Simpler suppers: The new fast food

Could we pare all our cooking down to just five key ingredients? Rob Sharp meets the chef James Tanner, who's leading the way in the trend for simpler suppers

James Tanner exudes confident breeziness, his chirpy, kitchen-based elan squeaked clean by eight years on daytime television. No fondant disaster is too profound, no Neanderthal-like male too knuckle-headed for his can-do approachability. Following on from a recent global trend for simple cooking, Tanner – most famous as one of Lorraine Kelly's culinary sidekicks on her daytime show, GMTV with Lorraine – is jumping aboard the gastronomic tendency towards a common-sense approach. His book James Tanner Takes 5: Delicious Dishes Using Just 5 Ingredients has just been released. The chef wants to make life simpler for home cooks – and to help reluctant cooks to master the essentials and then to start experimenting.

"I just wanted a direct way of getting something out there for everyone," says Tanner, deftly grating orange zest. "I wanted to cater for vegetarians and meat eaters, with an emphasis on simplicity, as opposed to speed. Of course, people have less time in modern life but there's a real opportunity, say, with a lazy lamb, to enjoy your life, do something else while it's cooking, and cut out the aggro and create something tasty. You can always buy something off the shelf, sure, but it's going to be full of things you don't know. With five ingredients – plus oil, salt and pepper – you can memorise your shopping list. You know you can quickly buy things, and also throw something together at the end of a long day."

Tanner isn't the only chef paring things back. Last August, Australian housewife cookery superstars Kim McCosker and Rachael Bermingham released 4 Ingredients, which, you've guessed it, catered to those with an even more minimal take. Each of their recipes was no more than four lines long, didn't require any complicated weighing or measuring, and used ingredients already in people's cupboards (though they did attract criticism from simplicity purists, who said a jar of korma sauce wasn't, strictly speaking, a single ingredient). As far back as 1999, the Australian cookery writer Jill Dupleix, a former cookery editor at The Times, published Take Three: Cooking with 3 Main Ingredients. She emphasised the use of three major "players" or ingredients, surrounding by a host of bit-parts.

Like those who have walked before him, Tanner's techniques are easy to remember, even for a culinary ignoramus. The chef races through his chocolate fondant, steamed salmon and pepper with anchovy recipes. Without resorting to my notes, I repeat the recipe for the salmon in my own kitchen a few hours after meeting Tanner. In this case, his method is no great shakes – simply wrapping up raw, descaled salmon in a tin-foil parcel, along with freshly squeezed orange juice, diced chillies and spring onion, and steaming the mixture in a frying pan – but the fact I achieved results the first time (even if, in my version, the salmon was slightly soggy and overcooked), means it is something I am likely to repeat. His version of the dish obviously tasted better, though I can always tell myself that I forgot the olive oil and orange zest.

I didn't even attempt the chocolate fondant on my own. When Tanner executes it, he talks through the common pitfalls. These, I learn, include failing to whisk the fondant mixture for long enough, so that it fails to rise when placed in the oven. But most of the recipes are pretty straightforward. A simple and delicious red pepper starter involves stacking up the pepper, cherry tomatoes, rosemary and anchovies and baking them for 20 minutes. Once you've done it once, you're likely to remember it indefinitely.

It is Tanner's profound cooking knowledge that makes things appear easy. "It was a lot of hard work to assemble these recipes," he says. The 34-year-old studied hotel management in Kent before working his way up through the ranks; there was time spent in upstate New York working for the Roux brothers, as well as an apprenticeship chez Martin Blunos at Lettonie in Bath, with its two Michelin stars. In 2002, Tanner appeared on UKTV Food with his brother, also a celebrity chef, and has since had roles on Ready Steady Cook and Saturday Kitchen. "I know people have done short ingredient lists before," he continues. "But I wanted to try to involve lots of different cooking techniques, to get global recipes involved. I wanted to use the experiences of working abroad, when I was in the States, when I was younger. Many of these ideas come from playing around in a commercial environment, where money is always tight. Things don't necessarily need to cost the earth."

These everyman tendencies fall squarely within the zeitgeist. Leon: Naturally Fast Food, published last month, has similar aims. It challenges the perception that fast food can't be healthy and taste nice (recipes include chicken noodle soup that can be hatched and executed in 10 minutes). "The trend for simple food started about five or six years ago," says one of the book's authors, Henry Dimbleby. "It started in restaurants, where there was this reaction against complicated food. Mark Hix always used to say that people shouldn't put more than three ingredients on a plate, but that's very hard to do if you don't get the ingredients right."

Dimbleby says the first TV chefs began by cooking complicated recipes before the recent trend for keeping things simple was catalysed by Jamie Oliver's overt laddishness. "The great challenge is to make seasonal dishes with a couple of really bold flavours," Dimbleby says. "We always say think about earth, acid and seasoning. Say, cauliflower, turmeric, and roasting it until crispy. At this time of year, you can create a quite complex flavour with something as simple as a celeriac just roasted or pureed."

