Cooking for beginners…
the secret is simple, if you’ll eat the result you’ve done just fine


One of my favorite personal stories about cooking took place more than twenty years ago while I was in Syracuse, New York.

I was living with two great friends… Mike and Mark. And, in all honesty, I believe I learned more about cooking during the year we shared an apartment than I had before moving in with them or in all of the years since.

One afternoon I had decided to bake chocolate chip cookies. From scratch. As I placed the first tray into the oven, it dawned on me that I didn’t know where the timer was.

I knocked on the door to Mark’s room.

“Hey, do we have a timer?” I asked.

“Do you have a watch?” Mark responded, not even glancing up from the textbook that he was marking on with a highlighter.

“Yeah.” I looked down at my watch. “It’s four-thirty. I’m making cookies. Do we have a timer?”

Mark looked up and paused for a moment to consider my response. He asked again, though a bit more slowly. “Do you have a watch?”

I returned his gaze for a moment or two, actually started looking toward my wrist because my initial thought was that maybe it wasn’t four-thirty, and then the realization of his intended message crept over me. “Got it. No timer. ‘…until golden brown’ and don’t take my eyes off them.”

Mark nodded, went back to his studies, and I left his room with a request… if it wouldn’t be a bother… for a glass of really cold milk in roughly eight to ten minutes.

Certainly Mark and Mike didn’t truly teach me more about cooking in two semesters of school than anyone else did throughout my life… or that decades of cooking on my own have provided… or that great friends with a wealth of cooking knowledge have shown me. Instead, the truth is that they delivered the valuable and basic lessons that are at the heart of any culinary effort. Most importantly…

What do you think of the result?

Let’s admit to the facts. Scrambled eggs, hot dogs on grilled rolls, and pasta with sauce and perhaps a salad are not some of the most technically challenging dishes to produce. But it isn’t a bad day. And if you can cook those dishes and ones that compare, and you’re satisfied enough with the results that you eat what you’ve made, then I have news for you… you may not be ready to open a restaurant… you can cook.

After those glorious days… to protect the guilty, I won’t say how long after, but this story does not involve Mark or Mike… I was sitting in the living room of another place I shared with someone. I was watching television. Roommate had decided to make some pasta. Pan of water was placed on the stove… a visit was made to the living room… show I was watching looked interesting and suddenly I had company.

About fifteen minutes or so later I turned and asked that roommate if I was imagining a burning smell.


Turned out all the water had boiled off and the pan was there on the hot burner. My roommate had effectively demonstrated how to burn water. That roommate did not cook often… before that rarely, and after that even less.

Grilled hot dog buns. May not seem that difficult. But if you can burn water…

Ok… I admit it… this column isn’t designed to focus on perfect meals and a 100% healthy diet. And while burning water is more a joking illustration of what can happen, the reality is simple. I just want to express why I chuckle when I hear people say they can’t cook.

Most people would tell you that my Dad can’t cook. And yet… summer after summer of my childhood… my Dad had the neighborhood kids flocking to our house because, with Mom at work and the evening meal squarely his responsibility, he was putting together a mighty impressive hot dog and beans dinner topped off by a side of macaroni and cheese.

Who is really qualified to judge your tastes and preferences… or those of the neighborhood kids?

If you’re satisfied enough with the results that you eat what you’ve made, then you can cook.

While it’s not a thought that crosses my mind every time I wander into the kitchen, I was reminded about this idea a few months ago on Super Bowl Sunday.

Simply put, Terry is very well known for the parties she hosts. I am, time and again, left amazed by her efforts. So once we began having friends over for the Super Bowl each year, I am told by many of our friends that the annual event was marked on their calendar well in advance.

This year we decided to keep things quiet on Super Bowl Sunday. Right around the date was a trip to Florida… set up to help some dear friends move. And a schedule for the months before had been so busy that we figured an afternoon off with nothing to do would work out nicely. Keep it simple… watch the game… an easy day. Not wanting a ton of dishes or work to do, I went to an old reliable as my contribution.

And I admit… it’s a devilishly easy, not at all fancy, and extremely tasty effort.

I cook some chicken breasts and then dice them. (I like a fine dice to them, but really… considering where this essay has been and is going… does it matter?) Mix with some cream cheese and scallions, along with just a smidgen of mustard. I take the mixture and some uncooked crescent roll dough. Use a bit less than a spoonful, wrap with the dough, and bake in the oven… sure, until golden brown… and enjoy.

In the end, all I’m saying is that you don’t need to know the difference between a sweat and a sauté… don’t need to know what deglazing a pan is all about… or what the fuss is when it comes to different types of potatoes and what types of dishes they are best suited for. All of these things… and so much more… are fabulous to know, learn and experience. They can bring you from two eggs over easy through an omelet into a soufflé and beyond. But you don’t need them in order to cook, in order to eat, or in order to do either of those at a decent level.

I know.

I’ve watched macaroni and cheese… from a box… be celebrated as the best meal in the neighborhood on a summer evening.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at