by Carolina Gutierrez
Ten months ago, I moved across the country for school. Entirely on my own for the first time, I had no meal plan, what I thought was decent cooking experience (spoiler alert: it wasn’t), and no spare time (being an engineering student). Figuring out how to cook was… interesting, to say the least. I had barely functional kitchens which I split with five other students, grocery stores were inaccessible (due to distance then Covid-19), I became a vegetarian, and I was still a full-time student and part-time researcher.
Cooking became a matter of optimizing: how can I get the most nutritional bang-for-my-buck without sacrificing enjoyment and flavor? So, below are some important things I learned in the past few months:
1. Recipes are Fake
Recipes are a great jumping off point if you’re looking for ideas of what to cook. However, as my most culinary talented roommate would point out, recipes are only good at telling you what goes in a recipe, not how much. It does boil down to personal preference, but in general you always need one or all of the following: more garlic, more onion, more cheese, less oil, more cooking time, and less heat. Oh, and if it’s a recipe from a random foodie blog online, it needs more salt and pepper. On that note:
2. Spice Up Your Life
Experiment with spices! No, don’t try to cook chicken with every kind of spice and end up vanilla chicken (this is a callout, Milo). But do try buying and adding things you’ve never cooked with before, and a lot of accidental miracles may happen. I’m a big fan of Umami seasoning, Everything but the Bagel, and red pepper flakes (which you should cook with your onion and garlic at the start of the dish).
3. Vegetables are Delicious
Vegetables are 1000% the most underrated things in cooking. The possibilities with vegetables are endless! Also, stop steaming your poor vegetables into flavorless, untextured mush and start roasting. My go-to roasting is tossing them in olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, and some of that cheap powdered Parmesan; cooking 10-20 minutes at 400F-450F.
4. You Don’t Actually Need That Ingredient
Substitution is the name of the game! In very few cases is a specific ingredient absolutely necessary in cooking. This became really important for me when I started making vegetarian versions of my favorite dishes and when quarantine made us
significantly cut down our groceries. You can go pretty far without most of the exact things on the ingredient list.
5. Anything Can Be “Fusion Cuisine” If You Want
You’re not cooking for Gordon Ramsey and nobody is judging you. Eat Korean BBQ tacos and put salsa on your crepes if you want. I learned this from my least culinary inclined roommate, who I watched create an incredible American-Mexican-French fusion dish of chili-powdered Kraft Mac and Cheese in a French crepe burrito. Unless you’re cooking for others, it’s nobody’s business but your own what strange combinations you might like or if you’re committing “cultural sacrilege” by making something a non-traditional way.
6. Lab Goggles are Kitchen PPE
This may be the strangest suggestion here, but if you have lab goggles or other kinds of safety glasses around, they make great kitchen PPE (personal protective equipment) for chopping onions. It’s not the smell of the onions that’s making you tear up, it’s a gas that interacts directly with your eyes, so put on some PPE next time you’re making an onion-heavy dish.