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Easy Does It: A Return to Simple Cooking

By Terese Allen, Organic Valley Food Editor

Remember the 1980s? It was a decadent decade, a time when oversized plates held undersized portions of expensive, fussed-over food, when culinary gadgets took over our countertops, and cooks labored to master the art of French cooking—and Italian, Indian, Cajun, Southwestern, Thai, and Tex-Mex cooking as well.

Me, I was a budding chef at the time. I ran the kitchen of an upscale restaurant known for such elaborate presentations as spinach mushroom gateau and chocolate Queen of Sheba torte. I looked up to people who spent their discretionary income on multi-course meals and pricy wines, who subscribed to trendy cooking magazines and knew their latte from their lassi.

Funny thing, though. While I could down raw oysters with the best of them and I prided myself on my crepe-flipping technique, the food that made me the happiest wasn’t costly or labor-intensive. It wasn’t foreign or gourmet.

What really blissed me out was going to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings and then cooking with the fresh, seasonal ingredients I found there. I’d get to the market early, before the restaurant opened, to select softball-size muskmelons and fat blueberries, farm-raised rainbow trout and sacks of fragrant herbs. Back in the kitchen, the purchases became brunch and dinner specials: mini-melon halves filled with juicy berries and honey-sweetened yogurt, trout stuffed with organic leeks and carrots, fettuccine with fresh herbs and cream. These simple dishes were tasty, healthful and well-received, and I found more satisfaction in cooking them than any of the meals that required imported ingredients or hours of preparation.

Even when someone else was doing the cooking, it was this kind of easy-going fare that brought true pleasure. One of the most memorable meals I was served back then wasn’t held in a fancy restaurant, but in a home. It was prepared by my boss, a world-wide traveler with a sophisticated palate—and while I might have expected beouf à la bourguignonne and bone china, what I got was tomato sauce. My host had selected garden-ripe globes and was chopping them when I arrived; as we chatted over a glass of wine she simmered the sauce with garlic and basil, tossed it with pasta in a crockery bowl and passed the Parmesan at the table.

It was a wonderful dinner--the relaxed pace, the conversation, the fresh flavors—and out of it both a friendship and a culinary outlook were born. A light bulb went off in my heart as well as my head. I recognized that simple food, made from wholesome ingredients and prepared with ease, it the most delicious food there is.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I also joined a revolution that day. I signed on to a way of shopping, cooking and eating whose benefits go well beyond personal pleasure. Over time I learned that such “simple fare” is also health-giving, that it helps sustain the land, supports small farmers and brings communities together.

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