Weeknight Cooking

A Book of Simple Food That's More than Aspiration

September 13, 2016

As I thumbed through Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavors by Diana Henry, I kept thinking about what really qualifies as “effortless” food. By its very nature, cooking requires effort. And as much as I like to think that cooking is my solace after a long day, the truth is that after a really long day, I’m ordering pizza—or standing in front of the open fridge shoveling olives down my gullet and calling it dinner.

Now that’s effortless.

The recipes in this book are not truly effortless. Of course not. There is chopping and sautéing, you may need to get out a food processor, you’ll need to keep your eye on the stove. So are they simple?

As Henry indicates in the introduction, these recipes reflect her current version of simple, now that her child is nearly grown and she finds herself with some time to breathe. While they may not be quick, they are low effort, which could qualify as simple—but the word is somewhat fraught at the moment. People consider a tomato-hummus tartine too simple to be a recipe. Websites and blogs are awash in pristine photographs of bare-bones “simple” food that seem to taunt “don’t you see how easy it is to be perfect?”

This book is not sending that minimalist message of simplicity. It’s presenting feasible recipes—some of which, sure, may be aspirational for some. There are few, if any, recipes with fewer than seven ingredients, and many have closer to 20. Some require almost no dishes, others require more than three pans on the stove. It’s not a lifestyle book (there’s not a single photo of Henry—or any people for that matter) or a wellness manual (far from it). This is not the kind of simple that will make you feel bad about your messy life.

My question to myself, when vetting the dishes for inclusion, was often, 'Would I cook this on a Wednesday night?'
Diana Henry

Instead, Henry reasons that when people seek food fast—in other words, simple recipes—what they lack is not so much skills or ingredients as it is ideas. So this book is full of unfussy, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that combinations, the star example of which is the Mumbai Toasties: a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich with a hastily pounded green chutney, slices of tomato and onion, and warm spices. It provided the richness and flavor you might want from Indian take-out, prepared in minutes with easy ingredients.

The Turkish pasta with feta, yogurt, and dill is much like Diane Kochilas’ recipe, but with little twists: the onions are caramelized with a cinnamon stick and bay leaf for complexity, and the dish is topped with a shower of dill and feta cheese and a drizzle of cayenne-laced melted butter on top. It was marvelous.

I also made the Tomatoes, Soft Herbs, and Feta with Pomegranate; Chicken with Haricots and Creamy Basil Dressing; Broccoli with Harissa and Cilantro Gremolata; and Pappardelle with Cavolo Nero, Chiles, and Hazelnuts. Of the six recipes I tested, all were good—some were great. None left me feeling like I had just sprinted a mile when I sat down to eat on a rushed weeknight, and I’d make them all again.

So for me, it didn’t matter that they’re weren’t the “simple” we’re used to anticipating from recipes that market themselves as such. I had pulled together weeknight meals that were so satisfying.

You just need some inspiration to help you turn the ordinary—the building blocks of meals—into something special.
Diana Henry

The recipes aren’t one-pot or pantry or 30-minute meals, but they all fit on a single page and the techniques are straightforward. They’re the kind of simple recipes that still feel exciting and full. They’re delicious and approachable, as Henry’s recipes tend to be, especially for the kind of cook who keeps pomegranate molasses and ‘nduja on hand. It’s up to you to decide just how simple they are to whip up in your kitchen. But I encourage you to try a few, either way.

Tell us: What's your weeknight go-to?

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Written by: Megan