese or sour cream on top of this. Heck, go nuts!

Recipe: New Basics' White and Black Bean Salad

Once this is all together, it might not be as cheap as it seems, because to make it really yummy you have to invest in a red pepper, some good-quality olive oil, some cilantro and cider vinegar, which is cheap but which you might not have around the house. You will never, ever hear a complaint about this salad, however, not even from the pickiest eaters.

  1. Soak overnight: 1/2 lb. each of black turtle beans and white navy beans (NOT in the same bowl!)
  2. Cook 1 and 1/2 to 2 hours, until soft. (NOT in the same pot! Your white beans would turn lavender!)
  3. (You can use canned, I won't tell. Make sure you have about two cups of each kind of bean. Use two cans of each, well drained. This makes great leftovers!)
  4. To the cooked beans, add:
    • 1 cup chopped red onion
    • 1 cup chopped green or red pepper (red is special, and pretty.)
    • 1 cup cooked corn kernels (use canned again!)
    • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro (about half a usual store-sized bunch. Freeze the rest in a baggy. Make sure you like cilantro before you do this -- taste a leaf. Some people think it tastes like Lysol; the rest of us LIVE for it.)
    • And this dressing (you could use bottled creamy Italian dressing, but I'd walk a mile on my knees for this dressing):
      • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
      • 1 tablespoon mustard
      • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons cumin
      • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
      • 1 teaspoon pepper
      • 1/2 teaspoon salt
      • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
        (In a pinch you could use cheaper olive oil. You could even use vegetable oil, if you're desperate. But my gosh, the flavor you get when you use the real thing!)

Stir it all together, and let it sit (in plastic or glass, please) in the fridge at least an hour. Better overnight. When all these flavors blend together, boy, you've got something.

Always eat your bean with a grain. Bread with soup, cornbread with salad, rice or tortillas with refried beans. (Mujaddarn already includes rice, that's why it's so perfect.)

How to Eat

The key to eating well but cheap: Plan your meal around a grain!

You might think of your meat or veggies first when you plan a meal. The bulk of your calories, however, should be complex carbohydrates, and that means a starch! Also, starches are much cheaper than either meat or vegetables. Be like the Arabians or Chinese, consider meat a condiment and you'll be surprised at how cheaply you're eating (and you won't have to turn vegetarian out of poverty.) Beans have a good bit of starch in them, but there are so many other grains or starchy staples, you could have a different one with the same meat or vegetable every day for a long time and not get bored!

What kinds of starches?

Don't feel like you have to get fancy -- you can buy mixes for some of these things, and if you feel overwhelmed that's a good place to start. But the Fanny Farmer Cookbook contains good, plain recipes for things like mashed potatoes and crepes and pancakes and certainly ought to be the first cookbook any would-be cook should own. As for biscuits, buy the Poppin' Fresh kind -- biscuits are too time-consuming and messy to make from scratch unless you're really in a baking mood. If you're not interested in cooking "from scratch", stick to rice, pasta, couscous and bread someone else made -- they are extremely quick and easy and instructions are on the package.

Recipe: My current favorite pasta trick (with capellini or orzo):

Cook the pasta. While it's cooking, put 1/4 c. lemon juice in a glass or plastic bowl. Also put in a tablespoon or so of butter and if you have it, some chopped fresh basil and black pepper. A quarter-cup of basil is plenty. (Get juice from a bottle, or it's about the amount a nice lemon will give up if you juice it. A hand-held lemon juicer is nice to have. To get more juice from a lemon, microwave it for twenty seconds first!) When your pasta's done, dump it in with the lemon juice. It soaks it all up as you toss it around, getting nice and lemony! You can serve it as is, with plain chicken or shrimp or scallops, and people will think you're so spiffy!

Protein!

Once you've picked your starch, pick a protein. Beans are always good, and mushrooms are wonderful. Many stores now sell portobello mushrooms, sliced and cleaned. Sauté them in a little butter and eat them with rice -- they're practically as good as steak!

