How an OCD cook found peace by turning off the oven

Cheers to keeping things simple (Getty Images)
Cheers to keeping things simple (Getty Images)

Here’s a thought: keep meals simple and you, and everyone around you, will be happier.

True, it’s hardly breaking news, but it’s time to reclaim the word “simple”. Simple is not the so-called “quick and easy” one pot wonders that require 20 different spices, peeling, chopping, frying and baking. Simple — truly simple — should mean no cooking at all.

It’s not that I don’t love cooking; my kitchen is my happy place. But when I found myself reluctant to invite friends over for dinner because I didn’t want to spend the week prepping, it was time to rethink my approach. Of course, I couldn’t risk my friends, so I tried out the oven-free approach on family first.

“Dinner’s ready,” I called, and when my two teenage boys thundered downstairs, they saw a table brimming with plates of ham, smoked salmon (surf n’ turf), cheeses, bowls of cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers (the only ones with any flavour), raw sliced fennel, different varieties of radishes, jars of cornichons, olives, mustard, mayonnaise, and butter. Plus a couple of baguettes.

My teenagers taught me that when I give them choices — a range of veg, a variety of fruit — they are more willing to try new foods

“Is this dinner?” they asked. I nodded. Then I sat back and watched them excitedly pick and choose what they ate, one of them dashing to the fridge to get the sriracha sauce. They taught me that when I give them choices — a range of veg, a variety of fruit — they eat more and are more willing to try new foods. It was one of our happiest meals, so it’s become a weekly occasion.

Next, I tried out this no-cook idea on my six-year-old godson and his family. His father’s jaw dropped when he saw his son reach for the bowl of radishes and grab one. The young boy immediately shook his head and shuddered, spitting it out, but at least he tried it.

But could I host a dinner party and not cook a thing? I dared myself — not an easy feat for an OCD kitchen type. I served the same food as I did my family, with a few more grown-up extras such as burratas with a dollop of differently flavoured tapenade and a drizzle of olive oil. I splashed out on a range of breads. I prepped carrot sticks and doused them in lemon juice and a dusting of celery salt (it’s a very Lebanese thing; try it, you’ll never eat raw carrots naked again). On a large white plate were slices of heritage tomatoes, sprinkled with sea salt, dried oregano and olive oil. Because I am Lebanese, there has to be hummus on the table, mine jazzed up with cumin, sumac, toasted pine nuts and more of the olive oil.

The table looked a picture, full end to end with different-sized plates and bowls of multicoloured food. It was one of my most successful dinner parties. And I was as relaxed as my guests.

I haven’t stopped cooking elaborate meals for my family and friends, but sometimes the reality of making meals day in day out feels relentless, tedious and stressful.

I’d reached a point where I had lost sight of the best thing about eating together. It’s not the food and how much effort goes into making it, but the connection and togetherness it brings. Keeping it simple brings all that joy, but none of the fuss.

For more from Angela, follow @angela_zaher