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Once upon a time, people lived lives of great simplicity in their kitchens and were able to get a nice dinner on the table, lickety-split. Then, the future came. Sadly, nobody got jet-packs to zoom them off to work in the morning, but everybody soon learned that, to have great simplicity, you needed to spend $50,000 on a decorating scheme of bamboo, bay-tide colors and well-rounded river rocks. This was considered ideal, because when the children need to microwave themselves pizza-rolls for dinner, it’s best if they do it in a serene place.

“Oh, it drives me crazy!” Tyler Florence exclaimed to me in exasperation. We had met to talk about his newest cookbook, Eat This Book: Cooking With Global Fresh Flavors (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2005), but the conversation almost immediately turned to the difference between real simplicity and the new “prestige simplicity” that leads to silly things like Gucci yoga mats.

“You know what?” demanded Florence. “Fifty-thousand-dollar cabinets won’t make you a better cook – cooking will. A $20,000 stove won’t make your life easier – knowing how to make dinner will. No one ever got a call from their kid at college saying: ‘Hey Mom, when I come home this weekend, can we stand in the kitchen and stare at the empty Sub-Zero refrigerator?’ No. The call goes: ‘Hey Mom, can you make your chicken and dumplings?'”

If anyone lately has had the opportunity to trade in real simplicity for hype, it’s Tyler Florence. The past few years have turned the young chef into the center of a full-fledged multitier media hullabaloo. Not only is he the longtime star of the Food Network show Food 911, in which he rescues failing recipes, he’s also the new host of How to Boil Water. He’s the star of the prime-time Tyler’s Ultimate. He’s the best-selling author of Tyler Florence’s Real Kitchen (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2003), and, if that weren’t enough, People named him the “Sexiest Chef Alive.” The week we met, his kitchen was the subject of a spread in GQ. Truly, if anyone lately has been in a good position to see what’s real versus what’s really hype, it’s Tyler Florence.

Yet, says Florence, his biggest goal with his new book isn’t to show off his considerable fancy-cooking television skills. It’s to create simplicity in his readers’ lives by giving them doable, versatile recipes. He does this most successfully in the beginning of his book, in a series of mini-chapters featuring imaginative recipes that have a variety of applications.

For instance, the book’s Basil, Olive, Tomato and Fennel Sauce (see recipe sidebar) could top toasted bread for bruschetta, making a restaurant-worthy appetizer. Yet it also pairs well with beef: You could put it on a burger, on meatloaf or on a grilled flank steak. If that’s not enough, you can heat it up in a skillet for a minute as a complement to any grilled or broiled thick white fish like halibut or mahi mahi. (A sauce like this can be especially helpful if you would like to have a grownup dinner but your 4-year-old will only eat things plain: Now you only have to make one entrée, and the little one can just skip the sauce.)

A recipe like Tyler Florence’s Porcini Powder (see recipe sidebar) can be used to coat a whole chicken before roasting, to rub on chicken breasts before pan-frying, to coat the outside of a pork tenderloin before baking, or to simply toast in a pan with some olive oil and rice (before cooking the rice) to make a side dish with an autumnal edge.

His Pomegranate, Walnut, Celery Leaf and Parsley Sauce (see Web Extra!) works with seared scallops or broiled salmon or can even be placed on top of greens and roasted beets to make an eye-catching winter salad.

What a relief. Just when it seemed like “simple” was getting to be synonymous with “expensive,” “exclusionary” and “silly,” someone has a different idea. “I guess I just think that life without homemade food is kind of empty,” Florence sighed, as we concluded our interview. “And maybe if I can help make it simpler to make dinner, there can be a little less emptiness.”

That seems like something we should all keep in mind these days, with our creeping culture of competitive, prestige simplicity. Simplicity plus emptiness isn’t good. Simplicity plus emptiness is barren, and lonely: It’s a microwave beeping in a serene, deserted place.

Recipes excerpted from: Eat This Book: Cooking With Global Fresh Flavors by Tyler Florence (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2005).

Basil, Olive, Tomato and Fennel Sauce

1 bunch of fresh basil, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup each of pitted black and green olives, coarsely chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, crushed by hand
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 tbs. fennel seeds
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbs. of fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Stir all of the ingredients together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Makes about 2 cups.|

Porcini Powder

1/2 cup dried porcini mushroom pieces
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. kosher salt

Put everything into a spice mill or clean coffee grinder and grind to a fine powder. Use immediately, or store in a sealed jar for up to two months.

For serving suggestions, see article text.

Makes about a half cup.

Photography by: Gallop Studios

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