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On simplicity

"Simple is easy to get wrong" Neil Perry

I've been meaning to do something on the really, really simple pasta recipes that exist out there but to be honest I wasn't quite sure whether there was enough to say about them. So when I saw that quote by Neil Perry I thought I would include them in a post about what simplicity means. I mean that quote is a bit daunting is it not? If simple is not doable, then complicated surely isn't. So should we all give up?

Then there was Elizabeth David too - I quoted her recently as follows:

"Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple, and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed any other book, the secret of turning out first-class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love".   Elizabeth David

Simple but not easy, even a trouble seems to be the theme from these experts. But I'm here to tell you that I disagree - well sort of. Simple can indeed be easy too.

I suppose that what these experts mean is that even with simple recipes you need to take care - to buy the right ingredients and to follow the correct procedures. As Stephanie Alexander says:

"Read each recipe, think about the process and then read the recipe again."

Not complicated, simple in fact, and easy too, but novice cooks do have a tendency to just dive in, and even we more experienced cooks are guilty of this sometimes too.

We'll come to the pasta in a minute but let's start with bread and cheese - in many ways the most basic food combination. To a cheese toasty in fact, like Guillaume Brahimi's Jamón croque monsieur which is shown at the top of the page. If you click on the link you can see a video of him making it. Simple - cheese and ham between slices of buttered sour dough and baked in the oven. Easy peasy. Basic. BUT. You need to have the right ham, you need to have the right bread. You need to slice the ham and the cheese to just the right thickness. You need to have the right amount of butter on your bread. You need to have the oven at the right temperature. None of which is difficult. Indeed these days it is ridiculously easy to get the right ingredients - just go to your local supermarket, or your local artisan baker or farmer's market. And if you follow the instructions in the recipe you will get the process right too. You too will be able to turn something out that will not only taste delicious but will also look rustically classy like Guillaume Brahimi's.

And if you want to ramp it up a bit Guillaume Brahimi also demonstrates a cheese and smoked salmon toastie that he simply calls a Croque monsieur although he shouldn't because a Croque monsieur is actually a basic cheese and ham toastie - and I guess you can't get more basic than the Coles version shown below on the right - but even Coles makes things look classy. The smoked salmon one is indeed simple - white sliced bread for goodness sake - nothing difficult in that - and it is also easy, but again you do need to take care. His mozzarella cheese (not very traditional - traditional is Gruyère) was very thinly sliced in large pieces, so I don't know where he got that from, and he topped it with salmon roe - also available from your supermarket. Mozzarella - cow or buffalo, large or small? Also these days, for this dish, you can watch a video of the man himself making the smoked salmon version so you don't even have to read a recipe. Just have an iPad to hand whilst you prepare it.

And what about the pasta? Well pasta is one of the things that is theoretically simple, but probably fraught with danger. Beginning with the pasta itself. So many pitfalls I suppose. Fresh or dried? If it's fresh do you use special flour, does it matter if your eggs are not organic, do you have to make it with eggs indeed? If it's dried does it need to be Italian or Australian and which brand or shape anyway? How long do you cook it for? Decisions, decisions. Mind you I suspect that for we 'ordinary' people the difference in taste that results from all of those decisions, will not really be noticeable. Even so, yes it's not that simple.

As to simple sauces. There are a zillion - and I will list a few below though not with links to recipes. If you fancy any of the flavour combinations I'm sure you will find a recipe either in your favourite Italian cookbook, or somewhere on the net.

Cacio e pepe - it's a Roman pasta dish - just pepper and cheese - specifically Pecorino Romano, loosened and made creamy with some of the pasta cooking water. Just three ingredients, four if you count the water. I had this in Rome and could not believe how delicious it was. Try it some time. But here you have to watch that you have the right amount of each ingredient, and that you have the right cheese, as well as the right pasta. I think it is usually made with spaghetti.

Aglio e olio - garlic and oil. This is a classic, also from Rome. Chopped parsley is also added, and frequently some chilli flakes, or chopped chilli as well, although the basic recipe just has the garlic and the oil. Although all versions sprinkle with Parmesan. Take care that you don't burn the garlic! And of course there is a whole book that could be written on what kind of oil to use, even if we are just talking olive oil.

Pesto - well this is possibly the simplest one of all - just take care over the pesto. I'm sure you shouldn't be buying it even if you buy an expensive pesto from an expensive providore. No you have to make it yourself - and it is easy. Neil Perry, Elizabeth David and just about any chef will probably tell you to pound the ingredients together in a pestle and mortar, and of course there will always be arguments about the basil, the oil, the Parmesan. Me I just chuck it all in the food processor and it's delicious. I follow Stephanie Alexander's recipe but there are possibly millions out there. And this is one you can vary at will of course, with all the different pestos that you can make - different herbs, different nuts, different oil, though if it's peanut oil, then you are probably best off with Asian kind of noodles.

Breadcrumbs - Jamie's version on the left a plainer more classic one on the right. Really cheap this one - breadcrumbs, anchovies, chilli, garlic I think are the basic ingredients. What kind of anchovies? What kind of breadcrumbs? Really - does it matter?

Al limone - with lemon, cream and cheese. that's it. But what kind of lemon, how much, what cream what cheese?

Nigel Slater has a few suggestions too:

Yoghurt and herbs - heat some yoghurt mixed with heaps of herbs over a pan of boiling water and mix with your pasta.

Olives, anchovies and capers - chop them and warm them in some butter with some sun dried tomatoes, then toss with your pasta. Take care not to overheat the capers, they will dominate if you do.

Cream and Parmesan - just heat the cream with butter in a saucepan to boiling point, simmer for 2 minutes then stir in the cheese and some black pepper. Hey presto. Take care not to scald the cream in the pan.

Butter and herbs - gently fry a chopped onion with lots of herbs until soft, add some chopped parsley and lemon juice and mix with pasta.

You get the idea - Simple things, chosen carefully as to their quality and whether they go together, cooked with care at just the right temperature and for the right length of time, and then tossed with your perfectly chosen and perfectly cooked pasta. And I really do think that this is simple and easy. My only qualifier is that none of them are particularly healthy in themselves. All are lacking the vitamins and minerals that come from vegetables. But then if you served them with a fresh salad of some kind you'd have the health element covered too. Ditto for the toastie. Not to mention the glass of wine to go with it.

With which you can toast Stephanie Alexander. She has just turned 80 and this post was inspired by a tribute piece from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.


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