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Simplicity: let it rule

Insanely good dishes that are a snap to make? We kid you not.

March 15, 2006|Amy Scattergood | Special to The Times

BLAME it on Jon Stewart. But right now it seems like the mark of a really good thing is whether you can encapsulate it into one line. An Oscar joke. A Shakespeare quote. A fabulous meal that's so simple it doesn't even require a recipe. Longer than that, your attention wanes, you reach reflexively for a pen and paper, a dictionary, a takeout menu.

The beauty of the one-liner is that it's unencumbered with asides, confusing tangents or too much information. You get it in an instant. Imagine if recipes came like this: simple sentences that could transmit everything you need to know to make a perfect dish. No elaborate procedures you have to read five times to understand, no panicky lunging for your "Joy of Cooking." Not a recipe at all so much as a little story, passed from one person to the next, about a few ingredients and what to do with them.

One of the problems with the current glut of cooking shows, glossy magazines and museum cookbooks is that they present a kind of information overload. We clip the recipes, TiVo the "Iron Chef" episodes, stack the beautiful cookbooks on our coffee tables.

But when it comes time to make dinner, we're stuck in a terrible anxiety-ridden limbo. There are the empty Calphalon pots. The waiting stove. The drawers full of enticing magazine recipes, organized about as well as our 2005 tax information. But what to serve for dinner three hours from now?

It's too late to organize your recipes the way Martha Stewart advised in the first place. Too late to hire a caterer. Too late to feign illness. The best thing to do -- unless you can get your mother to drive across town -- is to reach, from somewhere in the back of your mind, for an idea.

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Easy to remember

IF the dishes are right, you don't need more than half a dozen in your repertoire. Your grandmother's steak au poivre, a terrific pureed soup. They're dishes that are so simple you don't need to write them down: Make them once and they'll lodge in your memory forever, like the chorus of an '80s hit song. Only these are a lot more useful than Duran Duran lyrics.

In a way, this is not a change in food so much as a change in perspective. Because a few years ago, cooks didn't channel-surf cooking shows or debate which glossy magazine to sample recipes from; they didn't lose sleep trying to decipher Thomas Keller's instructions for making carrot powder or trying to find Art Culinaire books on EBay.

They cooked a few things -- pot roast, layer cake, chiffon pie, veal Parmesan -- with a kind of beautiful, dedicated regularity. The dishes were soothing, infallible wonders.

Like those classic homey dishes, you can whip up these one-liners at a moment's notice, with ingredients that are easy to find, if they're not in your kitchen already.

No, you don't need to drag your wicker basket across town to stalk the organic farmers at your weekly farmers market either -- the items are right there in the aisles of your nearest supermarket.

The methods? Foolproof. The required kitchen gear? Completely ordinary: a frying pan, a cookie sheet, a soup pot, a knife.

The recipes are fast, easy and utterly reliable, yet the dishes are exponentially better than the sum of their parts. It's fabulous food that you can orchestrate without seeming to think about it.

It's difficult to imagine anything easier than roasted beets and goat cheese salad. Wrap the beets in foil, bake them for an hour or so, peel them, slice or quarter them and toss them with goat cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. That's a brilliantly simple first course that has plenty of flavor complexity.

Next, imagine a spring soup that's a subtle study of green. It's pureed smooth and so delicate in flavor that you'd be astonished to learn that it's culled from a head of butter lettuce and a bag of frozen peas. Shred the lettuce and wilt it in some butter, add a 2-pound bag of frozen peas, a pinch of salt and four cups of water. Simmer it for 25 minutes, puree and ladle into wide soup plates.

Serve it just as it is -- it's like eating the essence of sweet peas -- or dress it up with a swirl of heavy cream or white truffle oil, or sprinkle with grated Meyer lemon zest, and you have a gorgeous and sophisticated soup made from practically nothing.

For a simple yet deeply satisfying pasta dish, remove the casings from some Italian sausage, saute the meat in olive oil, add a handful of rapini (which you've blanched in the boiling pasta water, then fished out with tongs) and some chopped garlic, then toss with the pasta and some grated Parmesan. For a vegetarian spin, omit the sausage and add more garlic.

Seared halibut in a Provencal ragout is far simpler than it sounds, but just as delicious. Sear one side of a halibut fillet with olive oil in a good-size saute pan, flip, add minced garlic and shallots, a large can of diced tomatoes, black olives, capers, pepper and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

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