Life Skills

Get Cookin’ Man!

Men need to learn to cook. This is true for various reasons, including the simple fact that….men need to eat! For me, the preparation of meals is a creative outlet. I enjoy trying different combinations of ingredients and working to find the best possible outcomes. Through this, I have found a few “cheat” ingredients and methods that I introduce to anyone who explores the cooking process with me.  The fundamentals behind the meal preparation method shared here will show that great meals, and even meals that seem fancy – don’t need to be expensive. 

Basic Ingredients

Let’s go over some basic ingredients that should be kept in your cabinet. These are the ingredients I use to season 85% of the meals I cook, and they should be staples in your kitchen too. There is no need to shop for these spices at high-end grocery stores. My wife and I prefer to buy our spices and many other ingredients at Aldi; they have a decent selection and good prices. If you don’t have a ‘discount’ grocery store close to you, you could wait for sales. Also, know that larger quantities of spices will cost you less per ounce, and won’t go bad in your cabinet. Many spices are sold in containers as little as an ounce – and these are placed at eye level on store shelves. Look at the bottom shelf! This is where the larger quantity of lower-priced spices are kept. This is where the deals are. For reference, in the following list, I’ll also show the size of the container that I’ve purchased. I hardly ever buy 1 ounce (oz) quantities of spices; if I do, it is for a very specific recipe.  

  • Iodized Salt; 26oz
  • Pepper; 5oz
  • Garlic powder; 18oz
  • Onion powder; 11.7oz
  • Paprika; 8.5oz
  • Oregano; 4oz
  • Cayenne; 2.5oz
  • Crushed Red Pepper; 10oz

Know Your Salts

Let’s dig into salt a little more before moving on to a recipe. Salt is important. It chemically changes the food you’re preparing, AND it changes the way your body reacts to food! Salt will aid in balancing the flavors of your meals and bringing out flavors in a dish which may be muted. Salt will also open your taste buds so that you are better able to taste the food you’ve so expertly prepared. There are many types of salt. For the most part, you will not need ‘fancy’ salts, but they certainly exist. For the recipes we’ll be doing together, I’ll be referring to regular iodized table salt. You can buy a large container for a couple of dollars and put it into a smaller refillable container for regular use. Different salts you may see: Iodized (table) salt, Kosher, pink Himalayan, grey, black, sea salt – there are also flavored salts. Each of these has different salinity. Yes, that’s right. Not all salt has the same saltiness! So, that’s why we are sticking with iodized table salts for our recipes – most recipes you read in books will defer to iodized table salt. You do not need much salt for it to work in your favor. ¼ teaspoon of salt per pound of meat is a good starting point. It is easy to over-salt a dish. Salt is in many pre-prepared food items: Tomato sauce, cheese, canned soups, and some spices, such as garlic salt/onion salt.  I stay away from spices that add salt because I can control the amount of salt in a dish better that way. If people want their serving more salty, they can add it after it is prepared.

Essential Pots and Pans 

I will also make the assumption that you may not have baking dishes, pots, pans, and cooking utensils. There are inexpensive ways to purchase these items. You can buy plates, silverware, metal cooking tools, and tongs, glass baking dishes and metal (shiny) pots and pans at thrift stores for 50 cents to $3.  If you prefer to use non-stick Teflon (metal, but has a black coating over the bare metal) pans, please buy new. These items can be handy for the new chef, but Teflon is easily scratched and can then flake off and get into the food you’re preparing. If you use a non-stick pan, Teflon or ceramic, remember to not use metal cooking implements. A pack of wooden (bamboo) cooking tools can be purchased at most higher-end grocery stores or Bed, Bath, and Beyond for less than $10. Bamboo is very durable and won’t easily burn or melt. Plastic is another option, but it can melt. Silicone is another choice, but it can be expensive. I use my bamboo for almost all cooking activities. I only use metal spatulas on my cast iron or aluminum/copper/stainless steel pans and glass baking dishes. 

Ok, now that we have a little bit of groundwork completed, let’s move on to our first recipe. 

Chicken Parmesan

This recipe can also be made vegan/vegetarian by substituting sliced eggplant for chicken and using the same method as described. Omit the eggs, if you prefer. Vegan Cheese, if you prefer.

For this recipe you’ll need:

9”x13” baking dish (clear glass) Brown glass is fine, but food will need to cook longer. * when the “ symbol is used after a number, it means inches. The ‘ symbol is feet.

9” skillet/frying pan – 9” is normal, 4” is small, 12” is as large as I would buy at this stage.

Wooden cooking tools and a metal spatula, cooking tongs, meat mallet (hammers work just fine if you don’t want to buy another cooking tool!)

