My dear rebel friend, it’s time to grow up and learn how to cook a decent meal.
I know, I know, the kitchen is a scary place: there’s all kinds of things that can set you on fire, a spice rack with spices you’ve never even heard of before, sharp objects that can slice and dice you, and an oven that has probably gone unused since you moved in. If you want to eat healthier, save money, and/or impress your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/date, you need to learn how to cook at least one decent meal.
No, heating up a frozen dinner in the microwave doesn’t count.
Fortunately, I’m going to teach you how to make a ridiculously healthy, fun, and delicious meal that will take you all of 30 minutes. I’m a big fan of making small changes, so rather than overwhelm you with all kinds of crazy options, I’m going to keep things excruciatingly simple, and allow you to build some confidence and momentum before expanding into other meals and more difficult variations.
My History With Cooking
Up until about two years ago, I had no freaking clue what I was doing in the kitchen.
I knew how to cook burgers on a grill, dump some salad dressing into one of those pre-made salad bags and shake it up, and boil spaghetti and add a can of Prego. I wasn’t what you would call a “good cook,” because I really didn’t “know what I was doing.”
Over the past few years of running Nerd Fitness however, I’ve finally gotten over my fear of cooking (okay, so maybe it wasn’t so much fear as it was apathy and laziness) and learned how to cook a few decent meals (like chicken, asparagus, and brown rice). I now quite enjoy preparing a meal for myself and others knowing that I actually MADE it. This is one of the coolest feelings in the world, and it makes the food taste that much better.
So, if you’re one of those people who’s never cooked and has no idea where to start, fear not young Padowan, for there is hope for you yet.
Allow me to show you the light.
Chicken Vegetable Stir-fry
Last week while at Kina Backpackers Hostel on Waiheke Island, Jonas, David, Kimberly, Erica, and myself all decided to cook dinner together.
I volunteered to contribute in one of the only ways I knew how: “I’ll cook a chicken vegetable stir-fry!” I had no idea what kind of vegetables we had or what kind of spices and sauces were available in the house, but as long as I had some chicken and a pan I knew I could MacGuyver a decent meal out of it.
As it turned out, we had fresh chicken breast, carrots, cucumbers, mushrooms, peppers, and onions. No soy sauce, no other sauce, but we did have olive oil, salt and pepper, and fresh lemon. Now, I had never cooked with any of these vegetables before, and not having any specific stir-fry sauce was also new to me, but I knew this type of meal is so easy that even I couldn’t screw it up.
Here’s how I cooked it, and how you can do the same.
A quick note to you great cooks out there: yeah, I’m probably doing something wrong; yes, I know you can marinate the meat beforehand to bring out the flavor. I’m working on teaching folks to crawl before they can walk, so that’s why things are so simple here – feel free to add your suggestions in the comments at the end, but keep things simple!
Ingredients and Supplies
Here’s what you need for ingredients:
- Fresh chicken breast - you know, the kind you can buy at the store for like four bucks for a large amount of chicken. Note: once you buy fresh chicken, you should cook it within 24 hours or toss it in the freezer. The chicken will resemble something like this:
- Fresh vegetables: this depends on what kind of vegetables you like. “But I don’t like vegetables!” You’re going to have to learn, sweetheart. I hated vegetables until I was 22 (no joke), and now I love them. You don’t need to start with a billion different kinds. Pick one, two, or three that you love. For me, that would be string beans, broccoli, and probably carrots. Yes, if you only like broccoli, you can still make a mean chicken-broccoli stir-fry. And yeah, you can go with frozen vegetables if you’re in a bind or like to stock up on food all at once, but I think going with fresh and cutting them yourself makes for a better meal.
- Some sort of cooking sauce/oil: If you don’t mind the extra sugar and sodium, pick up a bottle of low-sodium soy sauce (if you like the taste of soy sauce). If not, a simple bottle of olive oil or coconut oil and a fresh lemon or lime will be enough to get you a decent flavor.
- Spices: Check your counter top or pantry, I bet you have a spice rack. At the least, some salt and pepper. Garlic powder or onion powder is good as well. All we had at our hostel was salt and pepper, so that’s what I used.
