Hello, everyone! November 4 is National Men Cook Dinner Day here in the United States. Putting aside the fact that having a national day for men making dinner is absolutely asinine, I realize that a lot of fellas out there might want to celebrate but might not be super comfortable in the kitchen. So, instead of harping on the absolute idiocy of having such a day (can you imagine if we had “National Women Make Dinner Day” or “National Men Sew a Button Day” or something equally sexist like that?), I decided to help my XY brethren out by offering some helpful tips to make making a nice dinner easy.
The whole point of this article is making yourself out to be a better cook than you really are, and many of these ideas are pretty elementary. Before I get to the heart of the article, though, I just want to remind everyone that cooking is a lot about soul. Very few people are naturally good cooks, and becoming a good cook mostly involves learning how to feel when something is right. Flavor combinations, cooking times, even cleaning up pots and pans are things that can be learned and developed into instincts from the soul rather than pure science. If you want pure science, get into baking. Bakers are the marching band of the kitchen, where everything must be precise and an extra teaspoon of something can ruin the evening. Cooks are the jazz musicians, learning to play off each other based on principals but also in such a way where it’s difficult to replicate something because when it happened the first time it was just in the moment. Okay, enough analogy for the day. Here are some kitchen tips.
Tip 1: Make Awesome Pasta Easily
Pasta is great because it’s cheap, it yields a lot, it’s good left over, and you don’t need to be a great cook to make great pasta. Do you want to know the trick to making good pasta great? Sauce from a jar! (Suddenly I hear 10,000,000,000 angry Italian women marching towards me with rolling pins wielded like weapons). Look, if you have the time to make a slow and awesome sauce from scratch, that’s obviously the best way to do things. But if you don’t have time or knowledge for that, the answer is jarred sauce.
Here’s what you do: in a large skillet sauté whatever protein(s) you will be using until cooked through. It can be anything. Ground beef, pork, meatballs, chicken, goat, whatever. Just get it cooked. Once that’s cooked, start boiling water for your pasta in a different pot, and make sure that water is generously salted. In the meantime, without removing the protein from the skillet, add some fresh garlic (I use a squeeze bottle) and, if you have it, some low sodium vegetable stock to the skillet to deglaze. Let that mixture come to a quick boil, stirring frequently.
Then add a jar of cream-based sauce (alfredo, vodka sauce, etc.) to your protein skillet and reduce the heat to medium-low. Once that is simmering for a while add about two or three tablespoons of tomato paste and stir in thoroughly. Keep that on low heat and let simmer and reduce. Prepare your noodles as directed on the package, but before you drain them, take about 1/4 cup of the pasta water and add it to your sauce (trust me) and let it reduce for another three or four minutes. Once that time has passed, add noodles to your sauce (or sauce to your noodles if space in the skillet is running out, make sure everything is all nice and coated, and serve. That’s it. Incredibly easy, and delicious 100% of the time.
Tip 2: Buy a Good Digital Thermometer
Unless you have been cooking for a very long time you’re probably not going to be able to eyeball when certain things like meat or bread are fully cooked. With some things like beef this might not be a huge issue because even ground beef is safe to eat a little underdone. But if you eat undercooked chicken you will spend a lot of time on the toilet and/or at doctor’s offices over the next few days. Just buy a thermometer and look up the correct temperature for whatever you’re cooking. For chicken it needs to be 165°F, medium-rare steak should be about 135°F, give or take up to five degrees in either direction, and bread is cooked through at 190°F. It’s so easy to get things right when you can take temperatures and get an instant reading. And these things are cheap. This one on Amazon is the one I use (they’re not paying me to say that) and it’s a whopping $19.00.
Tip 3: Just Learn A Potato Recipe
How many people do you know that don’t like potatoes? Read that carefully. The question isn’t how many people do you know who don’t eat potatoes because there are plenty of health conscious people who have cut potatoes out of their diets for one reason or another. But do you know anyone who honestly doesn’t like potatoes? I haven’t.
Potatoes are fantastic. They’re versatile, they’re cheap, and they can be used to make everything from potato-based pasta like gnocchi to the crust of a quiche. Unreal. And here’s the thing: most potato recipes are dead simple. Salt, pepper, oil, and either the oven or the stove. I’ve got about nine or ten potato recipes that I can whip up at any given time and I almost always have everything I need for them because potatoes are simple. Potatoes are great as the starch option for a meal, and being able to make exactly one potato dish is all you need to make yourself out to be a better cook than you are.
Here’s a freebie for you, my roasted new potato recipe. New potatoes, also called baby potatoes, are just immature regular potatoes that have waxier skins and can be cooked whole easily because of their small size. They normally come in a mesh bag, but in case your grocery store doesn’t carry those my advice is to get about 1/4 pound of potatoes for each person you’re cooking for. Cut the potatoes into quarters so that each chunk is approximately a half-inch big in any direction.
