“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
In cooking, simplicity is the ultimate sign of perfection but it is also the hardest thing to achieve perfectly.
There is a Zen philosophy that states “it is more important to emphasize what there isn’t rather than what there is”
When you think of it, the most perfect natural foods are also the simplest using the least ingredients and letting the natural chemistry of nature take its natural course.
Take the holy trinity of bread, cheese and Wine,
The history of wine, which started out as simply grapes accidently fermented, in many ways coincides with the history of the western world. Historians generally agree that wine was probably discovered accidentally in the Fertile Crescent area, the region between the Nile and Persian Gulf during the time of the world’s first civilizations between 4000 and 3000 B.C. Simply fermented grapes yes, but oh how many wonderful and magical variations on this theme there are now.
Bread, a grain mixed with yeast, allowed to naturally ferment and baked…..is there anything more simply sublime than freshly baked bread, just another one of the natural wonders of nature and such an essential that it is described as the staff of life and its use as slang for money, bread was the essential food for most people for most of recorded history. Today, bread is almost always made of wheat but in the past rye, barley, oats, rice and maize were used or mixed.
Cheese, Mother Nature’s ultimate miracle of milk, be it cow, goat, sheep or any milk our earth mother produces is simply allowed to mix with the simplest of living organisms, natural bacteria. The bacteria consumes the lactose, the milk sours, and then the curds form. Next a coagulant is add in the form rennet (rennet is a coagulant that comes from the inner lining of the stomach of young mammals or in some cases vegetable rennet). After coagulation comes the process of separating the curd from the whey to make the specific varieties of cheeses. And this begins to work by way of the formation of another of nature’s miracles; penicillin e.g., penicillium roqueforti (the culture in blue cheese).
In cooking it is also incumbent upon us to emulate nature’s natural simplicity. Everything in nature has its natural form and partnerships. So it should be with cooking. Think back to your earliest recollection of foods you have eaten and still yearn for. Are they not the simplest of foods? We are returned to an uncomplicated time when the food we ate was harvested when it was time and seasons were meaningful as they brought distinct flavors into our lives, using fresh and flavorsome seasonal produce that satisfies the senses with locally available ingredients and food that is produced in harmony with the environment and local culture.
We can call them comfort food, mother’s cooking or even slow food but whatever name we use it encourage us to decelerate and use our senses to enjoy quality food with appreciation for the product and the love that went into their preparation.
Comfort food is food prepared traditionally that may have a nostalgic or sentimental appeal. Comfort foods may be foods that have a nostalgic element either to an individual or a specific culture. Many comfort foods are flavorful and easily eaten, having soft consistencies.
One recent development, as chefs have explored the roots of various comfort foods and tried to define it as a unique style, is the advent of fine dining comfort food restaurants that feature more careful cooking and presentation, higher quality and fresh organic ingredients, along with consequently higher prices. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfort_food
We all have our own favourite comfort foods as has every culture on Earth, generally past down from generation to generation. Like the holy trinity of wine, bread and cheese many of these dishes consist of only one ingredient prepared in a special way or one or two ingredients that are a perfect culinary marriage.
Sushi is truly one of Japan’s greatest culinary contributions to world dining today yet such a simple approach to dining is yet to be challenged. It is simply fresh raw fish atop slightly vinegared rice and a touch of wasabi. Sashimi takes this even one step closer to the ultimate of simplicity. Exceptionally fresh raw fish and seafood expertly and deftly sliced and served in all its pristine natural beauty with only a little soy and wasabi to enhance the flavour.
Carpaccio, a dish of raw meat or fish (such as beef, veal, salmon or tuna), thinly sliced and served with the minimum of seasonings.
Carpaccio was invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice where it was first served to the countess Amalia Nani Mocenigo in 1950 when she informed the bar’s owner that her doctor had recommended she eat only raw meat It consisted of thin slices of raw beef dressed with a mustard sauce The dish was named Carpaccio by the owner of the bar, Giuseppe Cipriani, in reference to the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, because the colors of the dish reminded him of paintings by Carpaccio
Congee is basically a simple dish of a liquidy rice porridge served with various condiments and eaten any time of day. Whether one is in China or Japan, Korea or India, you can find some type of dish similar to the ricey deliciousness known as congee.
Since my travels in Asia, congee is perhaps my favorite comfort food, despite how simple it is to prepare and cook. As I’ve said, congee is eaten all over Asia and is known by different names: “juk” or “jook” in Cantonese, “Burbur Ayam” in Indonesia, “lugaw” in Filipino, “khao tom” in Thai and “okayu” in Japanese.
Welsh rarebit is the ultimate cosy supper dish which combines hot, country style bread with a mixture of genuine sharp cheddar cheese, ale or cider, mustard and cayenne pepper.
Welsh rarebit is the taste of the English countryside and combines the course texture of a heavy wheat bread with the contrasting creaminess of full-flavoured English cheddar combining two of the famous Trinity, bread and cheese and if accompanied by a full-bodied un-oaked Chardonnay you complete the trio.
