Cooking is technically awful. It takes all your free time and money, and you have to do it several times virtually every day. If food weren’t awesome, cooking would be one of those laughable niche hobbies like wood carving or blogging. Luckily, after a while you pick up on which corners to cut to make the process easier. Given a year or so, it can even be ‘fun’. To get some of my kitchen-disabled readers started, I’ve prepared a list of twelve cheats to make the fruits and vegetables of your labor more impressive and to cut down on the intimidation factor. I’ve also gone ahead and studded it with offensively bland public domain pics.
And since I heard it mentioned, no, none of these are sarcastic. I regularly do pretty much everything here. Right then:
1. Throwing a little thyme in just about anything automatically makes you a chef
Let's get this stock photo train rolling!
This applies from Hamburger Helper to sauteed carrots. If you taste what you’re making and, I mean, it’s okay, I guess… then it might be time (ha!) to get crazy with some spices, and one of the safer but still effective spices you can try out is thyme. Throw a sprinkle in whatever mess you’ve got stewing on your stove, and see if it doesn’t taste a little more like food.
Now a lot of amateurs (I mean, more amateur than even you or me) will try this trick with oregano because it’s everywhere. That’s fucking stupid. Oregano is strong enough to hijack your whole dish, and the texture of those herb bits stand out a lot more. It’s great if you’re trying to build a flavor from the ground up, but not if you just want to enhance or influence what’s already there.
A word of warning: anyone that actually knows food will catch on to this quick. It’s like the Band of Horses of spices; it’s great to pull out on people not in the know, and even a lot of people familiar with it will appreciate what you’re doing, but eventually some spice-hipster (read: real cook) is going to come along and shit on it. So maybe don’t talk a big game about it.
2. Always keep a shelf of canned or frozen veggies on hand to make your meals less sad
Yes, this is all technically fruit. You'd be surprised how hard it is to find stock pics of vegetables. There are some proud bastards out there clinging to the copyrights on their camera-phone pics of celery cross sections.
Which sounds worse, “I just had ten chicken strips for dinner”, or “I had ten chicken strips and a side of green beans”? The first one makes it sound like you spent the night in your kitchen crouched over a bag of frozen chicken nuggets, chasing shots of cheap vodka with cold, hard meat until you went numb. The second one? God damn, that’s a meal. You’ve got your servings meat and vegetables right off the bat, and the breading? That’s grains. Good on you.
Besides making you sound less depressing, a decent stock of veggies on hand ensures that you’ll have a side to go with any main course you might make, which stretches that course out more so you can be eating decent leftovers instead of scarfing down an hour of cooking in one sitting. Canned or frozen are better for people on a budget, because fresh veggies have a tendency to sit in the bottom of the refrigerator while you feel bad about all the fresh vegetables you have no intention of eating before they go bad.
3. A pre-made pie crust filled with homemade filling is still technically a homemade pie
I want to put two of these together with a smaller pumpkin pie in the middle and eat it like a sandwich.
Let’s face it, as tasty as pie is, it’s also crazy hard to make with little talent or money. The crust alone takes a decent amount of counter space to process. You need a rolling pin, a decent mixer and special pans. A bad dough-to-pan transfer can rip your crust and force you to roll it out and start again.
Outside of holidays, I don’t need that kind of stress in my life, and neither do you. If you want to make a chicken pot pie in March, you should be able to do so without crying floury tears into your mixing bowl. All you really want out of pie is the filling anyway, and that’s the easy part; nine times out of ten it’s just throwing a bunch of stuff into a pan, cooking it down to a goo and pouring it into a shell.
Well I’m telling you that it’s okay to just buy the pie dough and fill it with whatever delicious you want. Most supermarkets sell the dough in pre-flattened rolls that you can just plop down on a dish and trim. If you’re feeling less honorable, you can go ahead and buy the pre-formed crusts, but I will judge you for it. And if it’s the holidays, go all the way and make the crust your damn self, too. Odds are you’re at home where you can use your parents’ equipment and materials, so fuck it, go nuts. It’s only once or twice a year.
4. Shop for ingredients with crossover recipes in mind
I am bored to tears with searching for public domain food pics. Have some manatees.
Few things piss me off more than running out of taco meat when I still have chopped up lettuce and tomatoes to work through. Most of the time, I know that mess is going in the trash can a week from now when I’m sick of seeing it in the fridge. This doesn’t just apply to tacos, but any dish where I run out of one ingredient quickly and let others expire.
