The lure of the 5-ingredient recipe seems irresistible. Short list means simple, right? With a possible three out of five already in your pantry. That recipe subcategory accounts for a lot of scrolling through the websites of All Recipes, Eating Well, Good Housekeeping and Rachael Ray, Southern Living, Food Network – you name it.
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 her salt and pepper knows what’s missing from that lineup. The S&P are in the directions, however. 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 your stock of flour, sugar, butter, ice water, eggs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, ground ginger, salt and nutmeg.
The 5-ingredient phenomenon makes me wonder what home cooks really want when they type the phrase into their search fields.
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“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, 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 another eight books in the “1-2-3” vein that were translated into several languages. Her Mahogany Short Ribs in WaPo Food’s Recipe Finder continue to be a revelation for readers every time we happen to mention it in a Free Range chat. 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 the accompanying recipes. All of them contain 5 ingredients – plus a few more. None of them is 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.
Salted cardamom drinking chocolate
As the recipe's author says, the challenge here 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.
What's the difference between hot cocoa and a drinking chocolate? Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, and the latter is made with whole chocolate as well, which contains both cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Drinking chocolate typically tastes much richer as a result.
Adapted from "Bitterman's Craft Salt Cooking: The Single Ingredient That Transforms All Your Favorite Foods and Recipes," by Mark Bitterman (Andrews McMeel, ).
One 13.5-ounce 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 (do not use 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.
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.
Per serving: 390 calories, 5 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 19 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 55 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 22 g sugar
Deconstructed Italian Easter pie with wheat berries
Serves 6 to 8
The flavors of the classic holiday dessert are echoed here in goat cheese and cooked wheat berries – with less sugar. You don’t have to wait until Easter to enjoy it.
You could also serve this with the goat cheese topping as the base and spoon the honey-wheat berry mixture on top.
Make ahead: The topping can be made and refrigerated up to 1 day in advance; stir before using. The wheat berries need to be cooked in advance.
Adapted from “Bowls of Plenty: Recipes for Healthy and Delicious Whole-Grain Meals,” by Carolynn Carreño (Grand Central Life & Style, $28, 240 pages).
For the topping:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
One 10-to-12-ounce package plain goat cheese, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
1 navel orange
For the base:
1 cup honey
1 cup water
1 generous cup cooked wheat berries (from 1/2 cup dried wheat berries; see note below)
1 cup shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios (or skinned toasted hazelnuts or toasted walnuts)
For the topping: Beat the heavy cream in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer on medium speed for 4 or 5 minutes; it should become thickened enough to form soft peaks. Stop to scrape down the bowl or beaters. Add the goat cheese and sugar; beat on medium speed until they are well incorporated, with no lumps of cheese.
Use a Microplane zester or grater to grate only the outside (no pith) of the orange into the bowl (about a tablespoon), then gently fold it into the cream. Reserve the rest of the orange, which you’ll use for the base.
Cover and refrigerate until ready to use (up to 1 day).
For the base: Peel away any white pith from the orange, then separate the fruit into its natural segments. Cut each of those segments in half lengthwise, if desired.
Combine the honey and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring just until the honey has dissolved. Turn off the heat; add the orange segments, cooked wheat berries and pistachios, stirring to coat evenly. Let cool to room temperature.
Place a fine-mesh strainer over a separate small saucepan; pour the honey-wheat berry mixture through it, then return the solids to their medium saucepan.
Place the small saucepan of liquid over medium-high heat; once the liquid comes to a boil, cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until it has reduced and become slightly syrupy, and its surface is covered with large bubbles. Remove from the heat. Let cool to room temperature, then pour it over the solids (the wheat berry mixture) in the medium saucepan.
When ready to serve, spoon the honey-wheat berry base mixture into a shallow platter, or divide it among individual shallow dessert bowls. Spoon dollops of the topping on top.