Generally, a serving for one person is this much of a particular meat:

Don't try to cook fish with bones in, big beef roasts (big meat ANYTHING) or whole rabbit until you feel you've gotten some cooking experience under your belt. Roast chicken, on the other hand, is easy. Wash the bird, put it in a roasting pan or anything to catch the juices, and roast it at 350 for fifteen minutes per pound. This basically works with everything from turkey to Cornish game hens. (If you stuff the bird, it's 20 minutes per pound.) Baste it every so often with melted butter. There are lots of tips and tricks to roasting poultry but that's the basic recipe.

The two easiest ways to cook anything are to sauté it in a pan (to cook quickly, maybe with a little fat like olive oil or butter) or bake it. Generally, you bake it at about 350 till it's done. You can sprinkle spices and/or lemon juice on it at any stage. A TIP, though: Spices and wine should both be cooked a while to bring out their full flavor and keep them from being harsh. So if you can, sprinkle spices on food or add spice to food towards the beginning of their cooking. (Mild peppers, like paprika, can be exceptions -- nothing looks better than a little paprika sprinkled on freshly roasted chicken.) (By the same token, don't add wine for "flavor" at the end of a cooking process -- the alcohol tastes harsh. It needs time to cook and blend with other flavors.)

Fish is really good broiled. Put it on a buttered or lightly olive-oiled pan or foil. Turn your oven to "Broil" (you always wondered what that setting was for, didn't you?) Let it preheat. When it's good and hot, slip the fish onto the broiler (that's the thing in the BOTTOM of your oven) and let 'er rip. Cook fish 10 minutes per inch of thickness. It never fails. Chicken can be done the same way; cook it a TEENY bit longer, and check for doneness before you eat it (cut one open and look!)

Veg-o-rama

Once you have a protein, have some vegetables! (Or the other way around, if you prefer.) Vegetables can be sautéed with meat or on their own; they can be steamed (put them in a pan with a little boiling water and cover till they're bright green.) Spinach, broccoli, green beans, everything's good this way. If you're feeling decadent, add some butter and/or lemon juice.

Canned and frozen vegetables are often surprisingly good. Canned corn and green beans are fine; frozen spinach is a must-have-on-hand for me. Frozen vegetables keep their nutritional value better than canned. And you can cook one-person servings easily, putting a twist-tie on the plastic bag and putting the rest of the veggies back in the freezer. Investigate bagged vegetable mixes.

If you can afford it, buy fresh veggies. There's no reason not to buy fresh peppers, carrots and celery, and of course life cannot be lived without onions. DON'T buy old or dry-looking vegetables, even if they're on sale, unless you're going to put them in soup or stew -- you really won't like the flavor. In soup or stew, they're fine. (They're not gourmet, but they're adequate, and they can be very cheap.)

Find out if there's a farmer's stand or market near where you live. In Waltham, there's Russo's right on River Street; Wilson Farms is twenty minutes away by car, in Lexington (they have a great selection of spices, too); and there's a farmer's market in the Fleet Bank lot every Saturday. These are terrific sources of fresh, cheap veggies. It's worth a trip at least every other week.

If you don't like veggies, eat them anyway. Find a veggie you like and find out lots of different ways of cooking it -- or eat it raw, if you prefer! It's much more important that you eat vegetables than that you eat meat, in the long run. You should have three or more servings of veggies a day. If you can't afford fruit (apples are the cheapest but they're out of season in the summer) make carrots and celery or raw broccoli or cauliflower your snacks. Bananas are cheap. Try those neon-green Broccoflowers, if your store has them -- they're crosses between broccoli and cauliflower, and they're good. Cleaned veggies are now cheap in most supermarket produce sections -- you don't even have to peel your carrots, and carrots keep forever in the fridge.

A good healthy recipe: Fruit Smoothies

(This does require a blender.)

If this doesn't help you get in your daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, nothing will.

Buy some bananas, cheap. Peel and cut them in half. Freeze them. (If you're spiffy, you can buy a nice square Tupperware container just for these. Otherwise, if your freezer doesn't smell bad, just pile them in a bowl.)

Buy some frozen fruit. Anything will do. I like melon balls and blueberries. Raspberries and strawberries are also good, if you can stand the seeds.

In your blender, put a frozen banana (two halves), a cup of orange juice, and half a cup of the other frozen fruit.

Blend that sucker!

You'll get a smooth Smoothie.

