Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Easy Does It: A return to simple cooking” was written by Terese Allen for the Fall 2009 edition of Rootstock.
Remember the 1980s? It was a decadent decade, a time when oversized plates held undersized portions of expensive, fussed-over food, when culinary gadgets took over our countertops, and cooks labored to master the art of French cooking—and Italian, Indian, Cajun, Southwestern, Thai, and Tex-Mex cooking as well.
Me, I was a budding chef at the time. I ran the kitchen of an upscale restaurant known for such elaborate presentations as spinach mushroom gateau and chocolate Queen of Sheba torte. I looked up to people who spent their discretionary income on multi-course meals and pricey wines, who subscribed to trendy cooking magazines and knew their latte from their lassi.
Funny thing, though. While I could down raw oysters with the best of them and I prided myself on my crepe-flipping technique, the food that made me the happiest wasn’t costly or labor-intensive. It wasn’t foreign or gourmet.
What really blissed me out was going to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings and then cooking with the fresh, seasonal ingredients I found there. I’d get to the market early, before the restaurant opened, to select softballsize muskmelons and fat blueberries, farm-raised rainbow trout and sacks of fragrant herbs. Back in the kitchen, the purchases became brunch and dinner specials: mini-melon halves filled with juicy berries and honey-sweetened yogurt, trout stuffed with organic leeks and carrots, fettuccine with fresh herbs and cream. These simple dishes were tasty, healthful and well-received, and I found more satisfaction in cooking them than any of the meals that required imported ingredients or hours of preparation.
Even when someone else was doing the cooking, it was this kind of easygoing fare that brought true pleasure. One of the most memorable meals I was served back then wasn’t held in a fancy restaurant, but in a home. It was prepared by my boss, a world-wide traveler with a sophisticated palate—and while I might have expected beouf à la bourguignonne and bone china, what I got was tomato sauce. My host had selected gardenripe globes and was chopping them when I arrived; as we chatted over a glass of wine she simmered the sauce with garlic and basil, tossed it with pasta in a crockery bowl and passed the Parmesan at the table.
It was a wonderful dinner–the relaxed pace, the conversation, the fresh flavors—and out of it both a friendship and a culinary outlook were born. A light bulb went off in my heart as well as my head. I recognized that simple food, made from wholesome ingredients and prepared with ease, is the most delicious food there is.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I also joined a revolution that day. I signed on to a way of shopping, cooking and eating whose benefits go well beyond personal pleasure. Over time I learned that such “simple fare” is also health-giving, that it helps sustain the land, supports small farmers and brings communities together.
And today, well, today, is a whole new decade. As the times have gone from excess to economic downturn, it’s good to know that there’s another benefit of eating simply: its affordability. Indeed, if ever there was a time to get back to basics in the kitchen, that time is now.
Where to begin? With ingredients, of course. Think “sustainable”—local, seasonal and organic—and you will already be halfway there. There are many sources for fresh, unadulterated crops and products these days: farmers’ markets, community supported subscription farms, roadside stands, food buying cooperatives, natural foods stores. Even conventional grocery stores are getting into the act. The idea is to do more of your shopping where sustainably raised, whole foods dominate, where you can meet or partner with growers, see, smell and taste the wares, and feel the tug of their satisfactions.
If you’re a gardener, you already know the deep enjoyment of growing your own fruits and vegetables. The options range from backyard plots and community gardens to window boxes filled with fresh herbs (something almost everyone can grow). Or maybe you’re a wild foods gatherer, or a devotee of pick-your-own operations. In all these cases, it’s the connection to nature that feeds the senses and inspires your menus.
Plush, peak-of the-season produce is the starting point for minimalist cooking because, as the incomparable Alice Waters has written, “When you have the best and tastiest ingredients, you can cook very simply and the food will be extraordinary.” You won’t need convoluted recipes or finicky cooking techniques for your meals to shine.
Instead, look to undemanding “core” recipes that lend themselves to seasonal variation and can be easily accented with nutrient-rich organic cheese, eggs or meat. Open-face vegetable sandwich melts, main-course salads, risotto and simple pasta sauces—these are what I think of as repertoire dishes, the kind that, once you’ve learned their easy technique, can be altered with whatever is on hand or in season. They’re leisurely and nourishing, to make and to eat. They feature top-quality organic ingredients—and they won’t break the bank.
Still, if there’s something to celebrate (or you’re just feeling flush), core recipes can be dressed up for special occasions. That everyday veggie melt, for example, becomes a Sunday brunch entrée when it’s made with croissants instead of bread. A plain risotto becomes stellar with the addition of saffron or scallops.
Look to “recipe-free” dishes, too, classics like cheese-and-fruit plates and chef salads; they never go out of culinary fashion nor run out of possibility. A creamy egg salad spiked with fresh dill, a platter of artfully arranged cold leftovers, grilled cheese sandwiches made with artisanal cheddar—these are dishes that demand little and give much. I’m with Ina Garten here; the Barefoot Contessa writes, “Instead of looking for new ideas, I’m just looking for old ideas and finding the best ways to make delicious food. That’s what I mean by getting back to basics.”
Simple cooking is satisfying fare, but there’s one more element that makes it sublime: family and friends. Take it from one more famous kitchen guru, Jacques Pepin, “To learn, to give, and to share with friends in the kitchen is indeed gratifying and joyful…Food, for me, is inseparable from sharing. There is no great meal unless it is shared with family or friends.”
He’s got that right. Case in point: the simple, laid-back meal of pasta with tomato sauce that I shared with my friend years ago. Now that was a great meal.
Terese Allen writes about the pleasures and benefits of regional foods, sustainable cooking and culinary tradition. A former chef and food columnist for Madison’s Isthmus newspaper, Allen has gone on to author several books about Wisconsin’s “edible heritage.” Her latest cookbook is a revised, expanded edition of The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009).