07/18/2012 10:25 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2012

How To Cook If You Don't Cook

It always baffles me when I run into someone who doesn't cook; it's like finding out they don't eat. But who am I to judge? My father was a carpenter and I can barely hammer a nail. My mother was a wonderful seamstress and I'd rather glue on a button than sew it. Clothing and shelter are human needs, just like food, yet I have relied upon others to provide them for me. So, too, the non-cookers who have found that restaurants, pizza delivery, deli and housemates can provide all the food they need. But after many conversations with bright and talented friends who have no interest in cooking, I have concluded that even the most resistant among them would like to be able to fix their own supper once in a while.

Yet most well-meaning cooking mentors try to coax the kitchen-resistant into learning to cook by starting with the basics: measuring, techniques, and using the best ingredients. That's like my father showing me the proper way to use a power drill or my mother telling me to measure my fabric before cutting it. That's where they'd lose me. I don't like to do those things, so my eyes gloss over. It may be to my own detriment, but so it is.

And so, too, with the kitchen-resistant. They didn't learn to cook in the first place because cooking didn't interest them and someone else was doing it for them. Now grown, they are not cooking for three main reasons: they don't have the ingredients on hand; they don't have the tools; and they don't have the interest to sustain a prep job that requires getting out a lot of measuring cups and other tools and going step by step over a confusing recipe. They want fast food. What works for experienced cooks is not going to work for kitchen-resistant cooks. So here's my advice to people who don't cook.

Keep a few non-perishable ingredients on hand. Dried pasta and rice are basics. Pre-grated parmesan from the deli, not the green can. Keep it in your freezer. No, it's not fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, but that's okay; others can serve you that. And don't worry about having lots of spices. Have three. Anthony Bourdain says if you don't take the time to chop fresh garlic, you don't deserve to eat garlic. But then again, he eats eyeballs, testicles, and pig anus. Yes, fresh garlic is essential to quality cooking, but if you rely on fresh garlic, it is going to sprout and mold and end up tossed out and you won't have it when you need it. Buy already peeled garlic and freeze it, or get some dried, minced garlic (Penzey's is a good one). If it's dried, dilute with a spoonful of water when you need it. Notice I said spoonful, not teaspoon. Don't worry about precision; just grab a spoon from the drawer.

Get some red pepper flakes, and one herb, whether thyme, rosemary, or basil. If you like basil, and you do, consider buying pesto sauce and freezing it in ice cube trays. It will be there when you need it. Rosemary also freezes well, and so does dill. If you see fresh dill at the store or in your neighbor's garden, snatch it up and stick it straight in the freezer. Just snip what you want when you want it. But of course, you won't know when you want it, so I'm telling you: whenever you put butter on something (as long as it isn't sweet). Butter and dill are divine, especially if you add some garlic and lemons. As for lemons, just pop a couple in the freezer. They thaw in about thirty seconds in the microwave. Squeeze on your vegetables, add salt. It's done. Keep butter in the freezer if you don't even keep that ingredient on hand, and buy a bottle of olive oil and keep it in the fridge. Other cooks might keep it near the stove, but they use it regularly. You don't, so don't let it get rancid. It will get cloudy in the refrigerator, but that's okay; it's fine when it warms up.

Remember you only need a few tools, not an entire tool shed. Even though I don't know any carpentry and can't use a sewing machine, I still have a bucket of tools and a sewing box on hand for what I can manage. And so, too, with the kitchen. Get a 6-quart pot (the size of a small basketball or great big hat box) for boiling things, one Pyrex baking pan for baking things, and one non-stick skillet for sautéing things. A small saucepan is handy too, but start with the three for now. Add one good knife (it will always be dull, so get this sharpener and you'll love it), a big cutting board (toss out that one you have that's the size of a coaster; it's like chopping onions on a domino. Get a big one.)

And get a colander, a good pair of tongs (a bad pair will enrage you; don't risk it), and a timer (or two). The timer is essential, because you need to keep track of what you're doing and since you probably aren't all that interested in what you're doing, you need reminders. How to make pasta? Get a big pot of water, drop a spoonful of salt into it so it tastes like seawater. When it boils, add the dried pasta, set the timer for 6 minutes, taste, set for two more minutes if it needs it, taste again. Drain. See why the timer? If you didn't have one, you'd wander off to check your email and get back to it once it's turned to slime.

Learn three recipes, no more, no less. Teach yourself to make three simple things and you'll be able to come up with a decent meal whenever you want one. Get on Youtube and find a good demonstration of how to make an omelet. (I won't teach you because I hate eggs, but that's my own weirdness, don't let it be yours.) Find a recipe for spaghetti in garlic, red pepper flakes and butter. Learn it. And learn to make a Caesar salad. You don't have to make the dressing yourself no matter what the cookbooks say; that's for people who like to play in the kitchen. You like to get out of it. Buy a good quality bottled Caesar dressing and to hell with the culinary snobs.

Here's an easy Caesar salad: Wash and dry some romaine lettuce. If you don't have a salad spinner, and you probably don't, wrap it in a cotton towel and stick it in your washing machine. Put on the spin cycle. Take it out and it's ready. But don't throw it in the dryer; rip the greens apart. Toss with some of your pre-grated parmesan. Add anchovies if you like them. Then add croutons. Boxed if you must, but they're super easy to make. Start by just ripping up some stale bread and baking (in your baking pan) at 350 for fifteen to twenty minutes. As you get braver in the kitchen, drizzle the bread with a bit of olive oil and add some garlic and herbs before baking. But that complication can come later. Just rip and toast for starters. When you've made a batch, keep it in a plastic zip-lock bag in your freezer.

The secret to getting in the kitchen if you're kitchen-resistant isn't about mastering a lot of techniques and recipes. It's about creating a kitchen that works for you. And for you that means minimal prep, minimal mastery, and minimal stress. Don't worry about learning to cook. Think about learning to keep a few things on hand that won't rot before you use them; learning to make just three things (and they might not be the three things I've listed here; they might be steak, baked potato and salad or prawns, rice and sautéed spinach. You decide.) And don't even think about measuring properly, slicing perfectly, or memorizing a million flavor combinations. Think about getting in and out of the kitchen as fast as you can with as much fun as you can and before you know it you'll be doing what you really love; which isn't cooking at all. But who knows where that first batch of croutons might lead? After all, Julia Child was middle-aged before she ever learned to make an omelet. So why not get in the kitchen and break an egg...