Ode to Plain Food: How Cooking for My Son Brought Back My Love of Simple Meals

There’s joy and comfort in a plain bowl of buttered noodles.

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Photo by: HIROSHI_H/Getty

HIROSHI_H/Getty

In the late 1980’s, shortly after my ninth birthday, my family was transplanted from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Dallas, Texas. The culture shock that followed ranged from learning about heat stroke and big hair to the spicy-cheesy world of Tex-Mex cooking. Salsa, hot sauce, tortillas and refried beans started making their ways into our pantry, and some of our old, gently flavored casserole recipes either got kicked to the curb or kicked up in flavor. I was hooked on big flavors, and adding a little spice or hot sauce or pickled whatever to my meals soon became the norm.

When I had my son and he started eating solid food, I was determined to introduce him to all the flavors I loved, and it went okay for a little while. He would ask for a bite of my bowl of lentil soup or gingery rice noodle salad, and end up devouring the whole thing. I felt smug and proud. And then, sometime between his third and fourth birthdays, it all came to a halt. Suddenly, everything was “too": too spicy, too sour – and everyone’s favorite – too yucky. He just wanted everything plain. Since I had neither the time nor the inclination to start making separate dinners or appear weak in the ever-present parent-child power stand-off, I realized I had to find middle ground. I started cooking meals that would be plain enough for him but still satisfy the rest of the household. I figured I could always spice up my own plate if things got too bland.

I started with some straightforward classics: roast chicken, meatballs and pancakes. I dialed back my roast chicken spice rubs to just salt and pepper, and focused on crispy skin and juicy meat. I lightly flavored meatballs with grated onion or a pinch of dried oregano, and baked them until browned and savory. I let the subtle tang of buttermilk shine in fluffy pancakes kissed with a pat of melted butter and a drizzle of maple syrup. Then there were all the versions of pasta with butter and cheese and creamy omelets. I backed off the rich, charred flavor of roasted vegetables, and discovered my son did like some vegetables. But, you guessed it: he just wanted plain versions of them.

As I cooked more and more of these pared down meals, I slowly stopped adding a sauce or spicy finish to my own plate. Nothing was overly garlicky, vinegary, spicy or herby — but it also wasn’t bland. I savored the pure flavors on my plate: the greenness of broccoli, the crackle of salted chicken skin and the silkiness of a tender meatball. My taste buds started to wake up again with fewer flavors to seek out. My meals were simple, satisfying and easier to pull together with fewer ingredients to chop or components to make. And when a trip to the grocery store just didn’t happen, putting a dinner together from the pantry and fridge became much easier.

As time marches on and our meals continue to evolve, I’ve been exploring some of those old casseroles from my youth, thinking that the gentle flavors they boast are wonderful in their own right. When my son will now agree to try a bite of something new every now and again, we find a new winner for our household. But, for the most part, I’m sticking with a simpler way of cooking. It’s not giving in or catering to my son. It’s just good food. Plain and simple. In a world of chaos, simplicity can be a refuge. There can be joy and comfort even in a bowl of buttered noodles.

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