Oct 15, 2017

It’s time to go back to basics. Chefs and discerning home cooks are embracing the trend of using fewer, better quality ingredients and it is saving time, money and the planet, writes Lindy Alexander.

When the chefs at No.1 Bent Street by Mike and Kitchen by Mike design a new dish, owner Mike McEnearney gives them some Coco Chanel-like advice. “I always tell them to take two or three ingredients away,” he says. “You get a much better dish with fewer ingredients.”

Minimalism has taken over our wardrobes and our homes, and now it’s moving onto our plates.

McEnearney began his career at Sydney’s Rockpool in 1990, when Neil Perry was championing simple produce with the then rogue concept of serving perfect steak with a wedge of lemon.

“I’ve been a fan of ‘less is more’ for a long time, but we are certainly seeing a current trend focusing on quality ingredients without embellishing them too much,” says McEnearney.

Jamie Oliver is the latest chef to embrace the concept, describing his new book 5 Ingredients – Quick And Easy Food (where the recipes use a maximum of five ingredients) as a “masterclass in restraint”. Choosing fewer, but better, ingredients is undoubtedly a good thing for our hip pocket, waistline and watches, but it doesn’t mean limiting the flavour or variety of food we eat.

McEnearney says that key to the less-is-more movement is becoming more creative in how we prepare simple ingredients. “Instead of dicing a pumpkin and tossing it into a pan, leave the seeds in and skin on and cut it into wedges,” he says. “Pop it in the oven so the sugars come out slowly. Then drizzle some maple syrup so you have a rich, caramelised dish that’s very different from insipid diced pumpkin.”

Chef Tobie Puttock adopted a less-is-more philosophy after his days working with Jamie Oliver at London’s River Cafe.

“When I started cooking in the 1990s, it was about using good quality ingredients and not doing too much to them,” Puttock says. “We have seen lots of tricky food where every ingredient has been through a process, but now there is a renaissance of simple food.”

According to Puttock, there is a common misconception that simple food is boring. “You can cook prawns on a grill with olive oil, salt and pepper, together with half a lemon and garlic,” he says. “Then char some broccoli, mash the garlic with anchovy, and add some of the lemon juice and olive oil, toss it all together and you have delicious, complex flavours from simple cooking.”

Overcomplicated dishes have never impressed Puttock. “I don’t mean to undermine the chefs cooking complex food, but it’s not my thing,” he says. “We are surrounded by TV shows where the more technical the food, the more impressive it’s seen to be, but that’s not sustainable to reproduce at home.”

Time can transform simple ingredients, says Sharon Flynn, who runs The Fermentary in Daylesford and was presented with the Outstanding Artisan award in this year’s delicious. Produce Awards. With a love of things that bubble, gurgle and fizz, Flynn says fermentation fits into the environmental side of a lessis- more philosophy. “Without heat you can preserve a fresh harvest and create amazing textures and flavours.”

Fermentation is commonly thought to be an antidote for food waste, but it does require fresh ingredients. “We are doing controlled rotting,” Flynn says. “But if you have fresh leftover vegetables like beans, carrots or cauliflower, you can put them in brine with mustard seeds or coriander seeds to pickled and preserve them too.”

American author Michael Pollan may have summed it up best when he said: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Some statistics suggest that Australians are slowly choosing to eat less red meat and are now willing to pay more for meat that is produced with the earth and the animal in mind.

“Less-is-more is about raising awareness of food, especially meat that is raised humanely, naturally and with minimal impact on the environment,” says the leader of Slow Food Brisbane, Noelene McBride. “Eating less meat of better quality supports agriculture and small farmers who produce a quality animal that has been treated well.”

Households in NSW spend an average of $159 on groceries each week, while Queenslanders spend $154 and Victorians $149. But nearly one in five full shopping bags will be thrown out, meaning $3800 worth of groceries per household each year ends up in the bin.

“Everyone can do their bit to fight food waste at home with the ‘buy what you need, eat what you buy’ philosophy,” says Ronni Kahn, founder of food rescue charity OzHarvest. “Habits like checking what food you already have and planning your meals can save money off your weekly shopping bill.”

By using fewer ingredients, we are starting to focus on quality rather than quantity, and the environment will reap the rewards, says McEnearney. “It means we are taking less from the earth.”

McEnearney’s top tip for the thrifty cook is to buy in season. “Fruit and vegetables are full of nutrients when they are in season and you appreciate a perfectly ripe tomato with salt, olive oil and a basil leaf all the more in summer. If we eat like that all the time, we never need to add too much to anything.”