What Is Simple Food?

My thoughts began as I was scrubbing fingerling potatoes last night, in preparation to simmer them.

As I gently scrubbed each thin-skinned little tuber individually, I found myself reflecting upon the idea of simple food.

I realized that I didn’t really know what the words, “simple food” meant. Well, I knew what they meant -to me-, but I was not altogether certain what they meant to other people.

I first encountered this oddity when I was in culinary school. When I would call my mother, she always asked me what I had been cooking–a logical question to ask one’s daughter who spends over eight hours a day in a kitchen, only to come home and spend another two or three in her own kitchen. And I would describe whatever it was I had prepared that had impressed me, such as spinach souffle, or perhaps, poached salmon with sauce remoulade. And she would say to me, “That sounds good, how do you make it?”

And I would always say, “Oh, it is simple, you just….”

The rest of the explanation, which was always sprinkled with French words and phrases such as “brunoise” (a tiny dice), “chinoise mouselline” (a very fine-meshed strainer), “mise en place” (literally, “everything in its place;” refers to having all prep done and organized before the actual cooking starts), and “buerre manie” (a mixture of equal parts butter and flour kneaded together and used as a thickener for sauces and soups), was always lengthy and generally involved more than five steps.

My mother was patient, but she finally said to me, “Your idea of simple and normal people’s idea of simple are two very different things, at least when it comes to the kitchen.”

This puzzled me, in large part, because I spent so much of my time around people to whom it was nothing to whip up a quart of hollandaise sauce within a few minutes, or who thought nothing of putting together masterpieces of pulled or spun sugar threads, and using them as mere decorations for desserts. To my mind, I was explaining the simplest things I had learned, in plain language that anyone could understand.

Slowly, I learned to ditch the French phraseology–no matter how precisely descriptive it was–when I spoke with non-culinarians, and if anyone asked me verbally for a recipe, to make certain to keep it as close to five or fewer steps as I possibly could. Yet, still, when I made these changes, often, I was greeted with amazement as people said, “You do -all of that- to make a sauce?”

When I began teaching classes in Chinese cookery, I realized that the best thing to do when writing down recipes, was to be as precise and detailed as possible, especially when dealing with techniques that are likely to be unfamiliar to my typical students.

When I handed out the recipes, however, students, particularly if they had not had any of my previous classes, would become instantly intimidated.

“Oh my God!” some would exclaim, at glimpsing the heavy packet of recipes and related materials. “This looks too hard–I thought this class was for beginners! I’ll never be able to do any of this!”

Once the packets were passed out and I had finished with my verbal introduction, I found it was necessary to reassure the students carefully that the reason the recipes looked so difficult was because I had described the methods and techniques exhaustively, in order that they would be able to recreate what we did in the classroom at home.

Invariably, once class started and I began explaining, and we all began working together at making bao, spring rolls or simple stir fries, the students agreed that while the recipes themselves were not hard, they appreciated that I had taken the time to write the descriptions so carefully, so that they would have all the details at hand when they went home and tried to replicate them. When I had students return, taking new classes, they always reported back to me that my care had paid off–all of them managed to recreate the dishes at home, exactly. (I am pleased to say that my early exposure to the works of Julia Child probably paid off; unconsciously, when I first started writing recipes, I was emulating her spare, yet detailed descriptions of technique.

So, what is simple food?

I often describe the stir-fried dishes that I present as simple, and to me, they are, but to those who are unfamiliar with the techniques of cutting that are necessary to Chinese cookery, or whose pantry is not filled with fermented beans, soy sauces, chile pastes and sesame oil, these recipes do not qualify as “simple.”

Simple food depends on where you are, who you are, what your tastes and culinary skill levels are, and how patient one is in the kitchen. Some simple foods require little in the way of technique to prepare, but cook for hours, so one should never conflate “simple” food with “quick” food.

Real smoke cooked barbeque requires little in the way of culinary finesse or technique, but it takes hours to days to execute, with the cook standing by to feed wood into the fire, turn the meat, and apply various bastes, rubs, mops and whatnot to the meat as it slowly cooks in indirect heat. So, to those experienced pitmasters who have lived barbeque for years, and to those who recognize that the three main ingredients for good barbeque is meat, wood and time, it is a simple food.

