A Letter from an Unwilling Cook

The letter that triggered hundreds of reader comments - from a 60 year old Englishman who had never cooked a meal in his life.

A Letter from an Unwilling Cook

I love reading the emails you send me. I usually keep them to myself, but occasionally I come across one that I'm inclined to share. I had one of these come through my in-box a few days ago...

Hello Heidi,
I spotted your site as a Google banner, so that's how I arrived here.

Why should I, a 60 year old Englishman who has never cooked a meal in his life (I'm not proud of that) be looking at a Cooking site?

I am newly single, and facing having to care for myself. I've mastered the big white box (washing machine), discovered that 'food' can also go in the beer cold box, that frozen dinners can be made in the little white microwave-box, but.... I have a box left over. I think it's called a cooker?

My problem is that "Cookbooks" are written by extremely competent, very enthusiastic cooks. This is no good at all to duffers like me, who actually don't want to cook, but will have to. Apart from cookbooks intended for students (wall-to-wall pasta!), I haven't found one that firstly takes me round the shop telling me what (and what NOT!) to buy; exactly how much water to put in a pan; what I should be doing while the cooking-box-thingy warms up; how much of what herbs/spices to add ("season to taste" is NO help!); how do you prepare, for instance, "minced garlic"/etc.; and so on. The problem is that there is too much assumed knowledge on the part of the writer, as well as a supposed enthusiasm on the part of the reader. This reader has no enthusiasm whatsoever!!

There is a class of reader out there who cannot cook, who must cook, but who don't really want to cook. So why bother with deadbeat people like this? Out of pity, I guess!

And why am I writing to you? I like the clear way you present what seem to be simple, interesting recipes, your enthusiasm, your contacts, your willingness to take on board what others say, and I hope that you have some compassion for those of us starving on ghastly tv dinners...!

There is a need for a small group of recipes for the "don't-wanna-but-gotta-cook" people who nevertheless want to do things correctly. These recipes will take the unwilling novice by the hand, lead them round the supermarket/deli buying simple produce (no 'tef flour'/'kuchai'/etc!), then stand them in the kitchen, and tell them everything they need to do... every single, solitary action! Maybe we will go on to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable (but don't hold your breath!)? But we will be grateful :)

If this strikes a chord with you, maybe you would give it some consideration? Simple, easy-to-prepare fresh food that even I can make... aaah!

Sincere best wishes,
B.B. - Surrey, England

So...I thought I would open up the discussion to all of you.
What advice do you have for a 60-year old Englishman who has never cooked a meal in his life? Someone who is likely overwhelmed, lacking much (any?) enthusiasm, someone who could clearly use some inspiration and advice. Where does someone like this start? - He's certainly not the only one feeling this way.

photo from istockphoto.com

And update to this post can be found here - congratulations Barry!

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Thanks again to everyone for all your suggestions, tips, and recommendations. I assure you Barry is real and really did email me. I sent him my own response and after I hit send realized all of you would likely have many more ideas than I could come up with off the top of my head (and a much broader perspective) . It takes a village! On this note, I'm going to turn off the comments. I promise to check in with Barry regularly, and I'll update you all on his progress in the future. Thanks again to all of you for rising to the occasion. I think we might have a cook on our hands before we know it ;) -h


as a college student freshly off on her own and cooking for herself, i felt similarly for a while! i love cooking... desserts. main dishes and i weren't best friends. it's a great idea to start from pre-cooked or pre-packaged ingredients and then add fresh to make it better. one of my fave in a hurry dinners is packaged ramen! while the noodles are boiling, add slices of raw chicken or steak. they'll cook while the noodles do. add your own spices (cayenne pepper, curry powder, etc), veggies like broccoli, snow or snap peas, carrots, mushrooms. it's an endless steam of stuff to add.. just whatever is on hand! my mom also gave me some of her easy recipes - chicken breasts, covered in cream of mushroom soup, with bread crumbs/crushed crackers on top. bake until not pink anymore. voila. i also worship frozen veggies, esp. peas, carrots, and asian-style stir fry :) as for the food network, much of it is complicated, but i LOVE alton brown. he is so easy to understand and his food is so simple, but it looks amazing. he had a great episode on pouches, the other day.. just buy parchment paper and put stuff in pouches, like salmon! good luck, BB! :) you've gotten a ton of great tips :)


