“We may lose and we may win, but we’ll never be here again”. Here’s thinking of you, Ted.
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Michael Roberts, 1980s chef of Trumps in LA, once said (as I frantically raced to finish my prep list before 6:00 dinner service), “The best method is the most difficult one.” He was talking specifically about garlic. Best result: breaking a bulb apart, peeling the cloves, nipping off the root end, and mincing by hand. Worst result: opening a jar of garlic salt, garlic powder or garlic paste. The notion that excellence is best achieved, not by the easy way out, but by using the most time-consuming method rings true in every kitchen, whether high or low end, home or commercial.
Although today’s cook books and magazines portray home cooking as effortless, somehow the recipes include mincing, dicing, garnishing, caramelizing, reducing, stuffing, grating, julienning, and serving appetizers. Fresh-squeezed juice, hand-made artisan bread, waffle-iron waffles, blender-made smoothies, long-simmered chicken stock, home-made mayonnaise, and just-baked crackers are presented as the new norm. I don’t know about you, but in my kitchen, there is no prep slave, butcher, baker, or janitor—just me.
Dishes from Lucky Peach’s “101 Easy Asian Recipes” call for “1/2 lb. lean pork shoulder, sliced 1/8″ thick and cut into 1×1/4″ strips”, pickled shallots, chili-flake infused oil, minced fresh ginger and garlic, pork broth (two days in the making), julienned Asian pears, and sweet potato noodles. Quick and easy recipes in Jamie Oliver’s “30-Minute Meals” include “matchstick” snow peas, basil chiffonade, grated fresh horseradish, and homemade mustard. Delicious, yes; quick and easy, no. You have only to page through a food magazine chosen from the stack in your dentist’s waiting room to find sumptuous holiday menus that feature lengthy “quick and easy” recipes.
Jap Chae, “101 Easy Asian Recipes”
In the Fifties, Campbell’s, Mrs. Paul’s, Chung King, box pizza, fried corn meal mush (slipped out of the can like ringed-cranberries), and Hamburger Helper showed up regularly on my childhood dinner table. As a housewife of the Sixties, a battered, red-and-white checked copy of “Better Homes and Gardens” was my guide and opened automatically to these short recipes.
But today’s food culture has raised the bar. Real-life quick and easy meals (like opening a can of Spaghettios) won’t sustain today’s cookbook publishers, magazine editors, and TV food show producers. Ingredients unknown in the Fifties—fresh mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese, and chipotle peppers—are available at every grocery store. I found great naan bread at the Fargo, North Dakota WalMart, for heaven’s sake!
Cooking affordable, tasty, healthyish meals every day is satisfying but seldom fast and rarely easy. Why else would we see ready-to-eat food at the front of every grocery store, on-line meal-kit delivery from Mod Meals (check out the prices on this one), Hello Fresh, and Blue Apron, and the flutter of restaurant take-out menus that show up on on our doorsteps. Cooking, like other hand crafts, takes time and is best learned through repetition. So don’t be surprised if the quick Mexican rice salad, easy hand-made enchiladas, and free-formed peach cobbler take an afternoon to put together and are not that easy on the first go-round.
Now, this is what I call easy:
Avocado Toast: Scoop out pulp of two ripe avocados, mash to chunky, add some Real Lemon or Real Lime juice and a goodly sprinkle of salt, mix. If you’re feeling fancy, throw in a few crumbles of goat cheese. Toast bread, pile on too much avocado, serve.
Kimchee rice and yogurt (Ginny’s recipe): Reheat cooked rice, dump in one jar of Kimchee, juice and all (if you want to be fancy, chop the Kimchee), and serve with a large scoop of plain yogurt. If you are a global gourmet, sprinkle with some furikake.
Tomato sandwich: Toast English muffin, spread with too much Best Foods mayonnaise, top with sliced tomato, sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Best eaten standing over the sink.
And for dessert—candy corn and peanuts.