What’s your ingredient limit? You know, that internal cue when you scan a recipe and think: The list is too long. The directions have too many steps. Pass.
The modern age has produced cookbooks full of dishes born from a mere handful of foodstuffs, starting with Amelia Simmons’s “American Cookery” in 1796. The terseness of her recipes suggests that either everybody knew what they were doing, or there weren’t many options.
Singing a culinary tune with the fewest notes speaks straight to the hearts of busy people who cook. Such recipe collections can come across as gimmicky, especially when it comes to which ingredients have been “excepted.” I’m always motivated to flip immediately to wherever that information is revealed — and even then, I search the chapters for ingredients listed as mixes, which are guaranteed to contain at least four or five extra this-and-thats.
Sounds like quibbling, but should the simplicity of the dish, or the way its recipe directions are written, be its main selling point? I’d argue for taste above all, with bonus points awarded for minimal effort — assuming you’re likely to fold when faced with a multi-page cassoulet.
While you ponder the question, consider the features of two recent ingredient-driven cookbooks. One’s from a hip British chef with a TV following; the other was compiled through the power of two Australian gal pals hellbent on sharing strategies with other time-starved moms.
As much as the books have in common, they clearly are aimed at different audiences. James Tanner’s “Take 5 Ingredients: 95 Delicious Dishes Using Just 5 Ingredients” (Kyle 2011; $19.95) exploits key ethnic flavor profiles and sticks to the path of unprocessed foods, while “4 Ingredients: More Than 400 Quick, Easy, and Delicious Recipes Using 4 or Fewer Ingredients,” by Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham (Atria, 2011; $18), reaches into a pantry that stocks sodas and canned condensed soups.
Part of the ladies’ shtick is a self-imposed average of four sentences of direction per recipe; that only leads to more questions, unfortunately, although their talents for devising cheap meals is impressive. Tanner’s creations have that telltale chef’s flair: inventive, a little trendy, balanced in terms of acidity or sweet-and-heat. He offers one-fourth the number of recipes found in “4 Ingredients” but has adorned them with handsome photography. “4 Ingredients” is art-free, often fitting two dishes on a page.
As expected, all three authors use, but don’t count, salt, pepper and water when they sum up ingredient totals. Tanner tacks olive oil onto the non-list list. If these books were apps, they’d be more user-friendly for that busy-cook demographic. But we found enough solid ideas — new or retro — in each of them to warrant an online order.
It all depends on your limits.