NPR logo Cook's Commencement: Mastering a Meal for One

Cook's Commencement: Mastering a Meal for One

School's out, but there is still another lesson for new grads to learn: how to cook for one. T. Susan Chang hide caption

toggle caption T. Susan Chang

Learn to make one pasta and you've learned to make them all — as long as you have at least one strong-flavored ingredient around (ham, mushrooms, anchovies, olives, sun-dried tomatoes). T. Susan Chang hide caption

toggle caption T. Susan Chang

Learn to make one pasta and you've learned to make them all — as long as you have at least one strong-flavored ingredient around (ham, mushrooms, anchovies, olives, sun-dried tomatoes).

T. Susan Chang

About the Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

A Few Cooking Terms

Using your big knife: The blade is curved so you can seesaw on your cutting board. Place the tip down on the board, bring the handle down and slide the knife forward. Repeat. Then repeat over and over for pretty much the rest of your life.

Chop: Any time you're chopping dice or cubes, remember your geometry: You're working in three dimensions, so first cut along your X-axis, then Y, then Z. If you're cutting something round, bisect it first so you have a flat base to place against the chopping board. Sometimes you have to cut sideways instead of down (as with the X-axis of an onion): Keep your knife blade parallel to the board and use your flat palm to hold down the food. Don't forget your thumb is part of your hand.

Mince: "Mincing" basically means chopping things as small as you can, each piece about the size of print on this page. Once you've chopped your three dimensions as well as you can, you can use your knife as a seesaw to get the pieces even smaller: Hold down the tip of the knife with the palm of your other hand and work the blade up and down, left and right. You can do this to chop herbs as well.

Slice: Slicing is cutting in one dimension. So there can really only be two kinds of slices: thick or thin. Just keep making parallel cuts.

Fold: Sometimes you have to merge two kinds of batters or foams, as in a mousse. Take your biggest rubber spatula. Bring the side edge of the blade straight down to the bottom, turn it sideways and scrape your way back up the side of the bowl. Turn the bowl a little and repeat; keep doing this until everything is combined.

Sauté: Quick cooking at high heat with a little oil. Heat your pan until it makes a drop of water dance. Add your oil, and then your food. If the food wants to stick for a minute, let it. It's just trying to make that brown crust you love. Once it releases — and it will — keep it moving with a wooden spoon or slotted metal spoon. Vegetables are done when they're just barely tender. Meat is done when it's just opaque inside.

Simmer: The least that liquid can boil. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat. You still want bubbles rising to the surface, but there shouldn't be many of them and they shouldn't be very motivated.

Preheat: Most ovens take about 15 minutes to get up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. When you start a recipe that uses the oven, it's a good idea to set your oven to its final temperature before you start anything else.

Season to taste: This just means taste your food and then add as much salt and pepper as you want. Seasoning improves everything. Some of us also season to taste with hot chili sauce, on the theory that hot chili sauce improves everything.

To the Class of 2007: You are about to move out on your own and take your first big job, right? You'll have your own apartment (or at least part of one) in the city. There will be a takeout deli on every corner and more restaurants than you can shake a credit card at. No problem, you can feed yourself.

Well, not so much. If you've been used to a full fridge at home with your folks, or the 24-hour feed trough of college, that table for one can come as a bit of a shock. I know. I've been there. After three months of the beige diet (ramen, bagel, pizza) and a king's ransom of takeout, you're going to start wishing you knew how to cook. But where do you start?

If you're like I was at 22, you dive for whatever cookbooks you happen to have around and quickly find that every one of them demands ingredients you can't get or equipment you don't have. Or they ask you to turn to page 314 for the recipes you have to make before you can make this one. Not going to happen.

The first time I cracked open Joy of Cooking — which I grant you, was not as user-friendly as it is today — I had the same sensation you might have upon opening your first organic chemistry textbook: something along the lines of "I have no idea what you're talking about, this isn't my idea of fun, and I really think I should go now."

But I'll tell you a secret. Even the best home cooks have half a dozen dishes they make all the time. Nobody notices because (a) they taste great; (b) you can vary the ingredients every day if you want; and (c) they're so easy you could make them in your sleep.

I doubt anyone will take up my idea of printing six recipes on the back of your diploma, but it might make that piece of paper more useful than it is without them. So here, by way of being helpful, are six basic recipes for the omnivorous new cook — five dinners and one dessert. The dessert is for when you get somebody else to cook.

