I studied classical piano from 4th through 10th grade, read notes and memorized songs. But I never learned to play music–not with any fluency. When I started playing the mandolin, I learned three chords, C, G and D. It was enough to play a mess of songs (well, it felt like a lot though it was more like 5) with other people without sheet music in front of my nose.
Cooking is a lot like playing music. It’s important to know some basics, but a spirit of playfulness is what makes the best and most memorable meals.
That’s why I’m so grateful for two recent cookbooks that have expanded my everyday food world. Strangely, their approach is one of the simplest in my entire cookbook collection.They are not showy, but they make me say, Wow, a lot. Starting with a single ingredient–a vegetable, like a single chord–these cooks play inventively on it to create soulful and fulfilling meals.
Super Natural Every Day by Heidi Swanson and Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi have tapped into a way of cooking that expresses the kind of food I want to eat all the time–even on nights when all I crave is popcorn. I am not alone, and both books are still receiving standing ovations since their publication last April.
I have to confess that I was not smitten by either one at first glance. Why? The combinations were, if expressed like a 7th grader, “weird.” Did I want harissa with ravioli, lentil with asparagus, chanterelle mushrooms in tacos and baked eggs with yogurt? Not at first. That was my classically trained cook thinking out loud, resisting.
Then my intuitive cook self sat down and read through all of the recipes in these books and saw the limitless possibilities, the purity and simplicity. These are whole meals that are inventive and elemental, succulent and satiating. And I can make this kind of food every single day using my own staples.
I learned three notes and heard the music.
Sure, the combinations of grains and seeds and beans and greens is undeniably healthy, but I’m not really into counting micronutrients. I believe that the search for the “perfect” food has done more harm than good in our culture.
What draws me to cook a pot of white beans and then sauté that entire gorgeous bunch of broccoli raab (photo) with sliced garlic and red chile flakes, then mix them all together with a glug of olive oil and trickle of bean water, top it with dukkah and call it dinner is that this is irresistibly good food.
I am thankful for these books that have given me the guidance and the assurance to be forever more free, to do more playing (and less performing) in my own kitchen.