- A sweet potato or two (optional): If just chicken and veggies doesn’t sound like enough food to you, or you’re trying to build muscle and need more calories, or maybe you just want some variety, pick up a sweet potato or two. If you don’t know what they look like, they look like smaller version of a regular potato and the insides are orange. And they’ll be under the sign labeled “sweet potato.” In the “sweet potato” section.
Here’s what you need for supplies:
- Wok/skillet/pan – Something that you can cook the chicken and vegetables in. If you don’t have one, go to Target and buy one for $15 bucks. The non-stick ones are worth the extra money, by the way.
- Sharp knife – To cut your vegetables and chicken. Invest in a decent knife – it’ll make your life in a kitchen ten times easier.
- Spatula – To flip the chicken and vegetables.
- Stove top – Duh.
- Oven (optional) – In case you want to add in the sweet potatoes.
- Tin foil and cookie sheet /tray (optional) – For the sweet potatoes.
Okay! So we have our ingredients. Now lets get everything ready.
- Wash your hands. We don’t need the germs from your Xbox controller on the chicken now do we? I kid, I kid.
- But seriously, wash them.
- Optional (sweet potatoes): Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Cut up your sweet potato into thin discs, maybe a centimeter thick.
- Optional (sweet potatoes): Line a cookie sheet with tin foil, put your sweet potato “discs” on the tray, and drizzle them with olive oil. Use your hands to make sure the top of each is covered with olive oil, and then flip them over and do the same to the other side. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Wash your vegetables. If you got your vegetables from the store, it’s important to wash them. Run them under your faucet for a few seconds, and then lay them out to dry on paper towels.
- Cut up your vegetables. Cut your veggies into bite sized pieces. If it’s broccoli, cut it into tiny florets (I think that’s the right word for them…if not, OOOPS). If it’s string beans, cut them in half. If it’s carrots, cut them into tiny slices. Here’s what our vegetables looked like all cut up (THANKS Jonas!):
- Cut your chicken! Right now, you have a giant blob of a chicken breast sitting in front of you. It’s pink, it’s gooey, and feels weird to touch. Get used to it. Place the chicken on a cutting board, and using your knife, start cutting the chicken into small pieces. I like to lay the chicken the long way, cut it into vertical half inch strips, and then cut each strip in half the other way. You should be left with a plate full of tiny chicken pieces.
- Wash your hands again. Get all of that raw chicken gunk off your hands.
As Izzy Mandelbaum famously once said, “It’s GO TIME!” Here’s what you need to do next:
- Optional - stick your sweet potatoes in the oven, and set the timer for 15 minutes.
- Put your skillet on the stove top, and set the temperature to medium (on a 1-9 stove top, I go with 5).
- Dump all of your chicken into the skillet/pan. If it’s in a giant glob, use your spatula to spread the pieces out.
- Add your sauce: If it’s soy sauce, squirt some of on top of your chicken. If it’s olive oil, drizzle it over your chicken. Note: your chicken does NOT need to be swimming in the stuff, just enough to coat the chicken will suffice. I learned my lesson on this after I accidentally used half a bottle of soy sauce on my first attempt.
- Add some flavor: If you have a lemon/lime, cut a wedge and squirt it on your chicken. If you have some spices (sea salt and ground pepper, garlic powder, etc.), give it a healthy shake over the pan. I like a lot of pepper, but I go light on the salt.
- Hang out. It’s going to take some time for that chicken to cook. This is where I amuse myself by using my spatula and flipping over parts of the chicken, toss it up in the air, and pretend like I know what I’m doing. I’d say it generally takes about 10-15 minutes for the chicken to cook if you want a ballpark figure.
- Check on the chicken. If you’ve seen uncooked chicken, and you’ve seen cooked chicken…you should be able to tell the difference. The best way I can tell is to use the edge of my spatula to cut through one of the pieces to make sure the inside is COMPLETELY cooked. I’d rather err on the side of slightly overcooked than undercooked. Here’s what our cooked chicken looked like:
- Once the chicken is done, dump it onto a clean plate. We’ll come back to it in a few minutes.
