My neighbors across the street painted their house recently and I've overheard some embarrassingly loud negative comments from people walking by. But I think it's fantastic in a San Francisco kind of way, with unmatched colors somehow perfectly coming together. I joked with them about how it makes me smile to see it out my windows while my house surely doesn't return such a joyful view from their side of the street. Their response made me smile even more…my new front-yard vegetable garden was a wonderful sight for them! They wished they had some sun in their yard to grow fresh veggies and that more people would convert lawn to gardens.
Naturally, I promised I would share and they said they'd swap some of the bounty from their patio herb pots. But it got me thinking about how fortunate I am that I get such a cheap thrill from good, simple food, whether cooked and on the table or just popping up in the garden. When times are tough, I still have to eat and I can always figure out how to make it a pleasure. Many times when friends have had an impromptu supper at my place they ask if I always eat so well or so healthy. I can't take the credit. Simple, high-quality ingredients make it easy!
I have two basic strategies for company: the one-pot meal and the big-filler-plus, though I always come up with better names than those! One-pot meals run the traditional gamut of chili, tortilla soup, beans and sausage, etc. For company's sake, I put out as wide a variety of condiments possible to fill the table, and always use little dishes-like tapas in a way-not the jars or fridge containers.
Doesn't it taste better that way? Depending on what the one-pot meal is-and what I have around-that could include: shredded or crumbled cheese, sour cream or yogurt with herbs, chopped raw veggies (tomato, onion, peppers, cabbage, lettuce), sliced cucumbers, carrot sticks, hot peppers and sauces (salsa, Indian pickle, harissa), lime wedges, olives, pickles, chips, crackers, toasted pita…you get the picture.
The other is more elusive, but the premise is a really simple plate-and-belly filler-pasta, whole grain or green salad-that you've tricked out, plus a few no-nonsense side dishes. By "tricked out" I don't mean fancy, I just use an affordable amount (not more) of something in there or sprinkled on top that brings on the "mmmm's" or at least favorable "huh's?" Some examples (not all at once!) are toasted nuts or sesame seeds, broiled canned artichoke hearts, baby shrimp, sundried tomatoes, avocado, fried chickpeas, bacon, blue cheese, smoked salmon, mango, fresh berries, dried apricots. (Sound eerily like the San Francisco paint job?)
The thing is, foods with that kind of intense flavor go a long way so the side dishes don't have to be anything special: steamed vegetables, green salad (if your entree is not a salad), garlic bread, quick tomato or bean soup. Sometimes it's cream cheese or goat cheese with a sweet/hot chutney or fruit spread served with crackers or toasted bread. Or, if you do have even a smallish piece of fish, a few chicken thighs, frozen scallops or a single steak, season thoroughly and grill, roast or broil, and then divide it up to arrange a little portion on top of each person's pile of pasta, grains or salad. Serving even simple food nicely plated never fails to impress.
I began working in restaurants when I was just eleven and came from families that prepared meals and ate at home 90% of the time. You would think I'd be sick of food and cooking by now, or that I'd be into more and more elaborate preparations. Instead, I just use what I can afford and make simple food that makes people smile, because that makes me smile. Dare I ask what simple things make you smile in the kitchen or at the table?