Less is more

'Six?!" I said, incredulously. "Six," he said, emphatically. "Sounds dangerously populist, if you don't mind my saying so."

"Six."

In spite of my protests, a meal consisting of three courses made up of dishes with no more than six ingredients each (although, none too generously, I was allowed not to count basics such as oils and seasoning in that number) was firmly on the agenda. My initial thoughts on this theme are pretty unprintable - after all, that number has more in common with the hairline of a child of the devil than good grub.

Sure, great food is little more than a simple matter of good ingredients cooked well - inventive thought, quirk and novelty are best left in the hands of toy manufacturers - but the creation of teeny-weeny recipes that are supposed to have the cook in the kitchen for just 10 minutes yet still be able to produce a dinner that will knock your socks off are on the whole, and in the politest terms, a complete nonsense. Or so I huffed.

Of course, there are some grand dishes with scant ingredients that do require only the minimum of preparation. A risotto of leeks, even using a stock cube, that hated lump of poison, takes 35-40 minutes to bring to fruition. Omelettes, on the other hand, are quick, yet curiously absent from daily life; the fact that they require a skill achieved through plenty of practice appears unworthy of mention - some chopped herbs, a little truffle, smoked haddock even, simply and elegantly accompany this greatly neglected dish.

A little more thought can bring to mind other great dishes that require few ingredients and not much more effort than bending down at the oven now and again. To pop a roast in the oven requires little more than a good butcher and skill in timing. Liberal seasoning with sea salt and freshly ground pepper are all that is required, along with some roast potatoes, perhaps, and a salad. Hamburgers, likewise, spring to mind as a possibility, as do watercress soup, moules marinières and fried fish . . .

Gosh, now I come to think about it, there are loads of lovely dishes, all with six ingredients or fewer. So, to start, I think we'll have some prawns, not least because there is much satisfaction in peeling them and then leaving them to steep in bread and oil and a little garlic. That's it, more or less - all that's left is to skewer and grill them. Quite delicious, and delightfully free of quirk.

It is an oddity that those countries, such as France or Italy, with many a grand cooking tradition also have a surfeit of sublimely simple one-course meals that may consist of nothing more than a few thin slices of cured meats, a bowl of olives, some bread and a bottle of wine; some cheese and fruit may feature, also, if you're going to push the boat out. Then again, in those countries you can, generally, buy very good stuff for such a feast, but it is difficult to pay dear old Blighty the same compliment, not least because the survival rates of a good butcher continue to plummet dramatically.

That said, spare ribs do seem to be something of a constant, here, although they are generally reserved for a severe charring on a savage barbecue. When treated with a degree of respect, however, they become notable. And when made with the ribs of a superior breed of pig or cow, they are great. To accompany them, some mashed potatoes flavoured with Parmesan, which speak for themselves, and a salad, if desired.

And for pudding? Oranges in a caramel-flavoured syrup are a refreshing and delicious finish, as well as simplicity itself to prepare.

Such a meal makes a convincing argument for the delights of the simple approach. In this case, less is certainly more. As ever, the secret - how often do I say this? - lies in the quality of the raw materials. Even when they number only six, ingredients of top quality require minimum handling and embellishment, so long as this is done in a sympathetic manner. The results are revelatory - to me, at any rate.

All recipes serve six.

Grilled Prawn Skewers
A great recipe from the great Marcella Hazan. The end result is a testament to keeping it simple.
900g plump prawns
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp vegetable oil
75g fine, white breadcrumbs
2 cloves garlic, chopped very fine
2 tsp flat-leaf parsley, picked and chopped very fine
Sea salt and black pepper

Shell the prawns, but leave their tails on. With a small, sharp knife, remove the dark vein that runs along their backs. Wash the tails in cold water and then pat dry with a tea towel. Put the cleaned, prepared prawns in a roomy bowl.

Add as much of the olive oil and vegetable oil, in equal parts, and the breadcrumbs as you need to coat them evenly but lightly all over - you may not require all of the oil and breadcrumbs indicated in the ingredient list, but if you have a large number of very small prawns you may need more of each (in which case, ensure that you use olive and vegetable oil in equal quantities).

