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Simplicity: let it rule

Special to The Times

BLAME it on Jon Stewart. But right now it seems like the mark of a really good thing is whether you can encapsulate it into one line. An Oscar joke. A Shakespeare quote. A fabulous meal that’s so simple it doesn’t even require a recipe. Longer than that, your attention wanes, you reach reflexively for a pen and paper, a dictionary, a takeout menu.

The beauty of the one-liner is that it’s unencumbered with asides, confusing tangents or too much information. You get it in an instant. Imagine if recipes came like this: simple sentences that could transmit everything you need to know to make a perfect dish. No elaborate procedures you have to read five times to understand, no panicky lunging for your “Joy of Cooking. Not a recipe at all so much as a little story, passed from one person to the next, about a few ingredients and what to do with them.

One of the problems with the current glut of cooking shows, glossy magazines and museum cookbooks is that they present a kind of information overload. We clip the recipes, TiVo the “Iron Chef” episodes, stack the beautiful cookbooks on our coffee tables.

But when it comes time to make dinner, we’re stuck in a terrible anxiety-ridden limbo. There are the empty Calphalon pots. The waiting stove. The drawers full of enticing magazine recipes, organized about as well as our 2005 tax information. But what to serve for dinner three hours from now?

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It’s too late to organize your recipes the way Martha Stewart advised in the first place. Too late to hire a caterer. Too late to feign illness. The best thing to do -- unless you can get your mother to drive across town -- is to reach, from somewhere in the back of your mind, for an idea.

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Easy to remember

IF the dishes are right, you don’t need more than half a dozen in your repertoire. Your grandmother’s steak au poivre, a terrific pureed soup. They’re dishes that are so simple you don’t need to write them down: Make them once and they’ll lodge in your memory forever, like the chorus of an ‘80s hit song. Only these are a lot more useful than Duran Duran lyrics.

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In a way, this is not a change in food so much as a change in perspective. Because a few years ago, cooks didn’t channel-surf cooking shows or debate which glossy magazine to sample recipes from; they didn’t lose sleep trying to decipher Thomas Keller’s instructions for making carrot powder or trying to find Art Culinaire books on EBay.

They cooked a few things -- pot roast, layer cake, chiffon pie, veal Parmesan -- with a kind of beautiful, dedicated regularity. The dishes were soothing, infallible wonders.

Like those classic homey dishes, you can whip up these one-liners at a moment’s notice, with ingredients that are easy to find, if they’re not in your kitchen already.

No, you don’t need to drag your wicker basket across town to stalk the organic farmers at your weekly farmers market either -- the items are right there in the aisles of your nearest supermarket.

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The methods? Foolproof. The required kitchen gear? Completely ordinary: a frying pan, a cookie sheet, a soup pot, a knife.

The recipes are fast, easy and utterly reliable, yet the dishes are exponentially better than the sum of their parts. It’s fabulous food that you can orchestrate without seeming to think about it.

It’s difficult to imagine anything easier than roasted beets and goat cheese salad. Wrap the beets in foil, bake them for an hour or so, peel them, slice or quarter them and toss them with goat cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. That’s a brilliantly simple first course that has plenty of flavor complexity.

Next, imagine a spring soup that’s a subtle study of green. It’s pureed smooth and so delicate in flavor that you’d be astonished to learn that it’s culled from a head of butter lettuce and a bag of frozen peas. Shred the lettuce and wilt it in some butter, add a 2-pound bag of frozen peas, a pinch of salt and four cups of water. Simmer it for 25 minutes, puree and ladle into wide soup plates.

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Serve it just as it is -- it’s like eating the essence of sweet peas -- or dress it up with a swirl of heavy cream or white truffle oil, or sprinkle with grated Meyer lemon zest, and you have a gorgeous and sophisticated soup made from practically nothing.

For a simple yet deeply satisfying pasta dish, remove the casings from some Italian sausage, saute the meat in olive oil, add a handful of rapini (which you’ve blanched in the boiling pasta water, then fished out with tongs) and some chopped garlic, then toss with the pasta and some grated Parmesan. For a vegetarian spin, omit the sausage and add more garlic.

