Books

The 11-Ingredient Checklist to Help You Cook Smarter, not Harder

Lukas Volger’s latest cookbook is perfect for how we're cooking (and shopping) right now.

by:
April 22, 2020
Photo by Cara Howe

“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.”

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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.

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.


2 Simple Recipes From the Cookbook

What ingredients are in your starter pack? Tell us below in the comments.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

10 Comments

Ana S. May 8, 2020
Yes exactly!!! Sick of these articles with tons of adds and super misleading...enough!!
 
Jeff S. May 1, 2020
I have followed lukas on Instagram for sometime now. There is always a suggestions for simple ingredients !
My list of pantry staples are a variety of dried beans, brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, greens, carrots, celery, tricolored sweet peppers, I try to stick seasonal veggies as much a possible, cauiflower, broccoli etc...
 
Parvin May 1, 2020
I keep everything except tofu. That's definitely a specialty item. But everything else is a staple for me. I love cabbage too. Thus soup recipe is delicious. Definitely going to check out this book.
 
16katrina May 1, 2020
Is there any way to remove all those “moldy washing machine” ads that keep filling your pages? VERY unappetizing (Downright GROSS) to Keep seeing as you’re trying to read about tasty food.
 
Deena May 1, 2020
And the "How to clean a toilet bowl" ads are equally inappropriate for a food site.
 
Deena May 1, 2020
Tofu is on my never buy list. My 11 list...Cabbage, potatoes and eggs are versatile. Throw in shallots or onions, bacon, greens, flour, sugar, baking powder, yeast and chicken and I can make pretty much anything. (Bake bread, tortillas, dumplings, cake, cookies, etc. Bacon and egg crepes, waffles, chicken with roasted veggies, (cabbage is quite good roasted with potatoes.) Home fries, potato chips, hash browns, French fries, mashed, potato pancakes. Chicken stir fry, chicken franchaise, chicken soup, chicken cutlets. Now those ingredients are versatile and can be used in more combinations. Tofu is not an ingredient in anything that's a mainstay.
 
Tina R. April 30, 2020
The title of this article is misleading and frustrating, I have read it twice and there is NO 11-ingredient checklist anywhere, only 6 ingredients listed in second paragraph. What are the other 5?!
 
Author Comment
Coral L. April 30, 2020
Hi Tina! I'm sorry to hear that you are frustrated. Here is the 11-ingredient list: 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.
 
Dan S. April 30, 2020
After reading this article twice, realized there's zero information in the entire piece. Trader Joes/Farmers Market have nothing in common. The rest is a five minute rant all over the place.
 
adambravo April 22, 2020
I don’t know if it’s ironic or just sad, but, of the six ingredients mentioned in the second paragraph, I exactly none of them at home.