I was so proud of my cookbook, Modern Spice. That is, until the moment a reader approached me at a fundraiser. “Your recipes are too simplistic,” she blurted out. It threw me for a loop—too simplistic? I developed Modern spice keeping contemporary peoples' busy schedules in mind. My focus was to create and share recipes that did not sacrifice on taste but delivered on the "ease of preparation” promise.
Photo of Pan-Seared Trout with Mint Chutney By Julie O'Hara
The reader who approached me said that she had prepared my pan-seared " trout with mint-cilantro chutney, but feared it wasn’t really cooking because it was so simple. At first, I felt I had failed her. I wondered if I should apologize. Had I been unworthy of my readers’ trust? Had I let them down?
I probed her a little, and her response surprised me even more. She loved the dish, and so did everyone who ate it. But it did not fulfill her cooking aspirations. “Indian cooking is supposed to be hard,” she said. “And this book made it seem easy. That isn’t real Indian cooking, right?”
Wait—isn’t being able to cook something that’s pleasing the point of a good cookbook? Does a recipe need to be complicated to be good?
I think what isn’t necessarily obvious to many who read and cook from cookbooks is that creating simple recipes is often more difficult than creating complex ones. Conjuring a recipe that relies on only a few ingredients yet sends your taste buds into an orgasmic frenzy takes a great deal of understanding of ingredients: how they work individually, how to make them work together in perfect harmony, and how to cook them just right. It takes years of experience to learn, and to be able to teach, “simplicity.” And that is my goal as a cooking teacher and a cookbook author – to teach students to be able to cook on their own.
It takes a lot of experience to prepare “simple” just right. In simple recipes with just a few ingredients, there’s no place to hide. It takes guts – and culinary prowess – to cook that way. Please be aware that when I refer to simplicity in recipes, I don’t mean dumbing down recipes. Yes, there are plenty of people who promise that our lives will be easier if we follow their “simple” plan to combine the contents of five tin cans for a meal. To me, that’s a false economy of time and money, not to mention flavor.
My parents taught me how to cook —how to smell a melon, peel an onion, sear a fish, sizzle cumin. But most importantly, it was with them that I learned why freshness in ingredients matters so much and how a perfectly ripe tomato needs nothing more than a sharp knife to bring out its best. I grew up without a can opener in the house. My parents bought all their ingredients fresh. The only time I remember there being canned anything on the table was when my father fell in love with British baked beans and brought home several cans each time he traveled to London.
Instead, I grew up with spices and herbs—our recipes would be considered incomplete without them—and yet I never remember my mother using ten different spices in a dish. A few in the right combination always did the trick. I once received an e-mail from a reader who was really angry that one of my recipes for tea included only one spice. “Are you afraid of spices?” he demanded. On the contrary: If you know how much flavor a single good-quality spice—say, cardamom—can add, why would you add flavors that muck it up?
So what exactly constitutes a simple recipe? To me, it is a recipe that requires just a few ingredients, is smart in the way it uses those ingredients, doesn’t require my entire paycheck, and teaches me something. New York Times food reporter Kim Severson wrote a piece a year or so ago on “deal-breakers” in recipes, in which she decried a particular recipe for requiring fresh pig’s blood and another for demanding fleur de sel from buckets of seawater. Not happening in my kitchen.
Ask someone what their favorite dish is to make at home and rarely will they announce foie grais with bacon air, mint puree, and pine nut confit. Most times you will hear squash soup, light-as-air buttermilk pancakes, mom’s recipe for lasagna. Yes, there is great joy in going to a restaurant and enjoying a complicated meal cooked by a legend like Daniel Boulud. But cooking at that level at home each and every day is neither possible nor desirable for most of us. I have kids, and as the Boston Globe so kindly put it, my recipes are “clearly the work of a mother cooking on weeknights.” Even so, I bet Chef Boulud would agree with me that good recipes come from learning how to use ingredients wisely.
A chef who masters this art of simplicity is José Andrés. I recently prepared a recipe of his for slender stalks of asparagus bound together with thinly sliced Spanish ham and pan-fried. That was it: Asparagus. Ham. Pan-fry. Why is this notable? Those of you who know Andres will know. Those of you who aren't familiar with him, let me tell you. Jose Andres is an understudy of Ferran Adria, and he is a chef who regularly thrills at culinary innovation, who can desconstruct a glass of wine on a plate and who can wrap a drop of olive oil in sugar. But he is also a husband and a father who clearly understands the role of a home cook as well as his role as a cookbook author and teacher. He demonstrates this with an ability to show readers what they can make at home WITHOUT a nitrogen tank handy.
Should Jose’s great-tasting asparagus recipe have made me feel like I wasn’t cooking?
Cooking teacher and great TV chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who has sold millions of books, once told me that true culinary genius lies in knowing how to teach people to master dishes that they can easily create at home. It does not, he continued, lie in showing off what the chef knows. The scale of complexity in recipes is in no way a litmus test of how good or bad a recipe is.
So I leave you with this recipe for pan-fried trout with mint-cilantro chutney. And I say with great pride – simplicity is its charm.