Would you believe me if I said scallops changed my life? When I was a student at the French Culinary Institute, one of my teachers presented our class with a beautiful display of fresh scallops and gave us a challenge: Come up with the best way to cook them. I remember all of us digging through the pantry, grabbing spices, vegetables, herbs, struggling to come up with innovative and daring combinations that would wow our professor, who’d truly seen it all in his many years of teaching.
We each presented him with our creations, and after he’d dutifully tasted each one, he let us in on a little secret—or rather, a big secret. Turns out his simple challenge was met with a very simple answer: The best way to cook fresh, in-season scallops is to throw them in a dry pan with some salt and pepper. No oil, no fancy herbs, no elaborate sauce, nothing. As the scallops sear, they release their own beautiful flavors—that sweet, rich taste that is the core of the scallop. It was a straightforward lesson but a total game-changer for me. From that day on, I understood that the more ingredients you use, the greater risk you run of losing the essential flavor of your food.
This was my first and most important lesson in simplification, one that I’ve made the cornerstone of my cooking philosophy. When your ingredients are good, there’s no need to mask and muddle the flavor with unnecessary add-ons. My focus since that day has been learning how to choose the best main ingredient—my star—and figuring out how to enhance and maintain its natural flavor by adding a small supporting cast of ingredients to dance with it and make it shine. After years of cooking, playing, experimenting and learning, I’ve found that my magic number of ingredients is five or fewer, along with water, salt and pepper.
What this means is that you have to cook food at its best, which means buying food at its best. Sure, you could make my Grandma Moore’s Creamed Corn with frozen corn (I’ve done it!), but you’d have to add a ton of cream and sugar to mimic the natural flavors and juices found in fresh, height-of-the-season summer corn. Not sure what produce is in season? Here’s a hint: When you walk into your grocery store, notice what’s immediately on display in the produce section. Peaches piled sky-high right as you enter the store? Their prices slashed? The abundance lets you know that they’re in season and ready for you. Sometimes it’s about grocery shopping with an open mind and choosing your ingredients before you settle on a recipe.
Let the season help you decide what to cook, and be sure to talk to the people you’re buying from—they’re the experts, and they’ll know what’s good, what’s fresh and what’s ripe for the picking. The better the main ingredient, the less you have to add to it to make a delicious dish. The bottom line is, I don’t want you to work so hard! Simplify your cooking, and you’ll be amazed at what one ingredient can really do.
Buttermilk Pecan Crusted Chicken
Polenta Fries with Roasted Tomato Sauce
Zucchini Ribbon Salad
Claire Robinson is the author of the book 5 Ingredient Fix and host of the Food Network’s show of the same name, which airs on Sunday mornings at 7:30 EST.
7 Tips for Simple Cooking
1. Always choose quality ingredients. When your ingredients are good, there’s no need to muddle the flavor with unnecessary add-ons.
2. Grocery shop with an open mind. Choose ingredients before you settle on a recipe.
3. Let the seasons decide what to cook.
4. Be amazed at what one ingredient can do.
5. Play with a small supporting cast of ingredients that make your main star shine. You can come up with 50 different ways to cook one thing just by changing the secondary ingredients.
6. Technique is important. Like bitter garlic? Fry it. Want that pungent, intense flavor? Sauté it. Prefer it sweet and melt-in-your-mouth? Roast it. Employ different cooking methods for the same ingredient to unlock its varying flavors.
7. Focus on simplicity and the fun will follow.