Simplicity. It’s often difficult to achieve without considerable editing down. I’ve recently begun to take a serious look at my cooking, and wonder if sometimes I have the opportunity to improve myself by subtracting, rather than adding anything. I should certainly know better, having my pretty strong background in design. If you look at my website, or the website that I created for my work place, both share a couple of elements: few colours, few fonts, ease of use, and fairly stripped down looks.
It’s kind of how I like things to look. I want to see the most important thing, not all the sidebar stuff that can distract from the main point.
We had a photo shoot at the restaurant, so that I could get decent pictures of the food to either use on the website, or to use in various promotional materials, etc. The first round of photos was an unalloyed disaster. Everything had great masses of parsley on it, about 100 different elements on the plate, along with good, strong lighting. I went through to do some colour correction, light balancing, and the rest on the photos, so that I could bring up the most important colours, and mute the ones I’m not so interested in. The effect was a lurid mix of day glow neons, and just overall messy presentation.
I asked the photographer to try it all again. This time, each thing needed to be shot with /absolutely nothing/ extraneous. Take out the parsley chunks, take out the flotsam and jetsam, and give me something stripped down to its most bass level. The pictures were so gloriously beautiful that second time around. Mind you, the photographer was the same person. She used the same camera, same settings, same flash. The difference was the presentation.
This is kind of where I’m starting to lead myself in the pursuit of improving myself. Generally, a typical veg cooked in my kitchen at home involves all kinds of things. I start with oil, often mixing different kinds. I like a blend of peanut and sesame, because I really like the smell. Sometimes I’ll throw in a bit of coconut for that extra special smell. Then, in with the spices. Typical run for me is mustard seed, cumin seed, asafetida, and sesame seed. Sometimes I also throw in a bit of crushed coriander.
Then, in with the aromatics. I generally use garlic, onion, and ginger. Because I like to vary the taste of the garlic, I’ll add it at various stages of cooking, but I have recently fallen in love with frying the garlic first, then throwing in the onion. As of late, because I realized I don’t hate them anymore, I’ve also taken to throwing in some bell pepper. The smells by this point are intoxicating, and delicious. You can generally smell my cooking as you walk up the stairs that lead to my apartment.
Then, I add the vegetable, along with a bit of turmeric, and red chile flakes. Once the vegetable is cooked, I’ll finish it off with curry leaves, and a bit of salt.
By now, I’ve lost count of the amount of ingredients that have gone in there. If it’s beans, you’re also talking about the addition of a few tomatoes, possibly some tomato paste, and wine or vodka. If it’s a soup or stew, also add in some carrots, celery, potatoes, etc. Before too long, the dish is a teetering mass of ingredients. All of them are delicious, and the food is fantastic. It’s earthy, and homey, and you eat more than is decent, because it’s hitting all the good spots.
However, I have begun to wonder if I’m tasting the food, or the spices.
When I quit smoking, my sense of smell got a little sharper, and I was able to taste things more clearly. Things that I previously liked have become a chore to eat. I absolutely cannot bring myself to choke down a bowl of ramen soup. It’s awful. I’ve discovered that I love the smell of bell peppers cooking, along with onions and garlic. This has made it possible for me to eat, and enjoy them. I haven’t eaten bell peppers in so long that I can’t even count. My poor husband is so used to eating with me, and my piling his plate with various things I decided I don’t like.
What I am trying to get at is that of late, I’ve been experimenting with really stripped down food. It’s not something that I’m used to doing, but I decided to give it a try.
On Thursday, when I got home, there were two heads of cauliflower, six pounds of eggplant, and a large bunch of collard greens. Typically, the whole meal would have taken me about an hour to put together, all of which would have been spent with me stood over the cutting board or the stove. I would have gleefully moved around my tiny kitchen, making all four burners go at full tilt, while balancing all kinds of vessels on various surfaces. Tonight, I was going to dial it all back big time.
I cranked up the gas oven to 350 F. In went the eggplant, on baking sheets, unadorned. I didn’t cut them, rub on oil, or anything else. I just lay them on the baking sheet whole, and put them in the oven. Then, I made rough florets of the cauliflower. This took me less than a couple of minutes. I drizzled on a bit of vegetable oil, and threw that in the oven as well. I set the timer for 1 hour, and set a pot of water on the stove. I chopped up the collard greens roughly, and let them sit there. I made a small pouch of foil for two heads of garlic (which I doused in more oil). Into the oven they went. The water came to a boil. I turned off the heat, and plunged the collard greens into the water. I let it sit for about a minute. I drained off the water. Then, I tossed the greens in sesame oil, black sesame seeds, and salt.
I walked out of the kitchen, and got into my house clothes. I watched some TV for about 45 minutes or so, while the oven did my work for me. When the timer beeped, I came back to the kitchen to see the cauliflower perfectly roasted, the garlic tender and smelling great, and the eggplants collapsed from getting cooked so thoroughly.
I scooped out the flesh of the eggplant, and dumped in both heads of garlic, a bit of salt, and the roasting oil from the garlic foil pouch. I also threw in some red chile flakes. I stirred vigorously with a wooden spoon, until the eggplant were sort of shredded.
The cauliflower got some salt.
That meal was memorable. For the first time in a long time, I tasted the vegetables, as they were. Mind you, I didn’t touch the eggplant, because I don’t care for their texture. One thing at a time, right? I’ll get there when I get there.
What I’m getting at is that it was a lot of fun for me to try something that I haven’t done before. It wasn’t bland at all. The roasting gave the vegetables plenty of flavor and colour and texture. The oil and a bit of salt really brought out the natural taste. It was a revelation.
Next time though, I think I’ll add a bit of cumin to the eggplant.
And maybe tahini.