Cooking 101: “Little black dress” recipes

My “On Nutrition” column in yesterday’s Seattle Times talked about the loss of fundamental cooking skills, and how the ability to put together even simple meals for yourself, family and friends can not only be rewarding, but makes it easier to eat healthfully. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart, because I’m largely a self-taught cook, and while that road has been bumpy at times, it’s been well worth traveling.

When I was teaching myself to cook in my first college apartment, there were tears on more than one occasion. I have vivid memories of crying, “Dinner’s RUINED!” after an unfortunate experiment with green bean stroganoff (read: curdled yogurt) out of my Laurel’s Kitchen cookbook (my first cookbook purchase, now slightly tattered but still on my bookshelves).

I did a little cooking in high school, when it was just me and my dad, but that was mostly limited to Shake n’ Bake chicken and boxed rice or noodle mixes. And spaghetti…I could make a decent spaghetti with red sauce even then. And pork chops with apples and onions. I also had basic baking skills, thanks to my mom.
Anyway, my early attempts to expand my cooking skills were rocky at times, but I persevered, because I knew it was a worthwhile venture. Today, I love to cook, and am not afraid to tackle complicated recipes, provided I have adequate time and space. Alas, time is in the shortest supply ever in life right now, so I am leaning heavily on the most basic of cooking skills to put healthy food on my dinner table and in my lunchbag.
I eat a LOT of baked chicken breasts, green salads and roasted vegetables (often in the same meal). I never really get tired of them, especially because they are such versatile items. They are the kitchen what the little black dress is to the clothes closet (for women, anyway). And without further ado:
This would really be starting from scratch…way too much work!

How to Bake Chicken Breasts

There are many ways to do this, including some that involve pan searing first, but this is how I do it. You can use boneless chicken breasts or bone-in breasts. Bone-in breasts generally have richer flavor, but boneless is sometimes just easier to deal with, depending on what you plan to do with them.
  1. Defrost chicken breasts ahead of time. Don’t try to do it in the microwave…trust me. You can take them out a day or two ahead of time and defrost them in the fridge.
  2. Move oven rack to middle of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. This can take about 20 minutes.
  3. Pat chicken breasts dry with paper towels. Place in pan or on rimmed baking sheet, “pretty side” up. Rub with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper and seasoning of choice if desired (I often use granulated garlic, a Cajun spice blend or Herbes de Provence).
  4. Bake for about 25-30 minutes (boneless) or 35-40 minutes (bone-in). The exact cooking time will depend on the size of the chicken breasts and your oven. Always treat cooking times as guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I often set a kitchen timer for 5-15 minutes before I expect something to be done (depending on total estimated cooking time), check it, and put it back in the oven if it needs more time.
  5. So how to you know when your chicken breasts are done? If you have a working meat thermometer, insert it into the center of the thickest part of the breast. It’s done when it reaches 160 degrees F. I only ever seem to have working candy thermometers, so instead I take a small, sharp knife and cut into the thick part of the breast. If the juices run clear, and the interior of the flesh doesn’t look pink it’s done.
  6. Let sit out of the oven for about five minutes before serving or cutting them up.
How to accessorize: I usually bake extra chicken breasts to use for a few days of left overs. I love them chunked up on a salad or sliced for a sandwich. It’s also easy to shred or dice them, mix them with a can of black beans, heat on the stove, then top with salsa, avocado and a little shredded cheese.

How to Roast Vegetables

Roasting vegetables brings out their natural sweetness and flavor like no other cooking method (grilling comes close).
  1. Adjust oven rack to one of the middle positions. Preheat oven to anywhere between 350 and 450 degrees F. A hotter oven means a shorter roasting time. The flexibility in roasting temperatures comes in handy if you’re also using the oven to cook something that need a more precise temperature.
  2. Prepare vegetables. I chunk up thicker veggies like squash, large carrots, cauliflower, whole broccoli heads, potatoes, onions, and peppers, but I leave veggies like asparagus and broccolette (broccoli rabe) whole, just trimming the ends. Try to make the pieces fairly uniform in size, so they are all done at the same time.
  3. Put veggies in large bowl and toss with olive oil. Sometimes it’s easier to use your hands than a spoon. If you really don’t want to get a bowl dirty, you can put the veggies in their pan, drizzle with oil, then use your hands to move the veg around to get them coated.
  4. One way or another, put the veggies in a baking dish or a rimmed baking sheet, then sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
  5. Roast for 10-15 minutes (depending on oven temperature), then remove pan, toss/turn over veggies with a spatula, and return to oven. They’ll take another 10-15 minutes, depending. Just keep an eye on them. How done you want them is pretty much personal preference.
Roasted vegetables are great hot, but they make good leftovers to throw onto a salad, mix with chunks of leftover chicken breast (perhaps tossed with a vinaigrette), or chop further and add to scrambled eggs.

How to Make a Vinaigrette (and Shun Store-Bought Salad Dressing)

I never buy salad dressing anymore. Never. And I eat a LOT of salads. It is soooo easy to make your own, vinaigrette and when you do, you skip out on all the fillers, preservatives, additives and whatnot in the pre-made dressings.
  1. Gather a jar with a tight-fitting lid, a tablespoon measure, extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar of choice, salt, pepper, and Dijon mustard if you want to make your vinaigrette French-style.
  2. Measure 6 tablespoons olive oil and 2 tablespoons vinegar into the jar. Add a pinch of salt and some fresh ground pepper. Stir in a teaspoon of Dijon mustard if you like. The guideline here is a 3-to-1 ratio of oil to acid (vinegar). You can make as much or as little as you need.
  3. Shake the jar vigorously to mix (see why you need a tight-fitting lid?). The dressing will separate as it sits, because it’s all real ingredients, no emulsifiers. Just shake it up whenever you’re ready to use it.
  4. If I make enough to only last a few days, I usually leave the jar on the counter at room temperature. If it will last longer than that, I store it in the fridge, then take it out to let it “unchill” a bit before I use it. The olive oil won’t harden at fridge temp, but it will be less fluid, making it hard to mix it up.
Variations: You can replace some or all of the vinegar with lemon juice. You can add some granulated garlic, or even some minced fresh garlic if you have the time and inclination.