What they are, and why you need to know them:

Stir-fry: You don't need to pay someone $6.95 to make it for you, and you don't need a wok to make it yourself. All you need is five snow peas, two stalks of asparagus and the half a chicken breast from yesterday that you're about to toss because you don't know what to do with it.

Pilaf: The rice pilaf is the little black dress of carbs: You can accessorize it six ways from Sunday and it'll always be good. You can use any dried fruit or nuts you have around. In fact, you could probably use trail mix and it would be fine as long as you pick out the M&Ms.

Frittata: You always have eggs. You probably always have too many eggs, even after gingerly breaking the carton in half at the store. Once you can make a frittata, you too can create the miracle that is dinner from a surplus of eggs and a deficit of time.

Pork chop: If you're intimidated by cooking red meat, make friends with the pork chop. This recipe — a variant of one from the venerable Silver Palate cookbook — was one of the first I learned, and I've probably cooked it once a week for 15 years.

Pasta: Learn to make one pasta and you've learned to make them all. As long as you have at least one strong-flavored ingredient around (ham, mushrooms, anchovies, olives, sun-dried tomatoes) to liven things up and make it a party, you can pretty much wing it.

Chocolate mousse: Because nobody can live without chocolate and you can't keep eating chocolate chips out of the bag forever. This version doesn't require a double boiler or gelatin, the two usual excuses for not making chocolate mousse.

I'm not even going to bother with a salad recipe, because you already know how to put some lettuce in a bowl and shake oil and vinegar together in a jar.

Here's your equipment list. (Parents, take note.) You don't need much, but make it count:

6- to 8-quart metal pot: for boiling pasta, making soup and (someday) simmering stock.

8-inch cast-iron skillet: Why cast-iron? It's cheap, it cleans up easily, (at worst, you have to soak it briefly), you'll have it for life. Best of all, it can take the heat. You can blast the bejeezus out of that puppy, or put it right in the oven — it'll just shrug it off. It's also useful to have a 10-inch stainless steel or cast-iron pan, but not essential for cooking solo.

Metal mixing bowls: One big, one small. You can always get more later.

Plastic cutting board, at least 14 inches long: Cheap, fast-drying and easier to clean than wood. It doesn't hurt to keep a weak bleach solution in a spray bottle by the sink, next to your detergent, to make it easy to sterilize after cutting raw meat.

Paring knife: Chances are you'll mostly use this for cutting butter, cheese and pieces of fruit rather than paring, but that's OK. You'll be glad you have it.

8-inch chef's knife: Hold the knife in your fist, with your thumb pressed forward for leverage. Feel the power. Once you get used to it, you'll use it for everything: chopping, mincing, mashing garlic. Just remember to start by making one flat side on everything you cut so you're not slipping and sliding on your board.

U-shaped plastic vegetable peeler: Don't even bother with any other kind. They're cheap, lightweight and the shape gives you leverage. Save your wrist tendons for whisking.

Metal slotted spoon: This is for stir-fries or any other situation where you don't want to get too close to something really, really hot.

Wooden spoon: For stirring the pasta, for pushing vegetables around, for scraping sauce, to use as a bookmark in cookbooks.

Grater: A Microplane for finely grating cheese, nutmeg and lemon zest. A box grater, too, for large shreds (carrots for muffins, cheese for nachos, zucchini for frittata).

Rubber spatula: To scrape anything whose consistency falls between that of lotion and mud.

Metal turner: Universally but mistakenly referred to as a "spatula" (spatulas are rubber scrapers — see above). If you can, get one with a wide, offset metal blade and a sturdy wooden handle. For eggs, for pancakes, for scraping anything the wooden spoon can't handle.

Egg beater and whisk: These are for the mousse — cheap, serviceable substitutes for a stand mixer.

Finally, here are the five tips that will make your transition from fumbling takeout fool to minor kitchen deity complete:

1. Take out all your ingredients and chop everything beforehand. The mustard hiding in the back of the fridge, the salt falling out of the cupboard and hitting you on the head will eat up your prep time and make you burn your dinner.

2. Preheat your skillet until it makes a water droplet dance if you want your meat to have a nice brown crust.

3. Keep a little bowl of kosher salt by the stove and one on the table so you can take a pinch when you need it. If your food tastes as if it has fallen asleep, chances are you forgot the salt. Don't try to sprinkle from the big cylinder of table salt. You will regret it.

