Cooking for myself seemed a daunting task when I started University. I had spent most of my previous year at home due to COVID-19 and did not get much opportunity to practice my cooking skills. I am starting to get the hang of it, as I cook almost every day though. Here are my top 5 favourite dishes to make and some things I found useful to bear in mind.
Chicken and rice soup
This is a dish I find great for cold rainy days. For a pot of this, I use one chicken breast, a carrot, a few sticks of celery, an onion, a few cloves of garlic, a chicken stock cube, and a portion of rice. In one container boil the chicken breast in chicken stock. Dice the vegetables and make sure they are of equal ratio. Mince the garlic cloves and sauté them along with the onion in another container on medium heat. Season with salt, pepper, and Italian herbs. Add the rest of the vegetables when the onion starts to get translucent. When they are cooked, add them to the chicken. Rinse the rice and add to the soup mixture. When the chicken appears to be cooked, fish it out of the soup, and dice or shred it into bite-sized pieces, then add it back into the soup. Optionally, add a piece of bay leaf to the soup when it is simmering over on a low heat.
This is another time and labour-intensive dish, though it lasts for a few days. Prepare some minced beef, a carrot, celery, onion, cloves of garlic, and canned tomatoes. Chop up and cook the fresh vegetables in the same manner as above, then add the minced beef and brown it. Season with salt, pepper, and Italian herbs, then add the canned tomatoes and a bay leaf and let it simmer on low heat until the sauce is reduced. I prefer minced beef with lower fat content, as higher fat content, such as 20%, can lead to a rather greasy sauce. Most recipes on the internet call for red wine, but I do not drink alcohol and do not feel the need to buy wine for culinary use. This sauce pairs well with any type of carbs, though I prefer to eat it with pasta.
I like to have a balanced meal, so I usually saute a head of Romaine lettuce on the side if the dish itself doesn't contain a lot of vegetables.
Pan-seared chicken thighs
Chicken thighs tend to be cheaper than chicken breasts for roughly the same weight, though they are very oily because of the skin. I like to sear marinated chicken thighs in a lightly-oiled pan on low heat while cooking some rice on the side. When the chicken is cooked, it leaves behind a good amount of oil, so I then fry chopped scallions (spring/green onions) and garlic in it, then add the cooked rice and fry it. I then fry some chopped Romaine lettuce with whatever oil is left and season it to taste. This dish takes a while as the chicken and rice take some time to cook. The amount of oil tends to be messy as well.
Tomato and egg noodles
This is a quick and easy recipe and it tastes just like home. Use two tomatoes, two medium eggs, some scallions, and a handful of noodles. Chop up the tomatoes into sizeable pieces, chop the scallions, and beat the eggs. Scramble the eggs in an oiled pan on medium heat and season with salt and pepper. Put this aside, and sauté tomatoes and scallions in the remaining oil. Add water and noodles to the tomato mixture and let it boil so the noodles cook, stirring so the noodles do not stick to the bottom of the pan. When the mixture boils down to a sauce, add the eggs back into the pan, stir it around so it heats up, and it’s ready to be plated up.
Mushroom and spinach pasta
This is another quick and easy recipe that tastes great. Prepare five to six fresh mushrooms, baby spinach, garlic cloves, and pasta. I find that small portobellos and chestnut mushrooms tend to work best for this. Sautee sliced mushrooms and minced garlic in oil on medium heat until browned, while cooking pasta on the side. Season the mushrooms with salt, pepper, and Italian herbs. When the pasta is cooked, add it to the mushrooms with a dash of pasta water. Add spinach last, and optionally cream and cheese.
One thing I find useful is watching cooking videos on YouTube, or rather, in my case, let them play in the background while I do something else. This is one of the ways I have picked up on basic home cooking skills and techniques. Another thing I find useful is to experiment with recipes. I prefer understanding the properties of a food item, such as its moisture, and then I can alter recipes in a way that works for me and also what I have to hand. For example, pasta dishes are versatile and can consist of just butter, herbs, and pasta.
Learning to cook well is definitely not a linear path, and I have smoked up the kitchen more than once. Learning from my mistakes through trial and error and having very forgiving flatmates contributed to what I have learned so far.