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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Sounds to me like he needs to go back to where he started and find someone else to cook for him. Paul


Three options for a simple microwave omelet. Crack 2 eggs into a glass/ceramic cereal bowl. 1. Add a couple drops of hot pepper sauce, or just sprinkle with a couple of shakes 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. 2. Add a couple tablespoons of your favorite jarred salsa before you beat the eggs. 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 15 second increments if not fully cooked. 3. If veggies are desired, pick up a bag of frozen stir fried vegetables, or another favorite frozen veggie that is not corn or peas. (Mushrooms work too, but those must be bought fresh and sliced.) After scrambling the eggs with a fork, shake about 1/4 cup of the frozen veggies into the eggs, and then stir to coat them with the eggs. Microwave uncovered on high for 2 1/2 minutes, stir, and then microwave at 30 second intervals until all the egg 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. Best of luck!


It seems like everyone has good advice on easy things to cook, and how learning just a few simple techniques can make you seem and feel like a culinary genius. To add to the advice on cultivating enthusiasm, while I think that not having to administer tv dinners to your offended taste every evening should be sufficient cause for embarking on the learning-to-cook adventure, I have found that coming up with occasions to cook for other people, not just myself, makes me much more willing to learn new things in the kitchen. Now that I can kind of cook, I find a recipe that looks good in a magazine (magazines give really specific instructions), and use my friends as guinea pigs (they're my friends--they won't dump me if I make something poorly). Keeping in mind the prospect of being able to have friends over for dinner is a good way to motivate yourself to learn to get around with the "cooking box." Yes, being able to cook is a good way to get girls to swoon, but I think that it's even more appealing to have the option of staying in rather than going out when you want to spend quality time with friends. When you're the chef, you control the lighting and the music, the wine is much cheaper, there's no waiter to make you feel like you need to leave, and best of all, you don't have to drive or cab home and you're at liberty to drink perhaps a tiny bit too much.


I have a friend in the same situation -- he may have heated water for instant coffee while in college but that was the extent of his kitchen experience. I gave him a subscription to Cook's Illustrated Magazine and Cook's Illustrated "The Best 30 Minute Recipe" Cookbook. He is actually beginning to enjoy cooking and becoming quite competent in the kitchen.


Here's a great dish for a 60 year old man to make...it only involves one fresh item (assumes basic knife skill) and is a great anti-oxidant, loaded with lycopene. Green Bean, Tomatoes & Onions 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 can green beans 1 can diced tomatoes (look for w/out sugar)1 small to medium sized white onion Cut the onion into 1/2" to 3/4" sized pieces, place in a skillet in which you've just begut to heat the oil. Add both green beans and diced tomatoes and cook, uncovered, until the liquid from the vegetables evaporates. Season lightly with salt and pepper, to taste. Enjoy - make into a full meal by sprinkling grated cheese on top (your favorite hard cheese).


Buy yourself a Campbells Soup Cookbook, or go to their website and veiw the recipes online. The recipes are usually very simple with few ingredients. Great for beginners or people who are busy/in a hurry. Good luck!!


First, I am with you ! I got my first Betty Crocker cookbook as a Christmas present from my boss when I was 18 years old and still use it, over 20 years later, more than any other for 'base' recipes. It explains the cuts of meats and types of measurements. Try all of these that are available on amazon.com: Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today, Tenth Edition Betty Crocker 4-Ingredient Dinners Betty Crocker Bisquick II Cookbook: Easy, Delicious Dinners, Desserts, Breakfasts and More GOOD LUCK !


try on of the meal plans..like menues for MOMS, gives a pretty good meal for 5 days of the week, tells you what to buy and how much, and goes through preparation. There are others,, Saving Dinner, etc.. there is a new magazine in the US, called Best of Home, NEW COOKS.. tells you everything, moslty simple but good meals. janei


Do they have George Foreman grills over there? Impossible to mess up meat or fish in one of those, and they cook terribly quickly. I second what everyone said about the Joy of Cooking--it definitely overexplains basics like how to cook meat, veggies etc. But I still need someone to show me how to chop up enough vegetables for a stir fry without it taking three hours! : )

Kate Ward

Hi, B.B.: Even as "advanced" cooks, some of the best meals my husband and I make come from simply buying good ingredients and not doing much to them other than cooking them through. Roasted whole chicken, steamed veg with a bit of butter added at the end, etc. Once you master the basics, then you can get fancy, if you want: Put a little butter under the skin of the bird with some herbs mixed in. Steam two different types of vegetables together, or stir cooked vegetables into some cooked pasta with a little butter and shaved parmesan cheese. In time, you will be cooking real food as easily and quickly as the boxed, frozen kind, and you will feel much better for having done it. I do agree that a basic cookery class would be a great way to start, and a fun way to meet people. You might even meet someone who would want to cook with you, from time to time: You make the salad and I'll cook the steak... that sort of thing.


The English gentleman needs Mark Bittner's "How to Cook Everything." He wrote that book exactly waiting for B.B. in Surrey to need it.


