I say it all the time. Keep It Simple, Sweetie. It’s the key to success when you’re thinking about changing your diet and lifestyle to reflect healthier habits.
My mother used to say that all you needed to create a great meal was extra virgin olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon. I can still remember rolling my eyes at her running commentary as we cooked together. Her focus was on fresh, not processed and that the only food worth eating was food cooked at home. Turns out, she was…as usual…completely right.
When we think of healthy cooking, we don’t think simple and easy. We think we have to create all sorts of complicated methods, sauces, tricks and illusions to…enhance…the flavors of the grains, beans and veggies. In truth, Mother Nature, in her wisdom, created a variety of textures, tastes and colors to enchant us as we choose foods to nourish our loved ones.
So how do you keep it simple, sweetie? It all begins with your ingredients. Now don’t panic; I’m not going to go all Alice Waters on you, suggesting only organic, heirloom foods taste great (although I love her work and agree that these foods taste so good it’s sinful…but I digress). What I am suggesting is that as you peruse the produce department in your local supermarket, bodega or corner market, that you look for the food that looks the freshest. You can tell. If the greens have yellow edges or dried brown tips, they won’t taste really lovely. If the apples look bruised and the stems are dry, do you imagine they will be sweet?
Lucky for us, we are coming into summer, the time of farm markets and stands; community gardens and produce trucks driving around various neighborhoods. Even supermarkets get in the fresh from farm to table during the summer. So let your eyes and nose guide you when buying. If fruit smells sweet, buy it. If produce smells sour or off, skip it. Cool?
Stocking your pantry with the basic needs to cook is essential to keeping it simple. This is not the time to break the bank with exotics spices and condiments. It is the time, however, to invest in a great bottle of extra virgin olive oil, unrefined sea salt (or Himalayan pink salt), one or two vinegars for seasoning and basic dried herbs and spices. For me, that includes cinnamon, chili flakes, curry powder, cumin and garlic powder. That’s it for me. I use fresh herbs most of the time in my cooking. I winter my potted herbs on sunny window sills so I always have something fresh to snip.
We also stock our pantry with whole grains and beans. Brown rice, millet, barley, quinoa and whole oats make up the foundation of our grains, with polenta, pasta and couscous for those nights when dinner needs to be on the table in a hurry…but I’m not willing to sacrifice our wellness or satisfaction.
In cooking, I always say that I am the laziest chef in the world. No gadgets for me (save for my Kitchen Aid stand up mixer that I adore…yes, adore…); they just mean more work for me as I have to clean them. Give me a great cutting board, a fab knife and I am all set.
My techniques are as simple as the rest of my kitchen repertoire. I don’t make stocks for soups. I often sauté the veggies for my soup base (in oil or water) and by coaxing every ounce of flavor out of my fresh ingredients I’m able to make soups that shine with simple ingredients and water.
All of the dishes I create in my own kitchen are simple, from roasted veggies to stir-fry to sauces, salads and casseroles. I prefer simple food without a lot of fuss or complication. I prefer the ingredients be allowed to shine.
So there you have it…my secrets in the kitchen. Most of the time, I keep it simple and fresh. Sure, on special occasions and some weekends, I go a little nuts and prepare feasts that are more complex and rich, but even then, we enjoy the feast and look forward to the simple suppers to come after.