Saving Dinner Basics: How to Cook Even If You Don't Know How

Saving Dinner Basics: How to Cook Even If You Don't Know How

by Leanne Ely

ISBN: 9780345485434

Publisher Ballantine Books

Published in Cooking, Food & Wine/Culinary Arts & Techniques

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

It seems like the world is obsessed with the gizmos and gadgets that illustrate a cutting-edge kitchen, rather than interested in the more utilitarian (and admittedly less snazzy) kitchen that gets plenty of use. I remember years ago when I was catering that one of my clients had this amazing kitchen—a six-burner Wolf range, a fabulous Sub-Zero fridge, and all the latest and greatest tools a person could lust for. And yet, this poor woman would have to call her mother to figure out how to boil a pot of water. She was totally hopeless in the kitchen. She looked great, her kitchen looked great, but the bottom line? She was a wannabe cook and couldn’t find her way around that kitchen, even with an illustrated map.

Most people don’t want to live out their culinary lives with kitchen “sets”—they really want to cook and make things happen in the kitchen, like breakfast, lunch, and dinner and an occasional dessert, too. To get there, you’re going to need to make sure your kitchen is ready for real-life action, and not a photo shoot for a magazine. That means you are going to need tools and equipment, not gizmos and gadgets—there’s a big difference.

So let’s get to it, shall we? Get your kitchen tricked out with what you need, and leave the junk behind. I have lots of suggestions here: equipment and such that is essential, and a good description of how to set up your own kitchen. Once you’re really cooking (preferably with gas), then you can add some more goodies to your basic setup. You’ll figure out what you want to add as you go along—that’s how your kitchen reflects your own unique cooking personality. Maybe you’ve taken pasta making to a new level; it is completely appropriate for you to buy a pasta machine so you can make your own. This is what I mean by having kitchen tools and appliances that reflect your own unique cooking style. Just be careful! I’ve never met a kitchen store I didn’t find irresistible. It’s easy to fall madly in love with an expensive gadget and promise yourself that you will soon be making homemade ice cream or pasta. Inexpensive gadgets are much easier to justify (hey, it’s only five bucks), but these one-trick items can crowd your drawers and cupboards and make the essential necessary tools hard to find when you need them. Being discerning has saved me from chucking expensive (and inexpensive) nonessential equipment to the Goodwill.

If cooking is something you are still reticent about, let me appeal to your inner nurturer. Cooking is a soul-satisfying activity. Cooking a meal provides food and nurturing to those you love most in the world. Providing food and sustenance for your family (and doing it in a tasty and fun way) is a gratifying daily job that is more a joy than a drudgery—if you have the eyes to look at it that way. It starts with having the right tools, getting your pantry stocked, and then actually doing something in the kitchen with those tools and foods.

Cooking with Gas, Literally

If you are fortunate enough to have a choice of what you’ll be cooking on (gas or electric), you’ll definitely want gas. Gas gives you better control of the heat; a gas stove heats almost instantaneously, cools down quickly, and is the first choice of professional chefs. Electric stovetops seem to do the exact opposite and frustrate pros and novices alike.

But what do you do if you’re stuck with electric? Here are some tips for coping:

1. Make sure the burner elements are working properly. They sometimes need replacing, so make sure yours are in top working mode.

2. Match the size of the pan to the element. Not only is it wasteful energy-wise to put an 8-inch pan on a 10-inch burner, but it also could produce a scorching result, not to mention the chance of burning yourself.

3. Keep the burners clean. When an electric stovetop is clean, it reflects the heat better and saves energy as well.

4. Flat-bottomed pans are the key to even cooking. The element must have full contact with the pan in order to produce decent results.

5. Turn the heat off way before the cooking time indicates, especially if you need to take it down from a rolling boil to a simmer. This will help you simmer your food without burning, because electric coils take longer to cool down than gas flames.

I want to start this section with a letter I received from a perplexed reader asking for some direction and help in setting up her kitchen. This letter will help you get a good visual on how to set up your own kitchen:

Dear Dinner Diva,

I have a new apartment and don’t know exactly how to set up my kitchen—where do I put everything? Where should everything go? I have plenty of below- and above-cupboard space—and a few drawers. I have a big stash of vitamins, too, that I don’t know what to do with.