4. Use your freezer. Freeze leftovers, unless you want to get a science project going in your fridge. If you bought too much meat, double-wrap the extra in plastic and freeze it. You can use your microwave (lowest setting) to thaw stuff, or just place it in the fridge if you have all day.

5. Don't leave your dishes for tomorrow. They'll be harder to scrub, and the bugs will come. Putting on music when you're washing up makes it go twice as fast. Independent studies have confirmed this.

The first couple times you make these recipes they will take about an hour, because you'll be reading the instructions. By the third time and subsequently, they shouldn't take much more than half an hour.

Once you get used to making your six recipes, you should be set for at least a couple of years. If you're still making them at your 15th reunion with your second kid in tow, that's OK, too. And when that kid graduates from college, with 10 packs of ramen noodles and a suitcase, you can turn to him and say: "Let me tell you a secret ...."

Bon appétit.

Read last week's Kitchen Window: hot dogs.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Chicken and Snow Peas Ginger Stir-Fry

Stir-fry
T. Susan Chang
Stir-fry
T. Susan Chang

Makes 1 serving

Equipment: Cutting board, 8-inch knife, small mixing bowl, 8-inch pan, metal slotted spoon

Marinade:

1/4 cup of dry sherry or vermouth (or shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine), if available)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 small boneless, skinless chicken breast half.

1/4 pound snow or snap peas

1 knob of ginger, about 1 inch in each direction

1 large or 2 small scallions

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Prepare the marinade: In a small bowl, mix the sherry and cornstarch with a fork until the lumps disappear. Add the sugar and salt.

Cut the chicken breast into thin, short strips a little wider than French fries, cutting parallel to the grain of the meat. Put the chicken pieces in the marinade and set aside.

Wash your cutting board and knife properly, since you just cut raw chicken.

Cut the peas diagonally into pieces about as wide as the chicken pieces.

Peel the ginger (or just use your knife to cut off the skin — you won't waste much).

Cut into thin slices, then cut the slices into thin matchsticks.

Trim the root end and any wilted greens off the scallion, split it lengthwise to make it easier to slice, and then slice it as thinly as you can.

Place the oil and about half the ginger matchsticks in a small, heavy skillet. Turn the heat up as high as it goes, stirring the ginger with a slotted metal spoon.

In a minute or so when the ginger begins to swell and sizzle, lift the chicken out of the marinade and add to the hot oil (discard any excess marinade). The chicken will stick to the pan instantly. Don't try to dislodge it with your spoon until it begins to release of its own accord in a couple of minutes. Then you can stir-fry the chicken pieces until just opaque, with golden-brown spots. Lift the chicken out and set aside in a separate bowl.

Lower the heat on your skillet to medium. Add the remaining ginger and the peas and stir until the peas soften and brown in spots, about 4-5 minutes. Raise the heat to high, add the chicken pieces, and taste for seasoning, adding more sugar or salt to taste. Finally, add the chopped scallions and give a brief stir. Serve, with or without rice.

[For white rice: Fill a small (1-quart) pot with raw rice to the depth of one joint of your finger. Rinse by gently swirling with cold water. Pour off most of the water; the weight of the rice will pretty much keep it from falling out when you pour off. Add enough water for the level to reach the second joint of your finger. Bring to a boil; lower heat immediately and simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes, until rice is tender and water has been absorbed.]

Vegetable Frittata

Vegetable frittata
T. Susan Chang
Vegetable frittata
T. Susan Chang

Makes 1 serving

Equipment: 8-inch or 10-inch cast-iron pan, cutting board, 8-inch knife, box grater (if using zucchini), Microplane or other fine grater

1/2 of a small onion

Choose one of the following: 3 stalks asparagus, thinly sliced (should make 1 cup), 1 small zucchini, coarsely grated, 1 cup chopped fresh spinach, 1 cup sliced mushrooms or similar vegetables such as kale, small broccoli florets, etc.

3 large eggs

1/4 cup grated Parmesan, freshly grated if possible

A few sprigs of fresh herbs such as parsley, mint or chives

Salt and pepper

2 teaspoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mince the onion as finely as you can. Slice, grate or chop your chosen vegetable. Chop the herbs.

Crack the eggs into a measuring cup and add half the Parmesan, a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper. Beat with a fork until thoroughly combined.

