Preparing a well-balanced, delicious, nutritious dinner night after night can be an overwhelming task. On the other hand, take-out becomes monotonous and expensive. What I strive to do with The Whole Pantry is to simplify the process of cooking great food at home and to address the common barriers that include lack of time, organization, skill and/or inspiration. Dinner doesn’t have to be elaborate to be satisfying if you use fresh ingredients and have plenty of flavorful staples and an efficient kitchen.
But recently, I began to evaluate my make-it-simple cooking philosophy, first while listening to a panel during U.C. Berkeley’s Edible Education course and then when reading an article about Cooks Illustrated publisher Chris Kimball in The New York Times Magazine Food Issue.
The second annual series of Edible Education covered topics related to making our food system more healthy, fair and sustainable. With a curriculum developed by two food movement pioneers, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant, and Michael Pollan, a Berkeley professor and well-known author, this excellent course is available to view here.
The four chefs on the panel titled “On Cooking” are all involved with Chez Panisse, a deservedly well-regarded restaurant in Berkeley with a viewpoint like mine that fresh ingredients and simple preparation are the soul of cooking. They work in a passionate, creative, supportive environment where what they produce is carefully crafted and celebrated. I have always admired Alice Waters, not only because she set the stage for the local food movement and initiated a mainstream infatuation with naturally delectable fresh produce, but also because she’s a Jersey girl turned Californian like me. And, she so admirably has made it her mission with the Edible Schoolyard Project to bring food education into the public school curriculum.
One by one, these chefs discussed how their path in life brought them to this incredible restaurant and their stories were heartfelt. But as they discussed the passionate act of food preparation, they at times made the process seem complicated and intimidating which is why many people avoid cooking in the first place. For example, a statement like,
“you always have to be completely engaged in what ‘you’ do” or “the minute you think you know what you’re doing you don’t, you’re never on top of cooking”
is not very encouraging to a floundering home cook. It may be true, but such precision is not a reality for the busy person just trying to get a healthy dinner on the table. The point I like to make with The Whole Pantry is that if your ingredients are seasonal and fresh and you have an organized, stocked kitchen and simple recipes on hand, you don’t have to do much to make something delicious.
The second challenge to my make-it-simple cooking philosophy came from the venerable Christopher Kimball (see photo above). His Cook’s Illustrated is a great teaching source but the recipes can be a bit complicated at times. Quite often I feel I can’t comply with what is expected to reach the heights of perfection in muffin baking, or pork roasting or steak grilling. But I never knew his true take on cooking until I read the article about him in the New York Times Magazine Food Issue last month. He states,
“Cooking isn’t creative, and it isn’t easy. It’s serious, and it’s hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard.”
Yikes. I have valued the tips and recipes from CI over the years and consider it a solid reference. But sometimes you have to think as you labor over the very specific steps that there must be an easier way. What if I slip up or don’t happen to have one of the ingredients? Will it be a disaster? As my friend with two young kids who enjoys good food but has time and focus limits in the kitchen said,
“The blueberry muffin recipe did produce unbelievably delicious muffins, however it took most of the morning to create and then the clean up was taxing because I used like 50 things in my kitchen. I still have the recipe but I’ve never made them again. They scare me!”
Well, Kimball says, in reference to “the likes of Ina Garten and Bon Appétit,
‘I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party. … Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.’”
The easier way? Stock up on whole staples and fresh produce and proteins, use the guidelines of recipes and your intuition, enjoy what you create and worry not about absolute perfection.
For a bit more inspiration, see Jamie Oliver’s video on blending creativity and simplicity when cooking.
Do you have any recipes to share from one of the Chez Panisse cookbooks, Cooks Illustrated or elsewhere that are not so serious business? I do … check out Brine for Pork, Chicken and Turkey and Best Roast Chicken.
Reference and Photo: New York Times Magazine, October 14, 2012