Pasta and tabbouleh – Eating is dull when you can’t cook

One day I saw this in my Twitter stream:

I think I might be the opposite of a foody. I can’t cook, and I can’t afford good [food]. I live off couscous, beans or pasta. Every night 🙁

I couldn’t see the reason for a frownie. These are all versatile staples and you can do so much with them. But then I remembered that he “can’t cook”. What does it mean, when you say that you can’t cook? In my experience, it doesn’t often actually mean that you are incapable of making a meal for yourself or someone else. It does normally mean that the person who describes themselves that way feel unsure in the kitchen. They don’t know what goes together or are unsure about quantities. Cookery isn’t as scientific as baking: there, you must measure carefully to be sure about the outcome. Cooking dinner or lunch isn’t quite so prescriptive. Even little things like “season to taste” can be confusing if you’re not comfortable in the kitchen.

I have a couple of friends who say that they can’t cook. Most of them can, really, but they can’t be bothered. That’s fair enough. Cooking can be time consuming and messy. Unless you’re really interested in the outcome, why should you put in the effort? I also know people who would take a pill three times a day instead of eating if they had the option. It comes as no surprise that they describe themselves as people who can’t cook. If you have to cook but don’t know how, there are dishes that can be varied to make them ever interesting.

I did a thought experiment. I sat down with a pen and paper and wrote down three dishes for each of the base ingredients. The dishes had to be beginner’s level and should take no more than half an hour to cook even for slow choppers. The ingredients are easy to get hold of and not too expnsive. Most of them also have alternatives: pasta is pasta. If you don ‘t want to use fresh, use dried. If you don’t like tagliatelle, use spaghetti.

So, here goes. Here are nine dishes. Are they starter recipes as I think or am I too comfortable in the kitchen?

Three ways with couscous

This tabbouleh was made with buckwheat but it is just as good with couscous.

This tabbouleh was made with buckwheat but it is just as good with couscous.

Couscous is easy as pie to make. Most varieties (not giant) you don’t even have to cook: put a portion (about half a tea cup) in a bowl and pour over boiling water so that it stands a couple of millimetres over the grains. Cover with plastic foil and leave for five minutes. Fluff with a fork. Done. The water can be – and should, for flavour – be exchanged for stock or water and lemon juice. There are endless ways of spicing up your couscous.


Couscous salad

The firs time I ate this it was with home-made köfte and tsatsiki. That is still how I’d like to have it, every single time, but I find I a m more likely to make the couscous salad than I am köfte. On its own, couscous can be dry, but only if you let it be. Adding vegetables help and so does adding a little extra water if it feels dry when you fluff it.

Prepare the couscous with your favourite stock and the juice of half a lemon. While the couscous is “cooking”, finely chop a couple of tomatoes, two spring onions, a handful of coriander, and a two-inch length of cucumber. When the couscous is ready, fluff and mix in the vegetables and a small handful of pine nuts.

If you have the inclination and ingredients, add a few slivers of chopped sushi ginger and a few mint leaves. A small chili is nice too.

Moroccan-style couscous

This hugely simplified recipe makes two servings, or one and a half if you are very hungry. That’s lunch and dinner in one bowl! This works nicely with lamb or stuffed in pitta pockets with a dribble of plain yogurt and lettuce.

Prepare the couscous with a quarter of a tea spoon of ground cumin in the water. Meanwhile, fry a finely chopped onion and a red pepper in a little bit of oil until soft and lightly browned. Fluff the couscous and mix in the onion and pepper, a couple of chopped dates, a small handful of parsley (flat or curly), and a drained tin of chickpeas.

If you want it to be warm, add the chickpeas and dates to the onion and let it warm through. Take off the heat, add the couscous and stir. Then serve.

Three ways with pasta

These all start with a good pasta. I like fresh pasta and am pleased that you can buy it in the shops now since I can’t be bothered making it from scratch. Each recipe is for one. Follow the instructions on the packet to find out about portion sizes and timings.

Poor-man’s pasta

This is one of my favourites and is very flexible. The base is pasta, olive oil and garlic. Add to this anything you like. The traditional additions are capers or green olives but all kinds of flavourings work. In small amounts, it makes a really nice starter to a very Italian dinner. If serving it to others, soften the garlic in normal olive oil and then add a splash of virgin just before mixing with the pasta. Virgin olive oil should only just be heated up to keep its delicate flavour.

Boil the pasta. Meanwhile, fry a crushed or finely chopped clove of garlic in a table spoon of olive oil. When the pasta is ready, rinse quickly then dress with the olive oil and garlic. Re-heat gently and add as many capers or green olives as you like. Finish with a good amount of ground pepper.


Carbonara made with spinach pasta - colourful and tasty.

Carbonara made with spinach pasta – colourful and tasty.

Proper carbonara doesn’t contain mushrooms, bits of pink ham, white sauce or the many other things that you might think it contains, but ever so simple. It is also really rich so keep this one for after a long walk or to cure a hangover. It does contain barely cooked egg yolk but I wouldn’t let that worry you.

Boil fresh pasta. Meanwhile, brown a couple of rashers of finely chopped bacon or about 50grms of cubed pancetta.  Grate a handful of parmesan. When the pasta is ready, add to pan with pancetta and stir. Turn off the heat. Separate an egg and add the yolk and the parmesan to the pasta. Give it a couple of quick stirs (the egg thickens a little from the heat in the pasta) and serve immediately with a lot of black pepper.


This is the simplest tomato sauce there is and that’s what makes it so great. You can add pretty much anything you want to the basic sauce – chillies, bits of salami, peppers or whatever you fancy – to get variation.

Finely chop a small onion and fry until translucent in a small amount of olive oil. Add a clove of garlic or to. Add a tin of tomatoes. Leave to reduce for as long as you can (it’s edible as soon as it’s hot but tastes nicer after 15-30 minutes). Prepare the pasta. When the pasta is done, serve. Add tomato sauce on top and add as many torn up basil leaves as you like.

Three ways with pulses

Beetroot, feta and black lentils salad works equally well with green lentils.

Beetroot, feta and black lentils salad works equally well with green lentils.

I’m not that keen on beans so instead of three ways with beans, I’m generalising to pulses…

Lentil and beetroot salad

Channa chaat


Chilis are best when they get to cook slowly so that all the flavours marry and mature. If you’re in a hurry, you can sling together a chili that you can eat almost immediately. Triple the recipe and leave it to cook slowly for half an hour while you eat and do the washing up and you have dinner or lunch for another couple of days. Chilis can be sexed up with grated cheese, sour cream (or plain yogurt), salsa and guacamole. But they don’t have to be. think further than kidney beans when making this: borlotti and even flageolet are silkier and tastier even if they are not all that Mexican.

Finely chop an onion and fry in a bit of oil until soft (avoid browning it). Add a finely chopped green pepper, a clove of garlic, a tin of tomatoes and a tin of your favourite beans (drained). Finely chop a chili and add to the beans. If you happen to have a pot of smoked paprika, add a tea spoon at this point. Let simmer for 15 minutes and serve.

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.


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  3. You are so right! Is there anything cheaper than pasta, grains and pulses? And they are so versatile! People just need a few tips.

    Great post!

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