- (Optional): Once the 15 minute timer is done (which should be right around now), pull the potatoes from the oven, use your spatula to flip each of them over, and put them back in for another 15 minutes.
- Dump your vegetables into the pan, and repeat the same flavoring process you used on the chicken: Yes, I know some vegetables cook faster than others, but I’m too lazy to figure out those times, and I usually only cook with one or two veggies, so we’re keeping things simple here. Dump your vegetables into the pan, douse them in your soy sauce/olive oil/lemon/salt/pepper/garlic powder/whatever.
- Hang out. Get all dramatic, flip the veggies with your spatula, toss them up in the air with the pan, yell things in foreign languages, whatever works for ya. When you think your vegetables are done, grab a fork, stick one, wait for it to cool down, and taste it. If it tastes done, it’s done.
- Dump your chicken back in. Dump your chicken back into the vegetables, and give it about another 60-90 seconds. Use your spatula to flip stuff around, mix it up, and get a good ratio of chicken to vegetables going. Think of it like a giant party, and you’re helping everybody mingle.
- Turn off the stove top, dump your pan of food onto a plate, and either cover it up or serve it up!
- (Optional) Pull your sweet potatoes out of the oven once that second 15 minute timer is up, and serve those up as well.
- (not optional) Crack open a beer - You just finished your first complete meal. Grab yourself a cold one, pat yourself on the back (not with the hand currently holding the beer, that gets messy), sit down at the dinner table, and enjoy the healthy home cook meal you just prepared.
Tips and Tricks
A few other things to note:
Everybody’s ovens/stove tops are different, so your time to cook will vary based on how much chicken and vegetables you’re cooking! Keep an eye on things the first few times you try this meal (maybe even start a stop watch at the beginning), so you know when to expect your chicken to finish.
Sweet potatoes are tricky. I’ve burned my share of sweet potatoes in the oven because I left them in there too long. Above I recommend 15 minutes per side; it might only be 10 minutes or 12 minutes in your oven. Set the timer for 10 minutes, and check on them at that point. If they look done, flip em over! If not, give them a few more closely supervised minutes.
Start basic, expand from there. I’m a simple man, so I could eat the above meal every night for the rest of my life and be content. If you need more variety, feel free to experiment with different spices/sauces/meats (steaktip stir fry – mmmmmm). Make small changes each time you make the meal, and decide afterward if it was a good change or a bad change.
Try sliced almonds. I bought a bag of sliced almonds to add some last second crunch to my stir fry. Right when I’d add the chicken back into the mix, I would dump a handful of sliced almonds into the mix – just enough time for them to get some flavor and cook slightly. They add some good fats and healthy calories to a meal – perfect for somebody trying to stay healthy but build muscle.
Look up other recipes. Again, I’m not a chef, nor do I play one on television. Look up other recipes online and follow those directions; once you can cook something once, that should give you confidence into trying something else. Simply buy the ingredients they tell you to, follow their directions, and see how it turns out.
Be proud. Once you can cook a meal or two in the kitchen, you’re better off than a huge portion of our population. Invite your friends over for dinner every once and a while, offer to cook for your significant other a few times a week, and practice, practice, practice.
How do YOU Stir fry?
So, that’s how I do it. How do you cook stir fry? Any advice for a newbie cooker? If you’re a newbie, do you have any questions?
I’ll get to these responses as soon as I can, but until then I’ll be rappelling, zip-lining, and tubing through glowworm caves of Waitomo courtesy of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. All in a day’s work I guess.
For the Rebellion…
Today’s Rebel Hero: Ricardas P., who ordered a shirt all the way from Lithuania!
He was one of the first dudes to purchase a shirt way back on day one, and patiently waited over two months for it to make its way all the way across the pound and into eastern Europe.
After taking this photo, Ricardas proceeded to run 57 miles per hour on a treadmill for 72 hours straight. He also stopped a bank robbery, threw a minivan over the moon, and then saved an orphaned puppy from a burning building. I’m not saying the shirt gives people super powers…but hey, the results don’t lie.