The pandemic has found me thinking about food and cooking but lacking both the motivation and the patience to prepare anything complicated, not least because it’s less likely that I’ll invite anyone over to enjoy the “fruits” of my labor. Luckily, I’ve happened on a couple of new cookbooks that meet my requirements for great flavor with little effort. The recipes in these two cookbooks are quick and simple, the ingredients are neither exotic nor hard to come by, and the results are soul satisfying.
Jacques Pepin. Quick & Simple: Simply Wonderful Meals with Surprisingly Little Effort. (a revised edition of Pepin’s 1990, cookbook, The Short-Cut Cook)
Only someone as celebrated and, at the same time, unpretentious, as Jacques Pepin could offer us this cookbook. Focusing on very simple techniques and straightforward ingredients, and not embarrassed to use convenience foods, Pepin gives us quick and easy recipes for every meal. The recipes are accompanied by gorgeous photographs as well as many of Pepin’s own lovely illustrations. Two of my current recipe favorites are Crabmeat Croquettes with Tomato Relish (the inclusion of chopped ginger in the cakes is a lively flavor surprise) and Gateau Claudine, made with instant pudding mix and a purchased sponge cake (seriously!). Pepin named this cake after his daughter, so you know it must be good. This is one of the cookbooks I turn to when I’m looking for a recipe that’s quick on prep time and long on satisfaction. During the pandemic, Pepin has also produced daily cooking videos that I’ve become addicted to on Facebook. None is longer than three or four minutes in length; all are simple and timeless, and it is a joy to watch Pepin at work in his own kitchen.
Sam Sifton’s No Recipe Recipes is my other current go-to “cookbook”. Sifton, the founding editor of “New York Times Cooking” has compiled an idea book that, amazingly, is even simpler than Jacques Pepin’s. Sifton’s premise is that while you do need a pantry stocked with staples such as pasta, cheeses, herbs, and spices, you don’t need a recipe. And indeed, none of these “no-recipe recipes” include measurements at all. For each recipe, there is simply a list of ingredients to be pulled out of pantry or fridge and combined for simple deliciousness. While it may seem risky to abandon your measuring cups and spoons, it’s also enormously freeing, to say nothing of confidence building. If in doubt, just add ingredients gradually and, of course, taste as you go along. What’s also delightful about Sifton’s recipes is that they re-purpose traditional offerings in new ways. Two of my favorites from No Recipe Recipes are Savory French Toast with Tomatoes and Basil (I’m so glad Sifton thought of that – it gives a whole new meaning to “breakfast for dinner”.) and Pot Stickers with Tomato Sauce. Crazy? Yes, and crazy good.
Even as we move, in fits and starts, back toward a semblance of normal life, the recipes in these two cookbooks should continue to provide quick and tasty solutions to the question: “What’s for dinner?”