To those who cannot abide the thought of tending a fire for twelve hours, there is nothing simple about it.

I look back at those conversations with my mother when I was in culinary school and shake my head in wonder. I have since gifted my mother with a continuing subscription to Fine Cooking Magazine, a gift which she appreciates more than I ever expected she would. She often cooks from the magazine and when we talk, if a particular article grabbed her attention, or brought up a question for her, she calls and asks me, and we usually have a lively discussion over it. I chose that particular magazine for her for several reasons: one, a lot of the recipes are what she would term, “fancy” food, but many more are pretty simple. It is a technique-heavy publication with emphasis on teaching readers the hows and whys of cookery–lessons they can apply to their own recipes–rather than just presenting recipes. And finally, it is amply illustrated with photographs that illuminate every step of the techniques they present.

I have noticed, interestingly, that my mother’s definition of “simple” has changed since I started her reading Fine Cooking about five years ago.

Though, she still refuses to pepper her descriptions of cooking with any French words or phrases.

Here is a recipe that I promise is the epitome of simple: fingerling potatoes are simmered slowly in water or broth until they are tender, then drained, and cut in half longways. Then, they are allowed to dry thoroughly, and are sauteed in olive oil with shallots, garlic, chile flakes, and fresh basil, and seasoned with salt and pepper.

The shallots are allowed to fry crisp and reddish brown, while the garlic is golden; these crunchy nuggets of sweetness contrast with the melting buttery quality of the potatoes, while the chile and basil add fire and freshness to the entire dish. The results are fragrant, with a wonderful contrast in texture and flavor; I intended this to be a side dish, but it easily could be a simple supper with just a bowl of lentils or bean soup and a salad.

As for the flavors–well, I think this is sort of a southern French kind of dish, though I have no reason to say so. It just tastes that way to me.

Fingerling Potatoes With Golden Garlic and Basil


1/2 pound fingerling potatoes, well scrubbed (be careful, the skins are thin and fragile, so scrub gently!)
3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
3 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon of Aleppo pepper flakes, or regular red chile flakes to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves
salt to taste


Put the potatoes into a pot, covered well with salted water (or chicken broth for a little extra flavor)and bring to a bare simmer. Simmer them until they are fully tender. (Simmering rather than boiling keeps the skins intact, and makes for extra-creamy potatoes when they are done.) After they are done, drain them, and allow them to dry thoroughly. Cut each into half lengthwise; if any of them are larger than bite sized, cut them in half again cross wise, in order to quarter them.

In a saute pan, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring constantly, until they are a medium golden color and are starting to crisp up. Add garlic and Aleppo pepper flakes, then the black pepper, and stir well, continuing to cook until the shallots darken to a reddish color and the garlic is golden and everything is very fragrant. (The oil will take on a reddish hue from the pepper flakes.) Turn down heat to medium low.

Add the potatoes, cut side down, and allow to cook, shaking the pan gently, until a bit of color is taken on the potatoes; they will not crisp up, but will instead the flesh will be tinged a golden reddish color from the oil. Allow them to cook at least three minutes face down to aquire this color. Stir well and continue cooking until the potatoes are well flavored and coated by the oil, shallots and garlic. Add basil, and stir to wilt and combine it with the other ingredients.

Add salt to taste, and serve hot.


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  1. Thanks for the site, I stop by often and enjoy it.

    This caught my eye and I intend to try it next time I cook potatoes

    “(Simmering rather than boiling keeps the skins intact, and makes for extra-creamy potatoes when they are done.) ”

    Thanks for the tip and thanks for the blog.


    Comment by __s_i_m_p_l_y__t_i_m_o_t_h_y__ — April 7, 2006 #

  2. Another timely posting…!

    I just finsihed making and eating a big pot of sambar (loaded with veg) – total comfort food. After my simple sambar and rice dinner, I was thinking how nice it was to have a simple meal, and reflecting that I had previously been intimidated about making sambars. In fact it’s dead simple making sambar – assuming the pantry is stocked and that you’ve either bought or already made up some sambar powder to have at hand (I made mine a few weeks ago). Mostly it’s repetition I think. The first time mI made it I followed the recipe. This time I leisurely stirred and did the few things needed, while watching the rain on the window and listening to music. And it was a simple, soul-satisfying meal.

