Simple Food

by Sarah West

grilled Romaine

Yesterday I spent three hours making beet burger mix. The said mix currently waits in my refrigerator for a busy evening when it will feel deliciously effortless to throw a couple patties in the hot skillet and sit down to a satisfying meal minutes later. What I know at this point is that those six patties took an average of thirty laborious minutes each: simmering the dry beans, cooking the brown rice just so, roasting then peeling then shredding then squeezing the beets, pulverizing oats to a fine flour, caramelizing then deglazing onions, processing some but not all of the beans, mixing the lot together in a bowl where it must sit (must!) for at least twenty-four hours before its burger magic can be activated. And although they come with many glowing recommendations, I don’t yet know how they’ll taste.

It was about the time that my hand was stained past my wrist in crimson beet juice, as I worked to release as much moisture as the recipe implored, that I had the thought of a simple hamburger (I am not vegetarian, though I do have a fanatical love of beets). My mind conjured the beefy kind of burger that has only salt and pepper mixed into its ground, maybe a few snippets of chives, then onto the grill it goes, onto the grilled buttered bun a few minutes later, a squeeze of mustard and a smear of mayonnaise, maybe a slice of tomato or onion, though all I really must have on my burger is pickles and a crisp lettuce leaf. How much better than that, I thought, could these beet burgers be?

It’s all a matter of perspective, of course. For a vegetarian who likes beets, the appeal is obvious. For those who enjoy a grilled patty of ground beef, three hours of work to create an approximation, even for a beet lover, does seem to beg the question: why bother? Why not throw a few slices of lightly oiled and salted, market-fresh beets onto the grill, let their sugars caramelize in the smoky heat, and call it a night?

Without a doubt, I love elaborate cooking. I do not flinch at a recipe, such as my sister and I tackled last Thanksgiving, that requires many hours of peeling and processing roasted chestnuts just to make a little wisp of a cake that is devoured in less than thirty minutes. I love cooking all day, making it all from scratch, watching the minutiae of an extravagant meal unfold and relishing each step like the lines of an exhilarating book.

But summer makes me sluggish in the kitchen. It’s a good thing that hot weather and vegetable bounty come hand-in-hand, because even the thought of a simple soup has me hesitating, weighing the costs of discomfort against the gains of pleasurable flavor. Summer’s mostly sweltering kitchen (you may have already deduced that my house has no AC) adds to the cost, and the plethora of fresh, flavorful produce detracts from any benefit complex cooking may offer.

So it is with simple food that I while away my summer. Nearly half of our cooking takes place on the grill, our summer oven where we roast every kind of vegetable, cook flatbreads and pizzas, sear peaches or pork chops, and occasionally throw down a patty of ground beef, all without raising the temperature in which we must attempt to sleep.

Indoor cooking amounts to variations in chopping, tossing salads, simmering grains, steaming spuds, or briefly sautéing sweet chunks of summer squash and fresh onions. Summer’s flavors are uncomplicated and light. Too much flame or fuss makes their perky crunch go soft. My goal in the kitchen is not to transform, but to preserve—with the judicious use of salt and pepper, citrus or vinegar, and aromatics from the herb patch—all the delicate, inimitable flavors that the sun and soil and farmhands have already cooked up.

Simple Technique: Here’s a roundup of recipes to help you perfect the basics of simple summer cooking.

Grilling – Become a meatless grill-master with this A-to-Z guide to grilling vegetables

Chopping – Cook with your knife to make this refreshing Chopped Salad with Feta, Lime, and Mint

Steaming – Make a Summer Aoli Feast to celebrate the lightly steamed flavors of peak-season market veggies.

Sautéing – Master the art of the simple sauté with this easy to follow guide.

Pickling – Employ brine, your refrigerator, and time to soften and season your favorite summer vegetables. Check out this simple method of making fridge pickles without a recipe.

Raw – Stick with the flavors nature’s made, then ribbon, rice, puree, or toss using this basic guide to raw cooking.

(For those who’d like that beet burger recipe anyway, you can find it here.)

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