I’ve gotten rid of my fast-food habit by cooking at home (and make my own fast-food by chopping everything up in advance so all I have to do is put it together when I want something to eat), but the kitchen isn’t efficient. Do you have any ideas on how I can do this?

Thanks in advance for any help,

Distraught in Detroit

Dear Distraught,

First off, I want to commend you for getting your act together by getting rid of the fast-food habit. Your “assembly-line” approach to doing your own, homemade fast-food is an inspiration, good for you! One word of caution is not to get too far ahead. By day four, your stuff is going to start looking pretty rank. You want to chop and store just enough for a couple of days, ideally.

You asked a great question that bewilders many a newbie with a first kitchen: where does everything go? On one hand, that’s difficult to say without seeing your kitchen; but on the other hand, there are some logical ways to discuss this without ever having to see it. You mentioned that you have plenty of below- and above-cupboard space. So let’s start there and see what we can do.

I like to put like with like. In other words, keep the baking stuff together, the pots and pans together, and the utensils together. Seems real basic, but you can’t imagine some of the kitchens I have worked in. They just didn’t make sense.

If you have a small bank of drawers, put your silverware in a plastic silverware tray with the different compartments for each utensil (very cheap at a discount store), and put that in the top drawer. You may want another plastic utility tray in the same drawer (if it will fit) for holding your serving utensils.

You can buy these plastic trays in two sizes—narrow or wide. They help keep things sorted rather than your having to dig through a drawer—really smart for keeping you from getting cut, too, because knives should never be thrown into a drawer without being contained and controlled in some fashion (in my opinion). This is what I’ve done with all my kitchen drawers. Use another drawer for other miscellaneous utensils like a potato peeler, a grater, can opener, etc. Again, use utility trays if you can.

I use another drawer for plastic wrap, foil (heavy-duty for roasting and regular), plastic bags (zipper type, all sizes, and freezer and regular weights), waxed paper, parchment paper (great for those who bake and those who don’t—parchment is a multitasking paper), and my rolling pin, believe it or not. Great place for it. I also have a drawer for just my towels and dishrags. I buy them in bulk from a restaurant-supply store, so I have white muslin towels and bar rags like you see in restaurants. They wear very well; when they are ugly I use them as rags, and when they wear out I dump them.

Choose a cupboard for your food pantry (unless, of course, you have a proper pantry). I put the canned stuff all on one shelf and again: like goes with like. If you have four cans of tuna, place them all together. Stack them even. Don’t have them scattered throughout the cupboard or you won’t know where anything is, especially when you need it. I do the same with dried goods, keeping the pastas together, as well as rice, oatmeal, and cereals. I also use small plastic baskets for envelopes of spice blends, bags of dried beans, and other miscellaneous and sundry items needing a place to live in my pantry that wouldn’t do well sitting by their lonesome on a shelf.

On the bottom shelf of my pantry, I keep a bin for onions and another one for potatoes and sweet potatoes. Are you seeing the pattern? It makes good sense because all things are complementary to one another.

When it comes to the actual dishes and serving pieces, keep in mind that your dishware should be close to the silverware for easy table setting. I keep my mugs and glasses in one cupboard right above the coffeemaker: glasses on one shelf, mugs on another. Everyone knows that if you need something to hold a drink, you go to that particular cupboard. When I make my coffee in the morning, the cups are right where they should be—on the first shelf in the cupboard above the coffeemaker. The whole ebb and flow of the kitchen is to have it make sense. When it is set up that way, it will be easier to work in when you need to grab something in the middle of cooking or serving.

You mentioned that you have a lot of vitamins. So do I. The way I handle keeping them from being all over the place is to place them all together in a large basket. I use baskets for everything. They contain everything beautifully, and when it’s time to take your vitamins, you just pull the basket (or baskets) out, get your vitamins, put them back in the basket, and voilà! Easy as pie!