    Potatoes look yummy! I do a similar thing but without the basil, and cooked in parchment…

    Comment by Diane — April 7, 2006 #

  3. That looks like a great way to prepare fingerlings – I’m going to keep this in mind when I start getting them from my CSA!

    I found myself nodding along as you described the detail in your cooking class notes. My husband gave me The All-American Dessert Book for Christmas, because he heard a story about a caramels recipe from my hometown. The recipe is a couple pages long, then a couple more for the chocolate dipping “step”. All this detail is helpful when making candy! When I asked my mom about these so-called famous caramels, she told me “they’re supposed to be hard to make” and that a recipe for them appears in a cookbook from the symphony guild. I looked, and that recipe is about 1/4 to 1/3 of a page long – and I wondered if that’s why they have a reputation for being difficult! There’s no detail!

    I’m sure I would like your class handouts.

    Comment by Tricia — April 7, 2006 #

  4. My mother and I used to have the same conversation. It’s funny though, I find myself erring her direction more and more … for a long time, my favorite dessert cookbook was from a French chef with not a single recipe that could be completed without the passage of at least 24 hours! Now, it’s been so long, I can’t remember the chef’s name nor be bothered moving into the other room to check the bookshelf!

    Lovely post – must watch for fingerlings! AK

    Comment by Alanna — April 8, 2006 #

  5. Simple cooking is a matter of available ingredients and skills. What foods you can readily get, mixed with what foods you already have then cooked in a method you already know.

    Simple cooking for my mother meant adding a drained can of garbanzo beans to a jar of Prego and topping some over cooked pasta with it. This was a pretty standard meal for Mom and Dad.

    I use actual tomatoes, sometimes a little reduced red wine if there’s a bottle open, and run over the Asian grocery store that’s two blocks away and get some fresh noodles and fresh basil. This for me is a simple pasta dinner.

    But then, I’m the snot who last Thanksgiving saw some unused fresh cranberries and made an impromptu cranberry sauce from them and some other random fruits around my sister’s kitchen. She very much takes after my mother in the kitchen and was shocked that I didn’t even need a recipe. To me, it was dead simple, to her though it was unobtainable.

    It’s all perspective…

    Comment by Andy — April 8, 2006 #

  6. This sounded so good, I had to run out this morning and get fingerling potatoes!

    I agree with the other folks here about simple being a matter of skills. I play around with a lot of medieval/Renaissance/early modern recipes, and to me, it’s dead simple to make a batch of almond milk or to redact a recipe into modern language. It still stuns my coworkers, one of whom makes these complex Chinese dishes that intimidate me.

    Comment by Kris — April 8, 2006 #

  7. I’ve found exactly the same thing happens when I hand out my training manuals for new software on the courses I run… initially people are intimideted by the bulk and number of pages. But I make them open the books and see all the screen shots in there, all the detailed steps, and then the quick summaries I do. They’re reassured a little, but still uncertain. Then we get to work. We point and we click. We observe and take action. We apply the practical and the commonsense to the abstract. Then we understand… but… they know they will forget. THEN they understand that the hefty but simple manual is their friend 🙂

    Thanks for the post – it’s great to see similar lessons applied in other areas — kinda keeps you going and checks you’re on the right track. I’ve been asked to write some recipes, and you’ve made me think maybe it’s a reasonable thing for me to do 🙂

    Comment by Stephanie — April 8, 2006 #

  8. Reminds me of that article in the Washington Post about the dumbing down of recipe instructions.

    As for simplicity, I still remember the utter shock I experienced upon seeing the matching shock in university roommates’ faces as I whipped together what I thought was a far too basic, sub-par dinner: lettuce leaves with dressing (oil, lemon juice, mustard), baked chicken drumsticks with soy sauce on them, and basmati rice from scratch (the smell of the par-boiled stuff makes me want to vomit).