That’s why I started shopping for ingredients that can be used on similar dishes that same week or before they go bad. Tortillas are good for both tacos and chicken wraps, and so are tomatoes, lettuce and cheese. Chicken parmesan and spaghetti both start with tomato sauce and pasta. Fried noodles lets me put cheap ramen to use for a very high-yield dish, and I can save the flavor packets in case I need emergency chicken or beef stock and I’m not feeling picky.
If you’re buying in bulk to save money and trips to the store, just make sure that you’ve already planned how you can use that food beyond what you’re cooking tonight.
5. Spices are like make-up; don’t go out looking like a whore
Verily, what a lively tune thou hast played! For thee, my lord, a handjob at three shillings only!
Until you actually know what you’re doing, there probably isn’t a reason to use more than two herbs or spices to flavor a dish. Beyond that, your flavors start to clash, and even if your seasonings are tolerable you’re covering up whatever natural beauty your dish has. Try to experiment in your free time, when nobody has to deal with it when you screw up.
Much like make-up can’t fix a jacked face, spices aren’t going to un-ruin a dish that you let go to shit. They’ll just make it clownish and sad. Don’t let your cooking come across like a thirteen year old girl’s first Facebook album. If you messed up, own it.
6. Most instant meals are instantly improved by the addition of sliced fried hot dogs
It's not gay if they don't cross.
This could be a matter of my cheap taste, but most instant, box and can meals are better with some fried sliced hot dogs tossed in. For me, this specifically applies to Spaghetti-O’s and boxed macaroni and cheese, but I’ve found it also works in most instant rice dishes or pre-made pasta packets. The best part is, this actually works better with cheaper hot dogs, like pork, turkey or vegan instead of beef; they cut easier and add fewer calories than the bovine variety.
More broadly, this can apply to any protein you have on hand that isn’t paper-wrapped butcher shop quality meat. Try frying up some deli-cut turkey or roast beef and tossing it in your stir-fry. You can make a cheap and quick chicken parm sandwich with chicken patties. Spam is known for its versatility in Hawaii. You don’t have to always save the spotlight for expensive cuts of meat, get a little crazy and gross and see what becomes your guilty pleasure.
7. Pizza toppings can go on any bread-like product
I've made better looking pizza on stale saltines.
Now technically, you already know this because Bagel Bites are a thing, but pizza toppings are great on pretty much any carby substance that isn’t cornbread (and maybe even then). You can slather some sauce, cheese and meat or veggies on french bread, bagels, large pretzels, even tortilla shells (pizzadilla!).
This is great because it’s easier to stock up some cheese, sauce and toppings that will keep and just make individual stuff than it is to keep a bunch of whole crusts in store. Also, if you’re anything like me, you will eat as much pizza or pizza product as there is, whether there’s a whole delivery pizza or a halved french loaf with some pretty toppings sitting in it, so this functions as portion control.
The one caveat to this amazing property is that you want the thinness of the toppings to be roughly proportional to the thinness of your ‘crust’. For something like bagels, you can afford to pile whole sausages and peppers on that mess, but for tortilla shells, anything beyond pepperoni and bacon makes it unwieldy.
8. Snacking on carrots and celery lets you tell others you’re the kind of person who snacks on carrot sticks and celery
I can't express how much I hate this color scheme. Apparently all carrots ever bred were dyed in the '70s.
Snacks are an easy way to enhance however you spend your free time (for me, glued to my Xbox 360 until five in the morning). However, after the first few fists of chips you probably don’t even notice that you’re eating anymore until you scrape the bottom of the greasy bag.
So as long as you’re going to be tossing calories down your throat and not tasting them anyway, why not go for some cheap, healthy veggies? Whatever you miss in flavor for the first few bites, you can make up for by feeling self-righteous, and after that you won’t even notice all those vitamins. After a while, you even acquire a taste.
But most importantly, eating healthy food affords the opportunity to be seen eating healthy food, which makes people think you’re a better person. The first time one of your friends sees you with a bowl of baby carrots for your movie, they’re going to feel inferior with their popcorn. And when you make people who like you angry about how much better you are, you win at having friends.
9. If you burn enough cheese on top of anything, everyone will love it
Look at that sexy bitch.
