The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

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In some respects, I miss the point of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food.

Alice Waters is the original proponent of seasonal, local, and organic foods. But because I grocery shop for a family on a budget, I can never justify going “organic.” I also live in Chicago suburbia, which means that there are about two feet of snow on the ground for four months of the year, so I can’t ever imagine relying wholly on seasonal and local foods either. I’m sure organic and local foods taste better; I just can’t justify the cost difference.

All that said, though, I love The Art of Simple Food. I find myself referring to her pointers and recipes often. The aspect I love is this: Food should taste like itself. Don’t complicate things!

I’m a person that thinks a few fresh strawberries make a perfect dessert, so I really like her emphasis on simplicity. Her recipes are very basic essentials, so experienced cooks may find them dull or “too simple.” But as a beginning cook who loves simple dishes (both for cooking and for eating), I find her recipes refreshing.

For example, in the section “Out of the Frying Pan,” she provides a recipe for Pan-Fried Pork Chops. The ingredients? Pork chops, butter, salt and pepper. Her instructions show us how to recreate it, including what it should look like and why you should let the chops rest for four minutes before serving (it tenderizes them). She also provides four “variations” for added flavor. These are likewise very simple, things like “parsley butter” or “garnish with chopped parsley, garlic, and/or lemon zest” (a gremolata) (page 122).

The Art of Simple Food is subtitled “Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution,” and Waters does a wonderful job of introducing “simple food” to the home cook. She begins with some essential thoughts about the kitchen and pantry. These ideas are pretty basic (such as basic foods with which to stock a pantry) and simple menus, both for a small family and for entertaining. I liked her thoughts on picnics, and how a picnic should emphasis good food just as much as a feast you serve at home. Every time I read that section, I want to go on a picnic!

In this first part of the book, Waters discusses the basic techniques for various types of food and food preparation. For each type, she also provides three recipes. The categories are these: sauces, salads, bread, broth and soup, beans, pasta and polenta, rice, roasting, sautéing, slow cooking, simmering, grilling, omelets and soufflés, tarts, fruit desserts, custard and ice cream, cookies and cakes.

The second part of the book has additional recipes in each category. The recipes aren’t as detailed, but the basics have already been outlined, so it is sufficient for our needs.

I have only read the first part in full, but I’ve also browsed through the recipes on the second half. I’m not sure I’ll go through and completely cook my way through the book (as I’d intend) but I certainly love the “variations” and technique overview that I find in this book. I’m all for simple food.

Do you eat organic or local food? What do you like best about it?

What simple foods do like best?

This review is for The Spice of Life Challenge. It’s cross-posted on Rebecca’s Cooking Journal.

If you have reviewed The Art of Simple Food, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on July 13, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I think you’re approaching the book the right way – use what works for you. I’m thrilled because I just discovered a local organic farmer who grows heirloom vegetables, but he doesn’t produce year round either.

  • Tami, yeah, I think it’s kind of like a movement (like Alice Waters calls it in this book). I’d love to be able to afford organic meat…there’s just something about the thought of animals that makes me want organic when it comes to something that has been alive, in a cage versus not in a cage. But in terms of vegetables I’ve never felt the urge.

    Kathy, I have a question for you. I’m seriously curious: do you notice a taste difference between an organic vegetable and the same non-organic vegetable? I know the in-season vegetables always taste better, and I think farm stand vegetables might, but does the “organic” make a difference, taste-wise?

  • I agree completely with Tami. In Michael Pollan’s great book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, the term organic has become a “nothing” word. Most “organic” foods are now made by two very large agribusinesses that ship their products 3,000 to 6,000 miles around the country. They have basically eliminated the small farmer from competition.
    Solution? Grow your own gardens in season. Many cities have community gardens if you don’t have your own land. Take advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables and learn to freeze and can. Growing up on a farm in Ohio we preserved everything for winter.
    Books by “The Minimalist” are good too. I lived in Sicily for a summer with three chefs. Each meal had very few simple ingredients. Stay far away from processed foods. Oh just read Michael Pollan. He says it so much bettter than I do.

    Also the so-called organic meat. What a laugh. I’ve been to an organic “free range” chicken farm. 20,000 white chickens in one small shed with about 15 square feet of grass outside. The chickens never go outside. And to go through the facility you have to wear a sterile suit. Why? Because since they don’t use any antibiotics at all, one “bug” can destroy the whole flock. They are killed at age 7 weeks and they grew them so fast that their legs break as they can’t hold up their own weight. How’s that for humane farming?Advertisements have fooled us all into thinking organic is great. Ha! I have two PhDs in science and medicine and marketing executives make me very angry.

    If like Kathy, you can find a local farmer..Great! Otherwise do not believe the word organic. Just read the labels. If any food has more than four ingredients…don’t buy it. It means it has too many addiitives and preservatives to add flavor and texture.
    My mom was a dietitian. Keep it simple. She even hated it when restuarants would fold a cloth napkin into a fancy design. It meant that workers who probably had a lot of germs on their hands did a lot of folding. Think about it everytime you see something that has been manipulated on lot on your plate.

  • Okay, Ebecca. You want to know if a vegetable grown without insecticides and fertilizer tastes better? well it depends how much of the vegetable gets eaten by insects and mites. that’s why insecticides are used. And fertilizers certainly make better tasting, larger fruits and vegetables. Oh just get to know a very good local farmer. We used cow manure on our vegetable gardens. Now is that better than chemical fertilizers? Who knows…all chemicals are in other words. Organic just means carbon-based.

  • Hi Helen, thanks so much for the info! I’ve always wondered about these things. Now I’m all the more eager to read Pollan’s book to get some more info about it!

  • Helen, thanks again for the insight. That’s pretty much what I suspected, but I wondered if there was a taste difference. Sounds like “organic” is defineately over-rated.

  • The very word “simple” drew me in. If the food is fresh and seasonal, then it usually doesn’t need too much adornment, like the strawberries you mention for dessert. This sounds like my kind of cookbook.

    I believe in organic food. It’s better for the environment and for our bodies. We are very lucky in San Diego County, because we have the largest number of organic farms nationwide. Organic produce and food is everywhere, at specialty markets and our regular supermarkets. And prices have come down in recent years.

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