Hmmmmmm, never cooked before? Well, I agree with a previous comment, directing you to the food network! I watch it almost everyday, and you do begin to pick up on the lingo after a while :) I, like you, started cooking later on in life. My family spoiled me!!!! They are fascinating chefs, so I never had to cook, and never really wanted to, maybe it was one of those things when you don't want to follow in your parent's footsteps???Anyways, when the time finally came for me to cook for myself, I felt lost. I honestly just experimented, picked an easy dish, asked a lot of friends, compared their recipes with others and just went for it! It will come to you, be patient and most importantly have fun, don't get frustrated! At least you're interested, that's step one.


Other people have given some good beginner tips and recipes so I'll go into other basics. I'm not familiar with English grocery stores but assuming they are similar to what we have here in the U.S. - the fresh stuff is on the perimeter. If you walk along the outer row you'll find the veggies, meat, dairy, bakery. The inner aisle have the more processed (read - canned/tinned) stuff. Buy just enough for a day or two or it will get shoved into the deep recesses of the beer chiller! Assumine the ex took most of the kitchen you'll need to have some tools to work with. Do you have a knife (preferrably 3 - a paring knife, chef's knife - 8 inches, and a serated knife to cut bread.) If not, go to your local cutlery place and ask for help. DO NOT SPEND A FORTUNE, ask them to show you how to use a steel (to put the edge back) no need to buy an entire rack of knives just yet. You'll need a peeler to peel potatos, carrots, etc. A garlic press might help with the mincing garlic thing (alright it crushes the garlic but you gotta start somewhere). You also need a couple rubber scrapers and a food turner (spatula). What about a pot? Do you have something big enough to boil water for pasta o rmake soup (8 quart)? a fry pan (10 inch is a good start) and a smaller sauce pan (2 to 3 quart) Again, go to a local cookware store and ask for help. Don't be snookered into buying too much or you'll never use it and just get angry that you spent a lot of money. A few key pieces are a great start. Get a cutting board, either wood or plastic, not glass. Get 2, one for raw meat and one for other stuff - mark the one for raw meat so you don't forget. A couple of pot holders (to drag stuff out of a hot oven) and an oven thermometer (to make sure the oven is at the right temperature). Now that you have assembled a reasonable amount of basic cooking stuff try some of the dishes already posted. Enjoy, really, and if it comes out awful - write down what you did with a big note never to do that again and order a pizza (or fish and chips) have a beer and plan for the next food adventure.


Is anyone else out there starting to believe that this unwilling cook is a figment of someone's imagination? He doesn't seem to me like a jerk (like the previous commenter believes), he seems capable and interesting and just about as likely to become a good cook as the rest of us (and he has a palate for wine!). Besides that, he seems absolutely charming. Heidi, do tell us if you're fooling us. If not, this may be an elaborate April Fool's joke on you as well (maybe Sam? I guess she comes to mind because of the English thing). In any case, this is good fun. If Barry is for real, I will recommend a recipe for potatoes, since he has expressed interest. Roasted potatoes (and roasted vegetables in general) are, in my opinion, one of the easiest and best ways to prepare them. Just cut up the potatoes in the shape that suits your fancy, put them on a baking sheet, add some glugs of olive oil (more if you want them good and crispy, less if you want to watch your waist line), and "season to taste." It seems you like black pepper, put some of that on along with some salt. Other good options are oregano, rosemary or paprika. Roast these in a hot oven (recipes vary from 375-475 F and above, that's about 190-245 celcius, I like the higher range). Roast for 30-60 minutes (depending on temperature), shake the pan a couple of times to flip the potatoes around and make sure nothing sticks. These are good hot out of the oven and also at room temperature. I don't mind them the next day re-heated in the microwave either, so try making a big batch and see what you think.


