Simpler Food, Simpler Kitchen

The Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place

Lately, for several reasons, I’ve been thinking about how to simplify things in the kitchen.

First, ever since my daughter was born, I haven’t had the time or concentration for complicated recipes. It’s getting a little easier these days—I’m no longer trying to calm a crying infant or chase after a toddler while making a meal—but I’m still interrupted, oh, once every 3 minutes or so with requests to find a missing toy, uncap a glue stick, read a book, applaud a ballet move, build a Lego structure, or engage in some sort of pretend play. So it’s still my imperative to get food on the table with the least amount of fuss and muss.

Second, my 4-year-old is a good eater as long as the food on her plate closely resembles its original state. For example, broccoli is perfectly acceptable if it’s still in floret form—but if chopped and combined with other ingredients, it’s regarded with suspicion and barely eaten. And God forbid anything enter a food processor or blender—not only does the sound send her into a tizzy, the unrecognizable end result will surely remain untouched (in other words, no pesto or smoothies in our house).

(I should qualify that this only applies to the plant kingdom—my daughter prefers the fish on her plate NOT look like it came straight out of the ocean.)

Third, my Joy of One challenge has me re-thinking every piece of kitchen apparatus we own—not only whether it’s useful and/or practical (if not, it probably left our kitchen long ago), but whether it brings joy and mindfulness to our cooking.

In the process, I’ve found that, like my daughter, I most enjoy food in its native forms. She also helped me realize what I don’t enjoy about cooking—recipes that require an abundance of seasonings, precise measurements, and/or specialized gadgets to completely transform the original ingredients. I have the utmost respect for those who have the time, talent, and patience to perform such culinary feats, and I’d love to come to your house for dinner; but, for my part, I’m happier to serve and consume food with the simplest of preparation and garnishes. (That said, neither I nor my family are quite ready to go raw.)

And so it’s with this mindset that I serendipitously stumbled across an out-of-print cookbook called The Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place. The title intrigued me immediately, with its promise of a lovely, quiet, more meditative form of cooking—no whizzing, beeping, banging, or whirring. And when I opened its pages, I was captivated by the author’s philosophy. She believes that cooking should be a pleasurable, sensory experience, not a clinical, scientific one—and that there should be as few machines and gadgets as possible between us and our food.

In one of the first pages, she recommends a more casual approach to measurements, simply using our regular spoons and a coffee cup to dole out ingredients. She suggests measuring flour with your hand, salt with pinches, and olive oil with puddles.

{Love.}

A few pages later, she writes, “Food should not be designed, it should be natural.”

{Love, Love.}

And on page 27: “If you already own a food processor, consider leaving it in the cupboard. If you are thinking of buying one, I urge you not to.”

{Love, Love, Love.}

She waxes poetic about salad greens, dressing them with just olive oil, lemon, and sea salt. Almonds, oranges, figs, and tomatoes figure prominently in her recipes. I’m obsessed with her rustic soups and stews, and can’t wait to make Plumblossom her peach sandwiches this summer. And most important (to me), her dishes are simple enough that a minor mistake won’t screw up the entire meal.

(I only bemoan the lack of photographs. It gives the book a quiet, contemplative feel—like a collection of essays—but as a visual person, I love a beautiful food photo…)

Anyway, I’ve always felt like an inadequate cook because I don’t have the desire to make fancy dishes or master complicated techniques. I also have no interest in storing or learning to use an arsenal of gadgets. And here’s a professional chef telling me that’s okay! Her philosophy that “eloquent, simple everyday food is the best food in the world” has brought new peace and joy to my kitchen.

For me, cooking has become less of a chore, and more of a celebration—just from paring down my culinary expectations. That, and the recognition that simple food, prepared and served with love, respect, and mindfulness, can be as beautiful and delicious as that served in five-star restaurants.

So how does this relate to my Joy of One series? Well, my inclination was to jump in and write about using One Pan or One Pot or One Knife or other such apparatus this week. But it didn’t seem to make sense without taking a step back, ruminating on my personal culinary philosophy, and providing you with some context as we move forward.

Furthermore, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m making this all up as I go along. I don’t plan or write out my blog posts weeks in advance; I sit here and type up my thoughts—however rambling they may be—and then hit the Publish button.

And when it comes to the Joy of One, I haven’t completed this experiment, I’m in the midst of it. But therein lies the beauty: I get to bring you along for the ride. I would love for you to participate in the process. Many bloggers have turned off their Comments, and in essence, talk at you. Well, I want to talk with you. Collaborative efforts are so much more fun! I have ideas, but I don’t have all the answers—and I think we can all learn more from each other than you’ll ever learn from me.

To that end, I invite you to share your food philosophies in the Comments. And if you have any stories of cooks and/or cultures who prepare their meals with the simplest of implements (like your Nonna who makes everything with a single pot and chef’s knife), I sure would be thrilled to hear them.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or joining my email list.}

71 comments to Simpler Food, Simpler Kitchen

  • Mike

    I’ve come to enjoy cooking more as I’ve come to realize that dinners need not be fancy-pants complex dishes. In the old days, I’d crack open a cookbook and see that even their “simple” recipes are so complex as to be over my head, and I’d get discouraged and quit. Now, though, I’ve slowly built a repertoire of easy-to-prepare dishes that I actually look forward to nights when it’s my turn to cook : )

    We do have a chef’s mandolin, a food blender, a microwave, a toaster oven, an array of pots and pans, and an assortment of hand tools. When I cook, I barely use more than a knife, cutting board, and a couple of pots or pans. When I make waffles, I do use a classic Pyrex glass measuring cup, but not when I make dinner (then again, waffles for dinner… ). We had acquired the chef’s mandolin a few years ago at the insistence of my sig other. Practically as soon as it arrived at our home, it was put to use slicing food for our meals. One night, though, my sig other got a little to exuberant with the mandolin and sliced off a sizable chunk of skin off their thumb. They’re fine, no ER visit was necessary, but the tool soon was labeled the “mandolin of death” and relegated to the cupboard. Now, that kitchen “essential” gathers dust while we prepare meals the old-fashioned way, with a decent set of knives. Chef’s knives are to me what a set of linesman’s pliers are to an electrician or a pipe wrench is to a plumber: utterly essential to the task and worthy of investment in a good set of tools that will last for decades of use.

    My sig other likes coffee, and I like tea. We’re that kind of couple. My tea is either bagged or loose-leaf and is heated in a copper-bottom metal kettle on an electric stovetop. For looseleaf, I use a teaspoon to scoop the leaves into the tea port; yes, I use a teaspoon for it’s original purpose! For coffee, we do have an electric drip coffeemaker, but we’ve switched over to a Toddy cold-brew system for daily use. We switched over to cold brew long before it was fashionable and available in grocery stores : ) The benefit of cold brew (beyond taste and low acidity) is that it requires no or only minimal electricity. The grounds steep overnight and are poured through a filter into a glass vessel. It stays in the fridge until we need a cup, then we pour it into a mug. In the summer, just add some ice cubes, sweetener/creamer to taste, and you have iced coffee. For hot coffee, heat it in the microwave for 30 seconds and mix to taste. We started to use it as a means of reducing our electricity usage, but over time, the SO has come to love the taste of it and the ease of cleaning the cold-brew container vs. the machine. There’s no need to run vinegar through it, and stink up the house, like there is with a drip coffeemaker!

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