Simplicity can be a curse. You go for ‘no make-up’ make-up and end up looking like a soccer mom standing next to Posh Spice in all your fb photos. Kondo your apartment too hard and it looks like a mental institution. Swap the wrong flour in one of the recipes on 101 Cookbooks, Heidi Swanson’s food blog, and instead of beautiful, plain rye cookies you end up with a lot of overwrought nothing. Simple is all about getting the details perfect, and if you’re the type of cook who doesn’t like to sweat them too hard, Swanson’s cooking might not be for you.
But! This book might be. I’ve heretofore flubbed everything I’ve tried to make from her site, but I bought Near & Far for the photography and words, and because Swanson’s first two cookbooks (Super Natural, Super Natural Every Day) have a formidable reputation. Now I’m a convert – this book gave me hit after hit, with a bundle of must-cook-now pages still jumping out.
And when you get Swanson’s food right, it can be sublime. It’s beautiful, it’s interesting, it encourages you to look at everyday ingredients in a way you haven’t before, it adds irreverent little touches that take a recipe from 8 to 10. She has a great eye for adding bits of sweetness into savory dishes and vice versa, and I loved her casualness about incorporating whole grains into baked goods like gougeres and madeleines (typically white flour bombs).
If you go wrong, you won’t have any major disasters, but dinner will be a little flat. People have been trying to sell salads for years by making them fancy. At Applebee’s, they add fried chicken; at Near & Far, they add little tweaks and twists like flower pepper and saffron honey to make sure you don’t just end up with a pile of wet vegetables. Now that the knowledge has been imparted, it’s on the home cook to dutifully reproduce these twists in full, lest you find your leftovers hidden in the back of the fridge weeks later, or your cookies the last ones on the holiday table.
The structure – a long chapter of food she likes to cook in her hometown, San Francisco, followed by smaller sections inspired by favorite travel destinations – is a good conceit if you might want to try a new-to-you cooking tradition but don’t want to commit to a full book. I mostly found myself pulling from California and Italy, no surprise there, but was also excited to try some of her Indian ideas, especially a buttery flatbread. She also has great ideas for food to eat while in transit, and ways to tweak bulk items like brown rice and pot beans to make them just a little more interesting, worthy of the dishes that they’ll be served with.
The photography is evocative; you can feel her genuine love of place. Her photos understand the very modern traveller’s dilemma – longing for so many places fiercely at the same, how can you ever be satisfied no matter where in the world you are? There must be a German word for this.
I’ll attribute my good luck with this book to a few things – NYC produce is shit 40 weeks a year but I was in the perfect summer window; I learned my lesson and went out of my way to find the ingredients she recommends, and used her super-helpful regional pantry lists when needed; I paid more attention to technique and detail than I sometimes do. Embracing the simple life can be a risk – but with the right ingredients and attention to detail, you can be Nicole Richie and no one will even remember that Paris girl.
make this one thing:
- 1 large (12 oz., 340g) cucumber, seeded thinly sliced
- 1 small red onion, or 6 spring onions, thinly sliced
- 1 cup (1/5 oz., 45g) chopped kale or cilantro [I used spinach]
- 12 oz (340g) extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch (1.2cm) cubes [not pictured, I skipped this]
- 3 stalks lemongrass, tender center only, minced
- 1/4 cup (60ml) brown rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup (60ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons natural brown sugar or honey
- Scant 1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
- Scant 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup (3 oz., 90g) toasted pine nuts
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- Optional: soba noodles, brown rice, farro, or salad greens, to bulk it up into meal shape
- Place the cucumber, onion, kale and tofu in a large mixing bowl.
- In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the lemongrass, vinegar, lemon juice, brown sugar, and salt and simmer for a couple of minutes - long enough for the sugar to dissolve. Remove from heat and whisk in the red pepper flakes. Let cool for 5 minutes and pour over the cucumber mixture. Toss gently but thoroughly and let sit for at least 15 minutes. Toss again and adjust the salt and red pepper to taste.
- To serve, drain off any residual liquid from the cucumber mixture; if you're service the salad with soba, salad greens, or grains, toss these with this liquid. Top with pine nuts and a good squeeze of lime. Serve the remaining lime wedges at the table.