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Essay: Does a recipe need to be complicated to be good?

(This essay was included in Best Food Writing 2010 – http://www.monicabhide.com/2010/10/my-essay-included-in-best-food-writing-2010.html)

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I was so proud of my cookbook, Modern Spice. That is, until the moment a reader approached me at a fundraiser. “Your recipes are too simplistic,” she blurted out. It threw me for a loop—too simplistic? I developed Modern spice keeping contemporary peoples’ busy schedules in mind. My focus was to create and share recipes that did not sacrifice on taste but delivered on the “ease of preparation” promise.

Julie Ohara -TroutMintChutney

Photo of Pan-Seared Trout with Mint Chutney By Julie O’Hara

The reader who approached me said that she had prepared my pan-seared ” trout with mint-cilantro chutney, but feared it wasn’t really cooking because it was so simple. At first, I felt I had failed her. I wondered if I should apologize. Had I been unworthy of my readers’ trust? Had I let them down?

I probed her a little, and her response surprised me even more. She loved the dish, and so did everyone who ate it. But it did not fulfill her cooking aspirations. “Indian cooking is supposed to be hard,” she said. “And this book made it seem easy. That isn’t real Indian cooking, right?”

Wait—isn’t being able to cook something that’s pleasing the point of a good cookbook? Does a recipe need to be complicated to be good?

I think what isn’t necessarily obvious to many who read and cook from cookbooks is that creating simple recipes is often more difficult than creating complex ones. Conjuring a recipe that relies on only a few ingredients yet sends your taste buds into an orgasmic frenzy takes a great deal of understanding of ingredients: how they work individually, how to make them work together in perfect harmony, and how to cook them just right. It takes years of experience to learn, and to be able to teach, “simplicity.” And that is my goal as a cooking teacher and a cookbook author – to teach students to be able to cook on their own.

It takes a lot of experience to prepare “simple” just right. In simple recipes with just a few ingredients, there’s no place to hide. It takes guts – and culinary prowess – to cook that way. Please be aware that when I refer to simplicity in recipes, I don’t mean dumbing down recipes. Yes, there are plenty of people who promise that our lives will be easier if we follow their “simple” plan to combine the contents of five tin cans for a meal. To me, that’s a false economy of time and money, not to mention flavor.

My parents taught me how to cook —how to smell a melon, peel an onion, sear a fish, sizzle cumin. But most importantly, it was with them that I learned why freshness in ingredients matters so much and how a perfectly ripe tomato needs nothing more than a sharp knife to bring out its best. I grew up without a can opener in the house. My parents bought all their ingredients fresh. The only time I remember there being canned anything on the table was when my father fell in love with British baked beans and brought home several cans each time he traveled to London.

Instead, I grew up with spices and herbs—our recipes would be considered incomplete without them—and yet I never remember my mother using ten different spices in a dish. A few in the right combination always did the trick. I once received an e-mail from a reader who was really angry that one of my recipes for tea included only one spice. “Are you afraid of spices?” he demanded. On the contrary: If you know how much flavor a single good-quality spice—say, cardamom—can add, why would you add flavors that muck it up?

So what exactly constitutes a simple recipe? To me, it is a recipe that requires just a few ingredients, is smart in the way it uses those ingredients, do
esn’t require my entire paycheck, and teaches me something. New York Times food reporter Kim Severson wrote a piece a year or so ago on “deal-breakers” in recipes, in which she decried a particular recipe for requiring fresh pig’s blood and another for demanding fleur de sel from buckets of seawater. Not happening in my kitchen.

Ask someone what their favorite dish is to make at home and rarely will they announce foie grais with bacon air, mint puree, and pine nut confit. Most times you will hear squash soup, light-as-air buttermilk pancakes, mom’s recipe for lasagna. Yes, there is great joy in going to a restaurant and enjoying a complicated meal cooked by a legend like Daniel Boulud. But cooking at that level at home each and every day is neither possible nor desirable for most of us. I have kids, and as the Boston Globe so kindly put it, my recipes are “clearly the work of a mother cooking on weeknights.” Even so, I bet Chef Boulud would agree with me that good recipes come from learning how to use ingredients wisely.