Pasta aglio e olio Simplicity at its finest and an ode to the simple purity of real Italian cuisine. One of the most classic Roman dishes served as a late night collective snack among friends or a simple supper cooked and enjoyed by you alone. Involving very few basic ingredients, pasta, olive oil, garlic and chilli, Aglio & Olio is also a dish to conjure up when the pantry’s empty and no one’s bothered to go grocery shopping.
Chicken Schnitzel From my own experiences an absolutely indispensible Israeli comfort food is chicken schnitzel. It is cooked in many homes as well as in fast-food stands, where it is sold in a Pita accompanied by ketchup, hummus, fries or vegetable salad. and is still a favourite of my family as well as most Israeli kids.
Just to be a little over indulgent I will share with you some recipes of my favourite and simplest foods.
Try them and enjoy the simpler and finer things
2 whole chicken breasts, skinned, boned and halved
1/2 cup all-purpose white flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs
Paprika, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley to taste
Oil for frying
- 1. Put flour in a shallow bowl.
2. Beat eggs in a second shallow bowl.
3. Mix bread crumbs with spices in a third shallow bowl.
4. Beat chicken breasts to flatten. Dip chicken in flour, shaking off excess. Then dip in eggs, shaking off excess. Then dip in seasoned crumbs.
5. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.
6. Fry chicken in hot oil on both sides. Fry for 1-2 minutes per side or until golden brown.
Pound the chicken breasts so they are no more than 1/4 inch thick. To pound, place a slice of chicken between two pieces of plastic wrap and beat with a flat meat pounder or rolling pin.
The key to good schnitzel is to know just how long to fry. You can poke the schnitzel in the middle with a knife to make sure the meat is white (not pink). The schnitzel should be moist, not dry.
Freshly fried schnitzel tastes best, so fry them just before serving if possible.
Pasta aglio e olio
1-2 garlic cloves (or more to taste), minced
1/2 dried peperoncino red chilli pepper, crumbled, or more to taste (don’t overdo it)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
500gr (1.1 lb) spaghetti (only use the best brands e.g. Barilla or De Cecco)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and cook the spaghetti.
Meanwhile, mince the garlic, crumble the red chilli pepper, and heat them in the olive oil. Let the garlic and chilli infuse into the olive oil. Do not over heat or let the garlic brown as this will be bitter. Turn off the heat.
When the spaghetti are just shy of being al dente, drain them well, transfer them to the oil skillet and toss them for a few minutes. Add a few spoon full’s of the pasta cooking water, the starch in the water will help emulsify the olive oil and with stick better to the pasta and to enhance flavour.
DO NOT serve with grated Parmigianino or Pecorino Romano on the side. Some people like it, including some Romans, whereas others, especially traditionalist, shudder at the mere idea
Beef Carpaccio with Rocket and Shaved Parmesan
400g Finest Eye Fillet Steak
40g Italian Parmesan Cheese
40ml Extra Virgin Olive Oil
80ml Fresh Lemon Juice
1 Bunch Rocket (picked and washed)
Cut the fillet steak into 100g portions, and flatten each piece between lightly oiled plastic wrap, using the side of a meat mallet or a rolling pin. This must be done very carefully, in order not to tear or damage the meat. The meat should be paper-thin and be able to cover the inside of your plate completely. This can be done a couple of hours in advance.
Five minutes before serving, divide the lemon juice evenly among your four plates, let stand to let the citric acid “cook” the meat. You can tell when this happens as the meat will change colour slightly.
When satisfied the meat is ready, place a paper towel onto the meat to absorb the lemon juice. Sprinkle with salt, and then, using a spoon, spread a thin layer of olive oil over the meat. Using a vegetable peeler, shave thin strips of Parmesan cheese over, and then sprinkle with rocket.
You can also use fish for the recipe… Tuna or salmon would be good, although instead of the cheese use an herb, or thin strips of blanched cucumber, or thinly sliced fennel.
60ml cider or brown ale
Pinch of cayenne pepper
175g grated cheddar cheese
6 slices of brown, course wheat bread
Butter for the toast (if desired)
Suggested Additional Toppings: Ingredients
Chopped fresh parsley
Finely chopped celery
Tomato and parsley
Toast the 6 slices of bread and spread with butter (optional). Keep warm
Place the butter, cider or ale and cayenne pepper into a pan. Heat the ingredients gently until all the butter has melted.
Slowly add in the grated cheese. Stir continuously until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy in texture. Do not allow the sauce to get too hot or the cheese will become stringy.
Divide the mixture evenly between the slices of hot toast.
Select an additional topping. Prepare according to personal taste.
Toast the rarebit under the grill for about 5 minutes until the cheese bubbles and has started to brown.
Pour the sauce over the buttered, brown toast. Serve hot.
Hey Gary, You have a great way with words and a fine insight into food and its history. Also, thanks for the fantastic recipes! Terry