Keep It Simple, Stupid
You want to be a better cook. I know. You want to whip up the kind of meal you see on the Food Network, or in the pages of Bon Appetit, or on your various news and photo feeds, your Snaps and Insta’s, your Pins. That buzzed-about local resto-bar serves dishes that look almost too good — too carefully prepared, too artfully arranged, too inspired and thoughtfully executed — to eat. You want to cook food like this at home. You want to shuck off the shackles of tuna casserole or pasta with pesto or poached chicken with rice, the stuff that gets you through the week but hardly inspires slavering passion. You want to ratchet things up.
In other words, you want to get fancy. And when it comes to cooking, “fancy” usually means “complicated”.
You don’t need to get complicated. Why would you want to?
The great chefs of the world have a seemingly infinite array of tools, ingredients, equipment, and resources to prepare food that dazzles the senses. The great chefs of the world also cook in restaurants, and, put bluntly, restaurant cooking is not real cooking. Restaurant cooking is part military strike, part marathon, and part theatre — a potent cocktail of spectacle, bombast, and ruthless efficiency. A restaurant is a densely layered and deftly organized tower of blocks that nonetheless seems perpetually in danger of toppling with one false move. (This is an over-simplification, but not a gross one.) Restaurants are under constant pressure to impress the paying customer with increasingly baroque plating and ever more esoteric ingredients, along with seemingly infinite “classics with a twist” — chef-y flourishes like sweet potato mac n’ cheese, lemongrass creme brûlée, and deconstructed Caesar salads with the ingredients heaped in a pile so you mix the thing yourself. (How very!)
As a home cook, are you under any such pressure? Are you impressing a paying customer, balancing your inventory against your sales figures, concerned about your household’s social media presence? Are you worried that your kitchen is churning out the same old, week after week, wondering whether your establishment is seen by the dining public as trendy or past its prime? Of course, you aren’t. You’re a human being putting food on the table. Attempting to emulate the restaurant model when cooking at home — cooking real food, in other words— is preposterous.
Why would you want to?
We seem to have lost our confidence. Not in our cooking abilities, mind you. The current glut of educational YouTube videos, food blogs, TV shows, and smartphone apps has given us all the knife-wielding and pastry-making education we could possibly need, right at our fingertips, and we lap it up. (These days, even the most home-bodied suburban housewife knows the difference between a traditional chef’s knife and a Santoku, if not the differences between the Henckels and Global brands of said knives. Thanks, Internet!) No, I think we’ve lost confidence in our home food, our staple dishes, the meals we’ve been cooking for so long that we don’t look at them twice. The food that our parents cooked for us and we cook for our kids. The food that contributes to the fabric of our everyday lives, not just our Friday nights out.
To be fair, the past decade has seen something of a cultural re-appraisal of stalwart foodstuffs we once dismissed as old-fashioned and simple. Every new gastro-pub has their take on fish pie, bangers-and-mash, or quiche, and every other food truck serves up corned beef and sauerkraut like they’re this decade’s balsamic vinegar and truffle oil. “Casserole” has gone from a dirty word to a trigger phrase for hipsters. But this is all still restaurant food, viewed through the sepia-tinted glasses of Millenial irony, and it still has nothing much to do with how we cook and eat at home, in our day-to-day existence. You don’t make baked ziti, or meatloaf, or potato salad at home because you’re prepping for a sardonic Instagram post. You make it because it’s delicious, and it’s simple, and it hits the spot. It’s home food. It’s real.
A marinara sauce contains four ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and basil. It’s also one of the most delicious things you can cook, and its ease of preparation and pure, unfussy flavor bolsters the notion that simple food is the best kind. Try cooking it and see if it doesn’t become a staple in your repertoire.
Simple Marinara Sauce
1 can of plum tomatoes, Italian or otherwise
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thinly
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 sprig fresh basil, or 1 tsp dried oregano
Salt and pepper, to taste
Crush the tomatoes in a bowl, with a potato masher, thick wooden spoon, or, hell, your hands. Add some water to the empty can of tomatoes and swirl it so you collect the tomato juices. Put this aside.
Heat the oil in a large, stainless steel skillet. Add the garlic. When it starts to sizzle (but not turn brown), add the tomatoes, then the reserved tomato water. Stir. (At this point I often add a pinch of dried chili pepper flakes, but this is optional.)
Place the sprig of basil on top of the sauce. Take a picture for Instagram. If you’re using oregano instead of basil, add it now. Simmer the sauce for around 15 minutes, until dark orange oil floats to the surface. Taste for seasoning. Remove the basil sprig.
Serves 2, with the pasta of your choice.