Seared halibut in a Provencal ragout is far simpler than it sounds, but just as delicious. Sear one side of a halibut fillet with olive oil in a good-size saute pan, flip, add minced garlic and shallots, a large can of diced tomatoes, black olives, capers, pepper and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

By the time all the components have simmered for a few minutes, the flavors have married and the fish has cooked through. A few torn basil leaves on top and you’re done.

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No halibut at the market? Use salmon, only this time throw in a handful of arugula, minced garlic, a can of cannellini beans and a few grinds of black pepper.

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Dinner party fare

OR consider wine-braised short ribs, absolutely simple yet fabulous enough to serve at the toniest dinner party. Just brown some short ribs, set them aside and saute some diced carrots and onions. Deglaze your pan (turn up the heat, add a cup or so of red wine, and scrape up the browned bits), then add the ribs back in, cover with red wine or stock or a combination. Then cover and simmer a couple hours until meltingly tender.

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One pot, a few standard, inexpensive ingredients, but the result is so good you want to eat it with your fingers, getting every last bit of sauce -- an effortless byproduct of the braising -- with pieces of bread, a spoon, a shameless lick of the plate.

For a gorgeous side dish, take the outer leaves of two bunches of escarole, wilt them in olive oil with two smashed garlic cloves, add a whole can of cannellini beans -- liquid and all -- and some freshly ground black pepper, cover and cook for 10 minutes. It may sound too simple to be good, but it’s an earthy delight.

Many truly amazing yet ridiculously easy vegetable recipes (such as the beet salad) can be accomplished almost wholly in the oven. Asparagus is not only a lot more forgiving roasted than blanched, it is also richer, deeper, more like asparagus and less like the water it was cooked in.

Just snap off the ends (asparagus will snap at a natural point, where the tough end stops and the tender part begins), pour a teaspoon of olive oil and a little salt on a baking sheet, lay down the asparagus, roll the spears around to coat and roast for 18 minutes.

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Because the flavor is so intense, you don’t need a hollandaise sauce or anything else to dress it up -- it’s ready to serve.

For insanely good roast potatoes, peel and quarter them lengthwise, plop them in a roasting pan, drizzle on a little olive oil, fresh thyme, sea salt and pepper and toss -- then into a 375-degree oven they go. An hour later, with only a stir or two during the cooking time, you have truly sublime potatoes.

And they’re forgiving too. They can stay in a warm oven until you’re ready for them, which is probably a safer bet anyway, as you won’t be tempted to eat them right off the pan.

Or try baked apples, a classic one-liner. Core them, stuff them with butter, brown sugar, raisins and cinnamon and bake them for an hour in a 350-degree oven. Serve with whipped cream or without.

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And finally, did you hear the one that goes, “A duck walks into a grocery store ... "?

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Captivating culinary one-liners

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Starters

Roasted beet and goat cheese salad. Wrap beets in foil and roast for an hour and a quarter; peel and quarter them, crumble goat cheese on top, drizzle with good olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar and toss.

Sweet pea soup. Wilt a head of shredded butter lettuce in butter, add two pounds of frozen peas, four cups of water and salt, simmer 25 minutes, then puree.

Leeks vinaigrette. Simmer leeks in salted water until tender, drain and dress with a simple vinaigrette.

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Main courses

Halibut Provencal. Film a frying pan with olive oil, sear halibut fillets on one side, then flip and add a can of diced tomatoes, minced garlic and shallots, capers, olives and a dash of balsamic vinegar.

Salmon with cannellini. Sear salmon fillets on one side, flip and add minced garlic, a can of cannellini beans (drained), two bunches of arugula and freshly ground black pepper.

Spicy shrimp pasta. Saute peeled shrimp in olive oil with shallots, red pepper flakes and Old Bay seasoning, then toss with pasta and cilantro.

