Years ago, I edited an Italian cookbook that regaled the simplistic approach to meal preparation. At the time, we were flexing our culinary muscles, so to speak, often spending hours laboring over a single, highly complex dish, experimenting with exotic, difficult-to-find ingredients, specialized tools and equipment, and unforgiving preparation techniques. We made some exquisite-looking dishes, to be sure, and we often had fun doing it, but after a while, the mere thought of preparing something—especially on a punishingly hot summer day—was discouraging. Enter the days of nibbling and grazing, which—while certainly a fine and probably healthy way to nourish oneself, particularly with foods like seeds and fresh crudités—became fairly uninspiring after a while. Food consumption became perfunctory.
Another important lesson learned as a result of the food challenge was a reminder of the primary message in that Italian cookbook I’d edited: food doesn’t have to be complicated or ridiculously time consuming to be scrumptious and good for you. With very fresh ingredients picked at their prime and a little creative inspiration, a seemingly ordinary tomato can transform into unsurpassed splendor. A dish of berries can be utterly divine. Cauliflower and a couple of other ingredients can create a dish that is truly out of this world. Recently, we were introduced to the merits of the saltimobocca produced by Agricola Farm, which is a simple concoction of two cuts of pork and bay leaves. It is almost beyond belief that anything that simple can taste that good. Black beans raised by Quill Hill Farm rolled in homemade tortillas made with nothing more than masa harina, water, and a pinch of salt and sprinkled with our own garden-grown cilantro and jalepeno peppers make an out-of-this world taco. Preserving “freshness” (the quotation marks are mine, because really, how fresh is a tortilla made months ago?) need not require cellulose gum, propionic acid, benzoic acid, phosphoric acid, guar gum, and amylase; just sit down and mindfully enjoy it as soon as it’s made. Mmm … fresh food.
That lesson has been refreshing, because indeed, we really do enjoy the ceremony and the good fortune of being able to prepare and then sit down to a wonderful meal, and remembering that the meal need not require superior culinary ability, costly equipment or ingredients, or even a flair for the avant-garde in vision or technique has been a welcomed gift.
Food is nourishment, and it is right to celebrate it. It is a great blessing to have access to an abundance of fresh, healthy food, and it is right to afford its consumption—preferably with good companionship—the proper respect it deserves. One of the best ways to do that, I’ve found, is to champion simple, wholesome ingredients for their own uniqueness and for their contributions to a meal rather than scramble to find ways to overcomplicate them. Truly good food needs nothing to make it shine; good food shines all on its own.