I am a simple soul. I wear jeans and t-shirts. I prefer Chucks to heels. I don’t wear make-up. And my favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. Less is more. When watching Masterchef, I am frustrated when the judges and contestants yammer on about “technique” and “plating.” And what is the point of foam? My cooking mantra is “Let the food be the food.” My favourite foods are simple: mashed potatoes with butter, salt, and pepper; tomato sandwiches with tarragon mayonnaise; pasta with sautéed vegetables and a little parmesan; pizza margarita with sweet tomatoes, basil from the garden, and milky, fresh mozzarella cheese. I am also a great believer in cooking what’s in season. There is nothing more delicious than a perfectly sun-ripened tomato; and there are few things less appealing than a pale, flavourless winter hot-house tomato — no amount of technique will make it taste good. I defy anyone to come up with anything more exquisite than an ear of sweet corn straight off the stalk with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper.
I prefer food that is only one degree of separation from the soil. I’ve dined at three-Michelin-starred restaurants, but too often the experience left me cold. I appreciate the art and science behind modernist cuisine, but I cannot warm to a dining experience that puts so much technology between me and the food. I’m suspicious of “fusion” cooking that confuses me with too many moving parts. Dining in the dark? Spare me. If a recipe has forty steps, I reckon that is about 35 steps too many. I don’t have a single squeeze bottle in my kitchen, unless you count the ones Simon’s HP Sauce comes in. As my adorable partner put it, I have no time for precious food.
A few years ago, I spent a month in Sancerre, a picture book medieval walled city in the Loire valley. I was immersing myself in French at the Coeur de France Ecole des Langues. Every morning, I walked into town and bought my food for the day. A croissant or petit pan au chocolate for petit dejeuner. A baguette at the boulangerie, a handful of haricot verts and champignons at the greengrocer, a wedge of cheese here, a bottle of wine there. We went on a field trip to a chèvre farm where I milked my first goat. Most days, I lunched at the Cafe des artes, where the friendly staff would patiently suffer my feeble French (I’m sure I saw their ears bleed). Once, I had a long and spirited argument with the veg vender from the market about George W. Bush. He loved him. I didn’t. I rarely ate dinner out. My evenings were given over to homework and working on my vocabulary by watching badly dubbed episodes of NCIS and CSI. And I cooked, simply, and with whatever looked good at the market on the day. It was spring, so the market was teeming with some of my favourite things: asparagus, tiny artichokes, and haricot verts.
My neighbour, Anita, and I spent a long weekend in Paris in 2011. I think she would agree that one of the best meals we had there was a simple omelette, salad, and a glass of house red wine at a corner cafe near our hotel. I had a similarly memorable meal in Giverny, just outside Monet’s house. In Lisbon, sardines grill over open wood fires all over the city, and the aroma is tantalising. My favourite meal in Brussels was pommel frites with mayonnaise.
I visited Venice briefly in 2013, and spent much of my time wandering around side streets and exploring the fruit and vegetable markets. I got lost. I got hungry. I stopped for a plate of linguine con vongole and a glass of Orvieto at a cafe at the edge of the vegetable and seafood market. I walked more. I got lost again. I met a lovely man who made carnival masks. I chatted with another artist selling his watercolours outside one of Venice’s ancient churches. I bought two. I walked more.
Got lost more. Ate lemon gelato. Finally, having managed to find my way back to the train station, hot, footsore, and happy, I drank the best mug of beer I’ve ever had. The most expensive, too, but that didn’t matter. It was a golden day.
The Kale Whisperer’s Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas, Jack Bishop’s The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, honours the beauty of simple food. This book is full of the kind of simple, fresh food that I love: polenta, pasta, and rice with seasonable vegetables; frittatas, tortas, and pizza; salads and bruschetta. Bishop is an editor at America’s Test Kitchen, and he provides plenty of good, practical advice. His step-by-step instructions mean the recipes here are manageable by even a beginner. I particularly appreciate the serving suggestions that follow each recipe. None of these recipes require any special equipment. Not a foam canister in sight.
I probably cook from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook more than any other single book on my cookbook shelf. I especially enjoy it in the summertime, when no one wants to eat hot, heavy food. Packing a picnic for an outdoor concert? This is your cookbook. One of my favourite picnics consists of a vegetable frittata (my favourite is the Zucchini Frittata with Parmesan and mint), the Roasted Potato Salad with Herbs and Red Wine Vinegar, and a loaf of crusty country bread. I am a huge fan of pasta e fagioli, and Bishop’s version, with lots of garlic and rosemary, is among my favourites. I also love the Chickpea Soup with Fennel and Orange Zest. I have borrowed that flavour combination — chickpea, fennel, and orange — as a pizza topping, too.
Jack Bishop wrote another excellent cookbook, Pasta e Verdure (Morrow, 1994). Sadly, it is out of print, but there are used copies for sale on Amazon. In it, Bishop presents 250 recipes for simple pasta and vegetables. The books has chapters for 27 different vegetables, so if you come him from the farmers’ market with fresh, spring favas, or all you have for dinner one winter night is some pasta and cauliflower, you can find something delicious to cook. I often use Bishop’s flavour combinations as pizza toppings. If you can put it on pasta, why not pizza? Each chapter opens with advice on how to choose, clean, and store each vegetable. Many of the combinations he presents here have become standards for me: the hot pink sauces (tomato + red pepper flakes + a little cream) is a particular favourite. My mother used to make what we called “crummy spaghetti”, which was simply spaghetti tossed with bread crumbs toasted in a little butter. Bishop has several scrummy variations on that theme: Spaghetti with Wilted Spinach and Breadcrumbs and Linguine with Asparagus, Toasted Breadcrumbs, Lemon, and Garlic. My biggest deliciousness surprise was the Fusilli with Shredded Brussels Sprouts, Orange, and Almonds. Think you hate Brussels’ Sprouts? You won’t if you try this!
Let me finish by mourning another much-loved but tragically out-of-print cookbook: Marlena Spieler’s The Vegetarian Bistro (Chronicle Books, 1997). Spieler does for simple French cooking what Bishop does for Italian Vegetarian cooking. I haven’t even bothered to flag the “to cook” recipes here, because I can literally open the book to any random page and happily cook whatever I find there, knowing it will be delicious. If you can track down a used copy (they are available on Amazon, too), buy it. Then cook the Lentilles “Dom Perignon” (Lentils cooked in Champagne — don’t worry if you don’t have left over bubbles, it works with any dry white wine). Just lentils, shallots, garlic and white wine.
Simply. Delicious. Food.