The lure of the 5-ingredient recipe seems irresistible. Short list means simple, right? That single recipe subcategory accounts for a lot of scrolling through the websites of All Recipes, Eating Well, Good Housekeeping, Rachael Ray and every other source that promises easy home cooking.
I am scratching my head about this, though, because I see 5-ingredient recipes that should have asterisks. They are the culinary equivalent of fake news. With notable exceptions, the recipes don't count water, basic seasonings, oil. Why?
I am looking at a “5-ingredient” recipe for Simple Roast Chicken With Garlic and Lemon at JustATaste.com: the bird, a lemon, butter, rosemary sprigs, garlic. Except any cook worth his or her salt and pepper knows what’s missing from that lineup. The S&P are in the directions, just not mentioned in the ingredients. I have the “Quick-Shop-and-Prep 5 Ingredient Baking” book from a couple years back, and its Spiced Chess Pie calls for 13 ingredients. Milk, cornmeal and ground allspice are in boldface, signaling to those who read the foreword that those items need to be purchased; the premise of the book relies on you having a supply of flour, sugar, butter, ice water, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, salt and nutmeg.
The 5-ingredient phenomenon makes me wonder what cooks really want when they type the phrase into their search fields.
“It feels like a scam, a little,” says Suzanne Rafer, executive editor and director of cookbook publishing for Workman. “I'm not a believer in limiting . . . . If it's going to take six or seven or eight ingredients, so be it. Our deal is, no matter how many you put in, you want it to taste good in the end.”
Not a scam for everyone, perhaps. There is cooking for sustenance, and there is cooking for satisfaction. Overlap is desirable, but often, someone who has to get weeknight meals on the table will look at the clock, do the math and try to reduce the effort one way or another.
The 5-ingredient mode is hardly a stretch for drinks, fruit-and-yogurt desserts and sides. Seasonal produce at its peak doesn’t need bells and whistles or magical transformation. Keeping main-dish recipes “ingredient-simple,” on the other hand, typically relies on using very good components, or it can mean a missed opportunity to enhance flavors.
“People are looking for quicker and easier shortcuts all the time,” says Lisa Ekus, the force behind her eponymous literary agency, which launched Ronni Lundy's well-received “Victuals” last year. “But you can't have cheap – meaning economical – and fast and good. Something's got to give.”
What often gives is a pronouncement of “delicious.” Or the complexity that multiple and complementary spices can bring. Or the control over sodium or fat in the shortcut, store-bought products the recipe calls for, such as a pasta sauce, marinade or frozen pie dough. A short list doesn't necessarily translate to quick or uncomplicated: Think slow cooker or sous vide or a range of required knife skills.
Ekus echoes Rafer’s bottom line: “The question in the end is, is it good? Rozanne Gold is one of the few who did it really well.”
Yes, she did. The New York chef's “Recipes 1-2-3” won a James Beard award in 1996 and forecast a two-decade trend. (Fun fact: It gave rise to the Minimalist column in The New York Times food section, which Gold had to pass on writing because she was revamping the Windows on the World menu at the time.)
She followed up with eight books in the “1-2-3” vein that were translated into several languages. Her Mahogany Short Ribs continue to be a revelation for home cooks. But none of those recipes – including the ribs – listed water, salt and pepper as ingredients.
“The idea of ingredients you can count on the fingers of one hand has to do with cooks not being intimidated,” says Gold, now 63 and working on her master's in poetry. “It's code.” Her 3-ingredient recipes were, in part, a reaction to an era of “pile-up” on restaurant plates that masked true flavors, she says, as well as a personal challenge to exploit an ingredient to the max – an exploration of all the ways, say, asparagus can taste in raw and cooked forms.
What matters is how the ingredients interact, Gold says. “There needs to be some experience and knowledge” in that guiding hand, and she is heartened that “it's the mettle of a chef to cook more simply these days.” She recently produced a collection of balanced, “incredibly complex” (in flavor) 5-ingredient recipes for Cooking Light that did not count the water, oil, salt and pepper used. Would “9-Ingredient Recipes!” sound as appealing?
