My dad sends emails with the subject lines "FW: Buzzle finger monkeys"; and "The white stuff is seaweed meringue"; and "Dad featured in People magazine" (not exactly accurate); and "Thought I might grill some toad for dinner." That last message included this image...
...and the body text: "Think food 52 would be interested?"
But he was just as surprised to see my email to him (I know I should have called but it's 2016): "Can you share your cooking advice with me?"
"You want my advice on cooking??"—two question marks!—was the response. My dad sees upwards of 30 patients a day and competes in crazy-person Ironman events; he operates on infants' eyeballs and organizes 200-mile running relays. But he is not an elaborate or ambitious cook. (He knows this.)
But yes, yes, I did want his advice—as someone who makes 30-minute dinners for my mom and himself almost every night. (That's more than I can say.)
So I called him up and asked him what he'd learned about cooking over the years. Over the course of our conversation, in which we were both tearing up from laughing so hard (and I could hear my mom chiming in in the background), here's what he said to say.
On what "cooking" means:
- I started cooking in college. The summer between junior and senior year, I lived with two college buddies. [...] I was working in a research lab and I had to figure out what to do with lunch and that sort of thing. The only thing I remember was the lunch: these little mini hot-dogs that I used to microwave—they were delish.
- Cooking is when the cook/operator manipulates the food in any way that involves, I guess, temperature. I wouldn’t call pouring cereal into a bowl "cooking." I’m on the border of whether microwaving counts or not. Frozen meals are not cooking—but these hot dogs, they got cooked. It was not just a question of them being hot rather than cold—there were chemical reactions going on that made them delicious.
On his cooking philosophy and priorities:
- I give you carte-blanche to elaborate any way you want. Or you can just leave it: "Dad not exactly sure."
- Since Mom and I are busy and we’re often tired when we get home, we don’t want the preparation to be too complicated. On the average night, I spend 30 minutes cooking. We usually have pasta, which is the go-to because it’s hard to do potatoes in 30 minutes, or couscous; Mom made quinoa the other night, but it wasn’t enhanced with any sort of flavor, so it was kind of dull. By the time you boil the water and get the pasta done, that’s 20 minutes. In the meantime, you can marinate the fish, which grills up pretty fast. We use the grill 250 days a year. That also shortens the clean-up.
- I get out the recipe book every time I’m making pesto because I can never remember proportions. Other than that, no. I have not used any sort of cookbooks at all because what I do is so basic.
On kitchen hygiene:
- If I want to fill a pot to boil water, I used to use hot water out of the tap figuring I could get to my goal faster, but I’ve recently been told that that’s a no-no. One should not use hot tap water when you’re going to boil stuff. It’s a question of potential contamination with bacteria, I think, but I’m not exactly sure. If I’m going to do it, I make sure I’m alone. And that’s a general principle: There are things that are perfectly fine to do in the kitchen if you’re totally alone, but if there’s any chance of anyone seeing you, err on the side of caution.
- The basic principle is that you don’t have to be as compulsive about the hygiene if you’re not going to be caught.
- If you add some oil to water in which you’re going to cook pasta, you have to wash the pot afterwards. It’s my belief that certain types of pasta will clump less if you add oil to the water. The clumpy type of pasta—the long stringy stuff—will clump less. You can get shells to clump, but if you do that, you definitely have a bad ratio of pasta to water.
[Editor's note: When I told him adding oil to pasta water was useless, his response: “You are obliged, if you do this useless activity, to wash the pot afterwards, because if someone takes it out later and thinks it’s clean and makes steel-cut oats in it, she will be very angry." That someone is my mom.]
- Sponges are meant to be wrung out: “rinse and wring." I like the sound of that; it's alliterative (there must be some special name since they don’t start with the same letter).
On what not to do:
If the milk tastes really bad, don’t use it—regardless of the last sale date, and I don’t want you to single out Whole Foods for this, but I think it’s a problem.
Don’t make Yorkshire pudding too often because the novelty is good once or twice, but then people start asking what it is—so you don’t want to make it too often.
If you are preparing a late-night snack, particularly if you are under the influence, do not use a stove—microwave is probably okay; I haven’t had an experience, but I’ve had family members who will go unmentioned who’ve had very bad experiences; there's nothing like coming down at 1:30 A.M. and finding the stove just on.
If you’re making refrigerator cookies from a commercial roll, don’t overcook them—better to undercook than overcook. That goes for pasta too, of course.
On being creative (and resourceful):
- I highly recommend frequent use of the pre-washed, pre-snipped green beans in a microwave bag. It’s delicious—you can serve it at dinner parties. Puncture once with a fork, 3 to 5 minutes in the microwave. Don’t burn yourself when you open up the bag.
- This is one you’ve never thought of: If the pasta is hot, you can add cold pasta sauce to it. The heat of the pasta will warm up the sauce. However, it works better with long pasta than with macaroni and shells. The heat is more evenly distributed with the long pasta.
- Leave this to the end of this exposé: Don’t be afraid to be inventive—you can experiment with different types of boxed pasta shapes. You can really mix things up; there’s different types of rice you can prepare, you can have different types of potatoes.
- That’s the sort of question [whether warm water comes to a boil faster than cold water] I’d ask the "Car Talk" guys.
What's the best—or best-worst—piece of cooking advice your dad has given you? Share it with us in the comments below!