DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Mar 3 2017

Keeping It Simple

by Dea Anne M

I love to cook. This statement will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. In fact, I imagine that some regular readers of this blog might think of me as “…that one writer who goes on and on about cooking and food. I mean it’s non-stop. Talk about obsessed!” Well, maybe I am – a little obsessed that is – and I freely admit that I love having a day during which I have nothing to do but cook an elaborate meal – no groceries left to shop for, all cooking implements accounted for and ready, (presumably) grateful  guests already invited – I love it all! That being said, my life is a lot like yours in that although I want to eat well, and at home, most evenings – I don’t have unlimited cash or hours to spend in getting meals to the table. Basic templates work well for me – frittata or quiche and salad, protein and pan sauce with roasted vegetables, good old rice and beans – I do them all, and often.

Now I realize that being able to do this rests on the reality that I’ve been cooking a long time and I understand at this point how to do certain things. When I was first starting out in the kitchen, I relied on cookbooks with some pretty mixed results. Don’t get me wrong. Using cookbooks can be a great way to learn on your own but as is the case with so much in life definitions of such concepts as “simple” can be very subjective. For some recipe writers, “simple”means that the cook just needs to open a couple of boxes and cans – never mind that the resulting quick dish tastes exactly like a box or a can. Other recipe creators seem convinced that a “simple” dish means you needn’t grind or pluck something first in order to begin preparing dinner. What I mainly look for in a recipe these days, or really in any book about food and cooking, is inspiration for what I might create with my existing skills out of ingredients that won’t be too inaccessible or pricey. If an idea for a meal can use what I already have on hand – well, that’s a delicious bonus. Here are some resources available from DCPL that have been inspiring me lately. Some of these I’ve mentioned in other posts, but hey, a good book is a good book.

Poor Man’s Feast: a love story of comfort, desire, and the art of simple cooking by Elissa Altman is written not by a chef but by a feastwoman who simply loves food. For many years, the tendency in her own cooking was toward the elaborate – game birds, exotic vegetables arranged in towers, lobster bisque.  No ingredient was too expensive or outre. Then, Altman met the love of her life, a New Englander devoted to frugality and simple living, and everything for this born and bred New Yorker changed. This is a wonderful meditation on the power of love and what it is exactly that transforms mere ingredients into something delicious. The recipes that end each chapter are straight-forward, delicious and, as the title promises, simple.

While there are many recipes in Tamar Adler’s lovely book An mealEverlasting Meal: cooking with economy and grace, I wouldn’t call it primarily a cookbook. Instead, it is a meditation on how to live a practical yet elegant life. Surprisingly, it all starts by boiling a pot of water and twines beautifully and hypnotically from there. I have read this book quite a few times and I never fail to be inspired by it in my own kitchen. I guarantee that Adler’s book will help you approach leftover rice and roasted vegetables in a brand new way. Highly recommended.

I sometimes find Jamie Oliver’s rugby scrum mateyness and amplified energy a little hard to take, but you cannot deny his revolutionenthusiasm for what he does. The British chef is well known by now for his commitment to improving school lunches, both in his native country as well as here in the United States. Also, well known is Oliver’s “you can do it” attitude about cooking. It’s a refreshing approach when one grows weary of gorgeously photographed cooking tomes authored by imperious chefs who think nothing of ordering us to prepare five different sauces for the “peasant style” duckling that we’ll be eating for dinner (about five days from now) or to process coffee beans and hazelnuts into a fine powder (sift three times to remove impurities!) to sprinkle atop the cherimoya-kumquat ice cream that we have churned by hand. These are the cookbooks that make you fling down your spatula and decide to just call out for a pizza. The food photos in Jamie’s Food Revolution: rediscover how to cook simple, delicious, affordable meals certainly don’t resemble those in the “cheffy” books. In fact, these dishes look exactly like what you would produce at home in your own kitchen and that’s kind of the point. Straightforward roasts, pasta dishes, easy curries and stir fries – this really is simple food – bound to inspire novices and experienced home cooks alike in a way that the gorgeous yet complicated  cookbooks never could. I also love Oliver’s “pass it on” philosophy by which he advocates learning a couple of recipes and then teaching them to a few other people and ask that they pass them on to still others. Sure, it won’t bring any of us clearer skin, better gas mileage or world peace anytime soon but it might help make the world a better place. Also, think how much money you’ll save by not buying fancy cookbooks or pizza!

I’ve been concentrating here on titles that seek to inspire by simplepromoting a specific philosophy about cooking and food. I want to end by recommending two books that are focused purely on recipes but carry out the simple food theme beautifully. They are The Best Simple Recipes by the editors of America’s Test Kitchens and Simple Fare: rediscovering the pleasures of real food by Ronald Johnson. The Test Kitchens book, as with all that this team has produced, gives us recipes that have been exhaustively tested until they really are the best. Johnson’s book has a much older copyright (1989!) but the recipes are both budget conscious and really delicious. A home cook could use either of these books as a sole kitchen reference and be completely satisfied with the results for a very long time.

How about you? What’s your definition of simple cooking? And what, by the way, is your favorite cookbook or cooking guide?

 

 

 

 

 

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