A chef who masters this art of simplicity is José Andrés. I recently prepared a recipe of his for slender stalks of asparagus bound together with thinly sliced Spanish ham and pan-fried. That was it: Asparagus. Ham. Pan-fry. Why is this notable? Those of you who know Andres will know. Those of you who aren’t familiar with him, let me tell you. Jose Andres is an understudy of Ferran Adria, and he is a chef who regularly thrills at culinary innovation, who can desconstruct a glass of wine on a plate and who can wrap a drop of olive oil in sugar. But he is also a husband and a father who clearly understands the role of a home cook as well as his role as a cookbook author and teacher. He demonstrates this with an ability to show readers what they can make at home WITHOUT a nitrogen tank handy.

Should Jose’s great-tasting asparagus recipe have made me feel like I wasn’t cooking?

Cooking teacher and great TV chef Sanjeev Kapoor, who has sold millions of books, once told me that true culinary genius lies in knowing how to teach people to master dishes that they can easily create at home. It does not, he continued, lie in showing off what the chef knows. The scale of complexity in recipes is in no way a litmus test of how good or bad a recipe is.

So I leave you with this recipe for pan-fried trout with mint-cilantro chutney. And I say with great pride – simplicity is its charm.

UPDATE: This essay was nominated for BEST CULINARY ESSAY by SAVEUR magazine’s Best Food Blog Awards 2011. 

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Comments

  1. Monica, this is such a terrific post and something for all of us — recipe developers, cookbook authors, food writers and home cooks — to think about.

    For me, the most important thing about a dish is the pleasure it brings to those who share it. Whether it took me all day or just a few minutes to prepare, whether I used a handful or a cupboardful of ingredients, whether it involved a fancy technique or a quick stir, the ultimate criterion is still pleasure.

  2. I couldn’t have said this better myself. As a cook, I started out “complex,” and as life has gone on, have grown more and more “simple” in my approach. Of course, having children will do that to a person. I really enjoyed reading this – thanks.

  3. I absolutely agree with you. Some of my very favorite recipes are those that blur the line between “recipe” and “tossing things together.”

    We just returned from Thailand and were stunned by the simplicity and beauty of the food. Most dishes consist of three types of flavoring, fresh ingredients, and an abundance of herbs. My grandmother, perhaps the best Indian cook I have ever known, can whip up a meal in less than 30 minutes using just a few ingredients and techniques. But, the food makes my mouth water just as all good food should.

  4. This is something that no one ever really talks about, so brava to you for laying it on the line. The fact is that it’s inevitably the simplest dishes and recipes that are the most brilliant, and the most true; consider David Tanis, for example, whose recipe for salmon is something like “salmon, salt, pepper, sear, serve.” Or the Jeff Koehler’s sardines in escabeche recipe. Brilliant. In the 80s–a time of culinary excess and eccentricity–I used to howl with laughter when certain magazines used to publish recipes requiring a freshly made batch of veal stock, or sauce Espagnole; the assumption was that if the reader was sophisticated enough to be interested in such and such a recipe, they’d surely have a batch of sauce Espagnole cooling its heels on the back burner. Crazy.
    I recently had dinner at Chez Panisse, and it went something like this: pork–excellent quality–perfectly prepared 2 ways….roasted, and confit. Sea salt. Great bottle of wine. End of story. The people sitting next to us rudely exclaimed that for the money they were spending, they’d expect something fancier and MORE COMPLICATED.
    To this day, my barometer for a successful dish/recipe is one that is “clean”–simple ingredients, clarity of direction, simplicity of process and presentation. Complicated recipes do not mean they’re sophisticated, or, even good.
    Great post, Monica!

  5. Excellent insights, Elissa. I love it. THANK YOU so much for taking the time to read and post. I really appreciate it.

  6. Monica, brilliant article, at the end of the day, your approach is the BEST: striking simplicity.

  7. Well said, Monica! In reality, ethnic cuisines are not complicated to make nor do they require an extensive list of ingredients as many believe. Those are dangerous stereotypes that actually make it very hard to introduce new cuisines today.If one studies the traditional foods of any particular region (everyday meals of real people), one finds a deep respect for simple ingredients and an almost religious fervor to prepare them with simplicity.You will find little waste,fresh ingredients and simple preparation.To wit:Italian cooking,which is all about simple ingredients prepared in simple ways.Just because a particular cuisine introduces cooks to new spices, techniques and new elements of cooking,does not mean it must be difficult to make. Yes, when one goes to most restaurants that sell “haute cuisine” one often encounters foods that have been fancied up. The idea is to pamper and impress–thus the wow factor! But at the heart of cooking are simple recipes. A great teacher is able to teach in a straightforward manner while producing food that delivers flavor, freshness, and yes, that use simple techniques that ultimately,allow ingredients to shine.