Dairy

Don't worry about keeping up with the amount of dairy you should have -- it's far more likely that you'll find yourself eating too much. Most dairy products also have lots of fat and cholesterol. You should keep on hand the ones that don't: skim milk and nonfat yogurt. Skim milk takes some getting used to, but there's no sacrifice involved in nonfat yogurt, it tastes yummy.

People in America often think that everyone, especially children, must drink milk. In fact, up to twenty-five percent of African-American children and nearly ten percent of Caucasian children are lactose-intolerant -- they can't digest the sugars in milk. Milk also has lots of fat and cholesterol. It does a body good because it contains protein and vitamin D and especially calcium, but on the whole Americans drink way too much milk and you probably don't need to make an effort to drink as much as you ought. I have milk over my cereal in the morning, and I have it with cookies, and I end up drinking about half a gallon of milk a week.

You'll probably keep various cheeses on hand because they make a great finishing touch to many dishes. But it's only in French, English and American food that cheese -- with all its delicious fat -- is used in large amounts. No other cultures on earth eat as much cheese as we do, and there's a good reason why you shouldn't. It is loaded with fat and salt, and cholesterol (not the good kind, like in olive oil, but the bad kind.)

The rule of thumb is that any fat that's a solid at room temperature contains the bad sort of cholesterol. That's butter, cheese, sour cream, or lard (any meat fat). Use it but remember that your meal should NOT be built around cheese.

If you're a woman, you should eat a couple of servings of dairy a day. (Calcium, which helps prevent osteoporosis, is in dairy products; osteoporosis tends to strike women.) If you like milk, drink it. If you don't, get used to cheese or yogurt and make sure you have some. Don't gorge yourself on cheese in the name of acquiring calcium and then complain if you get fat, though. Milk and yogurt are much better for you.

How to Cook

Cooking meat is the hardest part -- and even that's a snap

I like to cook chicken, because you're always sure when it's done -- it's not pink (unless you marinated it in something pink) and the juices that run from it are clear, not pink. The only problem with chicken is that the majority of chicken sold in this country carries salmonella, which can make you sick.

HEALTH ALERTS:

It's simple: ANYTHING that touches raw chicken must be thrown out or washed. If you use a fork to touch raw chicken, for example, use a clean fork to test the chicken for doneness. If your hands touch raw chicken, wash them before you do anything else. Never put cooked chicken back on a dish that held raw chicken. And so on.

I rinse all meats before I cook them. The rule of thumb is NEVER to mix raw with cooked when it comes to meat. For instance, if you were making a gravy, you would NOT add raw meat juices to thin it out right before you served it.

If the juices run totally clear from beef or lamb, however, it's possibly overcooked. Get yourself a good Fanny Farmer cookbook if you want precise cooking times and temperatures for specific ways of preparing meats. You can never go wrong with cooking ground meat or thinly sliced or smally cubed meat in a pan, especially with some onions and spices -- that's the basis of tacos, fajitas, curries, everything!

Lots of people are scared of pork because it sometimes has parasites and can make you sick if it's not properly cooked. Again, you can't go wrong if it's ground or cooked in small pieces -- it only has to be cooked all the way through, not over-cooked. If you're the least bit unsure, cook it some more -- tough meat is a small price to pay. Or just don't use pork. If your dietary laws permit it, though, you might try it sometime as a nice change -- the dangers are less than those of salmonella, and you might find it good.

Other food health rules:

Cover everything in the fridge.

Raw meats shouldn't be kept in the fridge for longer than three days. Lunch meats no longer than five. If you don't know when you'll eat it, freeze it.

Pepperoni and dry salamis last forever. Wet salamis (like Lebanon bologna) are just like regular lunch meats: five days.

It's actually not a good idea to freeze food in those little styrofoam trays that come from the store. For sanitary reasons, open it, re-wrap it (in plastic wrap or foil or both) and freeze it.

Don't tell your mom I said so, but dairy products will not kill you or even hurt you if they start to go bad. Cut off the mold from your cheese, throw away the moldy bits of your yogurt or sour cream and put it in a clean Tupperware container, and you're fine. Just don't let your guests see you doing this. (These ARE instructions for the desperately poor.) Milk is the exception. If it smells at all iffy (and modern milk sometimes smells sickly sweet as it's going bad, rather than sour), throw it out. If you need to, buy it in smaller containers. Recent experience of me and many of my friends is that Garelick milk products tend to go bad quicker than other brands.

