Notes from A New Cook: Simple is Best


I’m not a foodie. At least I’ve never been one before. I was always a soda-guzzler, a nugget-snarfer, a fan of Lean Cuisine frozen dinners.

But then I started reading about food. Fast Food Nation, Food Politics, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the Ethicurean… What I read frightened me. It scared my pants right off (figuratively, that is. This isn’t that kind of blog).

You probably know all the reasons why it scared me: E. Coli in meat, botulism in cans, carbon monoxide-packaged beef, ecological damage, genetic modification, and an array of health epidemics that are the result of our low nutrition, high fat diet. Our entire food system — Everything I ate! Every single day! — just seemed so…distasteful. I wanted better.

I wanted better for me, of course. But more than that, I wanted better for my kids.

So I started shopping differently. Eating whole foods. And I very quickly learned the bad news: whole foods don’t come with directions.

Lean Cuisine dinners? They’ve got directions. Kraft mac and cheese? Yep, they’ve got directions, too. Dinty Moore stews? Oh, yes. Even they come with directions.

But vegetables? A slap of fish? An egg? You won’t find any directions printed on them. What does a novice cook do with a bag of green beans? How to take a parsnip — a parsnip, for Pete’s sake! — and turn it into something edible?

There were, inevitably, mistakes. Painful, but true: I ruined perfectly lovely vegetables, I have destroyed hefty chunks of meat. But they’re right about mistakes: you do learn from them.

What I learned turned out to be the best news of all: the tastiest dishes are often the simplest ones. All those exotic ingredients you see at the gourmet store? Forget ‘em. The truth is that anything — anything, save perhaps chocolate — can be made delicious with garlic, lemon, and olive oil. Grill it, roast it, or pan-sautee it. You won’t go wrong with those three simple ingredients. Do all the meals taste the same? No – that’s the beautiful, amazing thing. They mingle differently with different ingredients, bringing out new flavors in a way that is always fresh…and always good.

Beyond that, the tricks are simple: don’t burn the garlic. Keep your vegetables from getting mushy. Use a meat thermometer to determine when your meats are done. And use the freshest, highest-quality foods you can find. The best ingredients? Local, of course.

The results? Much tastier than a frozen dinner. And much, much better for you. Now that‘s good news!

(photo credit: Royalty free stock photography)

  1. Kendra Holliday

    Omigosh I know what you mean – it helps to know what to do with these wonderful simple foods. To be honest with you, I’m STILL not doing brussels sprouts justice. But I can cook some mean kale with lemon, garlic and olive oil all right!

  2. Noelle

    Great article! Brussel sprouts are a new found love and nutritional powerhouse. And, they are perfect cooked with the simple ingredients Ali listed above.

    Brussel sprouts: Wash and cut of the stems and half the sprout. Add 1 shallot and 3 cloves of garlic to a sautee pan with a tbls of olive oil and butter. Add sprouts, cook until tender but not mushy. Salt and pepper to taste. These aren’t your mother’s brussel sprouts, give them a chance, they’re divine.

    Now, I’m hungry.

  3. John Irwin

    Check out Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, a cookbook with lots of info on nutrient-dense foods & time-honored ways of preparing them. Loads of recipes.

  4. Sophia

    I’ve just discovered roasting vegetables myself. I was always the same way about cooking, but sticking something in the oven for an hour works well and means that cooking isn’t as labor-intensive as I lead myself to think all this time. (I like using balsamic vinegar with beets or fennel, personally.)

  5. Beth Bader

    Once you learn the basics, the rest comes easy. My mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook.” And it’s true. You can’t go wrong with simple methods and great ingredients.

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