    Comment by Raspberry Sour — April 9, 2006 #

  9. Great post. If people realised how simple cookery could be, with a little practice, maybe we’d get more people back into the kitchen and less reliance on fast-food that isn’t nutrionally sound (and not as tasty!).

    BTW, fabulous recipe.

    Comment by Stephanie — April 9, 2006 #

  10. This weekend just gone I have been staying with a friend and giving her a sort of miniature cookery course. I wasn’t teaching her any techniques or skills particularly, and I didn’t touch any food myself except to eat it (and pass a few things over, and in one instance chop up some cheese). This is because what she wanted to learn was not how to ‘cook’ as such, but how to make food for herself on a regular basis. She knows the techniques and how to follow a recipe, but not what ingredients to keep handy in the kitchen, or how to plan a meal from random ingredients, or quick recipes that can be adapted to whatever is on hand. We went through various ‘bases’ that could be adapted to whatever she had around, such as ‘stew’ ‘stir fry’ etc, and talked about things like how to substitute, time management, and what to buy regularly. I think it was quite succesful, and I wonder if this kind of lack of knowledge is why so many people find it awkward to cook for themselves and end up living on ready meals and takeaways.

    Anyway, I got distracted from the point, which was: One of the things I taught her was how to make a white sauce from scratch. Now, I consider this quick and easy, and told her as much. We melted the butter, put in ‘some’ flour. I guesstimated two teaspoons, not actually knowing how much I generally put in. In went the milk and stock, and for once, it was nice and smooth. But rather thin. So I told her to add some more flour, and keep heating it, stirring etc.

    About 40 minutes later we had a decent white sauce (which became a tasty macaroni cheese). But it took a *long* time to get right; she kept adding tiny amounts of flour, I had to keep telling her to adjust the heat, etc. I realised that I make this sauce by *feel*, and it just wasn’t something I could easily explain. I knew that once she had consistency right, she’d ‘get’ it and know how to do it in five minutes next time. But this ‘simple’ sauce suddenly took on a whole different element and I realised why white sauce has a reputation for being difficult to make. I think if I hadn’t been there, and it had been a recipe from a book she might have given up and not gotten it right. I suspect next time she makes it it will take around a quarter of the time.

    So, simple is as simple does. In essence, I agree with you 🙂

    (sorry for the length!)

    Comment by Ladylark — April 10, 2006 #

  11. This made me smile. For years, my sister has teased me about this, and I didn’t realize what I did until she pointed it out – almost every time she’d ask me how to make something, I’d start my answer with, “It’s so easy…” thinking if I made it sound simple, she’d be more tempted to try it at home. Finally one day she said, “It’s NOT so easy! That sounds hard as hell!” Mind you, she doesn’t cook much, but I make a concerted effort to describe recipes as simply as possible. Knowing her experience and skill set in the kitchen, I streamline recipes – I omit non-essential ingredients or steps, suggest substitutes, etc. The dish may not be “perfect,” but it’ll be fine.

    We did laugh the day she asked me about making… Easter bread, I think, and I admitted to her, “You know what? It was not that easy.” She acted like I’d split the atom.

    Comment by Bomboniera — April 12, 2006 #

  12. Great comments, everyone–sorry I was not so fast getting to them as I would generally like.

    I am glad to hear from others that I am not the only one who has troubles with saying, “Oh, its easy, you just….” and then go into a novel-length explanation that would make a normal person’s head spin with confusion.

    Timothy–you are welcome–come back soon, and let me know how your potatoes turn out.

    Diane–to me, at this point, it is nothing for me to make a simple Chinese-style stir-fry, in large part because my pantry is fully stocked with all I would need. I have plenty of cookbooks to consult, too, but I don’t always do it–often I will just go with what is fresh, or what I have on hand, and make something that appeals to me.

    When a cuisine gets under one’s skin that way–when you are familiar enough and your panty is stocked well–you can just pick up and cook in a leisurely fashion–it is a meditation of sorts. It is certainly very relaxing and comforting.

    To anyone else, those stir fries might seem hard, but they are the soul of simplicity to me now.

    Tricia–yes–long, -complete- instructions written with an eye for detail does not mean that the recipe is going to be difficult, necessarily. It means that it is explained thoroughly–and that is necessary.

