Eating Simplicity

Cowboy beans on masa patties with pickled onions and sour cream.

A few days ago I read a brief post on Offbeat Home (a fun, domestic-centered version of Offbeat Bride) entitled, “Don’t use January to beat yourself up.” Although the article itself didn’t exactly go into much detail about just how to avoid wallowing in the guilt of unkempt January resolutions, the sentiment struck me all the same. Every year millions of Americans make resolutions to “eat healthy” and cut back on fat or sugar or salt or what have you. And many of them fail because the idea of cooking from scratch night after night with unfamiliar ingredients or in unfamiliar ways is exhausting. I have a solution: Eat more simply.

Americans seem to have this notion that a meal should include multiple dishes, such as roast beef with two kinds of vegetables plus a starch plus bread plus fruit and/or dessert. This is silly. It’s also not very healthy. It’s difficult to control portions when you want to eat five different dishes, all of them tasty. And it’s even more difficult to get adequate servings of fruits and vegetables when that juicy steak or that succulent roasted chicken is staring you in the face. And all that delicious meat? It’s kind of expensive.

But what’s a FarmHouser to do? That’s traditional farm food! And you’re right, but y’know what? Baked beans and steamed brown bread is traditional farm food. All-vegetable meals are traditional summertime farm food. Wholesome, veggie-filled soups served with some homemade bread and butter is traditional farm food. Cornbread and collards are traditional farm food. Heck, even milk on toast is traditional farm food. By holding up this idealized version of what a meal should be in our heads, we forget that historically, for most people, most meals eaten during the day were very, very simple, with perhaps one meal a day being a more elaborate affair (traditionally the noon meal, which has long since fallen out of favor in the U.S.).

One of the best meals I’ve had recently (and I’ll admit, I was pretty hungry, and yes, it was a midnight snack) was some leftover, cooked-from-dried pinto beans mashed, salted well, spread on half a tortilla, sprinkled with a little cheese, folded in half, and heated until the cheese was melted. It was delicious. Like, really, really good. In fact, I had another.

Other delicious but utterly simple meals I’ve had? Bread soaked in homemade chicken broth. The French call it panade. The rich chicken broth flavors the bread, which turns into silky soft strands. Roasted cabbage with bacon. Really, any kind of roasted vegetables with bacon. Cowboy bean tacos topped with quick pickled onions and a little sour cream. Sliced fresh radishes on buttered bread with salt. Hot spinach-artichoke-bok choy dip made with cottage cheese and sour cream and just a bit of mayonnaise, topped with shredded mozzarella and served with whole wheat toast. Michelle’s mujaddarah with cottage cheese and applesauce. Italian flatbreads with salted vegetables and ricotta dip. Not to mention countless soups.

It’s the beans I like the most though. Cowboy beans, pinto beans, black beans, and right now I’ve got a pot of white beans simmering with a little marjoram and tarragon and onion on the stove.I’m going to fry up some onions and sausage to top it, but I could go a la Deborah Madison and serve them with just a drizzle of olive oil and some pickled vegetables (I’ve got onions and red peppers on hand, maybe some celery for added crunch) if I wanted to. Or some shaves of Pecorino cheese on top. I thought about adding some greens, but I’ve got a giant box of spring mix salad, so I’m going to make a salad with bosc pears and a pear-walnut vinaigrette instead.

Do you like beans? I didn’t used to. Then I started cooking them from dried. The flavor is subtly different from canned, but the thing I love most about cooking them from dried? You can make them as soft as you want. I usually leave them a little more firm for use in salads, but otherwise I like them meltingly soft. Our favorite Mexican restaurant serves refried pinto beans mashed/pureed velvety smooth topped with a little salty cheese. They’re the most fantastic refried beans I’ve ever had. I’m sure they use lard in them, but otherwise beans have absolutely no fat and if you don’t have meat with them I think it’s just fine.

When you think about eating simply like this, mostly vegetables with nuts or meat or cheese as a garnish and with hearty whole grains, it’s really not so bad eating more wholesome foods after all. In fact, it’s actually really, really tasty.

So the next time you go to make tacos, try having just beans instead of meat. Or when you go to make rice pudding, try substituting pearled barley for the rice, or brown rice for white. If you’re going to make spaghetti, try using spaghetti squash instead of pasta. And when the next time you’re wondering what on earth to make for dinner and you don’t feel like cooking, you can pull out some leftover beans and top them with some pickled vegetables or in tacos or with rice or whole grains or just mash them up and make refried beans with a little cheese on top.

Of course, this means you have to have leftover beans on hand, but if you soak the beans on a Friday or Saturday night and then let them simmer for several hours during the day you’ll be rewarded with a big pot of deliciousness you can use throughout the week. I always make dried beans in quantity because even if I don’t use them all I can always freeze leftovers for later.

That’s another facet of the eating simply solution is eating leftovers, something I don’t think Americans do nearly enough. Having leftovers on hand means you don’t have to cook dinner every night if you don’t want to and provides for numerous lunches to take to work. Then there’s always the creative fun of repurposing leftovers into something even more delicious than the original.

Do you have any favorite, simple suppers? Send us your favorite recipes with a photo and we’ll post them!

P.S. That salad? Holy crap amazing! Here’s the recipe:

Pear Walnut Salad

several handfuls of organic spring mix salad
1 crisp Bosc pear, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons walnut oil
1-2 tablespoons white balsamic pear vinegar
appx. 1 teaspoon water

In a small bowl whisk (or in a bottle shake) together the walnut oil, vinegar and water. Put salad and Bosc slices in a larger bowl and pour the vinaigrette over top, tossing to combine. Serve as a side salad or a starter or add toasted walnuts and some feta or crumbled goat or bleu cheese to make it a light meal. Some thin slices of red onion would not be remiss either, but it’s delicious as-is.

3 Responses to “Eating Simplicity”
  1. Your photo caught my eye because I have the same pie plate. My mom gave it to me, and I think she got it as a promotion for opening a bank account! I agree with your sentiments about “healthy” eating overtaking all the January food conversations–eating simply throughout the year is the way to go.

    • vintagejenta says:

      Ah yes, the ubiquitous blue and white Currier & Ives dishes! It all started when my grandma gave me a partial set because I said I was collecting blue & white china. I actually meant something more like blue willow ware or Staffordshire, but I kept seeing bits and pieces of this everywhere and my mom kept buying me thrift stored pieces that I now have a rather large collection. We use them as our everyday plates. Some of them are a little chipped on the edges, and I only have six soup bowls and four bread/luncheon plates to the 18+ dinner plates, but I also have three pie plates, a serving platter, a pepper shaker (but not the salt), a sugar bowl (but not the creamer), and lots and lots of teacups and saucers and fruit/dessert bowls. Lol. I think they are prettier and more interesting than some of the more modern dishes out there, and when you can get them at garage sales and thrift stores they certainly are cheaper than buying new!

  2. More great ideas to inspire me to cook cook cook, but simply! Terrific.

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