There has always been a divide between the excessively complicated and the simple, say the chefs. From the 15th century, with the explosion of spices arriving in Britain from the Far East, the divide between the complicated recipes of the rich, and the "eat-to-live" ethos of the poor has persisted. Most popular British dishes have generally been thought of as rather bland. In recent years, London's glut of international cuisine has cross-pollinated with our own cookery to make the capital one of the world's most exciting places to eat. Now, you might see the French philosophy of cheap cuts of meat made wonderful by technique alongside the roast culture of England, which calls for fire and a more expensive cut. There seems to be a trade-off in terms of time or technique versus the expense of your raw ingredient. This is something Tanner swears by: you're going to get a better result from his simple methods if you splash out on the quality of your ingredients. Simple foods are made better with a bit of imagination, while more sophisticated products probably need less inspiration to make them palatable.

Five, it seems, is a magic number. In his book, Food Rules, the food writer Michael Pollan gives rule number six as: "Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients". Here, Pollan refers to the ingredients in bought foods, rather than recipes, but the message is the same: keep things simple. He believes retailers are trying to do this. "I hear from shops like Whole Foods that sales from the bulk food bins are up," he says. "This makes sense during a recession. The best deals are on things like dried beans and whole grains, foods that may take a little time or care to handle, but which supply great nutritional value for pennies." Certainly in California, where Pollan is based, local chefs adhere to the rule that "carrots are the new caviar". He adds: "It's more satisfying to a chef, not to mention more profitable, to figure out a great dish based on a common ingredient than to use fois gras yet again to wow your customers."

Again, the same must be said for simplicity trends in the kitchen. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel," concludes Tanner. "There are some classics that work, and if you can add your little influence, and it tastes good, then that's great. I am exceptionally lazy. The last thing I want to do, after standing in a kitchen all day, is to go to excessive lengths when I get home. I work monster hours, so I know how it is. You don't just have to pierce the film stretched across a microwave meal."

All recipes are from 'James Tanner Takes 5' (Kyle Cathie, £14.99)

Roast Red Peppers and Anchovies

Ingredients to serve 4

1 x 50g tin anchovies in oil

4 red peppers

16 cherry tomatoes, halved

3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

2 sprigs fresh rosemary (leaves picked from the stems and chopped)

Crushed sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Drain the anchovies in a sieve, reserving the oil. Cut the peppers in half lengthways, right through the stalks, and remove the seeds.

Brush the peppers with the anchovy oil and place on a baking sheet. Season with crushed sea salt (not too much as the anchovies are very salty) and freshly ground black pepper and roast for 20 minutes, until just tender. Remove from the oven.

Place the cherry tomatoes in a bowl with the sliced garlic and rosemary leaves, and toss together. Spoon into the pepper halves.

Arrange the anchovy fillets in a criss-cross pattern over the filling and drizzle over any remaining anchovy oil.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until softened, and serve warm, or alternatively chill and serve as an antipasti.

Chocolate Fondants

Ingredients to serve 4

125g good-quality dark chocolate, minimum 70 per cent cocoa solids

125g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus extra for greasing

4 free-range eggs

75g caster sugar

50g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Stir until combined, then leave to cool. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4. Lightly butter and flour 6 x 200ml pudding basins or dariole moulds. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and pale, and doubled in volume.

Fold the egg mixture into the cooled chocolate. Sift in the flour and, using a large metal spoon, fold until combined.

Spoon the chocolate mixture into the prepared basins or moulds, and bake for 8-9 minutes until risen. The key is to have a runny centre. Loosen around each fondant with a knife and carefully turn out on to serving plates.

Foil-wrapped Baked Salmon with Chilli, Orange, Soy & Spring Onion

Ingredients to serve 4

Juice of 6 oranges, plus the zest of 2

2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

2 red chillies (bird's eye), finely chopped

6 spring onions, trimmed and sliced

4 x 100g organic salmon fillets, skin on

Olive oil for brushing

Crushed sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Pour the orange juice into a bowl with the zest and the soy sauce. Add the chopped chillies and spring onion and stir together.

Lay four double-layer 30cm squares of foil over four shallow bowls and push down into the bowls. Season the salmon fillets with crushed sea salt and black pepper. Put one salmon fillet in the middle of each square of indented foil. Pour the orange mixture over each piece. Gather up the corners of each foil square and crimp to form a pyramid shape.

Heat two large non-stick frying pans over a high heat for 1 minute. Brush the base of the pyramids with oil. Place them in the pans and cook for 6 minutes until the pyramids are puffed up and the contents are simmering. Remove from the pan. Rip open the pyramids at the table and let the aroma fill the room.

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