Try breaking your eggs - and I'm not making this up - on the counter instead of the edge of the bowl. Don't drive them down so that they shatter, but bring the egg down hard enough so that it cracks (I think it helps to bounce it a little), then open the shell over the bowl and let the egg drop in. You'll have much less of a problem with shells in your albumin.


60 yrs old, doesn't know how to cook, didn't know how to work the laundry, thinks the fridge is just a place to store his beer, had to learn how to heat things up in the microwave - no wonder he's single. What a jerk! My suggestion is for the dude to rent himself a room in a men's club and eat there. Otherwise, women run the risk of bumping into this cad and being suckered by his, "I'm new to this, can you help me?" pleas.


Well, others have mentioned it, but if you want a precise, scientific approach to cooking, Alton Brown is your man. I don't know if you'll be able to get his show (Good Eats) in the UK, but you should be able to get a copy of his first book, 'I'm Just Here for the Food, v. 2.0.' I have a copy and it's my Bible in the kitchen! First off, it's very technique-oriented. There are chapters on buying, storing, and chopping food. The bulk of the book though focuses on different methods of cooking (grilling, poaching, frying, etc.). He explains how each method works and why you use it. The recipes aren't as complex as they look, but they're tailored so that you learn the process - a recipe for roast chicken will teach you how to roast. (Incidentally, my only complaint about the book is that the index doesn't necessarily make up for this and list recipes by type of food). A.B. also takes a very precise, scientific approach to food. While he encourages you to modify recipes to your own tastes, he hates dealing with fuzzy, nebulous terms like 'pinch.' Every recipe lists things by volume and, I believe, by mass (in grams) and weight (in pounds). He also reccomends you cook until the meat reaches a certain temperature (it's more precise than 'until done.') and this should be the only time you have to translate out of American. Basically, he treats cooking as one big DIY project - up to and including pointing out when you can get good cooking tools at the hardware store. Once you get the techniques down, don't be afraid to play around with the recipes a little bit. It's simpler than you think: if you think something is too salty, make a note to add a little less salt next time. Too spicy? Add a little less pepper next time. More often than not, that's all there is to it.


Visit www.videojug.com for video demos on how to make anything you can imagine!


roast beef and potatoes and peas. Easy, would make him use the oven, hard to miss. Left over beef can be beef with mushroom soup and onions over noodles. Easy again. It would be fun to write such a cookbook!


He's single. He should take a cooking class... maybe he'll meet someone who likes to cook for him.... after all, he said he was unwilling.


I would advise our friend from across the Atlantic to consult his friends, first and foremost. I'm sure that they all have great simple recipes that he has enjoyed with them over the years and where better to learn to cook than from the people who know and love him? Also, speaking from personal experience, mistakes in cooking sometimes turn out to be the best recipes after all. Bottom line, don't be afraid to try!--you might burn a few things down the line but you also get some amazing dishes in the process


I don't have any advice. I'm a mom, a new one, and I hate to cook. Not only do I dislike it, but I'm really quite terrible. I burned fish sticks the other day... My toddler lives on frozen waffles. Not because she is a picky eater, but because I don't have the patience or inclination to learn anything else. Slowly, my guilt is chipping away at my resistance, and I'm feeling obligated to learn. The title "Unwilling Cook" drew my eye. I am a bit overwhelmed by the number of people looking at me with "What's for dinner?" on the tip of tongues. What is for dinner, indeed. How should I know? Anyway, just a bit of a vent. I'll poke around on these pages and see if I can find a primer of sorts for a unenthusiastic cook. And BB, your message was eloquently stated. I appreciated reading it!