DO throw away moldy bread. (Mold behaves differently on bread and changes the flavor of the bread.)

If it smells bad, it is bad. Throw it out.

Cooked food can be kept in the fridge for between three or four days (for chicken dishes), up to a week. Depends on the food. Smell it. Taste a tiny bit. If it seems bad, it is bad. If you want to keep it longer than that, freeze it -- right AFTER you make it, not after it's already old and on the verge of going bad!

Get some of those large freezer Ziploc bags, if you anticipate doing frequent freezing of cooked foods. These work well with soups, stews, casserole and other wet foods, as well as for meats or vegetables or bread dough. Potatoes behave oddly when frozen; I don't like the texture they get when they thaw.

Cooked pasta and rice and such will always become too yucky in texture to eat long before they're actually unsafe. Mix cooked starches with a little olive oil or butter before you put them in your fridge so they won't become a gluey mass o' starch.

Vegetables are OK unless they obviously look bad. Mold or wet spots can be cut out of green peppers and the rest should be fine. (Again, just don't let Mom see you.) Onions have to be REALLY old before they're bad, but if they're wrinkled and tough, toss 'em. You don't have to keep onions or lemons in the fridge, but it might extend their lifetime (especially important for lemons if you like to have them on hand.)

Don't keep garlic in the fridge.

Don't get garlic or potatoes damp, and keep them in the dark if you can, to keep them from sprouting.

Garlic that has sprouted is OK but can be bitter near the green part. Potatoes that have sprouted are not really OK; you can cut out a sprout or two, if they're small, but if it's worse than that throw them out.

Cooking Starches

I discussed above when I listed starches basically how they should be cooked -- for the most part, you'll follow package instructions.

NEVER trust package times for pasta, however. Always watch your pasta, and take a piece out every so often and bite through it. It's done when that chalky opaque bit in the center disappears, as far as I'm concerned. Don't overcook pasta, it can get soggy.

Recipe: Elizabeth's Never-Fail Rice (courtesy of Elizabeth Van Couvering)

It's always one part raw rice to two parts water. The result is as much as the water. I.E., one cup raw rice + two cups water = two cups (thereabouts) of cooked rice.

For two cups of cooked rice (enough for you and a friend, or some leftovers:)

  1. Boil two cups of water
  2. Add a cup of raw white rice. (NOT Uncle Ben's or "converted" rice -- the real thing!)
  3. Stir it thoroughly. You'll never stir it again.
  4. Boil for five minutes.
  5. Reduce to the lowest POSSIBLE heat without turning off the burner.
  6. Cover.
  7. Simmer like that for 15 minutes (DO NOT take the cover off and don't stir it ever again!)
  8. Turn off the burner and let it sit for another 10 minutes.

It's done!

In half an hour you have perfectly cooked, fresh rice. It's sticky enough to stir-fry with raw eggs and some cooked meat and some chopped scallions and call it Fried Rice!

If you absolutely can't stand slightly sticky rice (definitely the way to eat it,) boil your rice the Indian way. (I'll find a receipe for that and post it.)

Sauces

Learn how to make a few basic sauces. They'll let you cook almost anything, and make it yummy, and also make it look nice; a sauce drizzled over a dish always looks appetizing.

Recipe: Turkish Garlic Yogurt Sauce

One of the best sauces I've ever had is an extremely easy Turkish sauce. Take a garlic clove and peel it; using a spoon or the flat of a knife, mash it up with some salt, maybe half a teaspoon full? (coarse is best, anything will do) and/or chop it as fine as you can, and throw both the salt and the garlic into a cup of yogurt. When I cook with yogurt, I always use the plain nonfat kind. The longer you let this sit in your fridge (cover it, please!) the stronger the garlic flavor gets, but it never gets unbearable; it's just lovely. You can dribble this over steamed vegetables or cooked chicken or lamb or a rice pilaf and it's just yummers!

The other basic sauce everyone needs to know how to make is a white sauce.

