About a month ago, lacking my hoped-for, fleeting, and frustratingly oft-absent daily quotient of inspiration and incisiveness, I decided to try something new and, I admit, sort of gimmicky: I decided to find out out how many distinct, complete dishes I could compose using just three ingredients. (To be precise, “how many” pending boredom, constructive dismissal, failure to get out of bed, or any other inherent vice of the would-be blogger.)
In some respects, cooking with a severely restricted number of ingredients is endemic to my whole approach: If I buy less but better stuff and take care in its preparation, I’ll increase the odds of the final product not sucking. Further, much as I imagine the process of getting dressed to be for a really hot chick (or dude, depending which team and side of the plate you bat on), these two basic prerogatives reinforce one another: The better the raw material, the less it needs dressing-up, and the skimpier the dressing, the more pronounced its inner hotness. And, importantly for our household, nowhere does the fewer-ingredients/simpler-technique approach bear sweeter fruit than in response to my frustration of cooking for kids. Don’t get me wrong: I love, love, to cook for, and particularly with, my children; I find great joy in bringing them into the kitchen and watching them learn to think about and prepare the food they will eat; and I believe strongly that it is my responsibility as a parent to help my littles learn what real food tastes like, what tastes good to them, and why. But when the homework still isn’t done, the bath is getting cold, and our evening routine careens off the rails like some life-imitating-art version of Wiley Coyote piloting a locomotive into a swan dive off the rim of the Grand Canyon, I will readily confess that I find preparing several different versions of several different dishes in order to accommodate this week’s litany of idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, exceedingly trying.
So, why not codify the project and cook using just three ingredients? I recently asked myself this question while staring down the barrel of yet another Monday night meal (Mondays are consistently hard for me; maybe it’s the hangover from cooking fun stuff straight from the market all weekend; or perhaps the kids are grumpy with the first homework assignments of the week; there are lunches to be made; the TV is crap; all in all, the whole family has bounced around like loose electrons since we all got let out on Friday, and Monday’s demand that we all return to our valences amidst a broader rekindling of the household order). A quick inventory of the cupboards yielded nothing revolutionary: the ubiquitous pasta-with-butter; some leftover mac-n-cheese; a breakfast burrito; a bag of polenta; and of course my standing order to Choose something I already mentioned, go get yourself a bowl of cold cereal, or don’t eat. Because I’m done. To the munchkins’ credit, the polenta took it by several lengths, leaving me with the sort of problem I like best: How do I transform a simple ingredient into a main-course dish with a minimum of fuss?
Another quick scouring of lower and forgotten drawers, a few experimental unveilings of mysterious shapes shrouded in plastic wrap or foil, and a quick mental palate gut-check yielded a few translucent slices of still-good if slightly dry Serrano ham and a hunk of really stinky (“stinky” in a good way, as in that uniquely French capacity to make “gym-locker aroma” complimentary), washed-rind Raclette. The result was a very tasty little plate consisting of just three ingredients:
Creamy Polenta with Raclette & Serrano Crisps
- Prepare a basic polenta, as described on the package or here. (I’ve heard that you can make acceptable polenta with a “no-stir” method, and Marcella Hazan agrees, but I’ve not tried it; I do know that if you do it the right way, it takes a small amount of simple work, and the result is consistently outstanding.)
- While the polenta is cooking, separate several slices of the ham (Serrano is particularly good, but you could use a Prosciutto or any number of thinly sliced charcuterie and get much the same effect), tear it into pieces, and saute them over low to medium-low heat, either in a nonstick skillet or a lightly oiled fry pan. Flip and toss the meat from time to time, breaking it up with the edge of a spatula, until it is lightly crispy (it will scorch easily, so be careful). Drain and reserve on a paper towel.
- Grate the Raclette (again, it needn’t be Raclette, but try to use something with a pungent flavor and good melting qualities; anything in the “fondue” family would be ideal) across a microplane or the smaller side of a box grater.
- As soon as it’s finished cooking, mound the polenta in the middle of a pasta bowl, cover with a handful of the cheese while the cereal is still piping hot, and top with the ham chips.