  8. I love the line “If you know how much flavor a single good-quality spice—say, cardamom—can add, why would you add flavors that muck it up?” SO TRUE! I judged a local pie competition in which the bakers seemed to put everything under the sun in their pies, with long lists of sweet ingredients. But the pie that won was a lemon chiffon, which was simply elegant. The baker had practiced that pie to perfection. She lost count after 120 practices.

  9. When I came home from traveling in Italy, I sought a cookbook that could help me replicate the revelations I’d had there: so few ingredients could create such incredible flavors. Simplicity is an art, and not a crime or a failure. Oddly enough, it was Patricia Wells, famous for her French recipes, whose book Patricia Wells’ Trattoria: Simple and Robust Fare Inspired by the Small Family Restaurants of Italy really brought into my kitchen a sampling of the dishes that I loved.

    As I am learning to cook Indian, I appreciate the same simplicity that Monica brings to her craft. It is only when one has truly mastered something that it becomes intuitive. And it’s great challenge to translate “intuition” into “substance,” since it’s the language of one’s bones. That Monica has done so, and in such an easily understood style, is no failure on her part. It’s a gift for the rest of us.

    Or, as we say, “More for me,” if you don’t like it.

    I hope this is helpful.

  10. Monica, I can only add my agreement to what everyone else has said, and maybe also my puzzlement… why in the world would someone complain about a recipe being too simple?? I just don’t understand that mindset at all. This is probably a person who can’t appreciate the beauty of nature because it isn’t “gussied up” in some way, or thinks that women can’t be beautiful without makeup! (OK, some of us need that eyeliner, but you know what I mean!)

    I guess it’s human nature to want to think that time spent, money spent, effort spent = THE BEST, but good cooks know that isn’t necessarily true. We can all tell stories of overly-ambitious projects in the kitchen that resulted in disasters!

    Monica, please keep doing what you do best: Teaching us all about food, and life, by appreciating the simplest, most beautiful things around us.

  11. Laura Lee says:

    I agree 100 fold. People adore my desserts, and the best are the ones that have a few simple ingredients. I tend to stay away from the complicated since usually there is something easier that will taste better (especially when I get home at 8pm from work.)

  12. Love this post, Monica. You are definitely on target with this.

    lisa waterman gray

  13. Monica- I completely agree with you and pretty much everyone here commenting. Simple, as long as it’s made with love and care and good ingredients, is a masterpiece, a delight. There is often nothing better. A true genius of a cook knows when to the effort spent to add a layer of complication of a recipe is worth it — and when it’s just a fancy flourish for show.

    This isn’t to say complicated food can’t be great, too. Of course if you LOVE to cook complicated food, if it gives you pleasure and makes your heart beat faster at the challenge of 48 recipe steps, then have at it.

    There are places in the kitchen for both. And I’ll rejoice at a meal made simply or Baroque-ly, as long as the cook had fun.

  14. Monica, this is bang on. According to me every thing great in this world is just pure and simple SIMPLE. And it is not restricted only to food; be it music, be it art, be it writing, be it life, simpler the better. For trained professionals it is often hard to unlearn complexities and see dishes from a simple perspective. When I started teaching recipes and cooking through my television show, Khana Khazana, I was often lambasted and criticized by my fellow chefs for showing very simple dishes on TV. Today with the longest running food show in this part of the world, my stand is vindicated.
    I think you have been able to present simplicity in your food and recipes with such ease, comfort and elan that would make chefs with complex recipes go green(with envy) !
    Thank God you have not spent years learning complex dishes !

  15. Nice discussion going on here. I agree with all of the above, that simplicity is desirable in a recipe, and that some of the best recipes are those that require only a few, good-quality ingredients. I also think that simplicity is something we as cooks and cookbook writers ought to strive for even when we’re working on complicated recipes. That sounds like an oxymoron, but if you think about it, it makes sense. If your goal is to grow as a cook in the kitchen, then at some point you are going to want to tackle more challenging projects–not when you are trying to put dinner on the table, but on a weekend, or for a special occasion. I feel it’s my job as a recipe writer to be able to introduce cooks to more ambitious recipes by presenting those recipes in such a way that is not intimidating and that makes them feel comfortable taking a step forward. I’m thinking about homemade lasagne or cannelloni, with fresh pasta, sauce, bechamel, etc. or , for example; or Pati Jinich’s recent post on step-by-step instructions for making mole Poblano. I think these types of recipes are intimidating to a lot of new cooks, but they can be made much more approachable if you break them down into simple steps.