Note: To cook the wheat berries, rinse the 1/2 cup of dried wheat berries (no need to soak first) in a colander under cool running water, then combine in a medium saucepan with 1 1/4 cups of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 70 to 80 minutes or to a consistency that’s slightly mushier than you may be used to. Uncover and fluff with a fork; cool to room temperature before using.
Per serving (based on 8): 470 calories, 12 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 42 g sugar
Apricot carrot casserole
Serves 8 to 10
This dairy-free, spoonbread-type side dish is called “porkkanalaatikko” in Finnish, which translates to “carrot bake.”
Make ahead: The roasted carrots and apricot purée can be assembled and refrigerated (without the topping) several days in advance. The casserole thickens as it cools; if you plan to reheat it, stir in some water or more coconut milk to loosen it up.
Adapted from “Nutrition Stripped: 100 Whole Food Recipes Made Deliciously Simple,” by McKel Hill (William Morrow, $23.99, 304 pages).
18 dried apricots (sulfured), preferably light in color, coarsely chopped
2 cups boiling water
8 medium carrots, scrubbed well and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 cup arborio rice
2 cups regular or low-fat coconut milk
1/2 cup raw, unsalted shelled pistachios
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (do not use quick-cooking or instant)
1/4 cup desiccated (dried, unsweetened) coconut
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, grated
2 large eggs
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons molasses, preferably blackstrap
1 tablespoon liquefied coconut oil (may substitute safflower or hazelnut oil)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have a deep, 2-quart casserole or baking dish at hand.
Place the apricots in a heatproof bowl. Pour 1 1/2 cups of the boiling water over them; let sit for about 20 minutes, then transfer the rehydrated fruit and its liquid to a blender.
Meanwhile, spread the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet; roast for 20 minutes or until tender. Let cool for 10 minutes, then add to the blender. (You’re not pureeing quite yet.) Leave the oven on.
Combine the rice and the remaining 1/2 cup of boiling water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat; cook, uncovered, stirring a few times, until the water has been absorbed.
Stir in the coconut milk 1/2 cup at a time, letting the mixture return to a boil after each addition and stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Once all the coconut milk is added and absorbed, remove the pan from the heat.
Grease the casserole or baking dish with cooking oil spray. Toss the pistachios, oats and coconut together with the olive oil and maple syrup in a medium bowl until evenly coated.
Add the ginger, eggs, lemon juice, molasses, coconut oil, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg, salt and pepper to the apricots and carrots in the blender; puree until smooth. Stir that mixture into the rice in the saucepan, then pour into the casserole or baking dish, spreading it evenly. Bake for about 40 minutes or just until set.
Remove from the oven just long enough to scatter the pistachio mixture evenly over the top. Return to the oven and bake for 5 minutes.
Per serving (based on 10, using low-fat coconut milk): 290 calories, 7 g protein, 39 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 400 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 13 g sugar
Serves 2 to 4
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.
Serve the hot dogs on buns with the topping, or cut the hot dogs into 1/4-inch rounds, toss them in a hot skillet until heated and slightly crisped on the edges, then pile in a bowl and toss with the toppings to create one delightful mess of a “hot dog salad.”
Make ahead: The toppings can be prepped and refrigerated up to 2 days in advance.
Adapted from “Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes or Less,” by Melissa Joulwan (Greenleaf Book Press, 2016).
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 (optional)
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. Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes, then transfer to a blender. Puree to form a kind of duck sauce. The yield is about 3/4 cup.
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.
Divide among individual plates (cut sides up or down, in a bun or not). Top each one with some of the sauce, and then the slaw mixture. Serve right away.
Per serving (based on 4, using 8 Applegate organic uncured all-beef hot dogs): 310 calories, 14 g protein, 18 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 50 mg cholesterol, 800 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
Brussels sprouts pasta
Adapted from “Back Pocket Pasta: Inspired Dinners to Cook on the Fly,” by Colu Henry (Clarkson Potter, $28, 240 pages).
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.
Per serving: 550 calories, 17 g protein, 71 g carbohydrates, 22 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 490 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar