“Certainly, cooking in a quarantine was the furthest thing from my mind over the years I was working on the book,” cookbook author Lukas Volger emails me across Brooklyn. His intended aim for Start Simple was to show families, like his brother’s, that they can always whip up something delicious with whatever they’ve got.
The book, which came out this past February, offers over 100 fresh takes on 11 common ingredients home cooks are stocking (Volger’s done a lot of peeking into carts). Figuring into the starter pack are dried beans and hardy greens, silken tofu and tortilla stacks, sweet winter and spongy summer squash, cabbage and cauliflower, a pile of mushrooms, potatoes, and eggs. Sound familiar? I know—I felt a bit spooked, too.
Start Simple could not have come at a more perfect time: Being good citizens and savvy home cooks in light of the pandemic has meant fewer trips to the store, more focus while we’re there, and loosening up in the kitchen.
To Volger, good cooks “don’t shop from ingredient lists of recipes, they aren’t militant about planning ahead. Instead they know what they like and know what they need—they have their own list of essentials that cumulatively constitute a stocked kitchen—and over time they’ve developed a knack for what goes with what, or what can be swapped for what.”
The other week, I chatted with Volger to learn more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Coral Lee: Start Simple is, inadvertently, very relevant at this time. Can you talk about the book’s thesis: the value of shopping smartly, being realistic with expectations, trusting one’s taste, and how to keep pantry meals from tasting dull?
Lukas Volger: I wrote Start Simple with my brother and his family in mind. He and his wife (my sister-in-law) have two young kids, two crazy dogs, two demanding jobs, and...generally there’s just a lot going on at all times, which I guess is true for lots of families. But my partner and I lead a very quiet and orderly life by comparison. As much as my brother and his family want to be cooking at home more often, and eating more healthfully, wasting less, and being more economical at the grocery store, it’s been hard to get a meal planning system to really stick.
My ultimate goal with them, and with lots of people I know who aren’t comfortable in the kitchen, would be that they learn how to cook with what they’ve got—to not always have to rely on a recipe, to ensure that good food isn’t going to waste, to deliciously “make do” without an extra trip to the store—but it’s not an easy skill to teach, because I think it’s a muscle one develops with experience. So I thought it’d be best to start with the shopping.
How did you pick these 11 starter ingredients?
I examined my shopping habits to decide on the core “11 everyday” ingredients that I (and many other shoppers—I’ve been peeking) often have in my shopping cart, and built simple, weeknight-friendly recipes anchored by those. I knew they’d all be vegetarian, since that’s my default for home cooking, and I wanted all of the ingredients to offer a lot of versatility and potential, to be inexpensive, and also to be “meaty” in the sense that they can anchor a recipe. The goal with doing this is to help readers to step back from the nitty-gritty of a recipe or a detailed meal plan, and instead shop to ensure they’ve got a stocked kitchen.
Certainly, cooking in a quarantine was the furthest thing from my mind over the years I was working on the book, but I did want to push a kind of weeknight cooking that’s sensible and smart—using ingredients that aren’t expensive or hard to find, and recipes that offer something fun in the form of a flavor pairing or technique, but that are still accessible.
How might these 11 vary according to geographical region, personal/cultural taste, etc., and how would you advise home cooks to choose/adapt their 11?
For the sake of ease, all the ingredients are ones that are available at a place like Trader Joe’s. That’s not because I’m obsessed with Trader Joe’s—it’s because I know a lot of people who do all their grocery shopping that way. I love shopping at the farmer’s market, and could happily spend a day traipsing around from one specialty shop to another (cue: quiet, selfish sobbing at the state of our current shopping situation). While things are kept really basic in Start Simple, there is a lot of wiggle room in these ingredients. So many varieties of hearty greens, and winter squash, and locally made tortillas, and locally laid eggs, and fresh-made tofu from your local Chinatown, heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. Perhaps after this passes we’ll take more delight in shopping—and have a lot more appreciation for all the players of our local food systems.
I was surprised to see that tofu is one of these 11; can you talk about everyone’s beef with soy, and make the case for tofu—of all shapes and firmnesses?
My introduction to tofu, growing up in Boise, Idaho, was as a meat substitute. And if you know what meat tastes like, and then you’re given a slab of tofu, and you expect it to satisfy as meat did or does—it’s just a terrible start. It’s best to appreciate tofu in its proper context, in the various Asian cuisines where it is so central: with toasted sesame oil and soy sauce and grated ginger, or where silken tofu is scooped into spicy kimchi stews, or when firm tofu is pressed dry and crispy-fried. And not when it’s, say, doused in poultry seasoning and grilled. Though there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, it’s just not a promising start for a lifetime of enjoying tofu.
I also think there’s a big misconception about soy and its effects on one’s estrogen levels—it’s important to understand that that fear of soy is so much more about how it’s used in processed foods (in the form of soy isolate, where soybeans are stripped of all the good fibers and fats that make them a healthful whole food) to boost the protein counts. It’d take a lot of soybeans to get a tablespoon’s worth of soy isolate. But whole soybeans, as they appear in a block of tofu, are such a delicious and balanced food.
What do you have in your kitchen right now, and what have you been cooking, on repeat, as of late?
I’ve been keeping cabbage around even more than usual. I’ve been making my Cheesy Cabbage and White Bean Soup a lot, which is in my book—it’s so simple, and doesn’t seem like it’ll be anything special based on the ho-hum ingredients list, but it’s so good! Cabbage has also been a favorite salad base lately. I crave crunch in the cold months, and that craving has been extra lately, being under quarantine at home and trying to figure out the best way to ration out fresh stuff with minimal trips to the grocery store. Bless cabbage, really coming to the rescue.