In my old house, I had my spices in a spice rack that I hung on the wall right above the stove. That is one option for anyone who likes the convenience of having spices handy while cooking (however, they will age a lot faster by being right above the heat). In my new house, I use a drawer and cupboard right next to the stove. Either one works—it just depends on your setup. The spices I keep in a drawer are the little half-size jars. On each lid top, I mark what it is with a Sharpie (abbreviated, of course). That way, when I need to grab a spice in a hurry when I’m cooking, I don’t have to stop and try to figure out which one I need. I keep frequently used cooking utensils on the stovetop (like big spoons, wooden spoons, spatulas, wire whisks, etc.) in a big crock. I find it helpful and easy to get something I need right away.

That’s it in a nutshell. I sincerely hope that helped!

Best Wishes,

The Dinner Diva

Your Basic Basic Kitchen

Now that you understand where to put things, you need to know what to get so you can put them where they need to go. Did you get all that? Well, never mind, then. Just keep reading. . . .


Sharp, high-quality knives are first on the list. This is one place you cannot afford to skimp. Buy a good brand (I’ve used Henckels for more than 20 years now) and you’ll have them for your entire cooking career.

First up on the list is a basic cutting and chopping knife. A 6- to 8-inch chef knife (or the same-sized santoku knife, which is a Japanese knife used for the same chopping abilities) is the ticket. Don’t be intimidated by this large a knife. Once you learn how to hold it and chop with it (don’t worry, I will teach you how!), you won’t believe you could ever cook without one!

Next is the paring knife. Again, we’re talking quality here—no cheapie, 99-cent plastic-handled number you picked up at the dollar store. In a pinch, on your way to a picnic, maybe—but you can’t use a knife like that every day in the kitchen or, I promise, you will end up hating to cook. Quality tools do make a major difference. Paring knives have smaller blades, 21?2 to 3 inches long. This is the knife you will use to peel or pare an apple and trim the ends off radishes or Brussels sprouts.

Serrated knives will help you slice a tomato like a pro, cut bread into slices, and cut up citrus with ease. The toothy blade makes all the difference. My preference is a larger and a smaller serrated knife (one of each)—the larger knife for bread, the smaller one for the citrus and tomato slicing.

You can’t have Thanksgiving (or any other holiday requiring a slicing up of the holiday fowl or beast) without a large carving knife and fork. The blade on these knives is typically long and flexible, enabling you to negotiate corners and carve neatly. If you can, purchase the carving knife and fork set together. I have the same lovely set I received as a gift more than 20 years ago, and they work just as wonderfully now as they did all those years ago when I struggled to carve my first Thanksgiving turkey.

Two other knives you probably won’t need are a boning knife and a filleting knife. And guess what you’ll do with these knives? Bone and fillet! Now, let me tell you how often I use my boning and filleting knives. About once a year, if that. The bottom line is, if I need something boned or filleted, I have my butcher take care of it for me. Why? Is it because I don’t know how to do it or because I’m lazy? The answer is yes to both. I can painstakingly bone a chicken breast or another piece of meat, and I can fillet, too. But not well. This is why we ask the butcher to do it. This is what he does for a living and you don’t. Besides, you have other things to do besides boning and filleting poultry or other meat, don’t you? I’m glad we discussed this. So for the sake of having a full set of knives, make sure you have your boning and filleting knives. We’ll all sleep better at night knowing you have a complete set.

Blade Runner

If you notice your knives beginning to dull (and they will naturally from use), you will want to sharpen them. One thing I don’t recommend is buying anything that has you consigning your blades to a “knife sharpener.” Don’t do it. Your knives will suffer and you will regret it. These sharpeners, no matter how tricked out or expensive, can’t offer the same control you can. You need only two things to get your knives in shape.

The first one is a steel. Generally, this will come with your knife set (if you bought it that way); otherwise you will need to buy one. It’s long, has a handle, and looks like a sword—somewhat.


Excerpted from "Saving Dinner Basics: How to Cook Even If You Don't Know How" by Leanne Ely. Copyright © 2006 by Leanne Ely. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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