Does a Recipe Need to be Complicated to be Good?

My friend Monica Bhide recently responded to this very important question in her blog. She’s a lady after my own heart with her response: that it takes guts to make food with very few ingredients.

I hadn’t realized how simplified my cuisine has become until I researched some options for clients with a special diet recently. The books I took out of the library were filled with all sorts of random ingredients designed to make up for the foods that were missing from the special diet. My research prompted me to write the following on Twitter:

# I do not believe in forcing tons of random ingredients into recipes to build flavor. 2:38 PM Mar 4th
# I believe in getting great ingredients and cooking and seasoning them properly to build flavor. 2:39 PM Mar 4th

I cannot think of two statements that come closer to defining my culinary approach.

Take my mustard-maple glazed chicken. This has become a signature of my catering business, and with good reason: it’s delicious and fun to eat, with some zip and a little sticky-sweetness. To make it, brine chicken pieces (skin-on, bone-in) in a salt water solution overnight. Drain and pat dry. Sear on both sides until richly browned in a hot skillet. Line up on a sheet pan. Mix together equal parts dijon mustard and maple syrup. Rub some onto each piece of chicken. Stick in an oven set to 425. After 7 minutes, remove and rub more mustard-maple mix onto the chicken pieces. Give them another 7 minutes, then hit them one more time with the glaze. Remove when cooked to temperature. It’s good hot or cold, on that day or the next.

Let’s review the ingredient list there:
Chicken
Salt
Water
Mustard
Maple syrup

If you’re making this recipe, you want to be sure the chicken, mustard and syrup are of impeccable quality. Shirking on these products by, say, using ballpark mustard or pancake syrup will result in chicken that is not nearly as satisfying. You can also make it with boneless, skinless pieces of chicken, but it won’t look or taste nearly as good if you do. If you’re like me and you normally have the good stuff laying around, you can probably whip this up for dinner in no time (as long as you build in the time for the brine–and even that is optional, I use a brine because it makes the chicken hold up a little better in a chafing dish when catering).

So, no, a long and complicated list of ingredients is not necessarily indicative of a high-quality recipe. If you know how to handle good ingredients properly, you can make terrific food–the sort of food Monica and I love to serve families, friends and clients–with a very short and simple list of ingredients.

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