Simplest cookbook in world turns out to be too simple

The tree had been lugged up the stairs, the holiday music was selected and ready to play.

It seemed the perfect night for a roasted chicken — an Instagram-perfect meal for a cozy evening decorating the tree.

After all, roasting an entire chicken is a breeze, people promised. “Takes no time at all,” they said with a knowing nod.

But for those of us who don’t like to cook — I’m known as the rookie cook in the Tribune’s features department — these promises lead, inevitably, to frustration.

Some of us aren’t naturals in the kitchen. A quick substitution that wouldn’t faze another person leads to a 10-minute Google interruption as sauce burns. Recipes that don’t specify exactly the depth of “a pinch” or “a bunch” seem dangerously open to interpretation.

And often, hours of attempts end in a meal best described as “meh,” which is all we remember the next time we consider a new recipe.

Enter into this challenging atmosphere “Simple: The Easiest Cookbook in the World” from chef Jean-Francois Mallet. Promising 200 recipes with no more than four steps or six ingredients, it tempted my rookie cookdom. Its clean, simple design and artful photos seemed to promise I could mix its ingredients into an impressive meal.

So we agreed I would try to make a soup and two main meals — ideally, all building blocks for future cooking, should I eventually advance.

Thus, I found myself embarking on the first roasted chicken of my life on a Saturday night in December.

The first bad sign should have been my confusion at the grocery store. The instructions for roast chicken with paprika simply called for a “free-range roasting chicken.” Easy enough. But arriving at the store, I was unsure about the size. Was 3 pounds too big? Too small? Would choosing one without “free-range” or “roasting” on the label doom the project? The doubts of a rookie cook can implode a project before it begins.

I selected a chicken I deemed generic enough. The other ingredients were already in my pantry, which seemed a good omen — paprika, curry powder, lemons and extra-virgin olive oil.

But I did buy some new tools, including a baster. And a thermometer to replace one I used once then lost.

Finally, I entered the kitchen for battle, flipping to the first instruction: “Season the chicken with salt and pepper.” Hmm. Inside? Outside? Scoping out the inside, I met the unpleasant realization that I would have to take out the bird’s innards.

Basic steps, sure, but for someone who’s never roasted a chicken, they were new. Rubbing some salt and pepper over the chicken, I moved on. I combined paprika, curry and the juice of 2 lemons with the olive oil. Brushing it over the chicken, I stepped back to admire my work.

Now I confess I’ve weighed, reader, whether to be honest. But I must tell the truth, although it might make my editor’s head explode. I did not have a roasting pan. And because the cookbook proclaimed itself simple, I thought I ought to make do with what I had. So what did I use? A Pyrex baking dish, on top of which I placed a cooling rack and the chicken, which let the bird’s juices collect below without squishing the chicken into the biggest saucepan I had. Ingenious? I thought so.

Forty minutes later, I wasn’t so sure. That’s how long the recipe said — a six-word instruction. “Bake for 40 minutes, basting regularly.” The basting was no problem. The 40-minute clock posed a wrinkle. On the chicken’s wrapper, instructions said to cook longer than twice that, or until it reached a temperature of 165 degrees.

I followed the cookbook. But when cutting into the chicken revealed it to be uncooked, I deferred to the chicken wrapper’s instructions.

Eventually, it took an hour longer than the book instructed. Arming myself with backup information, I searched online for temperature times for chicken, and when I wasn’t sure whether to trust the thermometer, I just kept slicing into it. The recipe didn’t mention a target temperature, and because my bird was 5.47 pounds and in and out of the oven, it took a while.

By the time it seemed edible, I had already eaten the accompanying side dishes. Our tree went undecorated. Holiday music stayed silent. My co-diner asked, “Wouldn’t you rather have gone to the grocery store and bought a rotisserie chicken?” I did not disagree.

The second recipe attempt, medallions of pork with beer and apples, prompted the purchase of a Dutch oven. For the beer component, I grabbed the least likely to be quaffed from our fridge, a Miller Lite. An hour later, after the beer had simmered with pork and apples, I wondered if the months-old beer was the reason my meal appeared to be a congealed version of what I saw in the cookbook.