Preheat your oven to 400°F. Toss your cut potatoes in a bowl with about two tablespoons of oil, a tablespoon of black pepper, about a 1/4 teaspoon of sea or kosher salt, and either some pre-packed Italian seasoning or your own blend of basil, thyme, rosemary, and paprika (NOTE: Extra virgin olive oil has an extremely low smoking point and is therefore not great for cooking, so use regular olive oil or a different type of oil) . I also like to toss about a teaspoon or so of fresh garlic in there, too. You’ll want to toss this all together until each and every bit of potato is seasoned. Be sure to taste by putting your finger on a potato and licking it that way you know whether you need to add anything else.
In a greased 9 x 13 pan, put the potatoes in a single layer and throw in the 400° oven for about twenty minutes. At that point take the potatoes out of the oven, stir them around and flip them until it looks like a different part of each potato is now making contact with the pan, then roast for another 20 minutes or so. To test if the potatoes are cooked, stab one with a fork. If the fork goes in easily but the potato maintains its structural integrity, you should be good to go, but if you’re still not sure just let one cool for about a minute then eat it. You’re a grown adult, you know what a potato should feel like in your mouth. Pro tip: these are fantastic to use as home fries in a hash or bubble-and-squeak breakfast/brunch meal the next day.
Tip 4: Clean as You Cook
Let me tell you, there are few things more disheartening than finishing a great meal then looking up and realizing your kitchen is an atrocious mess that you now have to clean. And sure, a lot of households I know (including mine) have a general understanding that whoever does the cooking doesn’t have to do the cleaning. But what makes everyone’s life easier is just cleaning as you cook. Utensils, cutting boards, and ingredient bowls and plates (like for mixing) are easy to give a quick wash and either throw in the dishwasher or put on a drying rack. However, you should generally let your cooking pots and pans come down to about room temperature before cleaning. This is doubly true for nonstick cookware. Washing those pans when they are too hot can warp the pan and ruin the nonstick coating. A sink that looks like these is an unhappy sink.
Cleaning while you cook is the best habit I ever picked up. For one thing, it’s easy because you’re already in the kitchen and if you have a few minutes of down time while things are preheating, simmering, or otherwise idle, you can fill that void with dishwashing. It’s so, so easy. Plus, that’s less you (or your significant other, roommate, etc.) will have to do after dinner to get the kitchen looking good again.
Tip 5: Curb Your Heat Enthusiasm
I’ve mentioned this before, but high heat on a stove is almost never needed. Unless you’re bringing water to a boil or cooking something that you absolutely, 100% know needs to be cooked on high heat, high heat is almost never necessary. Unless I’m boiling water I never take a pan above medium heat on the stove. There is one further exception, which is using cast iron on a gas stove to cook steak, and generally you’ll want to do that on medium-high heat. But one mistake I see inexperienced cooks making all the time is using high heat for everything, and if you do that just be prepared for food that is burnt to a crisp on the outside and completely raw in the middle, and that is not good.
Tip 6: Don’t Limit Yourself to November 4
Okay, I know I said I wasn’t going to harp on this, but it still blows my mind that we have a dedicated day on which men are supposed to cook dinner. Let me tell you something: if you’re a man, you should be able to cook a little bit. If you’re single, you need to feed yourself. If you’re not single, you shouldn’t force your significant other to do all the cooking. That’s complete crap. People are generally better at splitting duties these days, and we should embrace that. I do most of the cooking in my house, and I’ve even learned to sew a little bit. I do most of the yardwork, but sometimes my wife does that, but sometimes she cooks, sometimes she sews stuff for me (because as hard as I try, she’s just better at it than I am), and we don’t really have too many fixed roles in the relationship. If you need a national day to remind you to get off your ass and cook dinner for yourself or someone you love, you have much bigger problems. So don’t limit yourself to November 4. Learn to cook a little bit and cook more regularly. Who knows, you might even find out you love it or have a knack for finding flavors. Just do it. Don’t be a dick. Just do it. Do it. Try to learn a lesson from Zeke from Bob’s Burgers.
Bonus Tip: Cooking as a Couple
Okay, look. I love my wife dearly. Dearly. If I didn’t have her I can’t imagine what I would be doing with myself. But cooking as a couple sucks. Well, let me rephrase that. Cooking as a couple sucks unless you have clearly defined roles. Most of the time that means one person doing the prep work and another being in charge of actual cooking. When my wife and I cook together, she’s always on prep duty and I’m always on the stove. If there’s some countertop equipment like a blender or food processor or toaster oven or whatever, that generally falls into prep work but we are sure to determine who’s in charge of that ahead of time. If you don’t have defined roles, you’re going to spend the whole time getting into and out of each other’s way and it will be irritating to both of you. Okay, that’s it. Last tip.