I recently came across an article by Elizabeth Dunn, published last fall in The Atlantic called The Myth of ‘Easy’ Cooking. It’s basically critique of the “easy cooking” empire that has proliferated in recent years over every media platform known to man (newspapers, magazines, TV, online tutorials, books, blogs, vlogs…), touting super simple! stress-free! meals made faster than you can say Rachel Ray. Reading it from the perspective of someone who likes making things from scratch – to the point of actually seeking it out – I felt conflicted. On one hand, it felt transgressive to agree with someone that cast such a critical light on home cooking. (It is, after all, the backbone of this blog and the thing I’m most enthusiastic about when it comes to food); on the other hand, I felt that she had a point – one that not many food enthusiasts or people working in the field of food media (like herself) would be eager to lay bare so candidly.

She’s calling bullshit, and I like it.

Because I think that the crux of what she’s saying is true – “fast and easy” recipes in the world of modern home cookery are often presented as more straightforward and simple than they actually are. It’s become very fashionable to sell the idea that an entire meal – from starter to dessert – can be effortlessly whipped up in under twenty minutes. And this, after a heavy day at work, bookended by two frenzied commutes, plus the discovery that, while you were away, your bathroom flooded, or the fridge broke down, or that your child has inexplicably lodged a Lego block deep into their nasal cavity. (I don’t speak from parental experience, but I have it on good authority that kids do these kinds of things. Bless them.) All this to say that on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night – even without anything out of the ordinary happening – you’re likely not jazzed about the idea of assembling Piri Piri chicken, with two-type mashed potatoes, arugula salad, and natas tarts for dessert (as boldly suggested on page 120 of Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes).

Elizabeth Dunn has, very articulately and succinctly, hit the nail on the head about how today’s cooking empire (the books, the shows, the magazine articles and all the rest of it) has hijacked the principle of “simple cooking”. Simple cooking isn’t tossing some iceberg lettuce with oil and vinegar anymore – it’s topping it with freshly roasted chicken, toasted nuts, homemade croutons and some esoteric dressing that requires three different oils. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of that salad; it’s just that on most weekdays, who’s making that whole thing from scratch?). So, in that sense, I agree with her – in making cooking a fashionable commodity, we’ve built this unrealistic, unattainable image of what simple cooking is supposed to represent; in falling under the spell of pretty pictures in gauzy magazines, we’ve lost sight of what real, simple, day-to-day cooking actually looks like.

In all this, it’s worth mentioning that “easy” cooking means something different for everyone. My time, energy, and money constraints are not identical to yours; same goes for our interest in cooking, which not only varies from person to person, but also from day to day. There are days when I’m full of vim and vigour and have no qualms about making a 3-course dinner from beginning to end. But then there are days when stove-top popcorn and a glass of fizzy water sounds like a reasonable dinner. (to the chagrin of every nutritionist out there.)

All that said, I still really do believe in the importance in making food at home – in whatever way, shape or form that comes to be. And so, in defense of home cooking, I will say this: easy can still stay easy. On days when I don’t feel like pulling together a meal, often I’ll give myself a little nudge, and – after thinking about how much that hip, third-wave, stone-oven pizza next door is going to cost me after tax and tip – I’m usually able to scrounge together something decent, without much time and effort.

In many ways, I have Nonna to thanks for this. She’s taught me a lot about simple cooking, including the holy trinity of olive oil, garlic, and peperoncini (red chili flakes). When combined with care, these three ingredients can elevate more or less anything in your fridge. Toss in an anchovy, and you’re well on your way to gold standard of peasant food.

Below you’ll find three recipes that incorporate olive oil, garlic and peperoncini (red chili flakes)- one for sautéed rapini, another for braised Savoy cabbage and the last, an improvised pasta dish with Romano beans. This is true easy cooking – no fireworks or esoteric ingredients. Just a couple of things from the crisper or freezer that you can toss together in between the time you get home and your child decides to see how far a Lego will go up their nose.

