The story of SIMPLE
I’ve written many different kinds of books over the years: some have been thorough explorations of a subject I wanted to get to grips with (Salt Sugar Smoke, which focused on preserving, is one such book); others are personal journeys around the food of particular areas of the world (such as Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons). They all contain both complicated and less demanding recipes. But one of my books, Cook Simple (which I started to write in 2001 when my eldest child was three years old), is for people who either think they can’t cook or have very little time to cook. It was written in response to a huge life change. I had a busy job, but managed to spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen until I had a baby.
Nothing really prepares you for having a child (and if people told you the truth you would never believe them). All of a sudden you have no time at all. My first child was particularly demanding. He cried constantly, so I had to carry him around a lot. At first I thought his arrival would stop me from ever cooking again (I wept over many a takeaway pizza in the first few months of his life), but gradually I devised a way of cooking pretty much one-handed that just required me to bung stuff in the oven. I didn’t want to spend time chopping and browning, so I made the simplest dishes I could think of. They took a while to actually cook – a roast chicken is not a quick meal – but very little time to prepare. It was also minimal thinking food. I was always shopping in a kind of blur all that sleep deprivation - my only mantra being the building blocks I knew I could buy easily (chops, sausages, fillets of fish, pasta). I had to take these basics and turn them into something special.
The ideas I came up with weren’t just useful for new mums, but for anyone who was tired after work, or found it hard to do a lot of prep. It has been a real thrill that Cook Simple is still selling well and that people who think they can’t cook have used it and found that they can. SIMPLE is a follow up to Cook Simple and I’ve wanted to write it ever since Cook Simple was published. There is no repetition of recipes, it’s just bigger and better and reflects the changes our food culture has undergone during the last 15 years. There are more vegetable-only mains, there are wholegrain dishes as well as pasta, and the recipes use all the new ingredients we have incorporated into our cooking (such as pomegranate molasses and sumac and miso).
As my children got older, I also started to use a wider range of techniques and this is reflected, too. Not every dish is of the bung-it-in-the-oven type (though there’s still plenty of those); there are also stews which are simmered gently and need no looking after, or fillets of fish that are seared and served with a simple relish. As with Cook Simple, there are sections on the easiest puddings you can make (and suggestions for others, for which you don’t even need a recipe); for hassle-free starters if you have friends coming over; for no-effort sauces; even for baked potato fillings.
Most of the recipes are for meals you can make midweek (my question to myself, when vetting the dishes for inclusion, was often, “Would I cook this on a Wednesday night?” If the answer was, “No”, it wouldn’t go in the book), but SIMPLE also has recipes that are a bit more special (but still low effort) that you can make at the weekend, or for Sunday lunch for friends or family.
SIMPLE is structured, as Cook Simple was, around the basic building blocks we think of when we have to plan a meal, but I’ve added toast and eggs this time (because I seem to turn to them so often).
I am not a chef, and I’m actually a pretty slow cook (and a messy one), but I love food and I don’t believe we have to turn to ready-meals to eat well. I also think that even the simplest bit of cooking tossing pasta with parsley, chilli flakes, lemon zest and sautéed garlic can cheer you up. There is such sensual pleasure in the preparation, as well as in the eating, of a meal. So whether you’re short of time, or feel you just can’t manage complicated dishes, this book is for you.
Anyone can cook. You just need ideas for dishes that are bloody good to eat and straightforward to make. This is what I’ve tried to give in SIMPLE. Parmesan roast chicken with cauliflower and thyme; seared tuna with avocado, olive and preserved lemon relish; Turkish pasta with feta, dill and spiced butter; hot cherries with grappa and ice cream. Honestly, Wednesday night supper can always be good.