Essential Skills for Healthy Living — Young Adult Edition: Home Kitchen Skills, part I

My freehand drawing attempt. No budget for an illustrator yet.

If you’re between the ages of 20–27, or you’re just starting your first job or in your first few years out of college, this guide is for you. If you are a teenager or have not started working yet, do check out the sister article: “Essential Skills for Healthy Living — Teen Edition”.

As a newly-unemployed, or newly-employed graduate, you may begin to discover that life is like a wild, untamed stretch of man-eating rainforest, waiting to ensnare you in its gaping jaws, poisoned berries, or pits of quicksand.

As a survivor, and currently-doing-okay member of this group, I’d like to extend my warmest welcome —here begins a new stage of your life.

Preparing Food — a working kitchen is essential for survival.

Just like in a real jungle, food is key to your survival — it helps you manage your energy levels, avoid sickness and constipation, and keep up morale. Just as in wartime, the management of food and supplies is part of any winning strategy. Sun Tzu mentions food at least 5 times in The Art of War:

“When the soldiers stand leaning on their spears, they are faint from want of food.”

“Bring war material with you from home, but forage on the enemy. Thus the army will have food enough for its needs.”

“If well supplied with food, [you] can starve [your enemy] out; if quietly encamped, [you] can force him to move. ”

“…And when the men do not hang their cooking-pots over the camp fires, showing that they will not return to their tents, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death.”

“Make forays in fertile country in order to supply your army with food.”

Translation by SunTzuSaid.com

He is not the only strategist to do so. General Eisenhower (later president) was not only fervently aware of the importance of managing resources in wartime, but also a passionate cook who shared many of his recipes with the newspapers who happily printed it for the public.

Here’s my favorite — Eisenhower’s Old Fashioned Beef Stew. It was one of his most requested recipes. You can find them all immortalized here by the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library.

As a young adult, the main challenge of cooking can be broken down mostly into logistics, not talent. Even if you don’t have a single creative gene in your body, don’t fret! Cooking can be a regimented process, just follow the steps and you’ll do fine. In fact, cooks in professional kitchens today are still referred to as a Kitchen Brigade, a term coined by Auguste Escoffier, the chef who turned noisy, chaotic kitchens into modern, disciplined workplaces of quiet concentration. In our modern home kitchens, any recipe can be broken down into smaller, learnable steps. Just remember that you are the boss of your own kitchen: take control!

The Home field Advantage

By making things yourself, you get a lot more bang for your buck. Restaurants charge high prices because they need to meet rent, payroll, taxes, and other burdens that you as a home cook are not saddled with. Just like a sports team playing at their home field, meals you make at home will have a value advantage over takeout or any other kind of outside food.

For starters, you should choose recipes that are suitable for your own taste. In other words: if you don’t like it, don’t try it. When buying groceries, don’t buy with a “New Year’s Resolution” mindset. It’s easy to give up if you don’t set realistic expectations.

Let’s say that you’re trying to eat more vegetables. If you can’t commit to eating three heads of broccoli, don’t buy three — settle for one. Better yet, start with lettuce, which can be eaten right out of the fridge.

If you habitually order takeout pizza, get frozen pizza as a substitute. Your eating habits are not likely to change overnight, but your spending can. Generally speaking, I’ve seen my food spending drop by 30% in the first month I started cooking, by substituting what I usually eat outside with supermarket versions that I can easily reheat at home.

Start things on your own terms. Even if you are hopeless in the kitchen, you can start your journey with the simplest one-ingredient recipes, and work your way towards more nuanced dishes.

Starting your Pantry

As the head cook in your own home, your job is to control costs, time, and quality. Just like a professional chef — you must come up with recipes that will please your customer (taste good, healthy), and also your manager (budget). Also, you need to work within the limitations of your cooking skill and kitchen equipment.

As a chef, your pantry is as much part of your toolbox as the utensils and knives that you use. With some time and money invested, these will improve over time. You will also be building a pantry of sauces, spices, herbs, and other multi-use ingredients suited to your recipes. These will be your tools to break down ingredients and process them into edible meals.

