Bob Simplifies an “Extremely Simple” Recipe

Illustration from The Myth of ‘Easy’ Cooking in The Atlantic

You wouldn’t believe how much I agonize over creating the clever titles you find on Andy’s Corner posts. Choosing today’s title was no exception. I originally considered using a riddle for the title which would go something like this – When is an Extremely Simple Recipe not Simple Enough? (The simple answer would have been, When Bob is the cook). But that would be rather unimaginative since I used a riddle in the title for my last post. Then I considered using Wimping Out in the Kitchen with Bob. However, Bob is far from being a wimp, even though some of his culinary practices my seem wimpish to some. My fleeting thought of using the title A Simpleton in Chefs’ Clothing quickly went into the trash bin with the others. I could go on but we need to get to the point of this post, which I hope will be true to the title.

An unsolicited email from our friend Bob (aka MountainWestBob by the readers of our blog) sparked the idea for today’s Andy’s Corner. Bob and I were fellow sociology grad students about 100 years ago and we have stayed in touch over the decades. You can learn more about Bob from his prior guest gig for us – Lazy Man Cooks.

In his email, Bob told us about ( griped about?) his experience with a recipe from the New York Times for Israeli meat pie. The recipe appeared in Melissa Clark’s food section and was adapted from chef Michael Solomonov’s book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. In her introduction to the recipe Clark tells us:

This gently spiced beef pie … is scented with cinnamon, dill and parsley. The recipe calls for purchased puff pastry, which makes it extremely simple to make yet wonderfully rich to eat (emphasis mine).

Bob admitted that the meat pie turned out to be “very nice” and that the “cinnamon in the meat mixture imparted an interesting flavor.” But then his evaluation took a nosedive. It must have been Ms. Clark’s “extremely simple” that set Bob off. Here is an excerpt from his email:

It (the pastel) required hours of labor, the use and cleaning of a dozen or more utensils, and numerous cooking/cooling/cleaning/cooking/cooling/assembling/and – finally – baking steps. ….. and that doesn’t include deploying (and then washing) the pastry sheet; one of my less favored tasks in the kitchen

As you know, I’m a lazy cook. I enjoy food well prepared, but don’t find joy in the manifold steps so many recipes involve.

Ouch!! Take that Melissa Clark!

Ann and I made our own Pastel (pictured here) following the NY Times recipe. Although quite good, it indeed was deserving of Bob’s gripe.

Bob is not alone in his distrust of many so-called simple recipes. Food writer Elizabeth Dunn echos Bob’s complaint in The Myth of ‘Easy’ Cooking which appeared in the Atlantic. She observes that tons of articles and books offer trendy recipes for dishes that can be prepared with “speed and ease.” The problem for her though, is that

none of this is actually easy. Not the one-minute pie dough or the quick kale chips or the idiot-proof Massaman curry, every last ounce of which is made from scratch, from ingredients that are sourced and bought and lugged home and washed, peeled, chopped, mixed, and cooked.

As I mentioned above, despite his self proclaimed laziness and distain for complicated recipes, Bob is not a wimp in the kitchen.  Indeed he’s a fighter and won’t accept “extremely simple” lying down.  He’s a master chef when it comes to deconstructing “extremely simple” recipes to their even simpler essence.   

To put Bob’s gripe in perspective, the NY Times recipe is reproduced below along with Bob’s suggested simplifications. As you can see, Bob’s step-by-step approach to trimming the excess from the recipe is more akin to wielding a chain saw than a scalpel.

The essence of Bob’s (Deconstructed) Pastel recipe: ground beef, onion, carrots, and cinnamon.

Be sure to let us know if you can further simplify the recipe without deleting it completely! Happy New Year.

Bob's (Deconstructed) Pastel: Israeli Meat Pie

Modified by Bob from the NY Times recipe by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook which was adapted by Melissa Clark/recipe-notes]

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 T Diamond Kosher salt
  • 1/2 T black pepper
  • 1 pound puff pastry, defrosted (see note)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 3 T chopped parsley
  • 3 T chopped dill
  • 2 T sesame seeds

Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add onions and carrots and sauté until vegetables have softened, but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add beef, cinnamon, salt and pepper, stirring to combine. Cook until beef begins to brown, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let mixture cool completely.

Note from Bob: Step 1 is easy and basic. Was surprised by the cinnamon, but it was a very tasty addition. I used a small food processor to “finely chop” the carrots and onion (just “chop” we don’t want puree). Do not be afraid to use the veggies! The salt and pepper amounts seem right, if you are using 2 pounds of beef. We cut everything about in half, yielding four nice servings. 

Possible addition: mushrooms! Fresh, sliced mushrooms make most things better. Start by sauteing the the mushrooms and set them aside when they are done, sauté the carrots and onion, get the beef almost finished and then add the ‘shrooms back to the pan. 

Step 2
While beef is cooking, split puff pastry in half if it’s in one piece. Roll out each piece with a floured rolling pin to roughly 9 x 11 inches. Line an 8- or 9- x 11-inch baking dish, or a shallow 2-quart gratin dish, with 1 piece of pastry, pulling up the dough to cover the sides of baking dish.

Step 3
Whisk 2 eggs and add to cooled beef mixture. Spoon mixture over pastry and top with chopped parsley and dill. Top with remaining piece of pastry, pinching together the sides of both pieces of pastry. Chill in fridge for at least 1 hour (and up to 4 hours) or freeze for 15 minutes.

Step 4
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk remaining egg and brush over pastry. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden on top, about 40 minutes. Allow to cool 15 to 20 minutes before cutting. Pastel may appear wet when removed from oven, but pastry will absorb the moisture as it sits. 

Note from Bob: I’d skip the egg as it doesn’t add much flavor. If you stir it into the hot beef mixture it’ll seem like fried rice, that might not be appetizing.

Trash steps 2 through 4!!

Bob’s Serving Suggestions:

First suggestion: Cook a batch of rice (we use brown basmati rice almost all the time) while you are working on Step 1. Rice and spiced beef can be timed to complete simultaneously. Serve the spiced beef over the rice. Nice touch, if available: sprinkle with chopped parsley and dill and toasted sesame seeds.

Second serving alternative: Cook pasta! Use egg noodles or rigatoni (the rice-alternative rigs are great). Serve as above.  Note: If the result seems a little too “dry” to work with rice or pasta, one can easily add a splash or two of broth with perhaps a dollop of yogurt on top.

Third alternative: Use store-bought pie crust and make meat pies with the spiced beef, sealing around the edges and baking in a shallow pan in case of a pastry seal failure. You can bake this at the 400-degree level… just watch to be sure it doesn’t burn.  Note: you might want to cool the spiced beef before assembling the little pies, and that would seem a good time to add the whisked eggs. Serve hot.

Recipe brought to you by MountainWestBob,, and Andy and Ann.


  1. Bob Carleton says:

    Thanks, Andy! You do have a way with words. If the result seems a little too “dry” to work with rice or pasta, one can easily add a splash or two of broth with perhaps a dollop of yogurt on top.


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