Ashley feels cursed in the kitchen. She’s the oldest of three, and during her teen years her mother relegated her to dishwasher duty after she made pancakes with a cup of salt instead of sugar. “They tasted like pretzels,” she says. Her culinary attempts in college were equally disastrous. (Even hot dogs came out overcooked and rubbery.) Ashley’s husband, Zach, a 25-year-old fellow graphic designer whom she married last October, isn’t exactly Jamie Oliver himself. “I’m happy to put cheese in a tortilla, stick it in the microwave, and call it dinner,” he says. As a result, the two live on grilled boneless chicken breasts, frozen pizza, and plain pasta. “Zach has lost 10 pounds since we got married,” says Ashley. “I’m worried that I’m going to starve him to death.” She has tried to find inspiration in cookbooks but panics at words like braise, and the last time she attempted to shake things up, with a recipe for breaded chicken cutlets, she had to toss the whole thing in the garbage. “The crust was a perfect golden brown, but the chicken was raw,” she says. “If I can’t throw it on my countertop grill, I’m lost.”
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First things first: Ashley’s kitchen was a little understocked, so Real Simple food director Allie Lewis Clapp and associate food editor Emily McKenna took her shopping for gear. Then they showed Ashley a go-to technique for cooking her beloved chicken and gave her a few quick flavoring tricks. But the greatest lesson? Remembering to slow down. “Emily taught me that when I’m in the middle of a recipe and things get overwhelming, I can just turn off the heat and step away from the stove,” says Ashley. Words of wisdom indeed.
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Invest in the Essentials
“Cooking is so much easier with the right tools,” says Allie. But that doesn’t mean an arsenal of gourmet doodads. “With some basic items, you can cook almost anything,” she says. Allie and Emily rounded out Ashley’s supplies using this checklist as a guide.
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Sharpen Your Knife Skills
Ashley owned a good knife set (a wedding gift), but the blades were so sharp, they seemed unused. And, in fact, they were. “I’m so accident-prone, I was afraid I’d hurt myself,” she says. Next lesson: mastering one of the most common kitchen tasks.
“It’s the difference between a good cook and a great cook,” says Allie. She tossed Ashley’s salt and pepper shakers, explaining, “It’s better to use kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. They have much more flavor.” Also, adding salt with your fingers gives you more control. A few additional tips on how to spice things up:
Acids, like lemon juice, lime juice, and vinegar, brighten cooked meats, vegetables, and grains. Use them as a finishing touch.
Herbs add complexity. Keep long-lasting ones, like fresh thyme, on hand to toss into roasts and sautés. Sprinkle chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley on finished dishes.
Olive oil enhances the flavor of vegetables and pastas. Drizzle it on before serving.
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Roasting Is Foolproof
Ashley was surprised to learn that roasted bone-in chicken pieces require the same prep time as her grilled chicken breasts but are much more moist and flavorful. Plus, she can throw vegetables onto the same pan for a dish that comes suspiciously close to being a balanced meal.
In the Bush household, side dishes were nonexistent (which might explain some of Zach’s weight loss). Allie introduced Ashley to three filling whole grains—quinoa, barley, and bulgur (pictured at right, from top)—and showed her how to dress them up with some throw-in-and-go ingredients.
Mix-Ins for Quinoa, Barley, and Bulgur
Cook ¾ cup of the desired grain according to the package directions, then fold in one of these easy combinations. (Each recipe serves 4.)
Raisins, Almonds, and Scallions Fold in ¼ cup raisins, ½ cup chopped roasted almonds, and 2 chopped scallions. Season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.
White Beans, Tomatoes, and Parmesan Fold in 1 cup rinsed cannellini beans, 1 cup halved grape tomatoes, ½ cup grated Parmesan, and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley. Season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.
Olives and Oregano Fold in ½ cup quartered pitted kalamata olives and 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano. Season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper.
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Two Weeks Later...
Ashley now cooks two meals a week (“Allie suggested starting slowly,” she says) and posts pictures of her creations on Facebook, to the amazement of her friends. “Our dinners have definitely improved,” says Zach. “Ashley makes a steak fajita dish she found in a cookbook that’s phenomenal.” Another bonus: leftovers to take to work the next day. Says Zach, “My boss always wants to know, ‘What did Ashley cook for dinner?’ ”