In general, veggies are easier to cook. Just wash, cut, season, and heat. Meats, on the other hand, need to be marinated in order to unlock their full flavor potential.

For the non-fussy, you can buy ready-to-cook marinated meats (these are generally sold at all supermarkets, but are usually not the freshest cuts so quality will be iffy.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, there might be some businesses near you that sell vacuum-packed, frozen premium marinated meat. These are already seasoned with herbs and spices, and are ready for the pan/grill/oven as soon as it’s defrosted. It won’t be suitable everyday cooking due to the price, but you’ll soon develop a capable pantry to create your own marinades and seasoning, so don’t worry.

Here are some basic pointers for starting your spice and sauce collection:

{Essentials Herbs, Spices, and Sauces and flavorings tier list}

Explanation:

S Tier = Get these first. They have wide application in recipes and will be a staple in your kitchen.

A Tier = Can get these if you’re already comfortable with using the S Tier ones.

B Tier = Highly situational and not for beginners. Get if you want to branch out and expand into specific recipes and cuisines that use these, but beware: some of these can an expensive purchase.

Tier List:

  • S — Rosemary, Thyme, Parsley, Black Pepper, Soy Sauce, Honey, White Sugar, Fresh lemon, Butter, Sunflower Oil, white vinegar.
  • A — Paprika, White Pepper, Brown Sugar, bird’s eye chili, Lime, Pure Olive Oil, Cinnamon, Garam Masala, Japanese Miso, Thai/Vietnamese Fish sauce, Bay leaf, Dijon mustard, MSG (ajinomoto), oyster sauce.
  • B — Sundried tomato, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Cloves, Star Anise, superior soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sesame oil, balsamic vinegar, molasses, white wine for cooking, Worcestershire sauce, Oyster dashi sauce, ginger powder, shallots, chives.

Once you start cooking daily, you’ll find yourself running out of these things. Always stock based on your usage, or if you’re not sure yet, stock from highest in the list (S) then moving down.

In addition to these, make sure you have ample stock of onions, garlic, and eggs in your pantry, as these are very versatile ingredients. If you aren’t lactose intolerant, get milk as well. In a hot pan, chopped onion and garlic can easily complement most any ingredient, especially vegetables. Like a dirty comedian, the aroma they release becomes a perfect “opening act” for many Asian stir-fry recipes, and even a Western sauté.

With the right temperature control, you can even keep a container of chopped onions and garlic in the fridge for several days, or weeks.

Helpful Pantry Additions

And regardless of whether you bake, I recommend keeping stock of these in your pantry:

  • All purpose (self-raising) flour
  • Cornstarch
  • Baking Soda
  • Cocoa powder (optional)

All purpose flour can be used as a thickener in a pinch, and you can use it to make pancakes (with milk) for a cheap and filling breakfast. Cornstarch is used in many recipes, and has much greater thickening power. Baking soda has mostly cleaning applications, especially when combined with vinegar, but it can also be used to make light frying batter, sweet or savory.

Cocoa powder is optional, but I like making the occasional hot cocoa with milk, or adding it to pancakes to make easy cocoa pancakes. It’s a healthy replacement to Milo (which is basically sugar with extra steps). Natural cocoa powder has no sugar, and tastes bitter until you add your own sweetener.

Your First Grocery Run

For your first grocery run, make sure you have everything you need for the basic operation of your kitchen. That includes a stovetop/burner/induction heater, a good pan (non-stick preferred), a spatula (non-stick compatible), and a saucepan (or a pot).

You can also use a wok if it works with your burner! They’re highly versatile and deserve a guide on their own.

For cookware, it is perfectly okay to start with a cheap one to learn with. But after a couple uses, you’ll probably start to see it degrade. This is where you’ll buy a better one, but don’t do so until you’re sure you’re comfortable cooking with and washing it every day. Now on to the markets.

Farmer’s markets can be very intimidating when it comes to selecting ingredients or negotiating price. Start easy with big chain supermarkets where everything is of an almost uniform quality and price. There will be time to refine your taste and widen your choices through trial and error, trying different supermarkets and different brands of the same product. Soon, you will master it without even realizing.

