How to Simplify any Recipe

One of the things I love hearing from students at the SVCS goes something like this…

‘You’ve spoiled me for other recipes. When I open a cookbook and see the long, long lists of ingredients and the method which takes up the whole page, I just think ‘too hard’ and turn back to Stonesoup.’

But even though I love when people use my recipes, and there are hundreds and hundreds to choose from here at the SVCS, I would hate to limit you. Or let you miss out on the amazing wide world of food.

So today I want to arm you with the techniques I use when I’m looking to simplify other peoples recipes.

They may not get you down to the 5 ingredients limit, but as long as it helps you simplify and enjoy the cooking process as well as the end result, it doesn’t really matter. Does it?

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7 Tips for Simplifying Any Recipe

1. Look for ‘duplicate’ ingredients. This is by far the easiest way to simplify. Does your recipe have 2 types of leafy herbs, like mint and cilantro (coriander)? Just choose one and adjust the quantity accordingly.

It’s all about looking for any ingredients that have ‘duplicate’ or the same function and reducing it to just one ingredient to fulfill that function.

For example you may have onion, garlic and chives all in the one recipe. The function of all of these is to provide background (oniony) flavour. So You could easily skip the garlic and onion and just use the chives, or vice versa.

2. Look for the ‘critical’ ingredients. Once I’ve removed any easy duplicates, then I approach the simplification from the other end. I ask myself, ‘what are the critical ingredients that must be included?’ The first place I look is the title, if it’s ‘lemongrass chicken’ then you want to keep lemongrass and chicken in there. But the other ingredients are up for negotiation.

This is where you need to be ruthless if you want to get to minimal ingredients. But best to take baby steps and use your best judgement. It’s one of those things that gets easier with practice.

3. ‘Cheat’ or substitute in ready made or ‘compound’ ingredients. Look for opportunities to ‘cheat’ as much as possible. There aren’t any prizes for cooking everything from scratch every time.

Examples include using curry powder or spice blends instead of individual spices. I also love ingredients like Thai curry pastes, pesto, hummus, stock, grilled peppers from the deli, ready made pastry etc.

4. Simplify the flavourings. The biggest thing I’ve learned from cooking less ingredients is that taking away additional flavourings can often improve a dish.

So ask yourself, ‘Do I need the extra herbs, spices, chilli etc?’ I tend to stick to one or two ingredients to add supporting flavour to the main players.

5. Simplify the accompaniments / Remove a whole component. Often recipes can be simplified by removing one (or more) of the accompaniments or components. Like if there is a mustardy sauce as well as some fresh goats cheese served with a chicken dish, you could easily simplify by skipping the sauce and relying on the cheese.

Or a stir fry recipe may call for fried rice and some leafy herbs to be served with it. In this example I’d skip the rice and just serve the stir fry in big bowls with the herbs.

You need to be careful though to make sure you’ll still have enough food. A stir fry that would serve 4 with rice may only serve 2 on its own.

6. Skip a step in the method. This can be a little tricker to master, but once you get into the simplification thing another opportunity to save time is to skip steps.

Some of my favourite examples are: – Don’t toast nuts or spices first – Skip the cooking – serve raw instead – Forget about browning meat first before using in a braised dish

7. Change the cooking technique. Here we’re getting into more advanced simplification tricks. The big opportunity here is to save yourself time.

Remember the cooking methods where the food is closest to the heat such as pan frying or boiling are always quicker than when there is space between the heat and the food like roasting or broiling (overhead grilling).

Example 1. Grilled Lemongrass Chicken with Tomato Rice

The original recipe was taken from my favourite food magazine, Australian Gourmet Traveller. You can see it over here.

Original Ingredients List

2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

2 small red chillies, coarsely chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, coarsely chopped

40 gm soft palm sugar, coarsely chopped

50 ml soy sauce and

50 ml fish sauce

Juice of 1 lime

4 chicken Marylands, halved through the joint, skin slashed in several places

1½ tbsp vegetable oil

To serve: mint, coriander, fried shallots and lime wedges

Tomato rice 1 tbsp vegetable oil

3 red shallots, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

300 gm (1½ cups) jasmine rice

200 gm canned cherry tomatoes

50 ml fish sauce

500 ml (2 cups) chicken stock, boiling

‘Stonesoup’ Ingredients List

2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, coarsely chopped

100 ml fish sauce

Juice of 1 lime + wedges to serve

4 chicken Marylands, halved through the joint, skin slashed in several places

1½ tbsp vegetable oil

2 bunches coriander (cilantro), to serve

SIMPLIFICATION TECHNIQUES USED:

