A simple life should still be rich
By Susan Caba
Food is the most basic of pleasures.
I switched on the television the other night and up popped yet another cooking reality show, this one called The Taste. Four teams of four wannabe star-chefs and their famous coach-chefs were scrambling around kitchens, each of the contestants trying to put together one bite that would wow the judges. One bite that included a variety of flavors, textures, colors and ingredients; the clock was counting down, the contestants were anxiously voicing their insecurities.
I changed channels. Jacques Pepin, that lovely knight of the kitchen–close to 80 years old–was preparing a dish of pasta with a sauce of sautéed greens, onions, garlic and red pepper flakes. Also a side dish of sliced and steamed endive, and four servings of seafood steamed in Chinese baskets over seaweed–scallops, shrimp, mussels and some kind of white fish. In the eight minutes the seafood was steaming, he whipped up two sauces, one olive-oil based and the other built on a base of butter.
Oh, and did I mention his three-minute dessert? Dried figs, cut in half, with half a walnut embedded into the cut surface, then set in a pan of melted butter, honey and lemon. Obviously, Pepin had done some prep work ahead of time–gathered his ingredients, measured the spices he would use. But it was a pleasure to watch his gnarled hands slicing the endive in swift strokes, to see him poke the figs in hot butter with his fingers–his most frequently used tools–and strain the pasta water into a simple sauce, to ensure that it thickened properly.
I would much rather sit down to the meal that Pepin prepared–and I even think I could prepare it myself, although not as quickly as he did–rather than the concoctions on The Taste. I’m sure the food would be more satisfying, the flavors more pronounced and the company more stimulating than any more elaborately prepared meal.
In short, simple does not mean lacking in sophistication.
As I’m trying to define and create an artful, simplified life, I’m wrestling a little with the definition. In some ways, it’s easier to define what a simplified life is not. It is not scarcity or sacrifice or lack of sophistication. I think it’s a paring away of excess, a focus on quality and on doing what one does well, without pretense.
My ex-husband and I were adopted by a much older couple when we lived in Bucks County, Pa. Russell and Katherine were both retired from Bloomingdale’s, where they had been buyers. They entertained often and apparently effortlessly–food was abundant, wine flowed, appetizers appeared, dishes were whisked away. And none of the effort showed, unlike other gathering we attended in which the gears that had been turning were always apparent.
Because my ex and I knew the Palmgrens well, we knew they had a three-day routine to prepare for entertaining. We also knew they were very thrifty, so it wasn’t like they were throwing money around to create a wonderful dinner party. They just had a way of creating a feeling of abundance while putting their guests at ease.
We learned from the Palmgrens that, at our own dinner parties, we didn’t need to go to elaborate lengths with the food–a good lasagna, a great tossed salad, hot bread and wonderful company, with plenty of wine was much more elegant and enjoyable than any over-done procession of precious hor d’oeuvres, salad, main course and finale. That’s the message of Pepin’s Fast Food My Way series, too–keep it simple, keep it fresh. The result will be much more impressive than any elaborately concocted tower of flavors, textures and ingredients piled into a single bite.
I wish I could say these thoughts about food comprise the be-all, end-all metaphor for an artful, simplified life. They don’t. Rest assured, there’s more to come–I’m still working out the details of what I’m thinking. In the meantime, I can tell you I attempted a blueberry pie last week. All I can say is, I never thought blueberries could turn out tough–I had to put the pie out in the backyard for the birds. If you’re thinking of trying one, here’s a great recipe–or at least, it looks great to me!