In Praise of Maximalist Cooking (or, Why I’m Not a Minimalist Cook)

My best friend’s husband AK, a talented photographer by trade, is a fantastic (and self-taught) cook. This man seduced me away from 14 years of vegetarianism with a perfect filet mignon (don’t worry, vegetarians – I’m still 99% veg with the occasional steak-break). He makes his own puff pastry and sauerkraut (who does that?). In fact, everything he makes is delicious – but he does have one teeny little issue.

AK is a slow cook. Like, really slow. Watching him meticulously arrange rosettes of smoked salmon and feathers of dill on hors d’oeuvres makes me twitch with impatience, and a dinner invitation for 7pm usually means that food will be on the table by 9. Truthfully, as the parent of an overtired preschooler usually home for bed by 8, this used to stress me out. But over time, I’ve relaxed into the flow of AK’s slow, slow food preparation. The kids run around, in role as jungle cats at the beach. There’s a baguette, some cheese, some wine, some interpretive dance, some catching up and laughter. Sure, dinner is slow to appear. But the tradeoff is that I get to share a great meal with close friends and eat something delicious, prepared with love.

If you’ve cruised the Internet in search of fodder for simplifying/minimalist thought, you’ve probably come across a few sites dedicated in part to “minimalist” cooking and food preparation. The proposed formula? Minimal number of ingredients + minimal prep time = less stress, more time for “what’s important.” Simplicity incarnate, right? Maybe so. But something rankles me about this equation.

I should clarify: I’m definitely not against satisfying, healthy meals that can be made in 10 minutes or less with a small number of ingredients. (As a working parent, I make and eat a lot of food that falls into both of these categories.) I also don’t disagree with Meg Wolfe’s assertion that cooking more simply can help reduce the self-imposed pressure to perform in the kitchen and subvert societal expectations that we need to entertain like mini Martha Stewarts. But I also feel strongly that preparing food – whether it’s toast with peanut butter or an elaborate feast that took 3 days to make – IS the “what’s important” in life. Not only is cooking one of most natural things you can do to care for yourself and  your loved ones, but it’s also just fundamental to the collective human experience. Framing the experience of food preparation as something to be done quickly, to be got over with, feels akin to calorie-counting – that is, it reduces the pleasures of the table to units consumed, units used – the very antithesis of healthy, balanced eating.

Not only that, but taking time to make a good meal can be really enjoyable. If I’ve had a particularly crappy day, coming home and spending half an hour chopping, measuring, sauteeing, and stirring ingredients for soup will melt away the stresses of my day. (Tip: toasting and then grinding spices with a mortar and pestle takes about 3 minutes and makes whatever you’re making taste much, much better.) Gathering slightly unusual ingredients for a special meal, perusing a complicated recipe and trying (valiantly!) to make something extravagant or exotic to impose on friends and family can be a lot of fun, too.

Accordingly, I have a modest proposal. Instead of fretting about keeping our time-counts down, or cooking with (god forbid!) lots of ingredients, let’s celebrate maximalist cooking instead: cooking that isn’t afraid to be messy, abundant, complex, and fun. Let’s dig deep into making food that takes time; that might require patience and attention to detail; that allows us to play in the kitchen while hanging out with our kids and community; and that, oh yeah, might just end up tasting pretty great. What could be more important?

I promise, you’ll still be a minimalist in the morning.

PS: If you’re interested in moving towards a healthier, traditional, and more sustainable diet, you might be interested in the Slow Food movement. From the Slow Food International website:

“Slow Food was founded in 1989 to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”

Highly recommended.

PPS: Another good read – on par with most books by food guru Michael Pollan –  is Mark Bittman’s Food Matters. (Even thought his food column is called “The Minimalist,” I won’t hold it against him.) His highly entertaining New York Times article archive can be found here.

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About Lisa

Living with stuff since 1972. Writing about it since 2011.
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4 Responses to In Praise of Maximalist Cooking (or, Why I’m Not a Minimalist Cook)

  1. Anne says:

    Totally agree with you, why rush cooking to spend time with your family, I prefer engaging my children in it with me.
    This way they grow up to be more capable and better informed about food and cooking.
    And we get to spend time together, talking about all sorts of things whilst stirring the pot or grinding spices!
    But as yourself, I also have days where a quickly put together meal is the better option.

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Anne,

      I love the idea of engaging kids in the process of making food. My son loves helping me cook…and I like that it forces me to slow down to his (3 year old) speed to do so!

  2. Hi Lisa – I’m a slow-cooker – but in the literal sense. I spend very little time prepping or cooking. I use a slow cooker. This provides simple, nutritious and in many cases economic meals for the family. I get a huge amount of satisfaction knowing that some one/thing is taking the strain and yet the meal won’t come out of a microwavable dish.
    Jo (simplybeingmum – “family life simply done”)
    ps – I love the film Oliver – a classic!

    • Lisa says:

      Hi Jo,

      Yes, I’ve heard of the pleasures of the slow cooker – I may venture to purchase one yet! We rely a little too heavily on stir fries, couscous and pasta at the moment…

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