FOOD ARTICLES: Cooking 101

We know people who have burned water, but help is on the way. You can learn to cook. The food! section is going to teach you how. We know this is ambitious, even audacious. We know many of you already are fine cooks. Great! We need your help, too. Keep reading. Welcome to Cooking 101, our week-by-week learn-to-cook series. If you keep up with us, by Memorial Day, you'll be sauteing and stir-frying and maybe even making pie crust. Or not. You get to decide what parts you want to learn.

Why learn at all, you may ask, when food manufacturers are so busy cranking out home meal replacements? Cooking is a life skill. In the not-so-distant past, mothers taught their daughters - and sons - how to cook. Home economics classes filled in the gaps. With both parents in the work force for two generations now, and cutbacks in the schools, these traditional teachers has been blown out of the boiling water. After living on Jack-In-The-Box and takeout and eating in restaurants, many 30-somethings we know have realized they want to learn this skill. They need to feed their kids. They want to entertain. Teens and 20-somethings are contrary enough to want to buck a trend.

And you 40-somethings and older who've never learned or who have had lifestyle changes that have forced you to cook: Just follow along. We promise to try to make it fun for everyone. You've eaten enough delicious restaurant meals to know a lot about food -- just not how to cook it. Learning to cook will save you a ton of money, yes, because it's much cheaper to cook at home from basic ingredients. It's also healthier. But neither of these fantastic benefits is the primary reason we think you should sharpen that chopping knife. Those of us who love to cook know the answer to this one in our hearts as well as minds. Cooking is a creative art. Like painting or dancing or a perfect tennis serve, cooking can be one of the most fulfilling of outlets for creative energy. Serving a delicious meal, whether it's perfect pancakes or a five-course meal with wines, is serving love on a plate.

(Heaven forfend we mention how many mates have been snared by those, male and female, who demonstrate superior kitchen skills. Let's not go there. This is a cooking series, not a dating service.) Yes, you have to practice cooking skills. But just like you learned the lyrics to South Pacific or how to shoot a left-handed layup, you can learn to cook three basic pasta sauces and how to cut up onions and thicken soup and filet a fish -- basic techniques you can apply to hundreds of dishes. The time crunch is the killer of many cooks we know. When are you going to practice these skills? You already have too many things going on in your busy life.

We can't tell you the answer to this one, unfortunately, but we have lots of ideas for combating lack of time if you want to commit to learning. Tell yourself you will practice one night a week and some on the weekends, just as if you were taking, oh, art lessons. Schedule a brunch in a few weeks. You'll have to make something! That's one way, sink or swim. We do promise to print every shortcut we can think of. Today's stories help you get organized, help you learn a system for cleaning, and in one list we suggest what you should keep on hand in your pantry so you'll always have something to cook in a time pinch.

As you master the skills, it gets easier. The kitchen tools list today consists of basics you should have as well as other things that are nice to have, depending on how and what you cook. In general, we suggest that you buy the best tools you can afford. Cheaper ones will wear out and you will end up replacing them, anyway. You will want to save this material, just as you would for any class. We suggest you buy or make a folder to keep these sections so they don't get thrown out. (What the heck -- decorate your folder with pictures of delicious food!)

We will print a lot of lists that are basic food knowledge: kitchen tools, confusing terms explained, pantry basics, herbs and spices, substitutes, and so on. We have lots of scholastic support, too. We will print a syllabus of lessons, so you'll know what's coming up. (You can print the lessons, and graphics, onto an 8-1/2-by-11 sheet of paper. Tip: You may set your printer to 90 percent) The website will also feature video demonstrations, when applicable.