With a touch of irony, I note that simplicity has become trendy. Again. This September’s cover story in Food & Wine breathlessly features their best “three-ingredient recipes ever.” Real Simple magazine boasted similar stories over the past two years, as did Oprah magazine.
I have to smile knowing that my 1996 cookbook Recipes 1-2-3: Fabulous Food Using Only 3 Ingredients launched a quiet revolution that now is being embraced by the food world’s upper crust. Not surprisingly in the era of rampant borrowing, there’s hardly ever any attribution to the concept’s creator, but the nine books in my 1-2-3 series have been nominated for 5 James Beard Awards (with three wins) and one Julia Child/IACP award. Along with a smash hit called The 1-2-3 Collection, (going strong at Apple’s iTunes store), these books continue to surface in stores and garner testimonials from devoted 1-2-3 practitioners.
It has been said, “Never trust a simple dish to a simple chef.” And it was with that in mind that I devised my daring three-ingredient formula where every ingredient counted except salt, pepper and water.
Like the minimalist movement in art, which reacted to the excesses of abstract expressionism, I wanted to strip away the froufrou that accumulated during the last few decade that came to define “contemporary” or “creative” cooking.
Instead of competing by the number of ingredients they cram into a dish or how high they can pile it on a plate, I longed for the high priests (and priestesses) of culinary wizardry to let the “ingredients speak for themselves” and manipulate them as little as possible.
When Alain Ducasse opened at the Essex House, his press release boasted of cooking “with just a few ingredients and some herbs”. Laurent Gras, made headlines at the Waldorf’s Peacock Alley by cooking with only two ingredients. Daniel Boulud, said “cooking with three ingredients is the way a chef really wants to and does cook at home.” Boston’s Lydia Shire once said “some of the world’s best dishes have no more than three ingredients.”
Today’s superstar chefs, when asked about what kind of food they’re cooking, give the same trendy answer. “Simple,” they say. But as I study menus from hot restaurants around the country, their offerings appear radically complex in both ingredient usage and cooking techniques.
As my three-ingredient philosophy has demonstrated over the years, there’s lots of intellectual glue (like using one ingredients several different ways) needed to make simple recipes work. In addition, cooking simply teaches valuable lessons about the way we experience taste. It would be fascinating to get into the “mind” of today’s top chefs as they claim to create their own streamlined dishes.
I like many of the recipes put forth by the test kitchen in September’s Food & Wine issue. The rules of the game, however, have been altered: Olive oil has been added to the list of “free ingredients.” That’s a bit like lowering the handicap of a well-seasoned golfer, but the recipes still sound delicious.
I offer you two crowd-pleasing three-ingredient recipes of my own: Lemon-Buttermilk Ice Cream is the perfect dessert for the remaining lazy-hazy days of summer, and Mahogany Short Ribs proved to be one of the Washington Post’s favorite recipes. You may want to check out the reservoir of three-ingredient recipes in my books (many still in print: Recipes 1-2-3; Recipes 1-2-3 Menu Cookbook, Entertaining 1-2-3, Healthy 1-2-3, Low Carb 1-2-3; Cooking 1-2-3, Kids Cook 1-2-3, Desserts 1-2-3, Christmas 1-2-3) and you’ll understand the magic.
Mahogany Short Ribs (adapted from Recipes 1-2-3)
This irreverent merger of foodstuffs results in a tantalizing dish that will amaze and amuse your guests. Prune juice tenderizes marbled ribs of beef, while teriyaki sauce ads a touch of sweetness and salinity. Nice with a bright, young zinfandel. Make sure the ribs are cut in between the bones to make 4 large thick ribs. These are known as “long cut” to differentiate them from “flanken” which is cut across the bone.
3 pounds short ribs, cut into 4 pieces
1 cup teriyaki sauce
1 cup prune juice
Place the ribs in a large bowl. Pour teriyaki and prune juice over ribs. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Remove the ribs from the marinade. Bring the marinade to a boil in a large pot with 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns. Lower the heat, add the meat, and cover the pot. Simmer for 2 hours, or until the meat is very tender. Remove the meat to a platter. Reduce the sauce for 5 minutes over high heat until syrupy. Immediately pour sauce over the ribs. This is also delicious the next day. Remove any congealed fat from the top of the sauce and slowly reheat ribs in the liquid. Serves 4
Lemon Buttermilk Ice Cream (adapted from Recipes 1-2-3)
How luxurious only 2 grams of fat can taste. This is fabulous served over fresh strawberries tossed with sugar and spiked with grappa.
2 cups sugar
5 large lemons
1 quart buttermilk
Put the sugar in a large bowl. Grate the zest of 2 or 3 lemons to get 1 tablespoon zest. Cut lemons in half and squeeze 2/3 cup juice. Add zest and juice to the sugar and stir until sugar dissolves. Add the buttermilk and a large pinch of salt and stir until completely smooth. Chill well and freeze in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Serves 6 to 8