Mark Bittman at the New York Times has published the perfect summer companion: his list of 101 fast and easy (“under ten minutes”) summer meals.
I love this list for the obvious “who wants to cook in summer?” reasons but also because I love simple, easy food. We often get caught up in the trappings of elaborate meal preparation in which it takes half a day of kitchen slavery in order to produce dinner, but the best food is often composed of the simplest things; it’s just a matter of having good quality stuff in your pantry and knowning when and how to go “Zen” with it.
2. Toss a cup of chopped mixed herbs with a few tablespoons of olive oil in a hot pan. Serve over angel-hair pasta, diluting the sauce if necessary with pasta cooking water.
This is nothing new to me; years ago I picked up Nigel Slater’s book Real Fast Food and it was a revelation. He describes the beauty and simplicity of things like canned sardines and fresh bread. I learned that emphasizing quality and deliciousness is more about what you leave out that what you put in.
One of the biggest mistakes I used to make when cooking was always putting everything in every dish. I’d essentially tip the whole pantry into the pot, so all of my soups were the same (except one week it was beef and the next it was chicken, but the vegetables and seasonings were the same) and my pasta sauces were undistinguished concoctions of everything I had in the kitchen.
12. Boil a lobster. Serve with lemon or melted butter.
Over time, I’ve learned to do it the classic Italian way of using fewer, but better, ingredients, and of going light with the heat. So sometimes my pasta is all about mushrooms, in which case I don’t use tomatoes (they overwhelm the mushrooms). Or maybe it’s a pasta that’s all about tomatoes, in which case all I add are tomatoes and a bit of basil and some salt. Maybe a bit of garlic. Always olive oil. Or maybe it’s about seafood, so I leave out the tomatoes and the mushrooms and just use lemons and a bit of garlic and shallots.
I learned that every time you add something, it takes away from what’s already in there. So add judiciously; or don’t add at all!
40. Put a large can of chickpeas and their liquid in a medium saucepan. Add some sherry, along with olive oil, plenty of minced garlic, smoked pimentón and chopped Spanish chorizo. Heat through.
You get the picture. Bittman’s 101 recipes are in this vein; take a few good things, put them together, and never let your dinner forget that it’s all about the shrimp, or the beans, or whatever other few things you put in there. If you ask me, that kind of simplicity is what loving food is really all about; it’s all about the simple ingredients, not so much about the hours and hours of cooking and processing.
56. Make a fast tomato sauce of olive oil, chopped tomatoes and garlic. Poach eggs in the sauce, then top with Parmesan.
But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the results of very involved cooking. Pas du tout! But it’s good to step away from the ol’ hob now and then and take a breather. Eating good quality simple food is like taking a refresher course in what food is all about.
45. Sauté shredded zucchini in olive oil, adding garlic and chopped herbs. Serve over pasta.
Summer is the perfect time for this kind of meal because the days are hot, the body is lazy, and the markets are abundant. Who needs to spend half the day fussing over boiling pots? Some of Bittman’s recipes are so simple you’ll be tempted to say “Duh! I don’t need Mark Bittman to tell me how to make that!” But perhaps you need Mark Bittman’s reminder of how little is necessary to make a wonderfully simple and delicous meal on a warm summer’s eve. I’m glad I got the reminder.
68. Brush portobello caps with olive oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper and broil until tender. Briefly sweat chopped onions, then scramble eggs with them. Put eggs in mushrooms.