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Heat Things Up in the Kitchen

Practical Cooking Tips for the College Student

By Marissa A. Cheng

Halfway through my sophomore year, I realized that cakes, cookies, and pies are not really a suitable diet. Using the large amounts of communal sugar, flour, and various other baking ingredients available at French House, I frequently prepared large batches of cookies for everyone. People assumed that since I could make desserts so well, I already had that set of practical cooking skills that usually come before the baking skills. Unfortunately, I didn’t. Since IAP, I’ve been cultivating a set of practical cooking skills that is slowly becoming more sophisticated.

So what do you need in your kitchen? Forget the food processor, the blender, and the knife block. You don’t really need all of that fancy stuff. To make yourself dinner, you need pans, knives, and a spatula. A large mixing bowl and a cutting board might also help. For pans, you need a skillet either 10 or 12 inches in diameter for frying/ stewing /stir-frying, and a medium-sized saucepan about seven or eight inches across, for making pasta. If you ever want to cook in bulk for a lot of people, or make a lot of pasta, then a large non-stick pot about 10 inches across, with handles on both sides and a lid, is a good investment. If you have an oven and want to make casseroles, savory pies, or chicken pot pie, an eight-inch square Pyrex dish will serve you well.

These knives make the cut

In terms of knives, all you’ll really ever need is a chef’s knife and a serrated knife. A chef’s knife will cut, chop, mince -- basically do everything. A serrated knife is nice for slicing and chopping things that are a little hard to grip, like onions; it will also cut bread far more nicely than a chef’s knife, which I find more fun to chop with.

Also, you’ll want to get a spatula to cook with. By spatula, I don’t mean the kind you scrape a bowl with; I mean a plastic or metal spatula with a fairly long handle that is heat resistant (so it doesn’t melt onto your pan). I also like to use chopsticks a lot, a habit I attribute to my mother’s influence, because they make it easier to separate things like noodles and flour-dipped meat. Chopsticks also good for the eating part of the journey, especially if you dine with people who don’t know how to use them.

Here’s some food for thought

Now you need food to cook with. Fresh things are good. I’d never seen frozen vegetables before I came to MIT, so I don’t use them. I try to have some kind of meat and some vegetables on hand, as well as some meat and bread in the freezer for when I’m far too lazy to hoof it over to Star. Generally, boneless, skinless chicken breast is the norm because it’s easy to cook with, but it’s also fun to roast chickens, and other meats for variety are a good thing.

As for vegetables, go with what you like. I like broccoli, and it keeps fairly well for a couple weeks in a fridge, at which point it starts smelling slightly funny and turns a rather nice shade of yellow. I also like spinach and asparagus, though the last is a bit of a luxury item. Potatoes are also good to have on hand; you can stick them into a baking pan with some olive oil and let them roast while you make something else. Above all, though, I always have tomatoes and onions. Onions keep well (in a cool place, otherwise they’ll turn black inside within a week), and are a good flavor to add to just about anything.

One dish I make that’s really simple and takes about 15 minutes is udon noodles with tomatoes and onions: chop up a bunch of tomatoes, add a chopped onion, and add the noodles after the tomatoes have sauced. Add a bit of salt and a lot of pepper, and the result is fantastic. The tomato-onion combination is forgiving; you can abuse it and it will still love you. Try adding chicken or peppers for variety, and substitute tomato sauce for tomatoes if you must.

Spice up your cooking with... spices!

The other essential items for your kitchen are spices and oils. Just have salt and ground black pepper on hand, as well as vegetable oil and extra-virgin olive oil. Don’t bother to get sea salt, or seasoned salt, or any of that fancy stuff unless you are really set on it; regular table salt will do just fine. Cheap, regular pepper is also fine; it will give your cooking a nice spicy-hot kick. Vegetable oil is good for cooking anything, generally meat in my case, and olive oil is good for veggies (but not for meat). You can buy a squeezy plastic condiment bottle at Target or some other place where they come cheap, and it’ll be easy to squirt the right amount of oil into the pan.

The last few things that you will need are the basics of all kitchens: flour, butter, sugar, eggs, baking powder, and baking soda.

Where do you start now that you have all of this stuff? Chop something up, and throw it in your new pan!