Saturday morning dawned and I was going to spend the day motorcycling round Cambridgeshire with some dear friends (the ones who showed me and explained all about The Steamer, remember?). What I needed was a big lump of protein to keep me going for the day. In the evening we planned to 'go for an Indian' (before you all gasp, for you folks in the US, that doesn't mean 'pick a fight with a Navajo'! It's British shorthand for 'visiting an Indian restaurant') so no more cooking for me after my breakfast. One of the glorious aspects of the British Empire is the lasting legacy in Britain from the Indian sub-continent. India truly was the Jewel in the Crown of Empire, and their food is just absolutely wonderful. Sadly, I have never had an Indian meal that has been any good, outside of an Indian restaurant. A few years ago I visited one of the only Indian restaurants I have ever seen in America – it was near Naples, Florida, and it was an utter disgrace. The food was appalling, just chillied-up curry chicken and rice dishes, but with none of the subtle spices and techniques that make a 'good Indian meal'. They clearly had a satisfied local clientele, so who's complaining? I just wish those clients could taste what 'an authentic Indian meal' can really taste like. So back to breakfast and what to cook? Heather sent me some recipes/techniques for cooking quick eggs, so I eagerly dived into the fridge, grabbed a couple of eggs, re-examined her recipes that I had printed out, and prepared to do battle… The ingredients were all laid out, as if in some Mediaeval religious rite. The toaster was primed. The top off the butter. Salt and pepper to my left. Sliced olives to my… sliced WHAAT??? That's what the lady says in recipe 2, so that's what I chose to make – I LOVE olives. Now where was I? Ah yes, olives to my right. Break eggs into bowl… how hard is it to break an egg? Bloody hard! I have since been given the tip to strike it on as sharp an edge as possible, whereas I had been trying to break it on the gently rounded shoulder of the bowl. Plus I was being a bit timid too. Nope, that's right lady, I've never even broken (intentionally) an egg before. I'm not proud of this fact, but there are many out there like me, believe you me. Right, eggs broken into bowl; fish-out the broken bit of shell with the remains of the shell in my hand. I've since been told that this is THE way to do it – using a finger or something just doesn't work, but nobody told me! I was just lucky there, otherwise I would have been up to my armpits in albumen, fighting the slimy sonofa… Beat the eggs. Easy, once I twigged that I needed to use a bit of a chopping motion to break it up – they were just going round and round in the bowl. Pretty to watch, but not actually doing anything. Salt/pepper to taste (I'm getting the hang of this 'season to taste' now – easy isn't it?), some splashes of tabasco, and a small handful of olive slices. Into the microwave, and put on the toast. WRONG!!! 