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So Simple, So Good

Tomato. Photo by Mr.TinDC via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Many of the dishes I encounter at restaurants or at dinners with friends are outstanding culinary accomplishments. I can easily imagine lengthy recipes and mounds of ingredients. But lately some of the best things I've eaten are incredibly simple and incredibly good. You don't always have to be fancy to score a home run.

In winemaking we say that a great wine always starts in the vineyard. In cooking it's the same thing. Without good ingredients, you face an uphill battle. My first example of simple but good is a dish we had in Sarasota, Florida at the Columbia Restaurant. It was called simply, a tomato salad, and it was so good.

We figured out it wasn't anything except very good ripe tomatoes, cut into eight sections, mixed in with super thin slices of Vidalia onion, then dressed with salt and pepper and exceptionally good olive oil with a dab of sweet vinegar. That's it. I suppose if you found a medley of heirloom tomatoes you could make it even better, but there's no harm at all in sticking with what comes to hand... and that's tomatoes that are high quality and perfectly ripe.

My next Simple But Good idea comes from Daniela Restaurant in Hampden, an eatery dedicated to simple Sardinian cuisine. A side dish we tasted captured our hearts, and the waiter explained it to us. It's called something like "baked vegetables in olive oil," and yes, that's what it is. But something happened to this dish that transported it. You use cut up pieces of eggplant, julienned red peppers and onions, sliced zucchini and yellow summer squash. Toss everything with olive oil, salt and pepper, and lay flat in one layer on a baking sheet, lined with parchment. Bake in a 400° oven for about 45 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and tender, but have not fallen apart. Serve at once with a final salute of the best olive oil you can afford, and be prepared to smile. So simple...so good.

I have to confess it took me a while to warm up to beets, but once I discovered this simple approach, I have been converted. First, let me mention that this works best with bigger beets, because they are easier to peel. Peel away, under running water and then slice the beets into thin disks, the thinner the better. Once again, toss with good quality olive oil, then lay them out on a parchment lined baking sheet. Into the oven they go, set at 375° for about a half hour. Take them out just as they start to scorch, not longer. Lay them out on serving plates, and season with salt and pepper. The final touch is to drizzle a little balsamic vinegar on them.

My final So Simple, So Good dish is a gift from my father. Growing up in Cleveland in the 1930's my dad rubbed shoulders with a lot of Polish families. One of them treated him to a dish of cabbage and noodles, and the Spoler family has been eating it ever since. In this case, the name is the recipe; there simply isn't much to it. Take about 2/3 of a fresh green cabbage, and cut it up into smallish pieces. Put them into a deep sauté pan along with a medium onion you've cut up and sauté it all in vegetable oil, pan covered. Give it a stir from time to time and keep going until the cabbage is soft, and maybe starting to brown. Season with copious amounts of salt and especially pepper, and set aside. Meanwhile, boil a bag of plain egg noodles until they too are soft. Drain the noodles, put them back in their sauce pan, and pour the cabbage and onions on top. Toss well until they are thoroughly mixed, then pour everything into a deep sided baking dish. Sprinkle a little bit of bread crumbs over the top if you like, and bake it at 350° for about 25 minutes. You want some of the edges of the noodles and cabbage to start to brown, for special effect. Serve immediately, and be prepared to dish out seconds. There will be no leftovers.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.