Food for the Uninitiated

Chicken salad with parsley and chickpeas

Chicken salad with parsley and garbonzos

I love food. More than just about anything else, with the possible exception of music and coffee. One of my greatest pleasures in life is cooking, especially for others. I am always a little dismayed when friends profess not to enjoy cooking or to being scared off by it. I always want to yell, “No, no! You can do it too!” So here we are. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive instruction, rather, some basic info to get you going. There are lots of resources out there once you get interested and get your feet wet.

So here it is: Food Manifesto Part One.

The goal here is to take some of the mystery out of cooking for those who want to learn more about preparing simple, delicious meals. It really doesn’t have to be hard, fancy, or the province of some elite, foodie, artsy-fartsy kohlrabi snobs.

Now, it’s worth mentioning at this point, that if speed and convenience are your only guiding criteria, a homemade pasta sauce is going to have a hard time competing with Hot Pockets. Food made from scratch is never going to be quite as quick or labor-free as something you thaw in the microwave. But, (and this is a really really big but) it will taste much much better. I am often amazed by just how big a difference there is between prepackaged/fast food and it’s made-from scratch cousins. And to me, that means its worth realigning our priorities to allow us to engage in a human activity that is as old as culture itself and has the potential to be supremely enjoyable.

OK, end of lecture. Lets talk about your kitchen.


  • Pots and Pans: For my money, you absolutely cannot beat a cast iron skillet as an all-purpose cooking vessel. Once you learn how to season and take care of them, they are the best. Get one. If you get a have one, you will get by for years as I did, with just that and a good size pot. Cast iron will, if treated properly, act like a non-stick pan, and heat very evenly, due to its thickness. Plus it looks cool and will make you feel like a hoecake bakin’ baddass.
  • Knives: Forget a big, expensive set of many fancy-looking knives. They are nice if someone in the house has a high-paying job, but for us mere mortals, all we really need is a good-sized chef’s knife, and maybe a paring knife. I do about 90% of my cutting with a chef’s knife that I keep sharp. Get a decent one. Knives are an area where you get what you pay for. If it is sharp, it will cut easier and with good knife technique, you will, paradoxically, be less likely to cut yourself. And if you do, the cut will be cleaner and heal better.
  • Heat: If you are ever in a position to choose what kind of stove to get, do yourself an immense favor and get a gas stove. Gas heats more evenly than electric, and it heats and cools much more quickly, giving you control over how much heat you subject your food to. Plus, trust me, gas is just so much more fun to cook on.

So much for our tools, how about some Basic Principles:

  • Fat. Don’t be scared of it. Fat somehow got a bad rap and now you can’t even buy whole milk yoghurt in a lot of grocery stores. Non-fat food is a blight upon the land and we must work tirelessly to eradicate it. (And don’t even get me started on carbs.) Your body and your brain need some fat to function properly. Now I know what some of you are thinking… and this does not mean you get to eat butter by the stick. Obviously like so much else in life its all about moderation. And not all fats are created equal. Use good fat. Olive oil is a great place to start for cooking. And get know your smoke points. If oil gets too hot, it starts to smoke. This means bad things are happening to it. So get a few different oils and use them appropriately. Speaking of olive oil, I’ll teach you a neat trick…
  • No matter what you are cooking, cut up an onion and brown it over medium heat in a little olive oil. It will make the house smell really amazing and get everyone excited about dinner. I learned this trick from my mom.
  • Some meat and vegetables are really really easy to overcook, making them mushy and tasteless. Some good examples are shrimp and most seafood, snow peas, spinach, kale, broccoli, etc. Be careful with these and know that most food will keep cooking due to the action of its own heat even after you take it off the stove, so you have to experiment and learn how to anticipate. I cook snow peas for less than a minute, basically just long enough to get them hot. They are so much better if they have some crunch left. Ditto broccoli.
  • In contrast, tofu, mushrooms, chicken (dark meat like the thigh, due to its higher fat content), eggplant and some other vegetables are very forgiving, and are not nearly so easy to overcook, making them good choices for someone just learning the ropes.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.58.48 AM

Whew. Hopefully you are still with me because here come the fun part..

DINNER! Here’s a staple meal at our house. Its all stuff that’s not super hard to make, so hopefully its a good starter meal. We are going to make baked chicken, couscous, and greens.