60 seconds later and the eggs are done, but the toast is still festering in the toaster. Can I add another euphemism to the English language, alongside "a watched pot never boils"? How about "a watched toaster never toasts when your scrambled eggs are done and getting colder by the minute"? I think I'd left the eggs in the microwave for too long and they were a big lump, but easily broken up into a semblance of 'scrambled eggs' – not bad for a first attempt. Tipped onto a couple of slices of thickly buttered wheatmeal toast, it looked delicious. It tasted very good too, the olives really adding to the flavour, but sadly the tabasco was nowhere to be seen, or tasted. I don't know what happened there, but obviously my 'season to taste' was out to lunch at the ritual of 'The Splashing of the Tabasco'. I didn't want to overdo it and it seems I went and underdid (Technical Term Number something-or-the-other) it instead. So I set off on a super day's gallop across The Garden of England towards my friend's house in Hertfordshire, full of that same plumptiousness that I had enjoyed the night before. Hmmm… this cooking-business isn't half-bad… and neither was the Easter 'bike ride with my friends. Heather's three options for Microwave Egg Omelettes: Crack 2 eggs into a glass/ceramic cereal bowl. Adda couple drops of hot pepper sauce, or just sprinkle with a couple ofshakes of salt and pepper. Stir vigorously (scramble or beat) with a fork,making sure the yolks break, until a consistent light yellow color.Microwave uncovered on high for 90 seconds. Make sure the egg is cooked.If not, cook longer at 15 second increments. Adda couple tablespoons of your favorite jarred salsa before you beat theeggs. If desired, add a couple of black olives sliced into 4 or 5 pieces.Microwave uncovered on high for 1 minute 45 seconds. Cook longer at 15second increments if not fully cooked. Ifveggies are desired, pick up a bag of frozen stir fried vegetables, oranother favorite frozen veggie that is not corn or peas. (Mushrooms worktoo, but those must be bought fresh and sliced.) After scrambling the eggswith a fork, shake about 1/4 cup of the frozen veggies into the eggs, andthen stir to coat them with the eggs. Microwave uncovered on high for 21/2 minutes, stir, and then microwave at 30 second intervals until all theegg is cooked. After your omelet is cooked, you can sprinkle it with your favorite shredded cheese. You can try adding other ingredients - make sure the pieces are relatively small - the size of the veggie pieces in the frozen stir-fry bag are a good size guide, understanding that the pea pods are the absolute biggest size you would want to add. Frozen broccoli spears, for example should be cut in at least 4 pieces. Always cook a shorter time and then check for doneness. It's much easier to fix an undercooked food than to salvage something that's overdone. I hope that all this twaddle is giving you an insight into the tribulations I've been going through. Every word is true, honestly! It's a shame that I was interrupted in my cooking spree this Easter by visiting my friends, but no harm done. I have just one more post to make, and then I think I'll give it a rest for a while, before I run the risk of boring my audience (if I haven't already!). An occasional observation thereafter is probably more than you can then all stomach! I've enjoyed this immensely - I never would have believed that over 200 people would have responded, and with such kindness and concern too. I had just hoped for a word or two of encouragement or tips before I steeled myself to actually go out and DO something about my predicament. Thanks again to you all, and I shall be visiting and re-visiting all these comments time and time again over the coming weeks/months. Goodbye and thanks. Barry

