As someone who writes and teaches about food professionally, I’m not surprised that people like to talk to me about food. Sometimes the conversation is about their favorite dishes or meals, but often it’s about how they perceive themselves as cooks.

“I’m a good cook” or “I love to cook” are my favorite comments to hear. When people are confident in the kitchen and enjoying themselves in the process, the results are so much more likely to be delicious.

The “I’m a terrible cook” or “I don’t know how to cook” folks always make me a little sad, because I know both statements simply aren’t true. Some people enjoy cooking more than others, but everyone has the ability to be a decent cook.

When I was growing up, my mom used to tell me, “If you can read a recipe, you can cook.” While she may have been simplifying it a bit, the idea is true. Still, I know from experience that people tend to feel more like a “real” cook if they can walk into the kitchen and cook a meal (beyond scrambled eggs and grilled cheese) without using a recipe.

For that reason, I like to encourage people to create a culinary repertoire of basic and versatile dishes that can stand up to substitutions in ingredients. For example, once you learn how to make a basic risotto (a dish that’s not nearly as hard as you might think it will be), you shouldn’t have to look up a recipe for lemon risotto, or mushroom risotto, or zucchini risotto. Even if you do feel more comfortable with a recipe for those variations, it will most likely only be as a quick reference.

Lasagna is another good one to learn because the possibilities are endless. Want to make a summer vegetable lasagna? Just sauté some zucchini and corn and add to the layers. Don’t have time to layer? Just toss the cheese filling and sauce with some cooked pasta tubes and you have baked ziti. Feeling meaty? Throw in some cooked Italian sausage. In the mood for spaghetti and meatballs? Well, you’ve already learned how to make a good marinara sauce, so how hard can it be?

Homemade pizza, pot pie, stew and soup are all natural fits. Technically, all you have to do to make soup is fill a pot with water and toss in whatever you have on hand. Of course, to make a good soup takes a step or two more, but once you’ve learned the basics, the sky is the limit.

A subset in the soup category and one that’s useful to learn is chowder, which is a simple concept. Just sauté diced onions in a bit of fat, sprinkle in a little flour if you want a slightly thicker chowder, add potatoes, stock and a little cream and you have a basic but very satisfying meal. Clam chowder can be made by substituting clam juice for some of the stock and adding clams, in or out of the shells. Lobster chowder is done the exact same way; only substitute lobster meat for clams. Want lobster and corn chowder? Simply toss a few cups of corn in with the lobster. Done! You can make it more complex by adding herbs, bacon or other ingredients, or not.

Another type of corn chowder was a hit in my kitchen this week. This time it was a Southwest Corn and Chorizo Chowder. I made it by sautéing some chorizo sausage, along with onions and a variety of peppers as my base and added potatoes, corn and tomatoes. The result was summer on a spoon.

While I hope you try this version, don’t feel like you have to stick to the recipe precisely. I’ve made chowder a million different ways, winging it every time, and so can you.


Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at Follow her on Twitter at ­ @meredithdeeds.