If there’s one meal of mine that I talk up, it’s my chicken parmesan. It’s a fairly standard, if delicious, dish. Breaded chicken with some herbs, a very garlicky tomato sauce, and fettuccine. What makes it special, though, is the love I put on top of it.
Love, and about an inch of broiled parmesan and mozzarella.
Quick, what’s the best part of lasagna? Burnt cheese on top. Pizza? Burnt cheese on top. Any macaroni and cheese that doesn’t come out of a box? Burnt cheese on top. Are you seeing a pattern here? Any dish that involves cheese can be made better by burning it. When Beyonce recorded “Love On Top”, it was about crispy mozzarella. Now don’t fry it to ash, just broil it enough that you get a decent brown crust that’s separated from the rest of the melty, gooey goodness. It’s also very hard to have too much cheese in a dish. Try it, I dare you. I’ll bet it just comes out more awesome.
10. Pair your alcohol with your food to optimize your evening drunkenness
That's a cute shot glass. Do they make them for grown-ups?
DISCLAIMER: This whole section might be bullshit. I know because I wrote it.
The only thing worse than getting too drunk on an empty stomach is not getting drunk enough on a full stomach. Invariably, after a huge meal, someone hands me a fluffy, gaseous light beer. What the hell am I supposed to do with that? It’s going to sit in my esophagus for two hours, right on top of four bowls of stew, and if I get light-headed at any point it’s just because there’s beer blocking my airways instead of being down in my stomach, getting me hammered.
Make sure you match your alcohol for the evening with the meal you intend to eat. This doesn’t just apply to poor people and those who can’t cook, but to fans of chardonnay, IPAs and backwoods distillery poison everywhere. If you’re dieting or eating light, go with something mild and slow, like light beer or watered-down supermarket wine. If you’ve filled yourself like a water balloon full chewed meat and potatoes, you’re going to need some hard liquor to function as a drilling platform to get down through that food and into your bloodstream. Medium meals call for medium booze, like any real wine or a nice heavy dark beer.
Just remember to take it easy; the more you’ve eaten, the more you have to throw up if you go too hard. Do you really want to see the haul of a Golden Corral trip spraying out your nose? Maybe from an outside perspective. So many dismembered gummy bear limbs.
11. How you serve your food is at least as important as what you’re serving
So... fucking... BLAND...
Let’s face it, you’re not going to always bring your A-game to the kitchen. Or maybe you have somehow made something completely awesome, but you need to go farther with your food to impress somebody (potential employer, disappointed parent, visiting celebrity, decade-long secret pathological crush). How are you going to do that? You can’t just let your food speak for itself, because let’s face it, if your food could speak, it would have some serious speech impediments, and probably trouble with verb conjugation.
If you need to dress up your food, consider how you’re serving it. The dish you’re using sends a message. A parfait served in a wine glass says, “Even when I’m playing around with food, I can be confidently quirky and elegant.” Ice cream served in lidless Tupperware says, “I don’t care about your opinion enough to wash a dish. I don’t even care if those tomato stains leak out into your ice cream. I hate you.” A large plate with a small dessert can say that you want it to be on display; a large dessert on a smaller plate can make it look generous and plentiful.
Toss out your college dorm silverware with the colored plastic handles and put out something made of actual metal. Use matching plates. Don’t leave marks on anyone’s servings from where you dipped your fingers in to get a last taste. This starts out as common sense and evolves into its own language as you learn.
12. Don’t try to start out as a master of the kitchen; instead, do two or three things really well
Being a real well-rounded cook takes years of commitment, passion, creativity and patience. Professional cooks can make a living with their talents, and practiced home chefs can command a great deal of respect. But why shouldn’t you have that kind of power, just because you only care about making food well enough not to die between fast food trips?
Why indeed. If you don’t have the time, energy or interest to learn how to really cook, then learn a couple of tricks to make it look like you really know what you’re doing. You can pull out a few earmarked recipes to impress people you don’t see too often, and they walk away thinking you’re the next Gordon Ramsay. If your friends catch on when you keep making the same things after a while, fuck them. They’re your friends and they’re obligated to either like it anyway or not give away your secret.
The best part is, one or two tricks easily become three or four, then five or six. Soon you’re actually learning how to cook, and you don’t even think of yourself as someone who knows their way around a kitchen. You’re essentially faking it until you make it without even trying.
AHHH he's so sassy!
If anyone disagrees with any of this mess, drop a comment down below and I’ll be happy to correct you in public.