The Unwilling Cook - B.B.

Hi Heidi, Other suggestions from contributors included chicken, which is a favourite of mine as I have an odd aversion to fat on meat; and numerous favourite cookbooks. These cookbooks must be really loved members of your families, as they are spoken of with such, well, affection. They've clearly helped out newlyweds, college kids, the newly single, etc., and are obviously held in high esteem. It is with that very much in mind that I am going to re-visit all these recommended cookbooks but with a new vision. The "Blah, blah, blah, blah…" viewpoint is gone. The new-me is looking at all this from a different perspective now – I've had to. But time for me to take the plunge, folks. The moment you've all been waiting for… (drum roll….) My first meal was…. Sam the Cooking Guy's "Grilled Rosemary Chicken Sandwich" ( http://www.thecookingguy.com/cookbook/recipe.php?id=130 ), with SusanS's "Green Bean, Tomatoes & Onions", a side-salad and a glass of Chilean Cabernet-Merlot. This is how it went. I popped across the heath to my supermarket (damned handy that, just a five minute pleasant walk away) but then spent about 15quid ($30) on various bits I thought I'd need, not all just for these dishes I hasten to add – at least I don't think the Cooking Guy said anything about using deodorant in his sandwich. I gulped a bit at how much I'd spent but this is all new for me, and this is what hobbies are like, isn't it? It doesn't matter if it's embroidery or model aeroplanes, the amount you have to spend just to get started is usually horrendous. Unless you're collecting 'matchsticks', when start-up costs are minimal ( http://www.matchstickrockets.com/howto.html ) I chose Free-range Organic Chicken Breast Fillets (two in a pack). It was the last pack they had, yet they were literally dozens of packs of other ordinary, cheap 'chicken breast' – a telling comment upon modern buying habits, or had the delivery lorry just not arrived? 'Free range' because I'd heard that more activity by the bird makes the meat tastier. And organic? Well that's one of the reasons that I need to get away from processed food – to get away from chemicals in my grub! I'd printed out the two recipes, and then gathered round me in the kitchen all the things that I knew I needed, all the things that I thought I might need, and a few things just to make me feel comfortable (a cuddly toy, a baby's pacifier, a piece of blanket… No! I'm joking!!). This was one operation, planned with military precision – MY FIRST MEAL. Nothing, but nothing, was gonna go wrong. I'd gone over Sam's recipe in my mind so many times, and Sue's "Green Bean, Tomatoes & Onions" is very straightforward. And I just did it. What the recipes said. I did it. I DID IT! Happy? Was I ever! As happy as a happy person who is very, very happy (thanks Blackadder). It just went like clockwork, except… When I went to buy the ciabatta, I didn't like what the store was offering, so I bought a panini instead. I will try ciabatta in the future to see what the difference will be like. Also, I'm not a lover of avocado so I didn't include that. Otherwise, it was just as Sam demonstrated. I have to say I think that I had a bit more panache and flair as I created mine, but Sam's doing his best, poor guy. His recipe was so straightforward even a fool I could do it! Maybe I put a bit more black pepper than he would have, but it's good for the digestion and I just love it. When I poured the tomatoes out, the juice was like Niagara and I had to spoon a lot back out of the frying pan (skillet), otherwise it would still have been 'reducing' (Note: Technical Term Number 27) even now. But I'm learning. When I combined the beans and the tomatoes, I put them all in with the onions and only then put the mixture into the pan to heat up. In retrospect this was a good move (for my palate). The onions remained raw-ish (Technical Term Number 27 1⁄2 ) and slightly crunchy, and were the perfect foil for the softness of the beans and chopped tomatoes. I 'seasoned to taste' (it really is just what you want it to taste like, isn't it?) and again, I probably used too much black pepper. I made far too much, even just using half a tin of each ingredient and half the onions. Never mind – I scoffed the lot! The side salad was perfect – a few pieces of lambs lettuce, shredded beetroot, baby tomatoes with a libation of the same Italian dressing as Sam's chicken marinade. And lashings of black pepper. The wine was a huge mistake – totally inappropriate. I knew it, but it was the remains of last night's medicine, and had been laughing at me in the kitchen all the while I had been 'cooking' – it had to go! You'll be pleased to know that I made the same dish again last night (with the remnants of my earlier shopping) but this time I had a glass of Cotes du Rhone and it was much better. I wouldn't mind betting that a Valpolicella or similar would be better still. For my second meal, I did cook the onions a bit first, but I now realise that I prefer my first attempt when I unintentionally cooked the ingredients all together. I also added some 'mixed herbs' (season to taste!) but didn't notice any difference – maybe I didn't put in enough? I also added in one coarsely sliced fresh tomato to give it 'something else' – very nice. So that was MY FIRST EVER COOKED MEAL! And YOU were all instrumental in giving me the kick up the backside that I needed. Thank you, one and all XXX Anyway, that all took place on Friday night, and I fell into bed full of plumptiousness (Technical Term Number 27 3⁄4 !!). But all-too-soon Saturday morning arrived and I was all fired-up… "What to cook? What to cook?" I was like a man possessed! I'll tell you about that tomorrow. Good night! Barry The recipes: http://www.thecookingguy.com/cookbook/recipe.php?id=130

The Unwilling Cook - B.B.

