"No matter what happens in the kitchen, never apologize." - Julia Child

Monday, April 12, 2010

Less is more: learning a kitchen mantra

One of my favorite food-related phenomena is what I refer to as the Fridge Factor. This is when you're hunting around for something to eat and realize that you just so happen to have everything on hand that you need to create a favorite dish that suits your current mood. It is a happy accident, an aligning of perishables and pantry shelves that points you in the direction of the dish you didn't know you could make but are happy that you can.

This happened to me this weekend. I was in the mood for something fresh and crunchy on Saturday, and when I opened my fridge, figuring I'd make a salad, my eyes fell first on the two-pound container of strawberries I got at Trader Joe's for a bargain price and then on a box of baby arugula, my favorite salad greens. My brain spun a bit, and I remembered that I'd gotten some blue cheese for an endive salad we had earlier in the week. Then it spun some more when I remembered a bottle of vanilla fig balsamic vinegar I found in the Home Goods section of Marshall's (really!).

What a perfect combination: peppery, bitter arugula with sweet strawberries, salty-sour blue cheese, and the tangy sweetness of balsamic vinegar. Four ingredients, a simple combination, but one that made my mouth do a little happy dance.

As I started to slice my strawberries, I began having second thoughts. Perhaps my salad was TOO simple. I did, after all, have some grape tomatoes I could slice up and also add to the salad. No, I told myself, tomatoes will be too much. They will add acid that might not gel with the rest of the salad. Hold off.

But I still felt uneasy. When I went to the pantry, I still found myself in this mentality of more is better. My eyes scanned the shelves. What about some slivered almonds? How about pine nuts? I could add some olive oil.

Trust yourself, woman. Four ingredients is fine, I had to assure myself. Your first thought was your best thought. These four things are all ingredients you adore. Your instinct to put them together was right, but don't make a muddle of things by forcing more guests to the party. More is not always better. Just stick with what you have.

So I did. Arugula, strawberries, blue cheese, vinegar. I assembled the salad slowly, feeling the light, dry arugula leaves give under my hand as I piled them into the bowl, carefully cutting the berries into neat, thin, round slices. I shook out just enough of the gloriously stinky blue cheese that it looked like a snow flurry, not a blizzard, had hit the bowl. I opened the bottle of vinegar and inhaled deeply. It had that lovely, heady balsamic smell to it, with just a hint of dessert to it. I slowly drizzled it over the salad and wiped up a drop from the rim of the bottle with my finger. The vinegar was a rich brown color speckled with fig seeds. The vanilla really mellowed out the vinegar's acidic flavor. It wasn't an overwhelming addition; it just enhanced the vinegar and made it taste a little more special.

I dug in. The salad really did it for me. Everything combined in just the right way to make for a satisfying lunch. The textures, the mixture of salty and sweet and bitter and tangy flavors, combined in a way that was just right. I was so glad that I didn't go overboard and start adding ingredients just for the sake of having more on my plate. This was definitely a case of less is more.

The more I cook and learn about food, the more I realize that less is more is probably the best mantra you can recite in the kitchen. You must trust yourself. When something seems to be at just the right balance of flavors and textures, stop. Don't second guess yourself. Leave it be. Chances are, your first thought was the best thought and was correct. You don't have to add dozens of ingredients to make a wonderful and impressive dish. This is not to say that having many ingredients is a bad thing. It can be essential. I think of something like mole sauce and respect the fact that it takes a lot of ingredients and time and patience to make it perfect. But then I think of something like the humble lentil soup I make from time to time for an easy, filling dinner, and I realize just how important it is to have less rather than more. Onions, carrot, celery, and garlic cooked in some olive oil, with lentils and water, salt and pepper. It is so simple, and yet so amazingly satisfying. Every ingredient gets to be a star in this show.

By honoring technique and treating ingredients kindly, with respect, you will get amazing results no matter how few things go into your pot or bowl. Finding ways to coax pleasing flavor combinations out of seemingly ordinary foods often leads to extraordinary results. Putting browned meat into a pot with wine and a few aromatic vegetables and letting it braise slowly for hours in your oven will give you an amazingly complex, beautifully textured dish, without a long list of exotic ingredients. It is the care and attention you put into your meals that will give you the best results, not bottles of truffle oil and jars of caviar. These things are all well and good, but they are certainly not necessary for you to feel like a queen when you sit down to dinner. Knowing that you created something that will tempt and delight you will give you a satisfaction that no bottle of expensive wine ever could. This is what I learned this weekend when I made my humble yet not-so-humble simple salad of arugula, strawberries, blue cheese, and vinegar.

1 comment:

Lauren said...

Love this. It's like why Julia Child didn't like the Julia/Julie Project blog-- the woman didn't give a damn about the food she was actually making, it was all a stunt. If she'd taken the time to savor all those ingredients, instead of speeding through 500-something recipes in one year, she would have gotten something much more meaningful out of the experience. You know, besides a book/movie deal. Ha.