I don’t need to tell you that food has fashions. Remember when every restaurant with any ambition had a spinach salad with pecans, goat cheese and some sort of onion shaving? That’s now passé even in its last refuge, the twee cafes of Rust Belt suburbs. Or when truffles seemed to sprout from menus like, er, mushrooms, only to disappear almost as quickly, presumably off to hibernate in some subterranean darkness?
For the past five to 10 years, the most notable fashion has been for the complex, spicy and exotic. Foodies exchange worried tips for storing the “basic” spices now grown too numerous for any sort of conventional cupboard. Bitter supertasters exchange angry polemics on the snobs who don’t seem to realize that those of us with less blunted palates might not want every alcoholic beverage well fortified with hops, Campari and an extra-strong helping of Angosturas. Those whose sensitive or aging gastrointestinal tracts cannot cope with all that glorious capsaicin sigh, and order the roasted chicken. Again.
History is reaction and counterreaction. The pendulum is swinging back, and I detect a new movement afoot: KISS. Which means, yes: Keep it simple, stupid. And I like it.
Last spring and summer, I found myself focusing on meals that were almost all vegetables, cooked with minimal spices. Zucchini sliced thin and roasted, tossed with a little garlic and lemon, and possibly, if I was feeling extravagent, herbes de provence or parmesan. Corn cut off a fresh cob and parboiled for just a minute, then finished with brown butter or truffle oil. Fresh tomato sandwiches with homemade bread and ricotta. And our new household favorite: chicken roasted with Thomas Keller’s Epicurious.com recipe, above a pan filled with new potatoes, frozen artichoke hearts and pearl onions. Without all the spices, you get the simple, perfect flavors of the underlying ingredients.
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There is, however, a problem with this sort of cooking: When you have only a few ingredients, they often must be really good. Cooking this way with tomatoes and corn off the supermarket shelf is bound to be fairly disappointing.
It’s no accident that certain sorts of food movements, like “eat local” and “eat simple,” tend to start and thrive on the West Coast. If you’re living next door to California’s abundant, incredible produce, it’s easy to say that everyone ought to eat fresh local produce rather than some processed or imported version. Elsewhere, however, it’s available in only a narrow annual window — and if you don’t have the income to shop at a farmer’s market, or nearby land where you can shop at farm stands or grow your own, it functionally isn’t available at all. Buying lots of spices isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than trying to feed a family of four on farm-fresh produce in a typical metropolitan area.
These recipes are often also quite labor-intensive. In spicy dishes, cooking time and lots of ingredients can substitute for prep work. Simplifying flavors means more prep work, since you can’t use processed stuff from the supermarket, and precision cooking. That corn dish above isn’t terribly difficult, but you do need to shuck all those ears, then slice the kernels off, then make brown butter while watching it intently to ensure it doesn’t go from “brown” to “carbonized,” then boil the kernels for exactly a minute in salted water, then fish them out with a strainer, and plop them into the pan with the brown butter … and a lot of you thought “sheesh, never mind” sometime around Step 3. Moreover, unlike spicy ragouts or casseroles, all this prep has to be done shortly before you eat, meaning there’s no lounging around with the guests in the living room during cocktail hour. Or arriving home from work half an hour before serving dinner.
Some recipes that work just fine with supermarket substitutes and less-bothersome-than-you’d-think prep. That tomato sandwich can be made with a no-knead bread recipe and grape tomatoes whirled around in the food processor for 10 seconds with a clove of garlic and a cube of Dorot frozen basil. Homemade ricotta is absurdly easy.
You can also improve the quality of your ingredients at least somewhat. My favorite discovery this year was dry-aging a rib roast at home and then cutting it into steaks, using Umai Dry’s new consumer system, which is basically some special bags and a vacuum sealer that let you age in your refrigerator. Though I gave up on vacuum-sealing the bags, using the water displacement method instead, after 28 days our Costco rib roast had turned into tender, amazingly flavorful steaks that I’d estimate as better than 90 percent of the way there to a piece of meat at a top-notch steak place like David Burke’s Primehouse — at a total cost, for all 12 steaks, less than taking one of us to David Burke’s for some cocktails and dinner.
So if you want to bring a little more simplicity into your cooking, you probably can. Nonetheless, I’d guess that this won’t become a lifestyle for more than a narrow elite. For the cash and time-constrained consumer, the new simplicity is just too complicated.