Hi Heidi, Back home after spending the night with my friends, I cooked the second half of the Chicken in Rosemary, and Beans, Onions, Tomato, with the slight variations as enumerated earlier. It was just as delicious, and with the nicer Cotes du Rhone, I enjoyed it as much as MY FIRST MEAL! Did I mention my first meal? Stop me if you've heard it… (just kidding!) Now what to cook for breakfast? Eggs are an obvious choice for a budding cook, and I'm aware of the dangers of becoming 'egg-bound' apart from the cholesterol aspect! Still, "when one is an aspirational chef, one must be prepared to sacrifice oneself…"!! Another dear friend had phoned and told me of another recipe, then coached me as to what to do, over the 'phone. Because I'm such a cloth-head and I'll probably forget, I'll get it sent to me eventually written in an e-mail, but I'll tell you now what I can remember of all that I did. Forgive me if I forget a vital ingredient, like 'the cooker'… Ingredients: Three eggs (or two. Or one. Or none – in which case this recipe is then for a cheese and onion sandwich) Cheddar cheese (I prefer 'extra mature' for the added bite) or whatever your favourite is. Wheatmeal bread, two thick slices. 1⁄4 of an onion. Butter. Olive oil. Salt. Pepper, or "season to taste" 'cos I know what that is now :) Poncey garnish if you're a poncey garnish person, or naked if you're naked kind of person… Puta small knob of butter (about the size of the head of a teaspoon) in a panwith a tablespoon of olive oil. Heat until… hot. Putting it on the stove helps to do this. Beatthree eggs in a bowl (I was hungry, all right?) If you're not hungry, you have a choice - two eggs, one egg, or muesli… Choponion into small diced pieces and put into hot pan with the butter and oliveoil. It will then 'cook' (these Technical Terms just keep coming… try to keep-up as there will be a test at the end.) Gratesufficient cheese into the beaten egg to taste – I like 'cheesy' so Igrated a piece the size of a matchbox-and-a-half. Hmmm… It depends on how many eggs you're cooking too, I suppose. And how strong the cheese. Oh, sort it out for yourself… Seasonto taste (Tarrah!!! My first use of that golden phrase, that caused me so much angst, you may remember?) Toastthe bread, then butter it or not, to your taste. Addthe beaten 'cheesy-egg' (known in some parts of the world as'eggy-cheese') to the onions in the pan, and using a wooden spoon keepturning and gently beating (to fluff-up the egg) Whenthe scrambled egg looks like, er… scrambled egg, turn it out onto thebuttered toast. Garnishwith poncey bits of vegetation if you like, or just scoff it down withoutdelay… This is, apparently, fantastic with baked beans (the sort weget here in the UK in tomatosauce, and which is surprisingly difficult to find in parts of the US) –it makes a real 'hungryman's breakfast'. I'm still full, and it's well into the afternoon! And that's it from this Unwilling Cook. I'm still Unwilling, but I am a lot more amenable to learning than I ever thought I would be, thanks in the main to all of you who have taken the trouble to encourage me with your ideas. Bless you and thank you. Sincerely Barry

The Unwilling Cook - B.B.

I, like loads of others, learned to cook by watching my Mum when I was little. I found that time together relaxing, and in fact still use cooking as my biggest tension reducer - what could be more destructive than reducing a pile of veggies to fine dice? =D For me, food represents love and affection - I cook my family nice things because I love them, my Mum did the same for me as a child for the same reason - could you be feeling a little overwhelmed because you are missing the affection that food used to represent? I'm in Sussex - not a million miles away from you (at the bottom, by the sea), and I'd be happy to show you around my kitchen and the local supermarket, if you'd like to? As far as cooking for one goes - no, it's not fun. But I assume that you have a freezer? You'll find that things like chilli or bolognaise sauce taste better the 2nd time around. I always make more of these than I need - and then I freeze the rest in portions (how ever many spoonfuls you've just served yourself, is a good guide). Our local chinese takeaway cartons are often re used in this way ;-) Get to know when your local farmers market is - you'll find this an excellent source of meat and produce, always seasonal, and often organic. Also, the folk running the stalls will usually be happy to offer advice on the way to cook what they sell, and they usually have more time than their supermarket counterparts. Like wise for your fishmonger, if you like fish. Don't be afraid of using frozen veggies, and try to keep a storecupboard of things like a really good boullion powder or stock cube, chopped tinned tomatoes, tinned corn, condenced soup and even baked beans! All can be used to make standby meals. Get familiar with what you like to eat, and then make small changes, to give you confidence. THEN try something new and repeat the process. Ready steady cook is a good TV programme to watch for inspiration, (although I have to admit it drives me mad these days! It's just not the same without Fern...) Likewise the site at BBC.co.uk/food is a good place to start looking for choices. My first cookery book was the Hamlyn All Colour Cook Book (it's available from Amazon), and gives ideas about basic food such as shepherds pies, roast meats, casseroles and such. I'm a big fan of Delia, too (although yes, she can come across as patronising at times) I wholeheartedly agree with the suggestions about a slowcooker and a George Forman Health Grill - during the winter I use our slowcooker at least once a week, and the grill is used all year round (for fish steaks, chicken breasts, chops, and fabulous roasted veggies). Probably far more often than I use our microwave! Cut your self some slack - it sounds like you've had a massive change in circumstances, a huge knock. But, like anything else, practice makes perfect! Try to make your time in the kitchen as nice as possible - put on the radio, pour yourself a beer, and take your time if you can. If things go a bit wrong, then try to work out why and try again at a later date. But just think of the satisfaction for when things go well! Good luck with it all, I am sure that you'll be fine!