Okay! Let’s start with greens. Here’s a list of veggies that are easy to prepare:

{Easy Veggie Tier List}

Explanation:

  • S Tier veggies are basically the easiest. No cooking involved. Just clean, cut, season, and eat.
  • A Tier veggies require some cooking and preparation, but you can and should master them quickly.
  • B Tier and below are veggies that have specialized preparation and are best avoided as a beginner.

S Tier — Cucumber, Japanese cucumbers, Varieties of Lettuce (Romaine, Butterhead, Coral, Rockets aka Aragula, Watercress), Tomatoes (Roma, Cherry, Plum, regular), Capsicum aka Bell Peppers.

A Tier — Carrots, Celery, Bok Choy, Kailan, Kangkung, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, long beans.

B Tier — Yams, Turnips, Lotus Root, etc.

*Side note: I’ve not listed Corn, potatoes, and sweet potato (ube) here because I’ve already listed them as carbs. They still most definitely count as vegetables though, and pack a lot of nutrition — besides their high energy content.

Also, choose each month (or twice a month, depending on your grocery run frequency) 3 ingredients from this list of carbohydrates:

{Carbs list}

  • Pasta (any preferred shape, but angel hair is recommended due to the short cooking time)
  • Rice (only if you have an automatic rice cooker, otherwise this will add too much time and effort to your cooking process)
  • Bread (White, wholemeal, sliced, or whole loaf. Doesn’t matter unless you’re diabetic or really concerned about your health.)
  • Potatoes (Comes with additional vitamin, minerals, and fiber, especially if you eat it skin-on!)
  • Wraps and Flatbread(or other cultural variations, like Chapathi)
  • Corn and Sweet Potato (only if you cook dishes that use these)

Feel free to substitute pasta for any other kind of noodles, like udon, or Korean potato noodles, Chinese egg noodles, etc. The main components are still the same. Instant noodles are fine too, just keep in mind that you’ll probably want to use only half the spice packet per serving and eat in moderation.

Corn and sweet potato are less common, but it can also substitute most carbs as your staple source of energy. Another alternative is yam, but I haven’t seen too many recipes where it is a staple yet. Feel free to experiment.

For amounts, you should be buying according to your BMI and caloric needs. There are more exact guides and calculators for this online, and it’s really hard to give a correct answer that works for everyone. So don’t worry, just do some trial-and-error, you’ll be able to fine tune it.

Now, moving on to preparation.

Preparing veggies

Generally veggies are simpler than meats: the internal structure of plants are more uniform than that of animals. You don’t have to deal with skin, bones, ligaments, or other complications.

In general, plant cells are hard. Cooking is just the process of adding heat, to make the plant soft enough to eat, and develop a better flavor. Many plants contain natural sugars due to photosynthesis, and this contributes to their flavor when they are heated.

But still, there are a few things you need to know. Since most veggies you can get from the supermarket (especially the ones I’ve listed above) are “domesticated”, accessing the nutrients should be easy. The inedible parts have been selectively bred out, or modified to be more human-friendly.

But you might still have to skin some (like carrots), and remove parts like the stem or the roots, etc. For the specific preparation of each vegetable, I would suggest searching for answers online, especially videos.

But don’t feel like you need to memorize each one! You really just need to know the one on your cutting board. Stick with the tier list above, and you should be fine.

Tools you might need: a small and firm utility knife(paring knife), and a vegetable peeler.

Remember, clean them vigorously! Commercially grown plants are generally covered in pesticides and fertilizer, and you don’t want any of that in your food. You can use a vegetable cleaning solution if you like, but overall water should do fine. You can also buy organic (pesticide-free), though that’s going to cost you 20–30% more or even higher depending on your local market prices.

The next step after removing the inedible parts and washing is to pre-cook them. We can pre-cook most vegetables by blanching (like boiling, but only for a minute or so), but before we do that we must cut them into pieces.

How small? Well, it depends on how you want to eat them. Generally, bite sized and consistent cuts will do fine.

Cut it into your preferred serving size, and then pop them into gently boiling water. The key difference between a full boil and a simmer should be obvious: a simmer has only small tiny bubbles.

You can salt the water first, or not. It is up to your preference. I prefer salting first as it is a habit I picked up from culinary school.