Which brings me to today’s recipes. All of these contain 5 ingredients – plus a few more. None are complicated; some are downright quirky. Each offers flavors that are true to their ingredients. If you like even one or two of the dishes, the lesson might be: Look beyond the sheer numbers of ingredients, with an eye on the total sum.
Brussels Sprouts Pasta With Whole-Grain Mustard
Adapted from “Back Pocket Pasta: Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Fly,” by Colu Henry (Clarkson Potter, 2017). The sprouts are separated into leaves, crisped in the pan with garlic and tossed with just enough mustard and butter to make them taste rich. For even more zip, stir in a teaspoon of Dijon mustard.
12 ounces thick spaghetti or linguine
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large clove garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound Brussels sprouts, separated into leaves (about 10 cups)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup whole-grain mustard
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces and cooked until crisp (optional)
1/3 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch or two of salt, then the pasta; cook according to the package directions (al dente). Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the garlic and cook for a minute or so, just until golden, being careful not to burn it. Add 2 cups of the Brussels sprouts leaves at a time, stir-frying just until the edges of most leaves are browned, then transfer each batch to a bowl before adding the next (no need to add extra oil). Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Wipe out the skillet and place over medium heat. Add the butter, and once that has melted, stir in the mustard, cheese and half of the reserved pasta cooking water.
Add the pasta, Brussels sprouts leaves and bacon to the skillet and toss to incorporate, adding some of the remaining pasta cooking water as needed to create a sauce that is loose enough to coat evenly.
Divide among individual bowls; top with a few grinds of pepper and more cheese.
Yield: 4 servings.
Salted Cardamom Drinking Chocolate
Adapted from “Bitterman’s Craft Salt Cooking: The Single Ingredient That Transforms All Your Favorite Foods and Recipes,” by Mark Bitterman (Andrews McMeel, 2016). The challenge is to find a salt that will land on the surface of your drink without sinking or dissolving. A flaked salt works best in this surprisingly dairy-free beverage.
1 (13.5- or 14-ounce) can coconut milk (not shaken, not low-fat)
3 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cardamom pods, cracked
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (at least 60 percent cacao), broken into pieces
6 pinches flaked salt (see headnote)
Use a spoon to skim the cream from the top of the opened can of coconut milk and place it in a liquid measuring cup. Add enough of the liquid left in the can to yield 1 full cup. Reserve what’s left for another use, if desired. (It freezes well.)
Combine the water, sugar and cracked cardamom pods in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once it comes to a boil, cook for 1 minute, then remove it from the heat and let it steep for 5 minutes.
Use a slotted spoon or small strainer to find and discard the cardamom pods, then stir the cocoa powder into the saucepan. Place over medium heat; once the mixture is bubbling at the edges, stir in the chocolate until it has melted.
Add the cup of coconut cream and milk. Use an immersion (stick) blender to mix the drinking chocolate until it’s frothy.
Divide among warmed mugs. Top each with a pinch of salt. Serve right away.
Yield: 6 servings.
Adapted from “Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes or Less,” by Melissa Joulwan (Greenleaf Book Press, 2016). A good-quality hot dog deserves a starring spot at lunch or dinner every now and then; this mix of toppings calls to mind tropical flavors.
2 cloves garlic, smashed
10 dried apricots
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce (may substitute 1/4 cup coconut aminos)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 medium head red cabbage, thinly sliced or shredded (about 12 ounces)
1/4 cup plain rice vinegar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar or raw sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup coarsely chopped macadamia nuts (salted or unsalted)
4 to 8 good-quality hot dogs, such as Applegate Farms (all-beef; beef and pork; chicken; or turkey)
Toasted hot dog buns, for serving
Combine the garlic, dried apricots, water, soy sauce, ginger, fish sauce and crushed red pepper flakes in a small saucepan over medium-high heat; bring to a boil, then cook for 5 minutes. Cool for 10 to 15 minutes, then transfer to a blender. Puree to form a kind of duck sauce.
Combine the cabbage, vinegar, sugar, salt and nuts in a mixing bowl, tossing to incorporate.
Just before serving, split the hot dogs in half lengthwise. Heat them on a griddle or in a large skillet over medium heat, cut sides down, until completely warmed through and a little crisped at the edges. Serve each one on a toasted bun topped with some of the sauce and a little of the slaw mixture.
Yield: 4 servings.