Please advise 60 year old man from Surrey to invest in a crockpot - you throw everything in raw around noon (or whenever you've got the energy) flip the switch and in a few hours you've got dinner and leftovers. I am an experienced cook but I default to this simple method of preparing meals for my family again and again. His wife was probably doing this for years! But warn him to stay away from any cookbook that requires pre-cooking of crock pot meats - too much busy work!


I'm writing this a bit on the fly, but I wanted to with you the best of luck, BB, and to add a couple of suggestions. For demonstration videos, see the food section on www.videojug.com. Simple recipes, simple presentation, and blessedly few fancy appliances. (See the video on basic Italian tomato sauce, for example--it really is that easy.) I'd also like to echo the comments of other readers who've recommended Mark Bittman's books. "How to Cook Everything" looks very imposing, but when you open it up and see the recipes, you'll find that they're very simple and use just a few fresh ingredients to great effect. (Mr. Bittman also has demonstration videos to accompany his Minimalist column on www.nytimes.com, which are terrific.) I particularly like his approach to cooking--it's very low-key, and it emphasizes that everyday home cooking from fresh ingredients is easy. I noticed that you're a stickler for precision. In some ways, I am, too. Even when I make coffee, I use very exact proportions--the same every morning--because I like it just so. It took a couple of trials for me to hit on those coffee-to-water proportions, but once I did, I was set. So never fear--there's plenty of room for precision in cooking. You'll just have to decide, for yourself, precisely what's meant by a "pinch" of pepper. That process has been great fun for me, so I have high hopes that you'll grow to enjoy it, too! "On Food and Cooking," by Harold McGee, explains the chemistry behind cooking processes. Most people wouldn't think to recommend such a book to an unwilling cook since it seems, on the surface, to be intimidating. In fact I think you might find it interesting--the chemistry and physics that make transform simple, plain ingredients into something altogether different might appeal to someone like you. It might be worth a look, anyway. Probably that approach would be the opposite of the "Man, Can, Plan" books--and I entirely understand if you would prefer that route--but I thought I'd at least mention this "other" side of cooking, because it would demystify much of the process. I only really became enthusiastic about cooking after I read a book that broke down recipes and explained why they contained what they did--once I understood the purpose of, say, lemon juice in a dish (its acidity might be there to balance sweetness, for example), it was a lot easier to translate vague directions ("a squeeze of lemon juice") into something more concrete. The reason such directions are vague, of course, is that everyone's palate is a little different--what cuts through sweetness for you might be excessively sour to someone else. So I suppose I would suggest that understanding your own tastes--by tasting things!--might make a difference for you. I hope that helps. My very best wishes to you. -C.


I got a cookbook in college (30 years ago) called the "On Your Own Cookbook" - very well written - starting with the basics. There was a glossary at the beginning that covered all the terms to be used. June Roth was the author. It's a great start!


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