    I know I find it easier to follow complete instructions, even though I am experienced enough to infer the correct method from sketchier, more incomplete ones. For less experienced cooks, complete directions are necessary.

    Andy–well said. I agree completely–and, I have been known to wade into another person’s kitchen, and improvise something on the spot to the amazement of others. People act like I just invented rocket fuel or something and half the time I bask in the glory and the other half, I want to scream, “Good lord, it isn’t rocket science–I am not a genius–stop that!”

    I seldom cave to that impulse–I usually bask, though I have been known to explain how simple it all is really, though usually people’s eyes glaze over before I am done….

    Kris–I hope you liked those fingerlings! You are right–it is all in what you are familiar with cooking!

    Stephanie–if you apply yourself at writing recipes in the same way you write your instructions for software, you will do fine. Remember, use descriptive terms, include the senses (it will smell like this, or feel like this, or look this way…) and you will go a long way towards helping your readers understand what you are talking about.

    Raspberry–you are correct–it is amazing to me how amazed people can be by the simplest cooking tasks. It always reminds me how rare good cookery skills are anymore. Kind of frightening, really.

    Stephanie–if only we could get more people to cook more often–it has been my goal for years to effect that change among as many people as I can.

    Ah, Ladylark–you remind me of my experiences with bechamel in culinary school. My least favorite sauce. My bane. Ick. I can make it just fine–and could when I went into the program, but the method they wanted me to use was different than the one I had learned, so I kept buggering it up.

    Until I did it my way, and then it was fine.


    Sometimes, simple is not so easy….

    Bomboniera–you made me laugh! Yes, sometimes, it is not that easy!

    Comment by Barbara — April 12, 2006 #

  13. I’ve been reading your blog for a good couple hours now, and I’m enjoying it!

    I am learning how to cook. I began cooking from scratch, in earnest, last summer as a way to save money.

    For me, my biggest problem is that I grew up in a family that didn’t cook. Eating out consisted of burgers and fries, so I didn’t even know what foods were available out there to cook!

    Another problem I’m facing now is the “why?” behind cooking. Why simmer and not boil? What makes cornbread crumbly as opposed to cakey? Why add salt to water when boiling noodles? What would adding or omitting an egg do to a recipe? Why don’t my buttermilk pancakes rise as much as I would like? Recipes don’t generally include that info.

    As for simple, I think it all depends on where you’re at at any particular time in your cooking journey. I can whip up some fettucine alfredo completely from scratch and not blink. I think it’s a simple recipe now, but it wasn’t long ago at all that I thought it was a complicated, exotic meal. 🙂

    Thanks for your blog!

    Comment by Michelle — May 31, 2007 #

  14. I learned to bake from my mother. I had it down pat and could whip up a chiffon cake, steam brown bread or make sourdough bread without thinking. When I started to explain these “simple” things to others, they’d choke after a few pages of notes.

    The first time I changed the oil in my car, it took me an hour and a half with my friend coaching. Now I can do it in a leisurely 10-15 minutes.

    Something is intuitive only after you understand so deeply you no longer see the details, but the principles. Simple is what you have internalized.

    Michelle–I had learned the “how” of some types of cooking at my mother’s knee, but I always wondered about the “why” myself. St. Julia helped me understand some of those whys. I had been out of cooking for awhile, but stumbling over Barbara’s blog here got me going again: learning the whys of new & old cuisines. With the Internet and some of the new cooking books, I can now learn the science behind the whys, and internalize those principles.

    Comment by Dan Jenkins — June 1, 2007 #

  15. I tried to make this. I don’t know what I did wrong. The first time around, the shallot nearly burned the instant I added it to the pan, so I threw it away and started over.

    The second time I started on medium-low heat and the shallot and garlic still burned in a couple of minutes.

    I don’t have a very powerful stove, but I was using a pretty nice tri-ply pan. I don’t know what’s wrong, but I always burn minced garlic, no matter what heat it’s on. 🙁

    Ugh, burnt garlic tastes so bad.

    Comment by Nathaniel — September 1, 2009 #

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