Recipe: White Sauce (Béchamel)

  1. In a small saucepan or a skillet, if that's all you have, heat up two tablespoons of butter. (There are lines on the butter wrapper indicating how much is two tablespoons.) Add two heaping tablespoonfuls of flour. If you don't have measuring spoons, use two of the big soup spoons, or four of your little regular spoons.
  2. With your wooden spoon (a wire whisk works better, if you have one -- they're a buck or two at the grocery store) mix the butter and flour and cook them till they're a nice golden brown paste. This is called "making a roux," but don't let that scare you. It's just a couple of tablespoons of butter and flour cooked together. Don't rush.
  3. DO NOT let this burn at all anywhere in the pan. (Well, maybe very high up on the edges, but nowhere else.) If you burn it, put your pan in the sink and start over with a clean pan. Burned butter is very bitter.
  4. When it's a nice golden brown (you pick the color you like, just don't burn it), add a cup of milk. Now stir and stir and stir until all the lumps are gone, with a spoon or your whisk. (You'll be surprised at how easy it goes.)
  5. Now gently bring this to a boil, stirring it occasionally as you go (mostly so it doesn't burn on the bottom.) When it boils, you'll notice that it magically thickens!
  6. In a minute or two you can turn it off, add some salt and pepper, and you've made a white sauce!

Big deal, you say. Well, it is a big deal. You can add cooked chicken or beef to it and have creamed meat over toast or pasta or rice. You can add curry powder or other spices to it while you're cooking the butter and flour together and you'll have a great curry cream sauce! You can pour it over cooked noodles, tuna, and chopped boiled eggs and mushrooms, and bake it if you like (you don't have to bake it,) and you've got a classic tuna casserole! Top your tuna casserole with crushed potato chips -- yum! You can add grated cheese to it (maybe a cup or so) and have a lovely cheese sauce, whatever kind of cheese you like! You can use beer instead of milk, add cheddar cheese and some red pepper and have Welsh Rarebit! (Serve Welsh Rarebit over sliced tomatoes on toast.) You can use chicken stock instead of milk, add some cream, spice it up, and you have chicken gravy! You can double the amount of flour, add cheese and a couple of egg yolks, stir in some egg whites that you've whipped stiff, bake it, and you've got a cheese soufflé! You can add ham or chicken or crabmeat to your soufflé and totally impress your friends! You didn't know cooking was so easy, did you? The white sauce, or béchamel, is the basis of many, many classic French and English dishes -- you'll be glad you learned how to make it.

Recipe: The easiest salad dressing in the world

  1. First, mash a garlic clove around the inside of your salad bowl, for flavor.
  2. Put in your salad.
  3. Take a big spoon (a BIG spoon works best, like a salad spoon, but a tablespoon will do, especially for individual servings.)
  4. Put a little salt in the spoon. Fill spoon with vinegar. Slosh around.
  5. Sprinkle over salad.
  6. If the bowl's big, sprinkle with another spoonful of vinegar.
  7. Then do the same with two spoonfuls of olive oil, preferably the extra virgin, spiffy kind, but any kind will do.
  8. Toss your salad around and then eat it.

(You can add some dill before you start sprinkling, if you want to make it even better.)

Another cheap idea (more fun, more work):

Recipe: Jude's Meat Rolls

Check your grocery for fresh pizza dough (look in the deli case, that's where my Shaw's has it.) You could also use frozen bread dough, sold in any store's frozen baked goods section. Thaw according to the package directions.

  1. Tear wads off the mass of dough. Flatten it out in your hands. Wrap around stuff and bake it! You can cook almost any meat or vegetable and wrap it with raw bread or pizza dough, with or without cheese. You can also add tomato sauce or a dab of yogurt, if you like; just enough to moisten things (don't make it soupy!) (You must cook the meat first; it will not get cooked enough when you bake your rolls/calzone/hot sandwich.)
  2. Bake at 375 until it looks brown and done, somewhere between twenty and thirty minutes (depends on how big your wads are). (Take it out BEFORE it looks quite the golden-brown color you think it should be. They will get a little darker as they cool.)

Some good combinations:

Spinach, cheese and onions (cheddar, mozzarella, ricotta, or a combination! COOK the onions and spinach first! Sauté or steam them.)

Ground beef and cooked onions

Cheddar cheese (it will melt into the dough)

Pepperoni

Chicken breast (bake or pan-sauté it first,) cheese and cooked onions

Cooked chicken and cheese

Chicken, cheese, spinach and onions! Woo hoo!

