by John Ryan
Simple food such as roasted chicken and soup should be as delicious as complicated food. But usually it isn't.
One impediment to simple food is that it's boring to make. Another is that it's tough to make money on it.
Complicated food is everywhere. Chefs love dishes with rubs and sauces and mile-high garnishes. Complicated food is fun and it obviously takes skill. And chefs get paid more to make difficult dishes. Restaurant owners also love complicated food because they can charge a lot for it. Take Eggs Benedict. It's toast, a couple slices of ham, poached eggs, and a sauce made with butter and lemon juice. There's no shortage of Eggs Benedict, but when was the last time you got an English muffin perfectly toasted? and hot?
I began to notice the absence of really good simple food because I own a green '66 Volvo, a great little sedan. I bought it several years ago because my wife had a blue '67 Volvo wagon. I liked the idea that our cars could keep each other company.
Owning a '66 anything has its ups and downs. On the up side, complete strangers tell me what a great car I have. The down side, of course, is maintenance. With an old car you never know what's going to go wrong next. I remember spending a bundle getting the tie rods replaced and the next day I drove over a bump and the driver's side window fell into the door. Gone. I couldn't roll it up because the mechanism inside the door had broken.
So we periodically found ourselves needing to face the inevitable. "I took the car in today." "What's wrong this time?" "I think we need talk about the cars." "No, not tonight." "Then when?" "Let's go out tomorrow and talk about it." We found that we couldn't talk about our cars' situation at home.
So we'd get away, have a beer or three, and try to objectively decide which car we should get rid of. For these conversations we didn't want a spiffy place where the chef was trying to establish an international reputation with weird ingredients. We wanted food we knew about. We didn't just want burgers and fries, we wanted comfort food prepared with real care. During good times I can try Risotto with Calf's Cheeks, but during bad times I want roasted chicken where the meat is still juicy and the skin is crispy brown. Food like that eases your troubles. But it's surprisingly very hard to find chicken like that. Except maybe at Chez Panisse.
A few years ago some friends were planning to spend part of their vacation in Berkeley, California. Obsessed with food, they had reservations at Chez Panisse before making their plane reservations. They were not eating in the café upstairs, but in the dining room downstairs where the kitchen prepares a different, but very limited menu every day.
Using the Chez Panisse cookbooks as source material, their favorite pastime was fantasizing about what their upcoming meal might be. They couldn't wait. (Nor could we. We wanted them to have their damn meal and get it over with.)
So after months of mental drooling, they strolled into the restaurant. The menu for that evening was tomato soup, roast chicken and apple pie.
They reported back that the meal had, uh, been superb...that the free-range chicken had come from a local farm...and that the soup had been made from organically grown, vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes. All in all they tried to appear pleased with their pilgrimage. But we knew. They didn't want chicken. At the very least they wanted squab or wild guinea hen.
No wonder great chefs and restaurants don't serve roasted chicken. However, another problem with simple food (when you can find it) is that in the hands of lesser chefs it isn't very good. And it's usually not very good because of the temptation to take shortcuts.
At a place where I once worked we made soups in 18-gallon batches. Nearly all of our days started with making a batch of soup. Making that much soup was a tedious job even if you could pass the time in conversation. I remember the day our salesman told us we could buy potatoes already peeled and diced.
We couldn't believe it. I immediately ordered some and we started fantasizing about the easy life. The idea of never having to peel and dice a 50 pound box of potatoes ever again...and not only that, they sold diced onions, celery, and carrots. The possibilities took our breath away.
A few days later we watched the truck driver deliver our new lives, but when I opened the bag I choked. Literally. I'd inhaled the chemical that kept the diced potatoes from turning brown and couldn't catch a breath. I immediately called the salesman. He said that the chemical was harmless (Right, one whiff and I gag — that's my definition of harmless) and could be rinsed off. So I rinsed them and the vapors went away.
We went ahead and made the soup, which took less than half the time it normally took. Amazing, I thought, the price we pay for this convenience is more than paid for by the time we save.
When it came time for lunch, we gave it a reluctant try (would you rush in to taste a soup made with gag-inducing potatoes?). If the soup was good we were spared the daily sentence of peeling, but if the soup were bad, it would be like having taken a step into the sunshine only to be yanked back into solitary.
One by one we put our spoons down. The soup was fine, pretty good actually, but it tasted canned. We didn't expect that. We expected it to taste good or bad.
Looking back, I'm proud to report that we buried the soup and went back to peeling potatoes. We decided that we didn't want to make something that tasted canned.
My wife and I eventually sold the blue wagon and got a car with under 50,000 miles. With one good car it's easier to accept the fact that an antique takes regular maintenance.
These days our car conversations are less frequent, but this winter our furnace started acting up. So we are still looking for good roast chicken.
Many of John Ryan's recipes emphasize ease and simplicity. Check out his Just Good Food Archive
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created April 2000
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