Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fast, Easy, and Simple

In culinary school I began thinking about the differences between fast or quick, easy, and simple. These adjectives seem especially prevalent right now in a raft of recent cookbooks including The Art of Simple Food (Alice Waters), Gordon Ramsay’s Fast Food, Nigella Express: 130 Recipes for Good Food, Fast; Quick Fix Meals: 200 Simple, Delicious Recipes to Make Mealtime Easy (Robin Miller); and virtually everything in the Rachael Ray oeuvre, if we're allowed to use a French word to describe anything about Rachael.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, of course. I’m reading Richard Olney’s classic Simple French Food first published in 1974. But, I do feel that we’re near the crest of a wave in which fast food equals good food. “In today’s busy world” (as I’ve seen countless magazine articles begin) no one can be expected to dedicate significant time to feeding themselves or their families. We can talk more about that notion later on. For now, I'll stick with fast, easy, and simple.

Before I go on, let’s decide what these words really mean, courtesy of Dictionary.com:

Fast/Quick: done in comparatively little time
Easy: not hard or difficult; requiring no great labor or effort
Simple: not elaborate or artificial; not complicated

There is definitely a place for fast, or quick, food in my repertoire. When I get home at 7 PM, kiss Rosa, change clothes, chat with Anyah and make it into the kitchen I only have about 30 minutes to put a meal on the table. And, no question, that is not easy. It takes a conscious effort – some thinking and planning – to make good food fast. And for me the good part is pretty important. Each meal is an event to look forward to in my day, an opportunity to eat something satisfying. I am truly loathe to squander any of those chances, even if I only have a half an hour to cook. So, I am all for books and recipes that help busy people put worthwhile meals together. Nigella and Gordon are probably on to something.

The big question for me is the difference, if any, between “easy” food and “simple” food. I definitely prefer the latter adjective (which probably confirms my status as an Obama-loving elitist). “Easy” sounds like we’re slacking – like what we’re doing, cooking in this case, isn’t worth any effort, that we just want to get it over with and feed ourselves already regardless of the result. Like we’re opening cans and jars and taking shortcuts. “Simple” is a much more elegant adjective, conjuring up visions (at least for me) of warm breezes, green plants, and sunny tables laden with plates of beautiful, fresh food. In a nutshell, “simple” is Italian; “easy” is American. How would you rather eat?

So, simple food. How would I define it? First off, simple is not always fast. Simple to me is the foccacia bread from the Rebar cookbook Dave’s cousin Laetitia gave us. Six ingredients (including water), no equipment beyond a two bowls, a spoon, and measuring cups, and 15 minutes of prep time. From start to finish, including rising and baking, the bread requires about three hours. So it’s not fast, but it is simple, and utterly delicious: a golden, crackly crust slicked with tangy olive oil and a pillow-y, tender interior. Email me if you want the recipe.

Simple often means relatively few ingredients, although I would still consider a dish with a blend of five spices simple.

I think “simple” refers to technique and means just what the definition says, “not elaborate”. No fancy, multi-stepped, equipment-laden preparation – just a reasonable amount of prep time (not necessarily total cooking time) and straightforward technique, like roasting or sauteeing.

In the end, what I would argue is that the most satisfying fast meals are “simple”, as opposed to “easy”. This is what I strive for, even on busy weeknights. So the trick is to find fast, simple dishes! The holy grail. I will do my best to share some ideas.

This recipe for Spring Chicken & Blue Cheese Salad from Eating Well magazine is probably not a weeknight meal, unless you make the chicken in advance. But it was a lovely, simple weekend meal, light and flavorful. Note that the chicken took a good hour in my oven, even at a slightly higher temperature. I might roast it at 400 for 40 minutes, but of course it depends on how thick your chicken breasts are. The Creamy Blue Cheese-Tarragon Dressing was rich tasting but virtuous thanks to the yogurt. When I make it again I will cut the amount of honey in half. It was a little too sweet for my taste.

1 comment:

pipster said...

Hey Noisette, you rock. i never spent time to think about it, but you're right! These mean completely different things and the emphasis should always be on simple, if some planning is involved. Like anything, it just takes some practice.
-pipster
it'd be nice to see a picture of you on your blog?