Recent college graduates and others who are new to the business of food shopping, meal planning, and preparation don't need to spend a lot of money on dozens of single-function gadgets and appliances. Even though I'm an experienced cook, I probably prepare 90 percent of my meals using nothing fancier than a chef's knife, whisk, tongs, mixing bowl, baking sheet, and saute pan.
Don't know how to cook? The best way to learn is by doing, and cooking can be a really fun way to spend time with friends. Invite a pal or family member who enjoys cooking to show you how to prepare a few basic recipes. Make a fun evening out of it. Most cooks love to share their craft, so you won't find a shortage of volunteers.
Despite the antics you might see on TV food shows, some of the best cooking is also some of the simplest. Knowing how to clarify consomme, make a proper demi-glace, or debone a pheasant may come in handy one day, but I suggest you start by learning how to saute greens, roast a chicken, or dress a salad.
There are some great (and free!) resources for beginning cooks such as ReluctantGourmet.com, which covers a lot of basic cooking techniques, FoodPair.com, which lets you search for recipes according to what ingredients you have on hand, and Mark Bittman's self-explanatory How To Cook Everything iPhone app.
There are people who scan the newspaper ads to see what's on sale, plan out their weekly menus, assemble all the recipes, and make up a grocery list before heading to the store. If you are one of those people, you probably don't need to read any further. Most of us, however, are not that organized. Here are some tips for shopping and meal planning on the fly.
You'd be amazed at how many different meals can be concocted out of a short list of staple ingredients and some fresh vegetables.
1. Start with the fresh stuff
I suggest starting in the produce section and choosing whatever's particularly fresh, appealing, and/or well-priced. But as you make your selections, think about what you might serve with each and whether you need any additional items for those meals or recipes. For example, is kale on sale this week? You could throw together a hearty Kale and White Bean soup. Grab an onion or two before you leave the produce section and make a mental note to pick up some white beans when you get to that aisle. Or, if you're as easily distracted as I am at the grocery store, make an actual note on your shopping list.
2. Think shelf-life
Some things keep longer than others. Fresh fish should ideally be consumed the day you buy it, but frozen shrimp can be kept in the freezer until you need them. It's the same with produce: Berries, ripe melons, peaches, fresh herbs, and delicate lettuces may keep only a day or two. Apples, citrus fruit, kale, winter squash, and green beans will keep much longer. If you only get to the grocery store once or twice a week, be sure to buy some ingredients with a longer shelf life — and plan to consume the short-lived stuff first.
3. Keep your pantry stocked
As you get more comfortable in the kitchen, you'll quickly discover the wisdom of keeping certain basic items in stock. For example, having a couple of versatile cheeses on hand makes it easier to whip up last minute meals. Particularly handy options include feta cheese to crumble on salads, mozIizarella to sprinkle on homemade pizza, and a brick of Cheddar or Monterey Jack for a quick quesadilla or frittata.
Other foods I always keep on hand include:
• Dried and canned beans
• Canned tomatoes
• Canned tuna or salmon
• Chicken stock
• Rice, quinoa, bulgur, or other whole grains
• Olive Oil
• Balsamic vinegar
Whenever I use up the last of one of these, I immediately put it on my list to buy next time I'm at the store. You'd be amazed at how many different meals can be concocted out of this short list of staples and some fresh vegetables.