At a lunch with friends recently I was reminded of the beauty and fragility of that oh-so-desirable quality of simplicity. The restaurant we ate at was by and large a disappointment. I had looked forward to our visit there with great anticipation because of the buzz surrounding it—a restaurant featuring food touted as nose-to-tail, farm-to-table simple. Unfortunately the food we were served was for the most part poorly executed...and other items I looked at on the menu seemed a bit ill-conceived—odd combinations of ingredients, too many things on the plate, etc. All of this reminded me of what Mario calls the elusive nature of simplicity. His definition of simplicity* is probably the best I have ever read: "pristine ingredients, combined sensibly and cooked properly." It sounds straightforward enough...but in practice it truly is difficult to achieve and to find. Elusive indeed. That day, the ingredients on our plates might have been pristine...but as is often the case, the way they had been combined and prepared hid their beauty from us.
I am happy to say that all of our food was not so disappointing. Our shared appetizer scored on all points. It was nothing more than a spare platter of ripe heirloom tomatoes, a scattering of shaved raw summer squash and sweet red onion, some crusty baguette and a few fluffs of microgreens. The whole platter was seasoned judiciously with crunchy sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and drizzled generously with olive oil and balsamic. Everything was fresh, at its seasonal peak, combined in a complimentary way, handled minimally and seasoned to advantage—a perfect example of simplicity done right. It was so good... I could have licked the plate.
The good news in all of this is that in the summer, if you shop at a farmers' market or are a member of a CSA, this kind of deliciousness is available to you at home every day. Even if you just shop at your local grocery store, so many stores are now purchasing at least some of their produce from local sources, you will find that you have access to wonderful, peak of the season ingredients, throughout the growing season in your area. I have made my own version of that wonderful platter at least three times since for lunch... doing so is just a matter of arranging the ingredients on the plate...and seasoning them well. For this kind of dish, you don't even need to cook if you don't want to.
Every time I made this dish, I included almost all of the ingredients the restaurant used: beautiful, vine-ripened tomatoes, fresh summer squash, red onions, toasted bread (drizzled with olive oil), coarse salt & pepper, balsamic vinegar and olive oil. For a little extra crunch I added some toasted pine nuts (but they could be left off). A couple of times—because corn is so delicious with both summer squash and tomatoes—I added a scattering of roasted corn (but raw would be delicious too). And since each time I was making an entrée (rather than an appetizer), I included a bit of creamy buffalo mozzarella for more substance.
You probably noticed I didn't mention the microgreens...which I never have... Instead, I used arugula...for which I have a good local source. But if you don't, a scattering of torn, fresh basil leaves would be pretty fine in place of the microgreens too. The arugula is set off to great advantage by lemon, so to finish my platter of summer vegetables, I tossed a small fluff of arugula with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil and placed it on top.
I mentioned it earlier, but I want make sure I emphasize the role of the salt, pepper, balsamic and olive oil in this dish. Do not skimp on these items. The salt and the acidity of the vinegar will make the flavors of your pristine ingredients pop. The vegetables might seem bland and uninteresting without them (one of the failings of the other items we had at the restaurant was lack of salt). A nice flakey salt (Maldon's...or Fleur de sel...or even a simple, moderately coarse sea salt) will add even more interest since it will add a pleasant crunch. Coarsely ground pepper will add a bit of spice and heat...and olive oil will add fruity flavor...and needed moisture.
The interplay of the flavors (tangy, nutty, sweet, hot and salty) and the textures (crunchy, crisp, juicy and creamy) of this dish are a delight to the palate and the senses. It is a totally satisfying...and simple!...dish. And since our weather has turned steamy and hot this past week, I have found it to be wonderfully refreshing too....just the thing for a light dinner....or a special lunch.
Of course, the idea of this platter—an artful arrangement of a thoughtful combination of peak of the season produce—can be transferred to all kinds of other ingredients. Today as I was working on this post, when I took my lunch break, I assembled another platter—this one featuring fruit. With slabs of fragrant, juicy cantaloupe as my foundation, I added blueberries, toasted pecans and chunks of sheep's milk Feta. I seasoned it with salt, pepper, a generous squeeze of lime and drizzles of honey and olive oil. Topped with a little olive oil-dressed arugula (a scattering of fresh mint would have been nice instead), it was another delicious example of the magic of summer simplicity—a well-seasoned mix of complimentary flavors and textures that was greater than the sum of its parts.
* From the introduction to Mario Batali Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages