The Joy of Simple Cooking, from A to Z
If you ask many a great chef for their cooking philosophy, most will answer, ‘Simplicity! Keep it simple. Don’t over complicate a dish’. Strange, then, that the same principle is also used to suggest that a simple dish is too easy.
Simplicity has a bad reputation in some quarters. Inexplicably and madly. Some of the great things in the world, and in life, are things of pure simplicity. A slender linear curve is more pleasing to the eye than an awkward zigzag. A monochrome photograph is often more striking than the very same shot in full colour. And a story well told, using tiny words, is a much better thing that a tale peppered with great big words that serve only to ruin its telling.
Much of the best cooking in the world is simple in its ingredients and execution. This is not to say that foie gras and truffle are not fine things that have few peers in any cuisine. But in a general view, much of the best cooking is better for not being unnecessarily complicated. The word “mask” is often applied to a dish or ingredient that cannot be tasted because there are other ingredients in the dish that obscure it; it’s a good word and is used for good reason. And it’s strangely pleasing to think about “mask” in an entirely different meaning, just for a change.
My own cooking is simple. And I’m often reminded of it. People often say to me, “Your food is rather… (there’s always a hesitation) … simple … hey?” As if asking for my confirmation. Which they get. Yep, my food is simple. I’m a self-taught cook, I learn something new about cooking every day, and it’s rare that you’ll find me trying to create something wildly impressive. Unless you count the baklava I made recently, and boy what a delight it is when you do try something that always seemed forbidding and find yourself pulling it off.
But my best dishes, the ones I name when I’m asked, as often happens, for my “signature dish”? That would be my lamb shanks slow-cooked in the oven with olive oil, lemon, garlic, soy, and fresh oregano, thyme and mint. Plenty of pepper and a good seasoning of salt, lots of time and there has never been anything approaching a complaint. My summer “signature” dish is my own invention: lightly curried spanspek soup, served chilled. My third “signature” is my Parmesan Gem Squash (watch TGIFood next week when I’ll be posting my recipe for that as a Lockdown Recipe of the Day). So, that’s a trio of greatly disparate dishes, with nothing in common except that they are all easy to make, and centre on one key ingredient that is enhanced by a few others.
In light of my experience as explained above, I find it ironic that, if you ask many a great and famous chef what their cooking philosophy is, the vast percentage of them will answer along the lines of, “Simplicity! Keep it simple. Don’t over complicate a dish.” Strange, then, that the same principle is also used to suggest that a simple dish is just too easy. That anyone can do it.
The other thing a chef will often say is, “I only use the freshest, seasonal ingredients”. As if that sets them apart from anyone else; as if we don’t all try to do that. As if it’s such a clever idea. Who knows, maybe it will catch on.
I do not go in for fancy, convoluted recipes that you need a degree in mechanical engineering to complete. Where’s the joy and satisfaction in that? That’s a stress factor waiting for a victim to come along. Cooking is meant to be fun. Heston Blumenthal’s wizardry leaves me cold. Complicated, almost impossible to achieve dishes by MasterChef Australia contestants bore me senseless. They’re so maddeningly beautiful yet pointless in execution.
Tasting and adjusting are what good cooking is all about. Without a good palate in the kitchen, you might as well shut the door and go out to a restaurant. (Please do sit outside however.)
I am entirely ruled by two things in the kitchen: flavour, and texture. I taste all the time, which is not good for the girth, but it is good for the dish. Show me someone who cooks an entire dish without ever tasting it and I will show you the cooking equivalent of an artist who paints by numbers. Tasting is everything, and when you’re dipping that spoon in and putting it to tongue you are testing not only its flavour but its body, its texture, and whether everything is just right. If you don’t taste often, you won’t know that the sauce is at its finest.
To judge a dish by the number of ingredients in it, the number of steps in making it, or how many obscure ingredients are in it, is to miss the point of cooking at all: to create something pleasing to the palate.