Place the oil, the minced onion and a little salt in a small, heavy skillet and turn the heat to medium. Stir gently as the onion starts to sizzle. After 5 to 10 minutes, when the onion is translucent, raise the heat as high as you can and add the vegetable. Cook another 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetable is crisp-tender.

Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables. Allow it to cook over medium without stirring for 2 to 3 minutes so the edges begin to set. When the edges are firm enough, use a metal turner ("spatula") or knife to pull the edges away from the pan. Tilt the pan so that the uncooked egg runs beneath the lifted edge. Continue to do this until there is no more egg runny enough to flow from the top of the frittata.

[Optional: If you like, you can place a plate over the skillet and flip the frittata onto it. Then slide the frittata back into the pan so that the firm, fully cooked side is now on top. This is attractive but not strictly necessary.]

Sprinkle the remaining Parmesan onto the frittata and slide into the oven. It should be cooked through in about 3 to 5 minutes. Season to taste and sprinkle with the chopped herbs.

Glazed Pork Chop

Glazed pork chop
T. Susan Chang
Glazed pork chop
T. Susan Chang

Makes 1 serving

Equipment: Small mixing bowl, 8-inch skillet, extra plate, wooden spoon

2 tablespoons jam, any flavor

2 tablespoons mustard, preferably Dijon or any stone-ground mustard

1 center-cut, bone-in pork chop, about 3/4-inch thick

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 to 3 tablespoons vinegar, preferably white-wine (plain white vinegar, cider vinegar or sherry vinegar would all be fine)

Mix the jam and mustard in a small bowl, with a fork. Season the pork chop with salt and pepper on both sides.

Preheat a small, heavy skillet over high heat until it is hot enough to make a droplet of water dance or evaporate on contact. Add the oil, swirl around to coat, and immediately add the pork chop. With the heat still on high, brown on one side, about 3 to 5 minutes, and turn over. Spoon the jam-mustard mixture onto the browned side of the pork chop. Lower the heat to medium and cover with a plate or lid while the second side browns, another 4 or 5 minutes.

Remove the lid, raise the heat to high, and turn the pork chop a few times to coat evenly. (Since cooking times can vary widely with pork chops, you may want to cut into it with the tip of a knife to check; the meat may be pink but not rosy; moist but not soft).

Remove the pork chop to a plate. Scrape jam mixture off although it's fine if a bit of glaze clings to it. With the heat on low to medium, keep cooking down the jam and mustard a little more, scraping with a wooden spoon, until the mix is very dark and concentrated and quite dry. If it burns a little, that's fine.

Lower the heat to medium, add the vinegar, and scrape the pan with a wooden spoon to release any delicious brown bits. You may need to add a little more vinegar to achieve a heavy, smooth sweet glaze.

Put the pork chop, along with any collected juices, back in the pan and raise the heat to high while you turn the chop with a fork to finish glazing it.

Rice Pilaf with Dried Fruit and Nuts

Rice pilaf
T. Susan Chang
Rice pilaf
T. Susan Chang

Makes 1 serving

Equipment: Cutting board, 8-inch knife, 8-inch or 10-inch skillet, lid for the skillet or plate, wooden spoon

1 shallot or 1/2 small yellow onion

1/4 cup dried fruit (apricots, dried cranberries, golden raisins, dates)

Chopped chives or scallions (optional)

Chopped cilantro (optional)

2 teaspoons olive oil or unsalted butter

Salt

1/4 cup nuts (pine nuts, pistachios, chopped pecans or slivered almonds are all good)

1/2 cup rice (long-grain like basmati works better than short grain like arborio)

2/3 cup chicken broth

Slice the shallot into fine rings (half-rings, if using half an onion). If using larger dried fruit such as dates or apricots, chop into 1/4-inch dice. Finely chop the chives, scallions and/or cilantro, if using.

In a heavy, 10-inch skillet (you can use your 8-inch if you're careful not to spray rice everywhere), heat the oil or butter together with the sliced shallot and a little salt over medium heat. When the shallot has softened, raise the heat to medium-high and add the nuts, dried fruit and rice. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon for 4 or 5 minutes while you watch the rice grains turn a flat, opaque white.

When all the rice has turned opaque (it should not char) add the chicken broth and a little salt and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat, cover well, and allow to steam for 15 to 20 minutes. You may need to add a little more broth or water if the rice is very dry.

Once the rice is tender, fluff the grains, dry out the pilaf a little more over a low flame if necessary, and garnish with the chives, scallions, or cilantro if using.

