For most of the rest of the year (and perhaps a bit into the next), I’m going to share reflections of the last year and what I’ve learned in the kitchen. Sometimes daily posts miss the flavor of the larger lessons so this is an attempt to take a step back and share the lessons that I’ve taken from the last 365 days. We’d love to know what you’ve learned this year too!
It’s a cliché that simple food tastes great. Like most clichés, it became one because it’s simply true.
The first time I cooked for Dana (about 7 years ago) was a holy mess. I made spaghetti sauce for the weekend. Yep, enough for the whole weekend. I lost track at how many ingredients I used after number 17 went into the pot (an entire head of garlic, chopped finely). I was a better cook than I showed that weekend but I’ve learned a whole lot more since then (with lots left to learn) – especially when it comes to restraint.
A turning point happened a four or five years ago when Dana took me to see Canadian Celebrity Chef Michael Smith. I loved his style of cooking (especially his show ‘Chef at Home’ which stressed cooking without recipes – ironically the same show has spawned at least two cookbooks) and his enthusiasm. We sat in an auditorium at the Canadian National Exhibition to an almost empty room when the Chef presented a few simple recipes. He presented a few Golden rules and the one that stuck with me was ‘as long as you only use a few ingredients you can use a LOT of them.’ Consider:
- The amount of pepper (but relatively low ingredients) on a pepper steak.
- Eating roasted garlic spread on toast.
- The amount of vinegar in a pickle should be overwhelming – and isn’t.
- Lobster dipped covered in butter and garlic is something that works.
You get the idea – you can go wild with a single ingredient as long as you don’t use a lot of them. Smith also left me with the sage advice that many Chinese stir-frys used 5-different colors of ingredients and you could cook a great stir fry with almost any 5 different-colored ingredients (something difficult when eating locally in winter).
But it took a few years to really learn what this restraint and ‘going wild’ meant. We’ve been fortunate to eat at some of Toronto’s better restaurants this year (more on how in another ‘something we’ve learned post’) and the Chef’s have laid out example-after-example of such restraint. It truly is amazing how a relatively small amount of ingredients with the right balance pack a flavorful punch that somehow brings more taste from them than if you had packed the dish full of the same ingredients. The balance of their flavors with less quantity allows your mouth to perceive the flavors individually and creates an orchestra greater than they could do on their own – or in greater quantity.
Perhaps this is still murky, so let’s go with an example. A few weeks ago we had a friend over as we waited on dinner reservations (at the amazing Beast Restaurant in Toronto). We knew we had a large meal ahead of us but were a little peckish mid-afternoon. In the past I would have defaulted to spaghetti or a heavy soup. I knew we needed something light so started with what we had in the fridge. A quick, fine chop, of 2-3 seasonal vegetables, a bit of garlic and ginger and we were off to the races. The veggies were briefly sweated down in some oil before being covered with broth. A slow simmer for a few minutes melded the flavors together and it was poured on top of some soba noodles we cooked at the same time. A very simple broth soup that just punched the flavors of everything without muddling them together. Simple goodness.
One thing I’ve found in the journey to simplicity: the size of your ingredients matter greatly. Items of similar texture (i.e. an onion and a pepper) are almost always chopped to the same size and the chunks are relatively small. Perhaps this is an amateur observation but cutting my veggies smaller for such things (like these which we used for turkey calzone after the Holidays) have made a huge difference in my cooking and melding of flavors:
What are ways you simplify your cooking to bring out the best in the ingredients you work with?