1. Group like ingredients (replace soy sauce with extra fish sauce).

2. Lemongrass and chicken kept as key ingredients

3. Simplified the ‘flavourings’ – removed the chilli, garlic, palm sugar

4. Removed the ‘tomato rice’ component. (note: If I were keeping the tomato rice – I’d reduce the ingredients to rice, tomatoes and stock. I’d use salt to season instead of the fish sauce.

5. Simplified the accompaniments – serve with a salad of fresh coriander leaves (cilantro).

Example 2. Crumbed Veal Cutlets with Warm Cabbage & Celeriac Slaw

The original recipe was taken from my favourite food magazine, Australian Gourmet Traveller. You can see it over here.

Original Ingredients List

2 tbsp olive oil

½ Spanish onion, thinly sliced

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

400 gm (about ¼) cabbage, thinly shaved

1 celeriac, shredded

30 gm Dijon mustard

1 tbsp red wine vinegar

1tbsp lemon juice, or to taste

60 ml (¼ cup) extra-virgin olive oil

Crumbed veal cutlets

70 gm (1 cup) coarse sourdough breadcrumbs

Finely grated rind of 1 lemon

2 tsp finely chopped thyme

2 tsp flat-leaf parsley

4 veal cutlets

1 egg, lightly beaten

seasoned plain flour

2 tbsp olive oil

‘Stonesoup’ Ingredients List

400 gm (about ¼) cabbage, thinly shaved

1 celeriac, shredded

30 gm Dijon mustard

2 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste

60 ml (¼ cup) extra-virgin olive oil

4 veal cutlets

SIMPLIFICATION TECHNIQUES USED:

1. Group like ingredients (replace the red wine vinegar with extra lemon juice).

2. Veal cutlets and cabbage kept as key ingredients

3. Simplified the flavourings – removed the thyme, parsley, lemon zest, onion and garlic.

4. Skip a step in the method. Cooking the onion and garlic.

Example 3. Mike’s Spiced Cauliflower & Chickpea Salad with Labneh

This recipe came from one of my Favourite Sydney chefs, Mike McEhearny published in his great book, Kitchen by Mike.

Original Ingredients List

50g dried chickpeas

pinch bicarbonate soda

50g salt

100mL extra virgin olive oil

1 cauliflower

2 red onions

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons fennel seeds

1 teaspoon ground ginger

2 tablespoons mustard seeds

1 tablespoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 cup raisins soaked in 1/2 cup hot water

1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted & cracked

1 bunch coriander, leaves picked

1 bunch mint, leaves picked

50g baby spinach

100g labneh

1 tablespoon coconut vinegar

‘Stonesoup’ Ingredients List

1/2 cauliflower, chopped into bite sized pieces

1 onion, halved and finely sliced

2 tablespoons curry powder

2 tablespoons rice or wine vinegar

1 bag baby spinach

2 handfuls Labneh or thick yoghurt

SIMPLIFICATION TECHNIQUES USED:

1. Replaced the spices with a good quality curry powder. This took us from 11 spices to just 1. I always find it funny when chefs call for curry powder then also add extra of many of the spices that are already in the powder. If your curry powder is tasty enough you’re not likely to miss the added nuance of the additional ingredients.

2. Replaced all the herbs with just baby spinach. From 3 leafy ingredients to 1. This gives the greenness and freshness without needing to buy mint and coriander (cilantro) or needing to pick the leaves! 

3. Ditched the raisins and hazelnuts… Another 2 ingredients gone! Sure they add sweetness and crunch but trust me there’s enough of a party going on in your mouth that you won’t miss them!

4. Skipped the chickpeas. Just because I was serving as a side salad to some BBQ lamb cutlets. For a main course salad I’d leave them in.

SIMPLIFIED RECIPE: Spiced Roast Cauliflower Salad with Labneh

Example 4. Spring Cabbage Wraps with Couscous, Za’atar & Spicy Tahini Dressing

The original recipe comes from one of my fave vegetarian blogs, My New Roots. Well worth a read whether you follow a plant based diet or if you’re like me and love your veggies AND your meat.