Chicken: Get thighs with the bone in and the skin on if you can. They will hold their moisture and flavor better. Once I started cooking thighs instead of breasts, I never went back. They are often less expensive, don’t dry out as easily, and are more flavorful than breasts. Rub them with olive oil, and roll them in salt, pepper, and whatever other dry ground spices you have on hand. Don’t sweat the spices, this will be good with just about anything. Put them in a baking dish and bake in the oven at 375 for 30 minutes. Check them at this point for doneness by cutting into one of them at the bone. The meat should have lost its translucent look, and there should be no redness near the bone. You can put them back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes if they seem like they are not done.

While the chicken is baking, make your…

Couscous: This is basically Moroccan pasta that looks like a grain. You pretty much just pour boiling water over it and let it sit. Yup. That’s it. When it’s ready, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle a little salt on it. I think the Near East brand is the best one that’s widely available. It’s really delicious.

While the couscous is soaking, cook up some…

Greens: Collards, kale, whatever you think looks yummy. Cut it up and throw it in your awesome, well-seasoned cast iron skillet in a little OLIVE OIL (see a pattern here?) and cook over medium heat for a couple of minute. Drizzle on a little balsamic vinegar while it cooks. Balsamic is sweet  and tangy and a really good thing to have around. Stir the greens so they cook evenly, and DON’T LET THEM GET SOGGY. Take them off the heat while they are still a little crisp.

Put these items on a plate and enjoy your handiwork.

There. Sounds like dinner to me. And now I’m hungry.

I not only love to cook, I love to talk food and cooking, so holla at me if you have questions or want to come over and geek out about some food.

As Julia would say, “Bon Appetit!”

~ by matthew olwell on October 9, 2013.

6 Responses to “Food for the Uninitiated”

  1. Great job Matthew! I hope you make a few converts with this. I also love to cook non-elaborate meals for others! I got a big set of fancy pots and knives for our wedding ten years ago, and I barely use any of them. But it is all cast iron, dutch oven, and chefs knife for me! I’m going to sell the Calphalon on ebay one of these days. I’ve been scared off cooking with olive oil after too much internet reading and have been doing lots of coconut oil for most things – but it doesn’t taste as good. Maybe your smoke point link will put me at ease. I am adding your blog to my feedly. And if you like, you can add mine to whatever you use

    • Thanks Eileen! Glad you liked it. I look forward to checking out your blog as well.

      I love olive oil and will never give it up. After doing some reading I have been a little more careful with my oils as far as not letting them get hotter than their respective limits.

      Good to “meet” you!


      • There’s a fun open group I’ve discovered since this post, it’s called Facebook Foodies, and it’s some good people with good recipes and exchange of food knowledge. Check it out…

  2. “…if speed and convenience are your only guiding criteria, a homemade pasta sauce is going to have a hard time competing with Hot Pockets.”

    Well said 🙂 I’m glad you’re writing this, even if (as concerns me) you’re preaching to the choir so to speak!

  3. One of the things I love most about you, eldest mudpuppy o’mine, is not only the fact that you love to cook, but that you are a danged good one! It never ceased to amaze me that after driving hours to get to my house in the back of beyond, you would breeze into my kitchen and start those onions a fryin’! (By the by, y’all, I got the onion/ garlic frying trick from my dad, and will add just this wee bit of wisdom; if you yourself don’t feel like cooking, this is all it takes to get you going). It is pretty cool that a kid brought up on brown rice, beans, oats, etc. not only survived (despite the advice of well meaning but clueless relatives); believe you me folks, it is possible to grow a kid on an extemely basic diet. Several other words of wisdom for those of you starting out with cast iron pans; look for them at antique stores first, they are already seasoned; look for ones that have not been left to rust, (tho there are ways to take care of that too). So, Matty, How about giving folks the tofu rap next! I cant begin to tell of the number of times I,ve heard ‘ I know it’s good for me, but its tasteless, slimy…. etc.) Mud.

  4. P.S. Not only survived,but thrived. P.P.S. two new discoveries of mine, thanks to N.P.R. Pokey LaFarge; Swing, jazz blues, coolest stuff I’ve heard in a while, and this young rapper/comedian, Bo Bernam,

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