Not as easy, not as pricey.

Photographer: Timothy Fadek/Bloomberg

Friday Food Post: Simple or Cheap, But Not Both

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I don't need to tell you that food has fashions. Remember when every restaurant with any ambition had a spinach salad with pecans, goat cheese and some sort of onion shaving? That's now passé even in its last refuge, the twee cafes of Rust Belt suburbs. Or when truffles seemed to sprout from menus like, er, mushrooms, only to disappear almost as quickly, presumably off to hibernate in some subterranean darkness? 

We are currently living through what I like to call the salted caramel inquisition, with every perfectly law-abiding caramelized dish in the land, however perfect in its simple sweetness, assaulted and forcibly converted to its more aggressive modern version.

For the last 5 to 10 years, the most notable fashion has been for the complex, spicy and exotic. Foodies exchange worried tips for storing the "basic" spices now grown too numerous for any sort of conventional cupboard. Bitter supertasters exchange angry polemics on the snobs who don't seem to realize that those of us with less blunted palates might not want every alcoholic beverage well fortified with hops, Campari and an extra-strong helping of Angosturas. Those whose sensitive or aging gastrointestinal tracts cannot cope with all that glorious capsaicin sigh, and order the roasted chicken. Again.

History is reaction and counterreaction. The pendulum is swinging back, as gravity says it must, and I detect a new movement afoot: KISS. Which means, yes: Keep it simple, stupid. And I have to say, I like it.

Last spring and summer, I found myself focusing on meals that were almost all vegetables, cooked with minimal spices. Zucchini sliced thin and roasted, tossed with a little garlic and lemon, and possibly, if I was feeling extravagent, herbes de provence or parmesan. Corn cut off a fresh cob and parboiled for just a minute, then finished with brown butter or truffle oil. (Yes, they're falling off menus everywhere, but they are still dear to my plodding, unimaginative heart.) Fresh tomato sandwiches with homemade bread and ricotta. And our new household favorite: chicken roasted with Thomas Keller's recipe, above a pan filled with new potatoes, frozen artichoke hearts and pearl onions. Without all the spices, you get the simple, perfect flavors of the underlying ingredients. This is the sort of cooking that April Bloomfield's new cookbook aims at, and I heartily recommend that you try it.

There is, however, a problem with this sort of cooking: when you have only a few ingredients, those ingredients often need to be really good. Cooking this way with tomatoes and corn you grabbed off the supermarket shelf is bound to be a fairly disappointing experience.

It's no accident that certain sorts of food movements, like "eat local" and "eat simple," tend to start and thrive on the West Coast. If you're living next door to California's abundant, incredible produce, then it's easy to say that everyone ought to be chowing down on fresh local fruits and vegetables, rather than some processed or imported version. In the rest of the country, however, fresh local produce is available only in a narrow annual window -- and if you don't have the income to shop at a farmer's market, or nearby land where you can shop at farm stands or grow your own, it functionally isn't available at all. Buying lots of spices isn't cheap, but it's a lot cheaper than trying to feed a family of four on farm fresh produce in a typical metropolitan area.

These recipes are often also quite labor intensive. In spicy dishes, cooking time and lots of ingredients can substitute for prep work. When you're simplifying the flavors, that means more prep work, since you can't use processed stuff from the supermarket, and precision cooking. That corn dish above isn't terribly difficult, but you do need to shuck all those ears of corn, then slice the kernels off, then make brown butter while watching it intently to ensure it doesn't go from "brown" to "carbonized," then boil the kernels for exactly a minute in salted water, then fish them out with a strainer, and plop them into the pan with the brown butter ... and a lot of you thought "sheesh, never mind" sometime around Step 3. Moreover, unlike spicy ragouts or casseroles, all this prep has to be done shortly before you eat, meaning there's no lounging around with the guests in the living room during cocktail hour. Or arriving home from work half an hour before serving dinner.

There are some recipes that work just fine with supermarket substitutes and less-bothersome-than-you'd-think prep. That adapted Thomas Keller recipe will do just fine with small potatoes from the produce aisle, and artichoke hearts and pearl onions from the freezer case. Prep time: 5 minutes. Delicious meter: almost a perfect 10. That tomato sandwich can be made with the New York Times no-knead bread recipe (another fashion that has gone out, and shouldn't have) and grape tomatoes whirled around in the food processor for ten seconds with a clove of garlic and a cube of Dorot frozen basil. Homemade ricotta is absurdly easy, and just fine with boring supermarket-brand milk.

You can also improve the quality of your ingredients at least somewhat. My favorite discovery this year was dry-aging a rib roast at home and then cutting it into steaks, using Umai Dry's new consumer system, which is basically some special bags and a vacuum sealer that let you age in your refrigerator. I didn't have a lot of success with vacuum sealing the bags; in fact, I gave up in despair, used the water displacement method, and then tightly tied off the bag using the hair elastic that was holding my ponytail (the McSuderman household having turned out, upon frantic search by my husband, not to contain any rubber bands). It didn't matter. After 28 days, our Costco rib roast had turned into tender, amazingly flavorful steaks that I'd estimated as better than 90 percent of the way there to a piece of meat at a really top-notch steak place like David Burke's Primehouse -- at a total cost, for all 12 steaks, less than taking one of us to David Burke's for some cocktails and dinner.

So if you want to set aside the spices and bring a little more simplicity into your cooking, you probably can. Nonetheless, I'd guess that -- unlike the Spicy Revolution -- this won't become a lifestyle for more than a narrow elite. For the cash and time-constrained consumer who isn't living on top of a ramp mine, the new simplicity is just too complicated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net