I'm going to let you in on a secret: People who tell you cooking is a sacred affair that requires elaborate recipes, lots of equipment, and hours of your time are assholes. The sooner you get rid of people like this, the better your life will be. Surround yourself instead with people who understand that slicing up cheddar cheese and summer sausage, and then putting them on a plate with crackers and some apples (by the way, you really need to eat more fruit) not only counts as cooking but is one of the nicest things people can do for each other. These are the people you really need in your life.
Now that you're living on your own, you're probably going to eat out a lot—and you should go explore the city and try new things (there's a list of places you should try here)—but cooking regularly is cheaper than eating out, and you can use the money you save on booze, good drugs, or tuition.
Some of the best cooking is entirely practical and utilitarian—yet at its best, it feels magical. You transform ingredients and make new flavor combinations—some will taste better than others, but the ones that really work will leave you feeling like a goddamn creative genius.
Did you know you can put a runny fried egg on top of anything—chili, oatmeal, half an avocado—and it's delicious? Understanding this is one of the key components of adulthood. You just need a hot pan, some butter or oil, and an egg. Cook the egg on just one side (no flipping required!) until the white is totally set. It's okay if the edges burn a bit and get lacy and crunchy (I actually like eggs this way), just make sure the yolk stays soft. A fried egg transforms leftovers into a stunning meal. When you break into the egg with your fork, its soft yolk spills out and forms a luxurious golden sauce. At my house, we call it "God's Sauce," and we're not even sure if we believe in God.
And speaking of leftovers, once you start looking at leftovers not as waste but as a head start to your next meal, cooking not only becomes easier but more exciting.
When I say "leftovers," I mean much more than the stuff you take home in boxes from a restaurant. I'm also talking about all the random odds and ends that you find in your fridge and around your kitchen—the half a tomato that you didn't slice up and put on your turkey sandwich, the broken fragments of tortilla chips in the bottom of the bag, the nebulous one inch of spaghetti sauce left in a jar threatening to get moldy, the small Ziploc bag of baby carrots and woody celery sticks that came off the veggie tray at an awkward work party.
These scraps are the things from which one of my favorite dishes of all time—the "heavy salad"—is made. The heavy salad is not one thing but many things. It is a "salad" because it typically involves an assortment of vegetables, but it's made "heavy" by the addition of things like meat, cheese, pasta, and grains. (BTW, leftover grilled steak is the greatest single ingredient of any heavy salad.)
A good example of a heavy salad is one that I made two nights ago, when I returned home from a weekend out of town. I rooted though my fridge and found these things: whole-wheat spaghetti noodles that were almost a week old, boiled corn on the cob, and a few forgotten pieces of steamed broccoli I had made for my 11-month-old daughter. I shaved the corn off the cob, then threw it, along with everything else, into a bowl with a can of really good Spanish tuna packed in olive oil, the juice of half a lime (I would have preferred lemon, but we didn't have any, and honestly, I didn't notice the difference), some frozen peas I soaked in hot water for a few minutes, a few cherry tomatoes from our garden, and a little Best Foods mayo. It was freakin' delicious.
Some things to always have in your pantry that are great heavy-salad fixings: cans of tuna, cans of chickpeas (or white beans, or black beans, or whatever kinds of beans you like), black olives, grainy mustard, plain yogurt (mix it in as you would mayonnaise to bind things together and make a creamy salad), canned corn, pasta, rice (brown or white), quinoa (whenever you cook pasta or grains, cook more than you need and keep the extra in tupperware in the fridge), crumbles of feta, blue, or cotija cheese, salami, tofu, and nuts. (I only like toasted walnuts in my heavy salads, never peanuts.)
As you get older, you'll find you start to better understand and accept who you are. The same is true for cooking—the more you do it, the more comfortable you get fumbling around and finding your voice. As you find that voice, share your food with others—friends, family, the person you are dating. It's true that cooking a meal may get you laid, but it might also make someone else feel cared for and less alone.
Let's say you do get laid. When you wake up together, you'll be hungry—another reason to have eggs around. Scrambled eggs are a great morning-after breakfast—you can take them in about 100 different directions and they take approximately three minutes to make. Get your pan fairly hot, then drop the eggs in straight from the shell or beaten in a bowl, it really doesn't matter. Add salt and pepper, and then give them a good but gentle stir. A wooden spoon works best for this (and while we're on the topic of wooden spoons, get one, because they are very satisfying to hold and will never scrape or damage your pans). When the eggs start to get firm, turn off the heat and gently stir them some more.
If you have a random bunch of fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, or basil around (why do herbs come only in bunches, when really all we ever really need is a few sprigs or leaves???), tear some up and sprinkle them on top. Or serve eggs with a little dollop of yogurt or sour cream (or, better yet, yogurt or sour cream and a swirl of sriracha). Or salsa or spaghetti sauce. Eat them straight from the pan or on toast—or in a corn tortilla. (Did you know you can turn anything into a taco?)
And when it comes time to cook dinner from scratch, do you realize that when you put a pot of water on the stove to boil, you're already cooking? While the water comes to a boil, root around your fridge and cabinets. When it starts to bubble and make noise, throw in some salt and then dump whatever pasta you have in there. While the noodles cook, grate some cheese and set it aside (Parmesan is really good for this, but cheddar or pretty much any other hard-ish cheese will do).
If you've found any green vegetables during your kitchen explorations—broccoli, zucchini, kale, or frozen peas or green beans—chop those up and throw them into the pot with the pasta for the last minute or two of cooking. (Most pasta takes about nine minutes total.) Then drain everything, put it in a bowl, sprinkle on the cheese, add some salt and pepper and maybe a drizzle of olive oil, and call it dinner.
The main thing is this: Start by doing, and leave the thinking and worrying about what you're making for later. What matters is that you start. Everything else will follow. Trust me—but more importantly, trust yourself.