    There’s a big difference, of course, between home cooking and some of the truly complicated restaurant cooking you describe. When I want that kind of food (which is not very often) I pick up the phone and make a reservation. ; )

  16. I love simplicity in all art forms, including cooking. My favorite roast chicken recipe involves bacon, bourbon, and the bird itself. Thanks for the post and for the trout recipe!

  17. Great point, Tana – simplicity is an art. I have found that simple recipes can be more delicious than their complicated counterparts if you use quality ingredients.

  18. Monica, this is brilliant – your post, your approach, even you readers (commenters). If only we change our outlook a little and start appreciating the beauty in simplicity!! A rose is beautiful, but so is a jasmine. The jasmine touches me more.

    I read someone commenting in her blog about indian food that the spices are complicated? Why? Because it is difficult to pronounce their names – for one thing? What do you think of that?

    I am equally enchanted by western cooking – and I try to break down recipes into ‘bite sized pieces’ that I can tackle – in substituting ingredients, in simplifying cooking methods, in serving good food fresh at dinner. Wasn’t that Julia Child who said: You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.. well, that’s my oneliner too.

  19. Btw, I would love to win that book of yours :) :P

  20. Monica, this is brilliant – your post, your approach, even you readers (commenters). If only we change our outlook a little and start appreciating the beauty in simplicity!! A rose is beautiful, but so is a jasmine. The jasmine touches me more.

    I read someone commenting in her blog about indian food that the spices are complicated? Why? Because it is difficult to pronounce their names – for one thing? What do you think of that?

    I am equally enchanted by western cooking – and I try to break down recipes into ‘bite sized pieces’ that I can tackle – in substituting ingredients, in simplifying cooking methods, in serving good food fresh at dinner. Wasn’t that Julia Child who said: You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.. well, that’s my oneliner too.

  21. Good product prepared simply is always best. When you have great sea urchin or a first rate sardine or even a late August tomato why obscure that? But I think people need to realize that simple does not always mean easy. Sometimes it is hard to restrain ourselves. The temptation is there. You think these twelve ingredients are all very good so if I add them all my dish will be better. Not so. That not allowing yourself to add another element is sometimes the key to achieving the right balance.

  22. I didn’t read through all the comments with a fine-toothed comb, so excuse me if someone’s mentioned this already, but it seems that at least part of the issue with the woman at the fundraiser is that she has a notion that Indian food is complicated and, therefore, if it’s simple it’s somehow not authentic. I feel for her a bit – for those of us who are unfamiliar with a cuisine, it’s hard to understand what’s authentic versus what’s been Americanized/bastardized/dumbed down/etc – even while I intellectually understand that chasing the idea of culinary authenticit is a losing battle. Cuisines change. And within any culture/cuisine, there are people who will have authentically experienced it one way and others who’ll have experienced it another. And – etc, etc, etc.

    I, for one, am always a teeny bit worried whenever I develop a recipe for a dish from another cuisine – I fear that someone, somewhere is going to cry foul because I used one ingredient, or I didn’t use another. And, in their world, they might be 100% accurate that I erred, while in another’s, my version might be spot-on. Does this mean I should never develop a recipe outside of the cuisine that I grew up with, outside of one where I’m certain of the recipe’s authentic inegrity? Thoughts, anyone?

    In any case, every cuisine will always have it’s simple recipes and it’s complicated ones – too bad the fundraiser woman didn’t understand that and, instead, assumed it meant your recipes were less than I’m sure they are, Monica.

  23. Sara Reistad-Long says:

    Love this post, Monica! I’m knee-deep in recipe testing for a cookbook where I’ve got over 100 separate chefs contributing. Time and again, I find myself preferring the simple recipes. It’s like a painting–more on the canvas doesn’t necessarily mean more compelling. There still has to be balance, theme, meaning, and purpose.

    Interestingly–and I know you’ll love this–one of my favorite of the “simple” recipe submissions I’m testing happens to come from none other than Daniel Boulud! His headnote even deals with some of the issues you raised. You were totally, brilliantly prescient in your post there.

  24. Great topic! To me, it boils down to this: just as you shouldn’t dumb down a recipe, you shouldn’t dumb it “up” either – making it needlessly complicated just so it seems like you know more than the average home cook. It’s to your credit that as a cookbook author you’re secure enough not to unneccesarily “dumb up” a recipe or technique. I wish all cookbook authors (and for that matter, cookbook consumers) were as secure.