Dear Mr. Englishman, So many people have already left you such good advice, but no one has really addressed the question of your lack of enthusiasm. I imagine that you are not only feeling lost in the kitchen, but that you are feeling like a three-legged stool that has a loose leg. I say that the best thing you could do for yourself is figure out what your favorite foods are. What do you like to eat? If you've had someone cooking for you all this time, you probably weren't designing the menu either. If you first figure out what you wish to eat, it will then most likely become more interesting to figure out how to make it. I agree with those who suggest that you find someone to cook with as well, because it can be awfully lonely and unsatisfying if you have no one to share the meal with. My husband is a fine cook and claims that he learned how to cook when he was in graduate school in order to be able to invite his female classmates over for dinner. That's why he's really good at pasta and chicken breast and vegetarian lentils - the three dishes that made those girls swoon. Food for thought, I hope.


I use Penzey's Spices which can be ordered online or catalog. They tell you what each spice is used for. The catalog is so helpful to read and understand what spices you would use or like. You can invite a few friends over each bringing a dish to prepare for an entire meal. Cooking together learning the dish and enjoying good company how much better does it get.


I am a huge fan of a rice cooker. You can do so many things with it. veggies, rice and throw in a chicken leg, olive oil, salt pepper and your good to go. Salads are my staples for everyday. You can't go wrong. You can put anything together and throw some canned tuna or chicken or a chopped avacado and you have a complete meal. On my blog I give a lot of detail and lots of pictures so people can see every step. A good book for beginners is the good old tried and true Betty Crocker cook book. My boyfriend used his all through college. Good Luck, Shara from www.pinkladyproductions.blogspot.com


When I began to cook, right after I got married, I unfortunately started out trying to make difficult things and that was so stupid. Start with simple things - eggs, sandwiches, roast chicken, maybe a pork chop, or pasta. Find simple flavors that you already like and use them in your cooking. Someone suggested watching Food Network for some ideas. That is a good idea. I wish I had had that when I began in 1989. I am such a good cook now because I've had experience. So start with simple things, maybe foods he had as a child or in a pub, things that are simple and go from there. Also there are some books out there for people who are not great at cooking - books with pictures of all the techniques in each recipe. That is a good thing. Good luck. Just remember, cook chicken until it is no longer pink inside, and the same with pork, but feel it. Make sure it has a tiny bit of give once it is cooked and get a good thermometer to test with!


I always recommend starting small. I never want to overwhelm my friends, when I show them how to cook. So eggs are good, hamburgers are better. Taking into account the english background, you could always start with bread pudding.


First, get a good knife. I remember my college days when cooking was so tedious because I was using a pathetic steak knife! Also, never cook for one. Either find a friend to share, or make extra and feed yourself for another day. And I agree--Alton Brown is excellent.


Well, I always love an opportunity to add my two cents worth, so here goes! I, too, once did not know how to cook. When I moved away to college on my own, my mom packed me off with a wonderful for-beginners cookbook that I have referenced many times: Betty Crocker's Cooking Basics: Learning to Cook with Confidence. This go-to source helps with measuring, converting quantities, substituting ingredients for what you actually have on hand, and understanding nutrition basics. Additionally, the recipes are manageable, all-time [American?] classics. There are other cookbooks that boast recipes with five ingredients or less, ones that require no cooking, recipes that only have seasonal ingredients in them, and quick, fast recipes. A cookbook that has all (or most) of these qualities is Real Simple’s Meals Made Easy. Lastly, many cookbooks like to include a grocery or pantry list. I often find these to be exhaustingly long or very specific to the recipes in that particular cookbook, not to my life. I make my list every week by thinking about what I want to eat for each meal, starting with breakfast. Oatmeal? Banana & yogurt? Lunch. Turkey sandwich & apple? Soda & coconut cake? I write those things down. The evening meal is more challenging because (if you’re like me) it requires planning. This is when cookbooks come in handy because I can flip through them, see what looks good, and then write down the ingredients for those recipes. Simple as that. It’s never too late to learn a new skill and, for me, discovering the delicious world of FOOD has been one of my favorite, most-indulged in pleasures.


I didn't read through all 80+ replies so forgive me if it has been mentioned, but the blog www.corduroyorange.com has an entire series on basic knife skills. It inludes how to hold the knife, and the difference between different cuts like dice and julienned. He also has a series on "mother sauces" covering things like a basic bechemel and how you can take that further.


Although I do cook from cookbooks, I learned from my mother, who is a chef. Before she was a chef though, she was a mom and mom's substitute a lot. I figured out recently that just about all of her recipes I adore are simple techniques. So for a starter cook, I think it's better to learn the techniques with simple recipes and then go from there. Do you have a friend that cooks? Or maybe you can take a class. I've seen some of Nigella Lawson's shows and she's pretty good about technique. You need to no how to bake something (I'm talking meats and such), how to saute and stir-fry, how to make a basic tomato and cream sauce and really thats about it for me. If you can get those few down, you'll be good for thousands of recipes.


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