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Sauteed escarole and beans. Wash and dry the the outer leaves of two bunches of escarole, then saute in olive oil with two smashed garlic cloves, add a can of cannellini beans (liquid and all) and freshly ground black pepper, cover and simmer 10 minutes.

Penne with Italian sausage and greens. Brown the meat from four Italian sausages (removed from the casings) in olive oil, add one bunch of rapini that’s been blanched and roughly chopped, along with a little chopped garlic, toss with penne and lots of grated Parmesan.

Wine-braised short ribs. Brown the ribs in a large skillet, set aside and add diced carrots and onions, deglaze with red wine, return ribs to pan, then cover with more wine or stock (or a combination) and simmer until tender.

Vegetables

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Roasted asparagus. Snap off the ends from a bunch of asparagus, lay the spears on a baking sheet, pour on a teaspoon of olive oil and a little sea salt, roll the spears around to coat, and roast for 18 minutes.

Roasted potatoes. Quarter peeled potatoes, toss in a roasting pan with olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme and roast for an hour, stirring once or twice.

Desserts

Baked stuffed apples. Core apples, stuff with raisins, cinnamon, brown sugar and butter and bake for an hour.

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Poached pears. Poach peeled pears in Port until cooked through, remove the pears, reduce the liquid to a syrup and pour over the pears.

-- Amy Scattergood

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Roasted beet and goat cheese salad

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Total time: About 1 1/2 hours

Servings: 4

1 bunch beets, scrubbed and trimmed (about 4)

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

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Sea salt

4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

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1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Scrub and trim the beets, leaving an inch of the stem intact. Sprinkle the beets with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and a pinch of salt (this is optional), then wrap them in foil, place them on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

2. Remove the beets from the oven. Cool, then peel, discarding the stems and peels.

3. Cut the beets into eighths and sprinkle the goat cheese around the pieces. Drizzle with the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil and the vinegar. Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Each serving: 130 calories; 6 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 13 mg. cholesterol; 144 mg. sodium.

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Quick halibut Provencal

Total time: About 15 minutes

Servings: 2 to 4

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2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 pounds halibut fillets (2 fillets), rinsed and patted dry

Salt

2 cloves garlic, minced

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2 shallots, minced

2 cups canned diced tomatoes, drained

3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives

3 tablespoons capers

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1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

6 to 8 basil leaves, torn

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1. Heat the oil in a large nonstick saute pan over medium-high heat. Lightly season the fish with salt. Add the fillets to the pan and sear until they have good color, about 4 minutes.

2. Turn over the fillets, reduce the heat to low and cook 1 minute. Remove the fish to a plate and keep warm.

3. Add the garlic and shallots to the pan and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, pepper flakes, vinegar and one-half teaspoon salt. Saute 1 minute. Increase the heat to medium and simmer for about 2 to 3 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked through and the sauce is bubbly. Add the fish back into the sauce during the final minute of cooking.

4. Transfer the fillets to a platter, spoon the sauce over and sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and the torn basil. Serve immediately.

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Each of 4 servings: 304 calories; 37 grams protein; 8 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 13 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 54 mg. cholesterol; 834 mg. sodium.

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Sweet pea soup

Total time: 55 minutes

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Serves: 4 to 6

Note: Serve hot or cold; you can also swirl in a tablespoon of white truffle oil or heavy cream at tableside, or add a pinch of grated Meyer lemon zest.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 head butter lettuce, rinsed and shredded

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2 pounds petite frozen peas

4 cups water

1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

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1. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the lettuce and cook over low heat 5 minutes.

2. Add the peas, stir and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. Add the water, bring to a simmer and continue to simmer, uncovered, 25 minutes.

3. Cool slightly. Puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender.

4. Return the soup to the pot, add the salt and pepper and heat through. Ladle into soup plates and serve immediately.

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Each of 6 servings: 170 calories; 8 grams protein; 21 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams fiber; 6 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 15 mg. cholesterol; 505 mg. sodium.


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