Pasta with Shiitake Mushrooms, Ham and Peas

You can really sauté any vegetables — even just onion, carrot and celery — but it helps to include something powerful for flavor (wild mushrooms, anchovies, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, ham, smoked turkey, etc.). I just happen to like this combination.

Makes 1 serving

Equipment: 4- to 6-quart pot, 8-inch skillet, 8-inch knife, cutting board, wooden spoon

1 slice ham, 1/4-inch thick Virginia ham if possible

5 or 6 shiitake mushrooms

1 clove garlic

1 1/2 cups dry pasta (short shapes like penne, shells, and farfalle work well)

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)

1/2 cup frozen peas

Salt and pepper to taste

Fill a 4- to 6-quart pot with water and bring to a boil.

While the water is heating, prepare the ingredients: Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel and remove the stems. Slice the ham and shiitake mushrooms into 1/4-slices. Chop the garlic roughly.

When the water is at a boil, add enough salt to make the water taste briny. Add the pasta and stir with a wooden spoon to keep from sticking on the bottom. Keep the water at a boil, turning the heat down a little if the water threatens to boil over.

Place the oil in a small, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the ham, mushrooms and a little salt. Sauté until the mushrooms release their moisture and begin to dry and the ham starts to brown on the edges. Add the cream, if using, and lower the heat while you reduce the cream a little. Add the peas; the heat will thaw them quickly.

Test the pasta for doneness: Fish one piece out with your slotted spoon and bite down. It will have just a bit of firmness left at the center when it's ready. Drain. Toss with the remaining ingredients and season to taste with salt and pepper. If you didn't use cream, you could add a bit of olive oil to finish the dish.

Simple Tomato Sauce

You can use this instead of a cream sauce — just prepare your ham and vegetables and add the sauce at the end.

2 tablespoons butter

1 onion, cut in half

28-ounced can diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon sugar

Before you start the pasta, melt the butter in a 10-inch pan with some salt. Add onion, cut side down. Add tomatoes and sugar.

Simmer for 45 minutes while you prepare the rest of your meal, stirring occasionally and adding water if the pan becomes dry. Discard the onion, use as much as sauce as you like, and remember to freeze the rest.

Chocolate Mousse for Anytime

Chocolate mousse
T. Susan Chang
Chocolate mousse
T. Susan Chang

If you feel like playing with flavors, you can add 2 tablespoons of any liqueur or extract (Grand Marnier, framboise, hazelnut extract) when you're whisking the cream and chocolate together. This recipe is very loosely adapted from Sherry Yard's Secrets of Baking (Houghton Mifflin 2003).

Makes 6 servings normally; makes 1 serving on a bad day

Equipment: 1 large bowl, 2 medium bowls, 1 small bowl, egg beater, whisk and large rubber spatula (if you have a stand mixer, you can use it instead of the egg beater and whisk)

8 to 10 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

1 pint heavy whipping cream

3 large eggs

2 tablespoons sugar

Place the chocolate chips in a large metal bowl. Measure out 1 cup (half a pint) of the heavy cream into a small saucepan (place the other half in the refrigerator while you work). Bring the cream just to a boil. Pour the hot heavy cream over the chocolate chips and let stand while you deal with the eggs.

Separate the eggs: Crack them firmly across the middle on the edge of a bowl. Pass the yolk back and forth between the eggshell halves, holding it back while you let the whites fall into a medium bowl. Try hard not to let any bits of yolk fall in your whites. They will keep it from foaming up properly. Place the yolks in a small bowl. Using your egg beater, beat the egg whites until frothy. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the whites and continue beating until the whites form very soft peaks. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon of sugar over the whites and beat a bit more until the peaks hold their shape.

By now, the cream should have melted the chocolate chips. Whisk them together and add the yolks to form a smooth, heavy mixture.

Fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture with your rubber spatula. Be sure you scrape the bottom of the bowl each time you fold. You don't have to get it perfectly uniform — some stripey-ness is OK.

Take the remaining 1 cup of cream out of the refrigerator and pour it in a medium bowl. Rinse your egg beater in cold water and beat the cream until it holds medium peaks. Take a generous dollop of the chocolate mixture with your spatula and mix it thoroughly with the whipped cream. Then fold the chocolate-ized whipped cream into the rest of the chocolate mixture, scraping the bottom of the bowl with each stroke.

Pour the mousse into a serving dish. Chill for an hour or more before serving.

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