Shopping list:

  • Packages of chicken breasts. I generally buy 6 breasts at a time so that I can have leftovers. 
  • Spaghetti sauce, if you like a lot of sauce, grab two jars.
  • Spaghetti/fettuccine/linguini/penne – whatever pasta you prefer
  • Parmesan cheese in a shaker bottle – OPTIONAL
  •  Mozzarella cheese You can buy a mozzarella log, or even just buy mozzarella string cheese. There are many options and all work. Pre-sliced cheese is great, but tends to be more expensive.
  • eggs
  • Bread crumbs (Panko) – OPTIONAL. They aren’t expensive but also aren’t needed. Or, you can use some stale bread you already own to make your own bread crumbs.
  • Olive oil
  • Flour
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Paprika

**Make it fancy**

In addition to the ingredients listed above, add in some herb seasonings – Oregano, Basil, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme for some great flavor.

**Make it Spicy**

Add in Cayenne pepper, additional Paprika, and/or Crushed Red Pepper Flakes.

This recipe assumes 6 completely thawed chicken breasts; see notes section below:

  1. Prepare a workspace on a counter.
  2. In a bowl, mix together ½ cup of flour, 1 teaspoon (tsp) salt, ¼ tsp ground black pepper, 1 tsp garlic powder, ½ tsp onion powder, ½ tsp Paprika. **if adding fancy ingredients, use ½ tsp each.  ** if adding spicy ingredients, use ¼ to ½ tsp. **These spices build in flavor and complexity if you’re going to use all/any of the *extra* spices, lower the amount of each. They can easily overwhelm the dish. Feel free to experiment with all or some of the ingredients and different amounts! 
  3. Place your chicken breast between two pieces of heavy plastic – freezer Ziploc bags work great.
  4. Use the smooth side of the meat mallet to gently pound out each chicken breast to about ½ inch thickness.
  5. Use a spoon to sprinkle the seasoning in even amount over both sides of the chicken breasts and press it in place, then set aside.
  6. (OPTIONAL) Beat two eggs in a bowl and set aside.
  7. (OPTIONAL) Mix 1 cup of bread crumbs and dried ½ cup parmesan cheese in a bowl and set aside.
  8. Turn on the oven to 450 degrees.
  9. Heat up 1 cup olive oil in the skillet on medium heat. The oil is ready to use when a few droplets of water pop when introduced to the oil. If it starts to smoke, it is too hot. 
  10. Take your chicken breasts and coat them in egg, and then coat them in the bread crumbs and cheese and place them in the skillet. ** If you decided to leave out the bread crumbs and parmesan step, you can also leave out the egg wash and place your seasoned chicken directly in the skillet.
  11. Fry the chicken breasts for two minutes per side and then place in the 9”x13” baking dish – You may need to add more olive oil to the skillet if it gets used up.
  12. Pour the spaghetti sauce over your fried chicken breasts
  13. Place a slice of Mozzarella cheese over the top of each chicken breast
  14. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes. 
  15. While the chicken is baking, boil some water and prepare the pasta as the instructions on the box say to. 
  16. When the chicken is finished baking, the cheese will be light brown and bubbly, and the chicken will no longer be pink in the middle. To be safe, check the largest piece of chicken with a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the breast – the temperature should read 165 degrees to be fully cooked. Or, cut it open and make sure it is white all the way through.

Once the chicken is ready and the pasta is cooked, you’re ready to EAT! Arrange the pasta and chicken any way you like, I usually put down a layer of pasta and then the chicken and sauce over it. Feel free to add a side of vegetables or salad. Garlic bread is always a hit.

Additional thoughts to consider: 

  • **Buying frozen chicken breasts is a great cost-saving method. Be sure to give yourself enough time to thaw them. Either overnight in the refrigerator, or in cold water in the sink. It can be surprising how long it takes to thaw chicken. Your chicken needs to be completely unfrozen before starting to cook, or else there is a serious risk of chicken that is raw in the middle and burned on the outside.
  • ** I greatly caution against thawing meat in the microwave. I have found that it usually becomes cooked, rather than thawed – and this takes away from the dish you are about to create.
  • Preparing chicken this way does take a little bit of work, but the results are worth the effort. Remember that cooking takes time, and the best tasting meals are not cooked quickly. Meat has a tendency to become tough if cooked quickly, so take the time needed and don’t turn the skillet up on high. 
  • Prepare 8-10 chicken breasts like this and keep some out of the sauce for leftovers in the refrigerator. This is a great base for an amazing chicken sandwich! Just re-heat with cheese on top and add a bun, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise and you have yourself another great meal.
  • Eggplant was listed as a vegetarian option for this meal. Slice it an inch thick and cook it the same way the recipe states for chicken. Even if you aren’t strictly vegetarian, this is a great meal by itself or used as a side dish for another entrée. 

I wish you all the best and hope your meal has turned out fantastically! Take your time, practice a time or two when you aren’t trying to impress anyone.

Be Courageous. I know you can do it!
Warrior On!

Ben Cohen

Benjamin Cohen currently resides in Kansas City, MO with his wife, Sandra, and one-year-old son, Oliver.  They fellowship at a Southern Baptist Church and are invested in young adult ministries. Ben’s desire is to lead people on the path toward living out Matthew 22:35-40: The Greatest Commandment: Love God; and the second is like it: Love Others.

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