Sunday, March 7, 2010

Back to Basics

Back in the 1990s, everyone, it seemed, was using the New Basics Cookbook and its Silver Palate sisters. The recipes fit the decade: innovative, but borderline pretentious and overdone. Many took old favorites like meatloaf and tried to make them gourmet with a zillion spices, herbs and ingredients. A lot were excellent, and it was my cookbook of choice for years.

Since about 2000, I moved toward simpler recipes. Mark Bittman, the self-proclaimed Minimalist, became my guru and his "How to Cook Everything" my new bible. It's been years since I made a New Basics recipe.

About two weeks ago, I had a fantastic dinner at a friend's house: a casserole of polenta, tomato sauce, chicken Italian sausage and cheese. Very tasty and deeply satisfying. My host informed it was a New Basics recipe.

It made me open my battered copy for the first time in years. Browsing made realize why I'd stopped using the book. Take "Chicken with Vegetables and Couscous," a recipe I used to make. It's got 20 ingredients, included cinnamon stick and prunes. I mean, when will I use cinnamon stick again? I'm not planning on making warm mull wine any time soon. And prunes? The less said the better.

But there were a lot of interesting recipes I had never tried, such as salads and dressings, as well as potato and rice dishes. And of course the wonderful casserole that I'd had at my friend's house.

Last night, I gave it a try. The polenta came out a touch underdone (I'd never made it before), and I mistakenly made the entire package after misreading the poorly translated directions. But it was still excellent, the kind of dish that makes you feeling all warm and sated, but not overly full.

I've concluded that I've been too harsh. It's time to get back to Basics.

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