What Now? Good Cookbooks!

You can learn almost everything you need to know to be a good plain cook from books, and a good bit more besides. You don't need a cookbook for the recipes, although only silly people turn up their nose at recipes. (Recipes provide new ideas for even seasoned professionals.) No, you need a cookbook for the underlying theory of how to cook. Read good cookbooks to see how food goes together. What goes with what. What are the uses of an ingredient and what are the different ways of preparing it for different effects. The more you read, the more you'll understand the underlying basicness of it all. Avoid collectable cards and magazine recipes; you need a whole book to tell you not just how to do things but why you do them. Here are some of the best I've found.

The Joy of Cooking has long been touted as the cookbook for beginners. This is total bull. Joy assumes that you already know a good bit about cooking, its recipes are unnecessarily complicated, and it can even let you down and give you a recipe that just won't work. Joy of Cooking has great chapters on food basics and preparation basics that are worth reading, but the recipes themselves are not what you want to start out with. The Fanny Farmer Cookbook is the book every starting cook needs, and seasoned pros will tell you that. Faithful, simple, tried-and-true recipes fill its every page, and you will use it to look up basic facts (What temperature should I bake these cookies at?) as much as you will use it for the recipes.

The single best book for learning how to cook is Michael Field's All Manner of Food. If you can find it, buy it. (Sometimes it's out of print but I believe it's made a comeback recently.) This brilliant book, written by a brilliant food critic and cooking teacher, has chapters devoted to single ingredients. There's a chapter on garlic. One on lemon. One on chocolate. The chapter discusses what the ingredient does, how to blend it with other foods, how to cook with it. The recipe instructions are the best there are for actually learning how to cook food, and for the most part are relatively simple, not requiring too many extraneous ingredients.

If you have those two books, you can branch out in many directions. A few of my favorite cookbooks are:

The Silver Palate cookbook and the New Basics cookbook.

The original Silver Palate book is a treasure trove of really complex, really delicious recipes (the authors are New York caterers.) New Basics is sort of what Fanny Farmer would be if it were for expensive yuppies. Not the first place to turn for everyday food, but every recipe's a winner.

Curries without Worries

This simple paperback shows you how to cook authentic Indian food and you'll love it. If you're going to get serious about food, you're going to start collecting a spice cabinet, and this is one of the books that'll help you do it.

Arabian Delights

This is the other one of the books that'll help you do it. Unbeknownst to many, Watertown outside of Boston has a large Arabian community and there are many Arabian markets right along Route 16 just west of Coolidge Corner. Check them out! The spice combinations you'll learn from this book will reintroduce you to the idea that cooking is an art form and eating is a luxury -- but there are everything from simple to complex recipes here.

Moosewood Cookbook

The original Moosewood cookbook has loads of high-fat, high-protein vegetarian dishes. This is before they realized they didn't have to include so much dairy; people would still eat their food! But my goodness it's yummy.

Frugal Gourmet cookbooks

Try to find the older ones, from the seventies -- the food is very simple and very good. The newer ones are good too but they're trying to compete in the market with too many other cookbooks. Anything Jeff Smith does, however, is great.

The Way To Cook

Julia Child's all-in-one masterpiece is not cheap -- it's a huge hardback, looks like a coffee-table art book. But by gosh, you sure do learn The Way To Cook. The recipes are often extremely basic and who better than Julia Child to lead you through the basics of making something as basic as chicken stock? The only time she really loses her head is in the baking section, because her bread must be perfect. But she won't let you down.

Everyone also needs to own at least one Chinese cookbook. Stir-frying is both healthy and cheap and has thus become a way of life for American students. Almost any book can teach you the basics of stir-frying and steaming, and it's worth it. I like Yan Can Cook books and the venerable One Thousand Chinese Recipes that seems to be in every book store I ever went into. Read a little before you buy a wok, as there are informed decisions to be made when you buy one.

OK? That's enough to start with, right?

Hope this is a good starting place for you; if I add new recipes, I'll try to mark them with one of those annoying "New" icons. If you have suggestions, email me at tabron@binah.cc.brandeis.edu. You can also check out my X-Files Review/Preview page if you like.

Hasta la vista, baby!