  25. Ramin Ganeshram says:

    Well, I’m not going to say much that anyone hasn’t already said, but want to voice my support. In my opinion, when the ingredients are fresh and superior, anything but simplicity is a affront to their natural nature. The cook who can husband the humble ingredient with a simple recipe that coaxes out its beauty is skilled indeed. Complexity has its place, but it’s not needed EVERY place.

  26. I think food network needs an Indian Cooking show “Modern Spice” that would demonstrate easy and modern methods of preparing indian food.

  27. I actually shy away from complicated recipes. To me, elaborate technique can hide the simple essence of great food. I think what all recipes should stress is: start with FABULOUS ingredients. And then let them do what they do. Don’t flog them with technique!

  28. It is, in fact, your very simplicity that gave me the courage to try your book and learn about Indian cooking. I remember an Italian cook telling me that in Italy the job of the chef is to not screw up the amazing product, just enhance it. In the words of Leonardo Di Vinci- “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

  29. Great post!

    Look, I like a complicated dish as much as the next person. I routinely make Thai curry from scratch, pounding the many ingredients in my mortar & pestle to make the curry paste. But you know what – I love simple food too! One of the reasons I love your book is the purity and ease of it. All the dishes I’ve tried have been incredibly tasty. And tasty trumps everything.

  30. mala raman says:

    great read as recommended by Sanjeev kapoor. There is a saying that ” It is simple to be happy, but it is difficult to be simple”. The same applies to cooking and I really tottally agree with ur article that the more the simpler the recipe, the tastier and nutritious the food..

  31. My Votes on Saveur has been cast..ALL the best Monica!

  32. You make some great points here. Cooking is an art and good food can be created by adding just the right amount of ingredients. Some recipes don’t require a lot of ingredients but just a couple of spices or herbs just bring out the best in a dish. My vote is for you.

    I’ll really appreciate your comments on my style of writing so do visit my blog (www.givemesomespice.com) if you get a chance.

    Mina

  33. Monica,
    I just read your essay for the second time. Thank you so much for setting people straight on simplicity in recipes. I grew up in an Italian kitchen with parents that sound similar to yours.

    After a lifetime of cooking, at the age of 40 I opened my own restaurant in Ridgefield CT featuring almost nothing but simple dishes. Some were dishes I grew up with but most were dishes I invented using simplify as my guide just as I had learned growing up. We were crazy busy most days so ii was so grateful for their simplicity. It made working the line a lot easier and a godsend for good service.

    After 10 years of this I decided to focus on giving cooking classes which I began doing in 1995 and continue to this day. Like you, I want people to know how easy it is to make delicious, not to mention healthy and economical meals at home. And did I mention what it does for family bonding? Personally I think – for a variety of reasons – most people will find cooking a necessity in the months and years to come. And then they’ll know what they’ve been missing. I’m grateful and proud to do my part in bringing people back to the delights of the kitchen. I so admire what you are doing. Love your site.

    And on another personal note…thank you for validating something I’ve been saying and practicing for a lifetime.
    Silvia

  34. monica, i love your essay.. i’m inspired by your essay to encourage me to cook better :)

  35. I THINK YOU SHOULD HAVE YOUR OWN INDIAN COOKING SHOW SO PEOPLE MAY KNOW BETTER SIDE OF INDIAN FOODS AND SPICES

  36. i love this essay! :) while learning, it entertains a person alot.. thanks monica! i wanna learn how to cook now……

  37. i really love indian foods

  38. Monica, I think this is really beautifully said.

  39. Monica, you captured everything so well. The essence is right there in your piece. A good recipe does not need to be complex. If it’s good, it will be good. Just like this essay. Simple and inspiring!

  40. Sikandalous Cuisine says:

    Whatever you cook with passion and love will always taste great ! That and to know your ingredients and their strengths are the only ingredients you need to make a super meal!
    It takes only dried whole red chilies , salt ,clarified butter along with mutton to cook my best mutton recipe Junglee Maas !
    While cooking I feel , less is often more .

  41. You’d think that for many people, the purpose of cooking from a cookbook is to arrive at the best possible destination after the simplest journey. And as recipe writers, our long winding journey to find that easiest route can be quite difficult. But people have different views of what makes a dish good – fanciness, degree of difficulty, etc. It’s hard to please everyone. And I can’t wait to try your trout. Great essay!

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