Original Ingredients List

1 cup whole wheat couscous

1 small red onion, sliced

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

grated zest 1 organic lemon

1/2 cup kalamata olives

8 whole cabbage leaves

1 cup cooked butter beans

handful fresh pea shoots

1/3 cup tahini

1 large clove garlic

1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon raw honey or pure maple syrup

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup ground sumac

2 tablespoons dried thyme

1 tablespoon dried oregano

‘Stonesoup’ Ingredients List

2-4 cabbage leaves

1 can chickpeas (400g / 14oz)

4 tablespoons lemon juice + wedges to serve

4 tablespoons tahini

1-2 teaspoons za’atar

SIMPLIFICATION TECHNIQUES USED:

1. Combining substantial ingredients. The couscous, olives and butter beans are providing the filling for the wraps. I could have chosen one of these to use but I was in the mood for chickpeas so they replaced all three.

2. Simplifying the flavours. The red onion, parsley, lemon zest, pea shoots, cayenne, garlic, tahini, lemon juice and honey / maple syrup are adding extra flavours (and some colour). I chose to slash this down to just tahini and lemon to make a simple sauce for the wraps. If I was allowing myself an extra ingredient I would add in the parsley for some freshness and greenery.

3. Outsourcing the spice blend. Instead of making my own za’atar, I used a commercial one.

SIMPLIFIED RECIPE: Cabbage Wraps with Chickpeas & Za’atar

Example 5. Ottolenghi’s Japanese Broccoli

The original recipe was from Yotam Ottolenghi‘s latest book, Plenty More.

Original Ingredients List

300g purple sprouting broccoli, broccolini or broccoli

120g French beans

180g mange tout (snow peas)

1 tablespoon ground nut oil

20g coriander (cilantro) leaves

2.5 tablespoons black and white sesame seeds, toasted

50g tahini

1 small clove garlic

1/2 teaspoon tamari soy sauce

1/2 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

‘Stonesoup’ Ingredients List

2 bunches broccolini or 2 small heads broccoli

3 tablespoons tahini

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

1-2 teaspoons honey

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

SIMPLIFICATION TECHNIQUES USED:

1. Combine like ingredients: The green veg are pretty much performing the same role, providing the bulk of the meal. So it’s easy to just increase the broccoli to replace the others.

2. Skip duplicate steps. The groundnut oil is tossed onto the cooked veg as an extra dressing. I just skipped this whole step. One dressing is enough for me.

3. Chose one garnish. The sesame seeds and coriander are acting as a garnish to make the dish look pretty and to add different flavours and textures. I chose to use just sesame seeds but could have easily gone the other way if I had coriander in the house.

4. Skipped the garlic in the dressing because I think there’s enough interesting flavours with the tahini, honey and vinegar.

From 11 ingredients down to 5. Easy.

SIMPLIFIED RECIPE: Super Yum Japanese Broccoli

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Brenneisen August 20, 2013

OK I feel like I totally took one for the simplifiers-in-training team tonight!

I did my 5 ingredients exactly as above, except I did a taste test before adding the lemon and it already tasted pretty “tangy” – so I switched it up to chili flakes. I suppose if I were a good little minimalist, having already sliced the lemon I just would have used it – but I let my culinary experimenter take over!

It was *really good*. Here is how it went, and yes, this was a PANTRY recipe too!

1 24 oz jar pasta sauce
3 mini 187 ml bottles of white wine (pinot grigio)
6 good- but not over-sized cloves of garlic
Very healthy teaspoon+ of chili flakes
1.5 pounds shrimp (frozen)

Put shrimp in bowl of cold water to thaw.

Put pasta sauce, wine, and garlic in pot. Simmer for about 40 minutes without lid to reduce.

Add pepper flakes. Simmer another 5 mins.

Turn heat up to med high and add shrimp. Put lid on and cook 5 minutes (maybe less for fully thawed shrimp).

Taste and season!

NOTES: I might have added the chili flakes earlier if I’d known I wouldn’t use the lemon. But the lemon was to go in later per original recipe so I found out a bit late. It was great as is. Now next time I want to try it with regular tomato puree or passata – I’m sure the pasta sauce added great seasoning but also maybe too much. Eager to see what it’s like without that assist. Feel optimistic since I’ll be able to season with salt and pepper. Also, if it is bland then it is not too much trouble to make this a few-more-than-5-ingredients recipe.

