UNITED STATES—The kitchen, it can be a daunting place for many individuals and to be honest it should NOT be. I would make the argument that if a person has NEVER cooked, getting into the kitchen at the age of 30 will indeed be a task to say the least, but it is not impossible. I do not believe a person is incapable of cooking, it’s more a question about rather the novice is willing to commit to learn the ins and the outs. I started in the kitchen at a young age, and I watched my mother primarily prepare dishes.

Seeing something done over and over again helps the recipe stick with you. I will admit there are some who have the culinary chops and those that just don’t. That does not mean you’re not able to craft a tasty dish, it’s all about trial and error. The biggest misconception so many people make is the assumption that every time someone makes a dish, even if it’s for the first time it’s perfect. Nope, not a chance, it rarely happens. You make mistakes and that is how you fine tune the dish to fix the problem. I’ll be the first to admit I always, and I mean always wanted to make lasagna and it was never easy to do. The first mistake I made was thinking that you can make lasagna without utilizing the right tomatoes. You cannot utilize that sauce in the jars, forget about Prego, Ragu or whatever pasta sauce you decide to use; those do not work here.

Utilize crushed tomatoes in a can, preferably Dei Fratelli if you ask me. Then from there it’s all about herbs and seasonings. Utilize fresh garlic; a white onion emits more flavor than a yellow onion in my opinion. It doesn’t hurt to have a few finely diced bell peppers, and then top things off with salt, pepper and a sprinkle of white sugar. Sugar helps knock down some of that acidity that comes from the tomatoes. Next, you craft the meat utilizing fresh ground chuck, you can use beef or sirloin, but I like the fat that comes from ground chuck, once your meat is cooked, then you combine that with your meat sauce that you have allowed to simmer for at least 45 minutes to 1 hour.

If you want to give your meat a burst of flavor utilize Italian sausage that you take out of the casing. Finally, the assembly line, it’s all about the cheeses. You need to use FRESH RICOTTA! This is a must, don’t utilize that store bought stuff, it doesn’t have the creamy flavor as fresh ricotta holds. Mozzarella is a must, and then if you choose to utilize others cheeses go for it, but the key is to get cheeses that melt and are creamy. Little bit of a tangent, but you see my point. It is much easier than so many people suspect. Getting someone comfortable in the kitchen all starts with prep work.

Prep work is the worst and when you get the hang of how to chop items (this pertains to your veggies mainly), it makes the notion of cooking easier. Prep work is the ONE THING that frustrates most people about cooking, because it takes longer than cooking the actual dish to begin with. Don’t try to be a perfectionist with size proportion in the beginning; work on getting comfortable with the chopping element, once that has transpired, you can work to fine tune your chopping skills, but always be safe. Don’t utilize a knife that you are not familiar with and don’t forget about the cutting board. Start off with something for beginners and as you become more comfortable with using the cutting board you can invest in something better.

When it comes to meat, that requires a whole column on how to prep, but the key thing to remember is to always keep your hands clean after dealing with raw meat. Um, please let me make this clear you DO NOT wash ground beef, ground turkey or ground pork. I’ve honestly seen people do this and it left me beyond speechless I’m not joking. Anytime you’re dealing with chicken and pork, I’m a firm believer that you should ALWAYS wash the meat with cold water before patting it slightly dry with a clean paper towel. I want to go into more detail, but I will save that for next week’s column.

Start thinking about those classic dishes that were made in your home growing up or those dishes that are comfort dishes to you; this will help you in learning how to follow a recipe and watch step-by-step so that if you make a mistake you can remedy the situation. Look, if you flub the dish the first time, don’t beat yourself up over it! It happens to the best of us. I remember when I attempted to make butternut squash risotto; it was an epic fail, but I learned my lesson. I was trying to cook the dish too fast, and with risotto it’s a slow burn you cannot rush the dish, you have to take your sweet time when cooking because it makes all the difference when it comes to flavor.

My goal is to get more people in the kitchen and not be afraid to cook. Eating out is ok, if you do it once in a while. You cannot have fast-food every day; it’s not good for the body. In my personal opinion that dish you prepare in the kitchen will be 10x more satisfying and the icing on the cook is that you will get fuller way quicker than a meal deal at McDonald’s.

Written By Kelsey Thomas