Not long ago, one of my friends confessed to me that she had subsisted almost entirely off of goat cheese and Wheat Thins while living in Washington, D.C., this summer. “What, your job didn’t even give you time to eat?!” I exclaimed, imagining workaholic colleagues refusing to leave their desks even for a quick sandwich. “Nope, it wasn’t that,” she answered, embarrassed. “It’s that I’m a hopeless cook. I can barely even make toast properly.”
My friend is far from alone. Even at Yale, where I’m floored by my classmates’ abilities in areas ranging from Indian dance to organic chemistry, I’m reminded how many of my peers lack confidence when it comes to cooking. The all-star student at home in the lab or the concert hall often feels utterly lost in the kitchen. During the school year, with dining halls and GHeav to keep us full, this isn’t much of a problem. But during vacations, over the summer or — dare I say it — after graduation, not knowing how to cook can become a serious issue. Eating out all the time is not just expensive and unhealthy, it means you’re missing out on the creativity and sociability inherent in cooking. (And a note to guys: few things will impress a girl more than being able to whip up a tasty meal.)
Most Yalies don’t need convincing that cooking might be a useful skill to learn, and some even realize that they could get pretty darn good at it without putting in too much time. You certainly don’t need to go to cooking school, like I did this summer, to master the basics and get good at a few dishes that will impress your friends. The first step is to figure out what you want to cook, then carve out the time to learn it. Below, a few suggestions.
Let’s start with the basics: grains. Whether your favorite staple is pasta, toasted bread, rice or couscous, learn how to make it well and consistently. Ask your mom or dad for help; they’ll be more than happy to let you put on the apron.
Next up, breakfast. There’s nothing like starting the day with eggs cooked the way you like them. Whether that’s scrambled, hard-boiled, fried or (my favorite) poached, you owe it to yourself to learn how to cook them well. Eggs are inexpensive enough that even if you botch a few batches, it’s no big deal.
Once those are mastered, try soup. Soup has a lot of things going for it: it tends to be cheap to make, it’s pretty healthy, it freezes well and it’s the perfect way to use up those vegetables that have been hanging around the back of your fridge a little too long. Soup also has the advantage of being hard to mess up. Ladies and gentlemen, get out your ladles.
The thing I probably get asked the most is how to cook protein: meat, fish and chicken. Broiling and sautéing are easy ways of preparing all of these, and can be easily learned in a small kitchen — whether that’s your residential college or a closet-sized space in a New York City apartment. Accept the fact that you may screw up a few times, and remember that chicken — unlike fish — needs to be cooked all the way through.
Finally, think about a dish to make for a dinner party with friends or as the star of that aforementioned date night. My personal go-to is scallops. Quickly seared in a pan and served with some melted butter, they seem fancy but can be perfected after one or two practice sessions.
Your parents probably learned to cook out of a dog-eared copy of “Joy of Cooking” or “Good Housekeeping.” Those are still useful, but even better stuff is available on the Internet: The New York Times’ Minimalist and City Kitchen columns are particularly good. Check out the website of your favorite Food Network personality to learn the essentials before you start a recipe.
With Thanksgiving break approaching, there could hardly be a more appropriate time to start thinking about creating your own Cooking 101 curriculum — this time, instead of books, you’ll be working your way through dishes guaranteed to keep you happy and full whenever you’re living on your own. Watch out, though — because not only will your dog eat your homework, but your roommate, best friend or “that cute girl from section” might too. A+.
Elizabeth Chrystal is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
This column is part of the News’ Friday Forum. Click here to continue.