Who’s easy now?

Here’s the quote that caused the trouble, from a recent story I wrote about preserved lemons: “Preserved lemons can take a month – certainly not less than two weeks. By that time, I’ve put aside my North African cookbooks and I’m on to an easy French or Hunan cookbook, or a book that’s all about ice cream or pickles.” [emphases added].

One commenter took exception.  “Easy? Clearly, this gal has never tackled too many French cookbooks.”  This prompted a smile.  Oh, if only she knew how many French cookbooks I’ve tackled!

But the comment made me think.  Of course, what I had been referring to was the category “easy French”, which is a newish one – books like The Little Paris Kitchen and last year’s The Bonne Femme Cookbook.  But “easy French” is still a contradiction in terms for much of the cookbook-buying public.  Unlike, say, “easy Italian,” “easy French” still seems to protest too much.

So what cuisines do people consider genuinely  easy?  Well, I think Italian qualifies, unless maybe you’re making the timpano from Big Night (1996).  Every time you throw together a pasta, you sort of feel like it’s Italian, the same way that when you throw together a stir-fry, a lot of the time you sort of feel like it’s Chinese.  That makes Italian and Chinese feel like easy cuisines, even though we all know that in a million delicious ways, they can both be really difficult.

But there are a few other nationalities that are making the big bid for “easy” these days.  “Easy Thai,” for example.  With the widespread availability of Thai curry pastes, a lot of cooks are willing to buy into to the idea that Thai food can be a 30-minutes in-a-hurry on-a-weeknight kind of meal.  Then there’s “Easy Mexican,” which has historically been a harder sell than “Easy Tex-Mex”.  Just look at Rick Bayless’s books.  Whereas Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen was a tribute to authenticity–chiles roasted and soaked and ground in a stone mortar and all–his later books have gone from cooking one plate at a time to cooking with teens to cooking weeknights to just plain partying with dips and cocktails.  And “Easy Indian”! I guess as soon as McCormick started marketing garam masala, that was a foregone conclusion.

There’s even a sort of easy Persian cookbook coming up, I’ve noticed.  There’s a cuisine whose cookbooks have been the opposite of easy for many years.  (As usual, I blame it on the grandmothers.  Any country whose grandmothers cook harder than Iron Chef – I’m looking at you, France! and Burma! and Venezuela! – is not an automatic contender for the “easy” category)

What is it that drives a cuisine in the “easy” direction rather than the “authentic” direction (the way regional Italian cookbooks were in the 80’s, the way Southern books were a decade ago, the way Japanese cookbooks seem to be going now)?  Maybe it’s the mood of the country (or its cooks).  Maybe it’s the accessibility of the ingredients?  I don’t know – and I wouldn’t want to have to choose between “easy” and “authentic”.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a big world, and it takes all kinds, both the Easy and the Not So.

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  • sir_ken_g  on  April 23, 2013

    Yes French can be easy – just avoid Paris.
    Burma – that's easy once you have the basics.
    Indian can be easy.
    Asian stir fry.

  • robm  on  April 28, 2013

    In my experience, cuisines like Indian and Mexican can be very complicated (or at least look that way). The traditional, "authentic" foods were invented in times when a poor family usually had many extra hands available to help in the kitchen and well-off families had cooks and servants. However, when you actually read the recipes it often turns out to be less daunting than a very long list of ingredients might suggest. A lot of those ingredients go into sauces or seasonings and are put together in just one or two steps. If it's a recipe you think you'll make again, you can always make a larger amount of the seasoning to use in the future, which will save time later on. Also, if the recipe really involves multiple steps and you're short on time and extra hands, break the steps down and start the recipe a few days in advance. You can always roast and grind spices one day, marinate things another day, and cook them on the third day! It does take a bit of advance planning, but you don't have to kill yourself in the kitchen to make some of these more involved and complicated recipes. A lot of East and Southeast Asian dishes seem to be relatively simple, in comparison. They use fewer ingredients, there are many ready-made substitutes for some of the more complex ingredients, and the cooking methods are often quick (like stir frying or steaming). But every cuisine has a range of dishes from simple, everyday foods to more elaborate dishes for celebrations or holidays. And unless you're an absolute purist, you can shortcut complicated recipes by using a good-quality ready made preparation. For example, I don't hesitate to make Mexican mole poblano starting from the prepared product sold at supermarkets. It makes a perfectly fine base and then I only have to add additional seasonings to give it the complexity I like. But I don't have to spend time preparing, cleaning and roasting dried chiles, for example. Of course, this is a trial-and-error method — you need to read the ingredients lists to be sure prepared products don't contain things you don't like or won't eat, and you may find out that the prepared item really doesn't taste the way you think it should. But when you find a product you like, it can really speed up the preparation of dishes that might otherwise take days to prepare! So don't be afraid to experiment and have fun while you're doing it!

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