And here is the inherent problem in promising noncooks that cooking is easy. When someone doesn’t enjoy standing over a stove, one obstacle might be a mere roadblock. But multiple problems become reasons not to attempt the task again.

I suspect that some cookbooks are written by chefs who long ago forgot the feeling of having zero intuition about cooking.

In “Simple,” some of the lack of details could stem from problems in translation. Because it was first published in France, some instructions might not have easily translated to the U.S., or foods may not be easily available. Sizes, for example, were sometimes not translated to American products — cream cheese was listed as a 10.5-ounce package, but the one I grabbed was 8 ounces.

When things are simplified, important instructions aren’t specified. Should a chicken be placed in a pan a certain way? How small should 2 pounds of medallions of pork be chopped? Does “beer” signify any beer, or is one type better? The recipe for a cheesecake — I am a solid baker, and it seemed wise to try something in my established skill set — asked for Speculoos cookies, a European cookie I couldn’t find browsing Jewel-Osco. A search later revealed it at Trader Joe’s.

In my recipe nemesis, the roast chicken, the longest sentence detailed nothing stove-related, but instead how to arrange the dish. (Helpful for my “everything is great!” Instagram photo using a filter to hide the knife jabs.)

And other things just seemed left out. In the photo, the cheesecake appeared to have lime zest on top but had no instructions to save or sprinkle some.

But much went well. The cream of cauliflower with sesame oil (“soup’s a breeze!” a colleague promised) was indeed easy, taking only its promised 15 minutes of preparation time, and it tasted healthful. Its four ingredients were easy to find and use: cauliflower, light cream, sesame seeds, sesame oil. Leftovers were actively enjoyed, unlike the chicken carcass, which taunted us from the back of the fridge for days. I felt the soup dish was, as intended, a building block. Perhaps. next time, I could add cumin, or swap in broccoli.

And even the simple action of trying multiple meals and tracking down new ingredients boosted my skills. Now I own a baster and a fleet of new spices, as well as a Dutch oven.

The cookbook’s ingredients, too, were simple, without shortcuts like packaged foods. Many were things I might have had at home, like potatoes, onions or white wine, and recipes often included a few fresh ingredients alongside garlic and olive oil.

In short, this book was a great starter kit to get in the kitchen. I’ll try more recipes from it, with Google on standby.

And although the chicken didn’t anchor a cozy holiday meal, it did encourage me to try the recipe again. And sometimes, for a rookie cook, even a second effort is a win.

Roast Chicken with Paprika

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 40 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

From “Simple” by Jean-Francois Mallet.

1 free-range roasting chicken

1 Tbsp. paprika

2 tsp. curry powder

2 lemons

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt, pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Combine the paprika, curry, juice of the lemons and olive oil. Brush over the chicken.

Bake for 40 minutes, basting regularly. Arrange the cooked chicken on a plate and enjoy with its cooking juices.

Nutrition information per serving: 642 calories, 43 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 190 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 59 g protein, 541 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Testing notes

After reporter Alison Bowen’s experience with the roast chicken recipe at home, we prepared it again in the Tribune test kitchen, following the directions as written. The recipe instructions are sketchy, so here are notes for success from test kitchen recipe tester and food stylist Lisa Schumacher.

Split the spice and lemon juice mixture in half; brush the raw chicken with half, then use the other half to baste the bird every 15 minutes.

Yes, season the bird inside and out (as Alison did). We used 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt.

Bake in a baking pan just large enough to hold the bird.

Roast until the bird reaches 160 degrees on a meat thermometer; it will come to a safe temperature of 165 degrees as it rests. The cooking time will depend on the size of the bird, which the recipe does not specify. Our 4.3 pound bird was only 135 degrees at 40 minutes; it took 53 minutes to roast properly.

The chicken’s skin did not come out crisp. A higher roasting temperature will achieve that. Roast at 425 degrees until done (time depends on size of the chicken).

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