Our daily lockdown recipes in Daily Maverick have been quite telling in this regard. The simpler the dish, the more people seem to want a recipe for it. Take my wife Diane Cassere’s microwave chocolate cake. For weeks, after having asked her for some ideas of recipes I could include for the Lockdown recipe of the Day, I silently thought to myself: please don’t let her say her microwave chocolate cake, please. Weeks had gone by, when one day came the sweet tune in my ear, “Oh, hang on, I’d forgotten all about my microwave chocolate cake!”
But her beaming smile could not be answered with anything but, from me, a beaming, “Yes! What a great idea! 😊 Do that one!”
More fool me. It was the biggest story of the week of all TGIFood stories. By several lengths. Thousands and thousands of people read it and presumably cooked it. People from Cape Town and Kimberley to Lusaka and Paris wanted to make my wife’s microwave chocolate cake. Which is deeply satisfying and surprisingly dark and moist considering that the only chocolate in it is cocoa powder. But microwave… anyway. Moving on. I tell the story entirely at my own expense.
Yet it underscores my point: cooking kept simple is what people want. Look at the perennial success of SJ de Villiers’ Cook and Enjoy it/Kook en Geniet, which was first published in 1951 and is still on the book shelves today in an updated version. Another that is all about real food and recipes anyone can make is Cook With Ina Paarman, which is still one of the most trusted recipe books in my collection more than a quarter century since it was published. The key word is trust. If a recipe is in Kook en Geniet, the recipe works. It’s as simple as that. And there’s that little word again.
What’s simple food? Let’s attempt an A to Z, with the emphasis on choosing simple ingredients or basic techniques, rather than selecting the exotic or the fancy:
The basic ingredients that supply the core flavour in a dish: onion, tomato, garlic, herbs, spices.
Adds richness and extra flavour to everything, and is a good cooking fat though best used with a dash of oil to prevent burning.
Existing in most world cuisines in widely divergent forms, and without which there’d be less to live for.
Without which a sauce is less of itself. (See “jus” below.)
Without which, no cakes (yes, we know there are exceptions), no meringue, no breakfast to speak of, no life.
The art of smoking food to enhance its flavour.
The original umami. The key ingredient of my cooking palette, in a straight tie with lemon.
Leaves used as aromatics to flavour a dish and add depth of flavour.
The process of steeping an ingredient in a simmering liquid to extract its essence, which is then added to a recipe.
A sauce in French cooking made by deglazing pan juices of cooked meat with liquids such as stock and wine to make a sauce. Often misused as an alternative name for any sauce. Not every sauce is a jus. (Please tell your pretentious friends.)
The process of working dough with your hands to create elasticity and form.
The most versatile of fruits in cooking, unless you count the tomato. Used in savoury and sweet dishes and sauces, in dressings, in marinades and in baking.
Finely diced carrot, onion and celery used as a base for many savoury dishes. Basic, easy, but essential to a thousand dishes.
Technically a fruit comprising a seed and its shell, eaten raw, toasted, or added to savoury dishes and sweet bakes.
Onion (in a straight tie with Oil).
This and other alliums (including leeks, garlic, chives) are the core aromatic of millions of dishes. Rarely the key ingredient in its own right, but shines too as a deep-fried element on a steakhouse platter.
The only remaining way in which Italy rules the world.
A fish or meat forcemeat dumpling shaped with a spoon. Classy yet simple.
A mixture of flour and butter used to thicken sauces such as béchamel.
A concentrated broth made by reducing bones and chopped vegetables in boiling water.
The other way in which Italy rules the world.
Use By (Okay, I was stumped by U, but “use by” is key to everything under all of the other letters of the alphabet if we’re not all to fall ill.)
A key element of many dishes to provide acidity (as does lemon).
With other alcoholic beverages, a fine way to add depth of flavour and pizzazz to a sauce or cooking stock. Liqueurs such as Cointreau and fortified wines such as Marsala and Port also enhance sauces and are used in baking.
You didn’t think I’d find one, did you? You were right.
A rising agent without which, no bread, or very few worth eating.
That grating of lemon, lime or orange zest in a cake, pudding, salad dressing, sauce etc gives it an instant lift. And some Zing. DM/TGIFood