Why This Cookbook Author Says You Should Cook Like A Middle Schooler

Cumin beans with tomatillo and fries

Total time:25 minutes


Total time:25 minutes


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People often ask me: how do you come up with dishes that are so easy to prepare but so enjoyable to eat? The real answer is that I still cook like a college kid.

Despite impromptu lessons from parents and babbling cooking shows on TV, the first time many of us learn to cook is once we leave home, whether for college or a new city for that first job. The purpose of these meals is to eat well, simply and quickly. (It turns out that figuring out how to grow up takes a lot of time!)

I grew up with a mom who always cooked, always stuck a cookbook in my face, and always put up with my cooking “experiments”, but that wasn’t until I went to college in Berkeley, CA. , which I wasn’t cooking for fun, but also for food.

Berkeley is a culinary destination with farmers markets, abundant produce in supermarkets, and great restaurants, but even so, my cooking has been hampered by limitations: namely time, knowledge, budget, tools, and equipment. ‘energy.

Even now, after working as a recipe developer for almost a decade, there are constraints at play – we have lives going on, after all. Among the many lessons I learned in college, here are some principles that still guide me in the kitchen and helped me dream up 150 dinners using less than 10 ingredients and 45 minutes for my first cookbook, “I Dream of Dinner (so You Don’t have to.)”

Build a fridge pantry. My economy and college schedule meant I couldn’t cook meals around the best seasons of the farmer’s market, as the food writers tell you. Instead, I depended on a few ingredients that lasted a while and tasted great all year round. That meant canned goods and grains, yes, but also fresh ingredients such as kale, cabbage, celery, scallions, ginger, cucumbers, lemons and limes. If you are limited to a few ingredients, you begin to know them well, understand their characteristics and become familiar with their use, even without a recipe.

Cook like you’re the dishwasher (because you are). Many recipes will give preparation instructions in the ingredient list, such as “1 bunch kale, stemmed and chopped”. Cooking videos will show these ingredients in a bunch of small bowls. But why would I wash all those bowls if I could just… right? Also, who has so many little bowls? I didn’t do it in college and I still don’t.

Instead, I was chopping the ingredients as I needed them, because that’s how I watched my mom cook dinner. This subtle switch makes the most of your time and workspace. In my recipe for Caraway Beans with Tomatillos and Fries, for example, you are instructed to cut the tomatillos, then move them to a serving platter, their final destination. On the now empty cutting board, cut the red onion. Next, season the red onion with salt directly on the cutting board. In a cooking video, these two movements might have required two extra bowls. It’s not necessary.

The secret to super crispy chicken wings? Pickle them and roast them – no need for frying.

Buy only essential tools. There was no room for those multi-piece cookware you need to stock a kitchen. Instead, I bought the tools I needed and didn’t have a hack. My frying pan, for example, was used several times a week until just a few months ago, when my boyfriend (kindly) told me what I already knew: it was time to buy one. news. I didn’t have a rice cooker and steaming rice on the stove was never quite right, but I had a large pot and could I boil rice like pasta (see point next) ?

Recognize that the limits of knowledge are acceptable. You can never know everything about cooking; instead of worrying about what you don’t know, focus on what you love and feel comfortable doing. I was afraid of hurting myself and my roommates with raw chicken, so I switched to proteins that didn’t need to be cooked to a specific temperature, like tempeh, tofu , beans and cold cuts, such as salami. Orange-glazed tempeh from Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks played on repeat, as did pita breads with hummus and crunchy veggies.

Broccoli and chicken burgers with gooey pockets of cheddar cheese create a juicy sandwich with moxie

Rice Tested Me: No matter what ratio of rice to water I tried, it never came out right on the stovetop. But I really, really wanted rice, so I tried boiling it in a large pot of salted water, then draining it, like pasta. That works! There is a whole section of the book devoted to this method of cooking cereals; it’s a consistent way to achieve individual, non-clumping grains that are perfect for salads and stir-fries. (If you want a fluffier rice, after draining it, put it back in the pan, cover and let it steam for a few minutes.)

Cook what is hearty, delicious and fast. The purpose of the college kitchen was to feed you and those hanging around — fast. It didn’t need to be beautiful, it didn’t need to be impressive. It was food that was good to cook and eat. That’s what I did then and what I continue to do now.

Cumin beans with tomatillo and fries

This vegetarian main course is like a seven-layer dip getting a makeover in the produce aisle. The first layer is raw tomatillos, which are tart like a green apple and juicy like a tomato (you can also swap in sliced ​​tomatoes, cucumbers, iceberg lettuce, or cabbage). Next came spiced black beans, dollops of tangy sour cream, red onions, a spicy lime dressing, and heaps of crumbled tortilla chips. For more layers, add cilantro, scallions, avocado, crumbled bacon, pickled jalapeños, Cotija and/or Fritos.

Storage Notes: Refrigerate without fries for up to 3 days.

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  • 8 ounces tomatillos (about 5), shell removed, halved and thinly sliced
  • Fine sea salt
  • 1 small red onion (5 ounces), halved and thinly sliced
  • Finely ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 large lime, finely zested and squeezed (about 2 tablespoons juice)
  • 1 teaspoon green hot sauce, plus more for serving
  • One can (15 ounces) black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/4 cup sour cream, plus more if needed
  • One bag (3 ounces) of tortilla chips, plus more as needed

Spread the tomatillos on a medium serving platter and sprinkle lightly with salt. In a medium bowl, sprinkle the onions with a pinch of salt and pepper and toss with your hands until the slices start to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil, lime zest and juice, and hot sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper, taste and add more hot sauce, salt and/or pepper, if desired. Pour a quarter of the vinaigrette over the tomatillos.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil until simmering. Add beans and cumin and cook, stirring, until beans are hot and fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and remove from heat.

Spoon the beans over the tomatillos, followed by about a dozen teaspoons of sour cream. Garnish with red onion, then pour the rest of the vinaigrette over it. Crumble a few handfuls of tortilla chips on top, adding more if desired. If you want it spicy, add more hot sauce.

Serve family style, with extra fries on the side, if needed.

Calories: 429; Total fat: 29 g; Saturated fat: 5g; Cholesterol: 8mg; Sodium: 424mg; Carbohydrates: 37g; Dietary fiber: 9g; Sugar: 5g; Protein: 9g

This analysis is an estimate based on the available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietitian or nutritionist.

Adapted from “I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have to)” by Ali Slagle (Clarkson Potter, 2022).

Tested by Alexis Sargent; questions by e-mail to [email protected].

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