Keeping It Simple

July 18, 2022

My Italian grandfather use to say that it takes your whole life to appreciate doing things simply. That’s true of so many things in our world but it’s absolutely true of cooking, where an efficiency of preparation, ingredients and technique comes only after hours and years spent doing the same tasks in the kitchen over and over and mastering them.

Consider tofu and tempeh. We spend hours and write countless recipes to try to make these ancient foods into something else, from ricotta to ground meat, cream cheese to sour cream. I will never understand why, in vegan cooking, we remain so deeply attached to the foods we no longer eat because animals…or human wellness is harmed by producing and eating them.

I know; I know. We love cashew cheeses and bleu cheese made from coconut or seitan turned into cheesesteak meat. Almond, oat and soy milk are combined with a serious amount of sugar to create an ice cream-like product. But these processes are so complicated and intimidating for the home cook and even many chefs.

And that’s all right. Sometimes, as a treat, these things can be sort of cool, right?

The question for me is what’s wrong with food as it presents itself in nature?

My dear friend and chef/owner of Vedge Restaurant, Rich Landau has a philosophy about food that I love. He doesn’t go out of his way to disguise a vegetable, but rather celebrates it in many forms. You won’t find a Brussels sprout trying to be a Swedish meatball.

And I know that’s a white tablecloth high end, gorgeous dining experience, but what if we applied that philosophy to our own cooking and kitchens?

In our house, we make pizza from scratch just about every week. We top it with tomatoes and sautéed veggies or baby arugula and cherry tomatoes or whatever vegetable is in season that can be sautéed and aligns with our taste in pizza.

There’s no fake cheese, not made from cashews, tapioca, almonds, tofu or whatever else we might consider making vegan cheese from.

And by the way, this is not an indictment of those clever entrepreneurs who have succeeded in making vegan cheese substitutes that are creamy and delicious. Their creativity and ingenuity is through the roof and I applaud them for filling a gap in the vegan food market.

For me, though, I prefer cooking to be simple and unadorned. I prefer my food to be fresh, prepared with few ingredients of the best quality I can afford and that satisfies my loved ones and me. Tofu and tempeh almost always look exactly like what they are: tofu and tempeh. Sure, I make the occasional tofu scramble or tempeh Bolognese to serve over pasta, but mostly, I pan fry tempeh to be part of a stew or salad; I steam, stew, bake or pan fry tofu for any variety of simply, yummy dishes.

Cooking is an ancient life skill that each of us would do well to develop. Our survival depends on it (not so much on take-out meals). Keeping food fresh and simple nourishes you deeply and also cultivates a confidence in the kitchen that will serve you extremely well. Each of us is on our own food journey, struggling to be a little better each time we pick up a knife or heat a skillet. We want to learn new things, to strip away what’s unnecessary. That we are all still works in progress is a reminder that there’s still time to grow in our kitchen skills. I find strength in something my macrobiotics cooking teacher once said to me: “For every kitchen masterpiece, there have been one hundred disasters that led to the masterpiece.” How right she was.

Happy cooking, kids and keep growing.