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Top dishes beginner cooks should know or learn

By Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Published: January 31, 2024, 6:04am

There comes a point in every beginning cook’s life when he’s ready to move past peanut butter sandwiches and packages of ramen and start cooking actual meals.

What should new cooks know how to make? What should be in their repertoire?

The good folks at Food & Wine magazine recently asked that question to 10 chefs around the country. Actually, they asked the question last summer, but I only saw the answers now. But presumably the answers would be the same, and they’re certainly worth contemplating.

Some of the chefs, I think, don’t quite understand the concept of a beginning cook. At least one thought the editors were asking what dish a beginning cook at a restaurant should make.

Nevertheless, let’s take a look at what the experts think that decidedly inexpert starting cooks should master.

Grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg — The Hawaiian chef who made this suggestion, Robert McGee, noted that it helps the beginning cook understand temperature control (don’t burn the butter), caramelization and the art of cooking eggs. He also emphasizes the importance of using American cheese on plain white bread, so newcomers don’t waste expensive ingredients.

Pizza — This one’s a no-brainer, although I would personally suggest to a cook who is just starting out that they should be content to learn how to make a good pizza sauce and put it on a pre-made crust. A good dough for the crust is also vital, but a cook should get a little experience before working with yeast.

Risotto — Creamy (but made without cream) and satisfying, risotto brings the very best out in rice. Traditionally made by very gradually adding hot stock to rice and stirring, stirring, stirring — though some claim you can just dump the stock over rice and let it simmer away — risotto is easy to make if you pay attention, said Michelle Bernstein, the Miami chef who suggested it. She isn’t wrong.

Roast chicken — This, to me, is the standard. Every time you roast a chicken, you learn more about the process, and you can make it better every time. There are infinite ways to make it, but it’s hard to go wrong if you season it with salt and pepper and maybe some herbs, use with the right temperature (425 degrees will do), flip the chicken occasionally so it doesn’t burn, and cook until a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees, about an hour or more, depending on the size.

Spaghetti carbonara — San Francisco-based chef Michael Tusk, who suggested it, points out that spaghetti carbonara has a lot of steps that must be completed in the 10-12 minutes it takes to cook. On the other hand, acclaimed writer Calvin Trillin has persuasively suggested that the dish — pasta with a bacon-studded sauce made creamy with eggs — should be served at Thanksgiving instead of turkey. So there’s that.

Apple pie — They’re obviously as American as themselves, even if chef Joey Campanaro admits they “usually get screwed up when you make them,” though he adds “but they still taste good.” The tricky part, Campanaro said, is keeping the apples from becoming too mushy or staying too hard. Again, for the beginning chef, I would very much recommend using a pre-made crust.

Whole roasted fish — Roasting a whole fish is easier than it sounds, especially if you use a thin fish such as trout or branzino. Those will cook the fastest. It’s a great way for a beginning cook to gain confidence by cooking a dish that seems fancy but is simple to make.

Cream-based soup — Cream-based soups are easy, said Portland chef Aaron Barnett, because they all have the same basic ingredients: garlic, onions and your liquid of choice (water, chicken stock or vegetable stock). All you have to do is simmer the vegetable of your choice in it — asparagus, celery root, mushrooms, etc. — blend it all together and then stir in cream.

Marshmallows — I have made marshmallows. Marshmallows are not easy to make. No beginner should attempt them.

Garden salad — Now we’re talking. The salad part of a garden salad can be whatever you feel like eating. What makes garden salads so distinctive is the vinaigrette that you dress them with. If you want something delicious but easy, all you need is to blend olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard and salt. It’s bliss on a plate.