Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Simple Cookin’

I love simple food. No gourmand I; the simpler the better. If it can all be thrown into one pot and cooked together, better yet.

Tonight I got the urge for some black beans and rice with smoked pork. When I went to the freezer, I couldn’t find the two old freezer-burned chops I thought were in there. Then I looked in the cupboard, and there were no black beans. I ended up rinsing, in a strainer, a can of small red beans. (This eliminates a lot of the extra sodium.) I tossed them into a 1 quart saucepan, sprinkled them with ground cumin, added a teaspoonful of lime juice, a small bay leaf, a cup and a half of water, and started them heating. Rummaging through the freezer I ran upon some previously-cooked spiced shrimp, and threw in a handful. I added some poultry seasoning because I like sage and I didn’t have any. When things were percolating pretty well I added a bag of 10-minute white rice, covered the pot to simmer and started writing this. After about five minutes I tossed in a heaping tablespoonful of frozen, diced bell pepper, mentally added a minute to the cooking time to thaw them out, and dug out my favorite antique pottery bowl and beat-up spoon.

Perfection! A sprinkle of Tony Chachere’s Original Seasoning was all it needed. Mr. Slim, my 19-year-old black cat, has a taste for all things crustaceous and pronounced the shrimp eminently acceptable. The other two cats turned up their noses at it, which no doubt pleased Slim even more. (He grow up wid Cajun cookin’ and eat spicier food den any cat I ever know, him.)

Now… Was this what I set out to cook? No. Was it just as fast? Yes. Was it just as good? Almost certainly. Why? Certain basic rules were followed, and the results could hardly have been otherwise. The difference between simple cooking and fancy stuff is the ability to improvise. When there are only a few rules to be observed it isn’t hard to do. I spent twenty minutes, including cooking time, and came up with a dish that needed only a bowl of romaine and a pear to be a well balanced meal–if a bit heavy on protein, perhaps.

You have to know a little bit about spices. Cumin, for example, is almost a prerequisite when cooking with beans. It enhances the flavor and reduces flatulence. As long as you’re not using finicky sauces, it’s pretty hard to screw up flavors. You smell one thing, then the other, then decide if they smell good together. If they do, the chances are very high that they’ll taste good together, too. A few years ago I practically memorized the section on spices from one of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s books. Certain spices go with certain types of food. Certain spices go well together. Using red, black and white pepper in the same dish makes the spicy flavor move from the front of your mouth to the middle and then slide warmly down your throat. You don’t use much of any of them. If you use spices properly, you need less salt. And so it goes.

Isn’t life like that? If we use simple ingredients to make simple dishes, it’s pretty hard to screw up badly. The same rules of good taste apply in practically all situations. Because we’re well-practiced in the basic skills of living, it isn’t too hard to improvise with confidence. Only when we decide that life has to be a finely-tuned 12-course gourmet meal do we really risk being disappointed. Because most of us aren’t gourmet cooks, we have to depend on others to handle the ingredients for us…and do they ever get it right? Only when we decide that the simple things of life aren’t enough for us do we risk mixing the spices wrong and ending up with an indigestible mess.

’Nother nice thin’ ’bout simple cookin’ is, it easy to fin’ de ingredients.

You t’ink about it, you.

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