Mas o Menos? Menos, Por Favor!

Posted by    |  April 12, 2010  |  Filed under: Home, Technique

It’s not very often that you’ll be encouraged to aim for less.  But many times in the kitchen, the axiom “less is more” is a rule to live by.  Buy great ingredients, handle them simply, and add as little as possible.  Restraint can be your best friend!

Here’s why: adding too many ingredients to a dish will usually just create a mishmash of messy flavors.  Your palate becomes confused or overwhelmed and your taste buds just raise their hands in defeat:  “we give up!”  Jill and I have a friend who shall remain nameless, but in the early days of her cooking experiments, Miss X’s approach to cooking was to doctor everything up with a liberal sampling of as many disparate flavors as possible. Empty out the spice drawer and, voila!–dinner! And the results were usually not pretty.  “Mmm interesting,” was the kindest comment we could offer in review.

But at the other end of the complexity spectrum, I think of the approach to food that is so prevalent in Spanish cooking.  Ingredient + olive oil + salt = a truly amazing dish.  To achieve such results from such a simple formula, every ingredient must be delicious.  That means a beautiful piece of fish/meat/vegetable, distinctive olive oil, and, yes, even good salt.  But if you follow these guidelines, a very simple meal can be truly memorable.  In fact, I find that the better the quality of ingredients you use, the LESS you have to–or even want to–do with them.  You don’t need to mask or compensate for any flaws, you just want to bring forth the essence of what you’re cooking and let it quietly speak to your comforted palate.  Whisper, don’t shout.

“California Cuisine”–a term that means different things to different people, to be sure–is sometimes dismissed as good shopping, rather than good cooking.  It means that all you have to do to make great food is find great ingredients.   Well, I, for one, am really okay with that!  And if you too make the effort to source seasonal items from your local farmers market, you will begin to see what a difference it makes in the food you cook.  Maybe you’re a great cook who’s just been dragged down by substandard ingredients.

To be sure, there is a time for more complexity.   Indian, Thai, and Classic French cuisines come to mind, with longer ingredient lists and more involved instructions.  And make no mistake–there is a time for more refined and complicated food.  But their mastery requires more practice, and more skill.  It requires a sense of balance–knowing how much is enough and how much is too much with any element of a dish.  It is fun to cook like that and is quite attainable for the courageous- especially when following well-written recipes. However, when dinnertime comes around, the kids are starving and you’ve only got an hour before soccer practice , I’m convinced that simple is the way to go, especially when you’re just starting out on your culinary adventure.

Aim to use as little as possible to create a pleasant meal.  Four or five ingredients can add up to a really fantastic plate!  To illustrate, I was thinking of a dish I had in Barcelona–seared fish fillet with chorizo, clams, and garlic.  Some  olive oil, salt, and perhaps a splash of wine or lemon and you’re in business. It really couldn’t be simpler, but the combination of land and sea, briny clams and savory chorizo, is a uniquely satisfying dinner that comes across as being much more than the sum of its parts.

Pare down, hold back, and aim for less.  Make menos your mantra!

Flounder with Chorizo and Clams

Pan-Roasted Grouper with Provençal Vegetables

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