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RAPINI SAUTÉED IN GARLIC AND DRIED CHILI
(Rapini aglio e olio con peperoncini)

Having a little stockpile of cooked rapini in the freezer is one of the best gifts your past self can give your present self, on those days when all you can do is stare into the depths of fridge, mouth-breathing.These are some of my favourite ways to use this rapini:

• as-is, with a chunk of crusty bread to soak up the garlic oil
• swirled into pasta, with a generous dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano
• on top of polenta
• on top of pizza
• alongside roasted chicken, spicy sausage, or meatballs
• in a curry

Rapini

Makes about 3 cups

  • 1 bunch of rapini (broccoli rabe)
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 tsp dried chili flakes (peperoncini)
  • 3 Tbsp good quality olive oil (or 1-2 Tbsp more, if you’re adding this rapini to pasta)
  • sea salt (or flaked salt, such as Maldon)

Directions

1) Put a large pot of water on to boil. Rinse the rapini under cold running water and pat dry with a dish towel.

Rapini

2) Trim the stems (if they look a little rough), then run a paring knife along the inside of the stem to make a cross-section at the bottom, like so (this will help the stems to cook evenly, along with the more delicate leaves):

3) Once the water has boiled, add the rapini and blanch for about 3 minutes. Remove from the boiling water and drain in a colander. Once cool enough to handle, gently squeeze out as much water as possible, then roughly chop the rapini into pieces (manageable enough the eat). (note: at this point you can freeze portions of the rapini that you aren’t using right away – just make sure to drain really well, then transfer to small freezer bags)

Rapini

4) Meanwhile, heat up the olive oil in a pan on medium heat. Once hot, add the sliced garlic and fry until just beginning to turn golden. Add the pepperoncini as fry for 10 seconds further. Add the blanched, chopped rapini and a good pinch of salt and cook for about another 5 minutes, stirring every so often. Check the seasoning, then serve as desired.

Rapini

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BRAISED CABBAGE WITH GARLIC AND DRIED CHILI
(Cavolo stufato)

Makes about 4 cups

  • 1/2 head of Savoy cabbage, centre rib removed and cut into 1″ slices
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (pepperoncini)
  • 3 Tbsp good quality olive oil
  • 1 cup water or chicken stock
  • sea salt (or flaked salt, such as Maldon)

Garlic-Braised Cabbage

Directions:

1) Heat the olive oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Once hot, add the garlic and cook until golden (almost golden-brown). Add the chili flakes and stir, allowing them to flavour the oil (about 10 seconds).

2) Add the sliced cabbage and stir to combine. Season with salt. Cook for about 2 minutes, then add the water or stock.

3) Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and allow the cabbage to cook and break down (about 20-30 minutes). Serve with crusty bread, on pasta or with fish.

Garlic-Braised Cabbage

Garlic-Braised Cabbage

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SPAGHETTI WITH GARLIC & DRIED CHILI WITH ROMANO BEANS
(Spaghetti aglio e olio con fagioli)

Makes 2 servings

I like to cook big batches of beans and lentils all at one time, then either refrigerate them for the week, or freeze them (more on prepping pulses and legumes in an upcoming post). If freezing, lay the cooked beans in one layer on a baking sheet, freeze, then transfer to containers of freezer-proof bags (this prevents them from sticking together). They’ll keep for a couple of months. If you’re short on time, just used canned.

  • 200g spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup good quality olive oil
  • 3-4 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1/2 tsp dried chili flakes (peperoncini)
  • 1/2 cup cooked romano beans (or canned)
  • 1 anchovy filet
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (I used panko)
  • 1/3 cup Parmagiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
  • zest from 1/2 lemon
  • optional: pesto (I try to make some in the summer/early fall and freeze them in individual portions. More on that here.)

Spaghetti with garlic, dried chillis and romano beans

Directions

1) Boil the water for the spaghetti. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a pan on medium-high heat. Once hot, add the garlic and cook until golden (almost golden-brown). Add the chili flakes and stir, allowing them to flavour the oil (about 10 seconds).

2) Add the whole anchovy and stir; it will melt on its own. Add the beans, stir,and allow to cook for couple of minutes. Then add about 1/4 cup of water to help them break down a bit and form a sauce.

3) When the water comes to a rolling boil, add a small handful of coarse salt and then add the spaghetti; cook until al dente. (If the bean mixture looks a little dry, add some of the pasta water. The starch will help bring the it together.

4) While the beans are warming through and the pasta is cooking, set a dry pan on medium heat and toast the breadcrumbs, shaking the pan every so often to avoid burning them (2-3 minutes). Set aside.

5) Strain the pasta and then return to the pot. Add the garlic and bean mixture and stir to coat. Add the Parmigiano and stir to combine; serve in bowls, adding a little lemon zest, the toasted breadcrumbs and some additional Parmigiano to taste.

Spaghetti with garlic, dried chillis and romano beans