Add the garlic, parsley, salt and pepper to the bowl, and toss thoroughly. Allow the prawns to steep in their coating for at least half an hour, and preferably for two hours.

Heat a ridged griddle pan. Skewer the prawns tightly (on toothpicks, say) curling one end inwards and pushing the skewer through at three points, which will prevent the prawns from slipping from the skewer when you turn them. Cook the prawns briefly on the griddle, about two minutes, depending on their size and the intensity of the heat, turning frequently.


Spare ribs roasted with sage and white wine treviso-style
If you've been reduced to poverty and misery after the wanton indulgence of the December bender, this marvellous dish from Marcella Hazan (yes, her again, but you can never have too much of a good thing) soothes and satisfies. Serve with the Parmesan mash below.
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1.35kg rack spare ribs, divided into single ribs
3 cloves garlic, peeled and cut into thin slices
2 tbsp fresh sage, chopped
250ml dry white wine
Salt and black pepper

Take a heavy-bottomed pan large enough to accommodate all the ribs without crowding them. Put in the oil and turn the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot, put in the ribs, and turn them as they cook until they are browned all over.

Add the garlic and sage, and as soon as the garlic turns a very pale blond add the wine. After the wine has simmered briskly for 15-20 seconds, reduce the heat to a simmer, then add salt and pepper and cover the pan with the lid slightly askew. Cook for about 40 minutes, turning the ribs from time to time, until their fleshiest part feels very tender when prodded with a fork and comes easily away from the bone. If the liquid in the pan looks like evaporating entirely, which is likely, add a couple of tablespoons of water from time to time, to keep the ribs moist.

Transfer the cooked ribs to a warm serving platter using a slotted spoon or spatula. Tip the pan and spoon off about a third of the liquefied pork fat. Leave more than you usually would when degreasing a pan, because you'll need it to season the Parmesan mash.

Add 100ml water to the pan and raise the heat, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dislodge any cooking residues stuck there. Pour the resulting dark, dense juices over the ribs and serve at once.


Mashed potatoes bolognese-style, with milk and parmesan

500g best mashing potatoes (Maris Piper, or somesuch)
50g unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
6 tbsp Parmesan, freshly grated
Sea salt
Nutmeg
100ml whole milk

Scrub the potatoes clean (do not peel them), and put them in a large pot of salted water. Bring to the boil and simmer until cooked through. Do not pierce the potatoes too often, as the skin may break. Drain and peel while still hot.

Place a pan of water on a moderate heat and set a heatproof bowl over it. Put the butter in the bowl, then put the potatoes through a mouli, or mash them, and mix with the melting butter. In another pan, warm the milk, ensuring that it does not boil. Begin beating the potatoes, adding a little milk at a time, then mix in the cheese and any extra milk, if required. Add salt and a little grated nutmeg, and serve immediately.


Caramelised oranges
In honour of oranges being so good at this time of year. This most simple of desserts is delicious and refreshing.

12 oranges
320g caster sugar
150ml cold water
Grand Marnier

Pare the rind from six of the oranges and cut it into very thin strips. Place a small pan of water on to boil, drop in the prepared rind, simmer for a minute, then drain under cold running water. Peel the remaining oranges, discarding the pith, and slice the flesh of all 12 oranges into segments. Remove any pips, then rearrange the fruit into their original orange shape, securing them with cocktail sticks. Put the oranges into a handsome serving bowl.

Put the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot and pour in just enough water in which to dissolve it. Over a moderate heat, melt the sugar, stirring all the while, until it forms a syrup, and continue cooking, stirring all the while, until the syrup becomes a rich dark caramel. Cover your hand and forearm with a cloth, to avoid painful splashes, and pour the 150ml of cold water into the pan, averting your face as you do so: the hot caramel will react very violently. Simmer until all the caramel has melted, and then add a generous splash of Grand Marnier. Pour the syrup over the oranges and, when the syrup has cooled down, sprinkle over the blanched rind, cover and refrigerate. Serve chilled.

Jeremy Lee is chef at Blue Print Cafe, Butlers Wharf, London SE1.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.