Thanks again Jules, this was so incredibly easy and tasty. except for the time to let it simmer, hardly any effort to prepare at all!

Reply

Carol Brenneisen August 20, 2013

oops forgot to mention my 6 cloves of garlic were “minced!” 🙂

Reply

Carol Brenneisen August 9, 2013

😀 Now I have to test it.

Actually I could test the 5 ingredients right now, minus the mussels, with shrimp in freezer from last time. Come to think of it…I could pretty much pull of the other version too. A testament to the progress in my pantry 🙂

Reply

jules August 16, 2013

Very impressed that you’ve got your pantry sorted Carol!
Let us know if you do try it
J

Reply

Carol Brenneisen August 3, 2013

CIOPPINO!!

Super excited about this simplification lesson. I was actually thinking of asking Jules to simplify a Cioppino recipe. I was scared of it but, bolstered with confidence from my stonesoup adventures, I tried this recipe below and it turned out great. Though I actually ADDED clams plus used homemade veg stock in place of water.

Still, wondering if a simpler version is worth it. To me it seemed like going to the trouble of buying the seafood in the first place warranted the rest of the trouble; but does it? We’ll see…..below, my stab at simplifying. 2 versions because part of me really digs the challenge of getting to 5 ingredients but part of me really doesn’t mind throwing in a bay leaf or some pepper flakes.

(Incidentally, I checked tons of recipes online before I tried this but for anyone else who is interested, I thought the one below was already the simplest and most accessible)

Seafood, wine, tomato, and garlic seemed to be the crucial Cioppino ingredients.

Original recipe:

Chef John’s Cioppino (http://allrecipes.com/recipe/chef-johns-cioppino/)
•2 tablespoons butter
•2 tablespoons olive oil
•1 onion, diced
•1 stalk celery, diced
•1 pinch salt
•4 cloves garlic, minced
•2 cups white wine
•1 (28 ounce) can tomato puree
•2 cups water
•1 bay leaf
•1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
•1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
•1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
•5 thin lemon slices
•12 ounces cod, cut into 1-inch pieces
•1 Dungeness crab, cleaned, cooked, and cracked
•1 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
•1 pound mussels, cleaned and debearded
•1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
•1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil (optional)
•salt and ground black pepper to taste

Directions
1. Combine butter and olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat.
2. Stir in onion and celery with a pinch of salt; cook until onion is soft and golden, 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for 1 minute.
3. Stir wine into onion mixture; increase heat to high and bring to a simmer.
4. Stir in tomato puree, water, bay leaf, oregano, red pepper flakes, and Worcestershire sauce. Reduce heat to low and simmer 35 minutes.
5. Increase heat to high and bring mixture to a boil. Stir in lemon and cod, return to simmer, about 2 minutes.
6. Stir in crab, shrimp, and mussels. Cover and simmer until all mussels are cooked and open, about 5 minutes.
7. Stir in fresh parsley and basil; season with salt and pepper to taste.

My 5 ingredient simplified list:

•6 cloves garlic, minced
•2 cups white wine
•1 (14 or 18 ounce) can tomato puree, or maybe a jar of pasta sauce for extra flavor
•1 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
•1 pound mussels, cleaned and debearded

Or possibly try with just shrimp or just mussels. Then I would add back in Lemon slices.

(and I would reduce or eliminate the water depending on how it looked, since reducing amt of seafood and tomato)

My slightly more than 5 ingredient simplified list:

•EITHER one chopped onion softened at the beginning OR replace water with veg stock
•4 cloves garlic, minced
•2 cups white wine
•1 (14 or 18 oz) can tomato puree
•1 bay leaf
•Red pepper flakes to taste
•5 thin lemon slices
•1 pound medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
•1 pound mussels, cleaned and debearded
•1/2 bunch chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

thoughts? suggestions?

Reply

jules August 8, 2013

Carol!
Go to the top of the class 🙂

Both options sound really lovely… and pretty much how I would approach simplifying this recipe as well.

You’re making me wish I had access to good quality seafood where I live… I miss the Sydney fish markets.

And I like how you’ve thought to use vegetable stock in your second version instead of softening the veg and adding water… A good veg stock is a great quick way to get the flavour of carrots, onion and celery and garlic too sometimes.

Keep up the good work!
J

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