Generally, blanching should be pretty quick. Only blanch for about as long as it takes for the vegetable to become more colorful (the orange or green will become more intense), but not long enough to turn soft or yellowish.

This can be tricky, but generally I don’t blanch longer than 2–3 mins per serving of vegetable. But depending on the cut or the hardness of the vegetable, you may need to blanch longer or shorter times. Do experiment on your own, as each stove, climate, cut, or kitchen is different.

Don’t drink the blanching water! It might contain leached pesticides and chemicals from the plant especially if it’s not properly washed. Just dump it in the sink once it’s somewhat cooled. If you’re cooking organic, this will be irrelevant.

Another thing to consider for your blanching is whether you will be cooking the vegetable again (for example, in a stir fry). Blanching is generally used as a way to par-cook (half-cook) the vegetable. So if you’re not cooking the vegetable again, just cook it longer until it reaches the texture that you desire. If you’re not sure, just grab a piece and chew. If it tastes okay for you, stop the cooking.

Another option, after par-cooking you can also cool down your veggies and freeze them. This is so that next time, you can use your own frozen veggies for a faster preparation. This way, you can bulk-prepare multiple servings on your off day or weekend, so that you save time on your weekdays.

Next, let’s move on to the meats.

Preparing meats

If you’re really not in the budget to get finer cuts of meat, start with chicken. Generally, the quality of chicken does not vary as much as other meats like fish, lamb, beef, or pork.

Also, try not to eat too much processed meat (ham, spam, bacon, nuggets, sausage) because it contains a lot of sodium and questionable body parts. You’ll be eating livers and other unused organs that might contain high concentrations of minerals that you only need a small portion of. It’s fine to enjoy it from time to time.

So with chicken, the easiest parts to cook will be the drummets, thighs, and wings. Chicken breast is fine too but it can be hard to make it tasty. Generally, marinating chicken drummets, thighs, and wings is pretty simple. Just refer to the pantry tier list above (sauces, herbs, spices), and pick out 3–4 ingredients to use.

Make sure you have at least 1 sodium component (soy sauce, salt, fish sauce) and 1 sugar component (white/brown sugar, honey, or molasses), and pick one of the oils (sunflower or olive) too. It would be good to include an acidic component as well (white wine, vinegar, lemon juice). Both red and white wine are acidic, but I prefer white because it works with most proteins (meats).

Here are some sample marinades you can try:

{Easy Marinades}

  1. Honey Lemon marinade — Rosemary, Honey, Lemon juice, White Sugar, Salt, olive oil. (optional: add paprika for a sweet and tangy kick)
  2. Sweet spicy soy sauce marinade — Soy sauce, white sugar, bird’s eye chilli (sliced), sunflower oil.
  3. Rosemary pure marinade — Rosemary, Olive oil, Salt, white sugar.
  4. Simple miso marinade — Japanese miso(white), white sugar, pure olive oil.
  5. *Vik’s Pick* Oyster dashi marinade — Oyster dashi, extra virgin olive oil, honey.

Here’s how to prepare the protein and marinade:

  1. Spread a sheet of plastic wrap on a surface, or any airtight container will do. Clean your protein and pat it dry with a paper towel. Then place it on the wrapped surface or in the container.
  2. Mix the marinade ingredients together in a bowl, or just pour it over the protein in the container. If it is on the wrap, make sure your marinade is not too watery or it will spill over your counter.
  3. Mix with hands to get the marinade evenly distributed. Make sure to get under the skin (for chicken) and rub it in. Pretend you’re massaging the meat and the marinade is the massage oil.
  4. As soon as the marinade is well distributed, wrap/cover the meat tightly and place it in the fridge at a safe temperature and let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour.

Finally! Your protein is ready. Next, let’s get to cooking.

Cooking —mastering basics of heat and techniques.

[Coming Soon]

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A storyteller who loves every second of being alive. I photograph, write, eat, earn, invest, learn, live, and love. 📸 Agency @viktey

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Viktor Tey

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A storyteller who loves every second of being alive. I photograph, write, eat, earn, invest, learn, live, and love. 📸 Agency @viktey

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