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Published: Tuesday, 9/7/2010

Cooking can be a handful - and that's a good thing

BY DANIEL NEMAN
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

You come home from a long, hard day at work. You just don't feel like whipping up a magret de canard en croute de sel (duck breast in a salt crust) or a quasi de veau aux pommes de terre nouvelles (veal sirloin roast with baby potatoes).

And a dessert of Crme froide caramlise la cassonade (let's see, that would be a cream custard caramelized with brown sugar)? Don't get me started.

You want something fast. Something easy. Something that doesn't involve too many ingredients.

That's easy enough. But here's the catch: You also want something that tastes good. Maybe even special.

Fortunately, a lot of chefs, teachers, and people who write cookbooks are starting to think the same way you are. More and more often, they are specifically devising recipes with five or fewer ingredients. The Food Network even has a daytime show called The Five Ingredient Fix, which focuses exclusively on recipes using five ingredients or fewer (not including salt, pepper, and water).

The trick to making a dish with just a handful of ingredients - literally, you can count the ones you need on just one hand - is to avoid making it too simple. Obviously, it can't be too complex, but the ingredients should be chosen to highlight and complement each other.

The flavors must all stand out; with so few of them, nothing can afford to sit subtly in the background. Bright and assertive flavors are a help, though they are not strictly necessary.

For breakfast, celebrity chef Frank Bonanno uses commonplace ingredients to add a creative touch to familiar foods. His Banana English Muffins merely adds sliced banana to English muffins with butter and honey. What could be simpler? His breakfasts may be a delicious way to start the day, but they are not necessarily healthy, if you look at the butter content in his Sticky Apples.

If you're having a party, you can make simple but elegant appetizers that take their cue from a surprising source, the increasingly hip pimento cheese. Serve it on crackers for the beer-and-franks crowd, or - because the recipe comes from the always classy Food & Wine magazine - pipe it into squash blossoms for the black-tie set.

The Asian-inspired Chili-Garlic Glazed Salmon in Cooking Light Fresh Food Fast (Oxmoor House, 2009) pairs bold flavors (chili sauce with garlic, green onions, marmalade, soy sauce) with the equally bold taste of broiled salmon. It's the sort of dish you can serve to friends and subtly imply that it took you hours to make. They'll never know.

In her The Classic Italian Cookbook (Ballantine Books, 1973) - itself a classic - Marcella Hazan introduced many Americans to a staple of late-night cuisine favored by chic Romans, Spaghetti with Garlic and Oil. And the best part is you don't have to be trendy or even Italian to make and enjoy it. It practically makes itself.

The hostess of The Five Ingredient Fix, Claire Robinson, has created hundreds of recipes that use just five ingredients or fewer. But just because they are easy to make, that does not necessarily mean they are quick. Most are, but her Sunday Roast Beef and Gravy can take an hour and a half to prepare. It's worth it, though, for roast beef that tastes like roast beef. And nearly all of the time is spent waiting for the beef to cook and to rest. That's time you can spend doing something else.

Veal Milanese is a traditional dish from the north of Italy that is deceptively simple. Rao's Cookbook (Random House, 1998), which presents recipes from one of the most famous Italian restaurants in the country, makes an especially delectable version. We cheated a little in adapting it, but only a little: Rao's adds grated Parmesan cheese to its beaten egg. That would have made it six ingredients, so we left it out. Feel free to add, oh, maybe one-eighth of a cup.

And for dessert, we offer two tempting treats from Abigail Johnson Dodge's Desserts 4 Today (The Taunton Press, 2010), a cookbook of nothing but desserts calling for just four ingredients. Again, elegance stems from just a few ingredients in the Mini Bittersweet Chocolate Cheesecakes and the Balsamic Strawberries and Melon.

Or maybe you will want to make up your own creations. Your cooking can taste great and be easy to make - and all it takes is a handful of ingredients.

Contact Daniel Neman

at dneman@theblade

or 419-724-6155.



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