Whenever I travel from home to Baltimore, my mom has one question for me: “Do you want to bring back any food?”
My answer, obviously, is always yes. She sends me back with whatever she’s got in the freezer, including fried chicken schnitzel, salmon croquettes, beef goulash — all of her trademark recipes. They make their way from her freezer into mine, good meals for whenever I don’t want to cook.
Up until this semester, my mom’s food was just a small part of what I ate on campus. I made up the rest through a meal plan. Yes, I was one of the juniors who was found in the Fresh Food Cafe, usually eating between the cereals and the gluten-free microwave. Even though I moved into an off-campus apartment after sophomore year, complete with a kitchen, I chose to ignore it — except when heating up my meals from home.
This semester, with no meal plans available for the vast majority of students, my previous system had to change. The coronavirus has forced me to transform myself into someone who knows how to make more than a few basic recipes. And truthfully, it’s about time.
Over the last few months, I’ve managed to expand my cooking repertoire pretty dramatically. Here are some of the ways that I bettered myself in the kitchen.
Keep your cooking space in order
It’s obvious, but it’s a good first step to feeling confident about cooking. If your kitchen space is clean and orderly, you’ll feel much more comfortable with actually taking out the pots and pans. Nothing makes me less likely to try a new recipe from my laptop than a dirty, cluttered countertop.
Come up with your own systems that work for you. My roommate and I moved all of our spices from a countertop into a cabinet. Instead of grouping them based on how often we use them, we now have them lined up alphabetically. That’s how we realized we have four containers of chili powder, a spice that we’d mistakenly bought on four separate occasions.
Don’t try to speed up a long process
If 5-Minute Crafts recommends a fast and simple cooking tip, it’s got a pretty good chance of not being helpful, and may even be dangerous. There’s a reason that your parents always told you to sit frozen chicken on the counter for hours to defrost: it’s better than a hack to speed up the process.
On the other hand, if you want fast and simple recipes, start by looking those up in the first place. Allrecipes has hundreds of Quick and Easy Recipes, from 15-minute meals to basic desserts. Food Network offers a collection of 30-Minute Dinner Recipes for those nights when you don’t want to put in the effort. Start with those — it’s a good way to learn the basics.
Recipes are everywhere
Last year, a few hours before a potluck, I had a choice: either make my own contribution or head to CVS and grab some chips for the party. I decided to go the former route, even though I had few ingredients and even less time.
Fortunately, Facebook had the answer. An old friend had posted a video for Oreo Chocolate Truffles. The dessert only needed Oreos, baking chocolate and cream cheese, plus some time in the fridge. The whole recipe had three steps.
The Oreos turned out to be a huge hit, so I began making them for future events and even when I was bored at home during quarantine. They’ve become my signature dessert. I didn’t realize I could find recipes from social media, but I’ve since started saving Facebook videos, just in case there’s another fast and good recipe on there.
Another place to find new meals is on the packaging your food comes in. In retrospect it feels like an obvious place to look, but I’ve never intentionally tried to find a recipe from a can or bag of chocolate chips. Yet, it’s helpful to glance over the recipes anyway. A box of San Giorgio macaroni elbows had a recipe for a super simple mac and cheese casserole, which doubled as both an easy dish and a definite improvement to my pasta-and-melted-cheese plan.
Commit yourself to a schedule of trying new dishes
Before returning to campus, I decided I would try one using one brand-new recipe each week. That’s led me to dishes with Beyond Sausage, hearty tomato soups and banana cookies. None of the meals are staples at home, and I was pleased at trying new flavors.
New dishes can be based on familiar flavors, too. My most recent experiment led to a chicken dinner. All I needed was a basic dish that could use the two chicken leg quarters from my freezer. Immediately I headed to Allrecipes, a site with thousands of meals and great customization settings based on what you like to cook.
A quick search for “easy chicken legs” led me to Grandma’s Favorite Chicken Recipe, a simple dinner with protein and vegetables. With only one step in the actual cooking process, it was a solid choice. And it tasted delicious — like a chicken soup, without the actual soup.
There’s nothing wrong with having a bowl of ramen noodles (the microwave variety), dinosaur chicken nuggets and instant hot chocolate for dinner. It’s not the most nutritious meal, but after a long week of making top-quality meals, you deserve it.
And of course, keep your mom’s cooking in the freezer. Nothing will make her (or you) happier than having that, too.