It was an impromptu potluck, with only one direction: you could only put four ingredients in your dish. (Not counting water, salt, pepper, or oil/butter). I agonized for hours. I consulted cookbooks. And then I took a deep breath, and made something of my own, or rather, two things: a cool salad of thinly sliced cantaloupe, mint, burrata, and roasted hazelnuts, tossed together haphazardly at the last moment, and another salad of Persian cucumbers in a soy, sesame oil, and vinegar dressing. The former was a sudden inspiration, the latter is something that I have been making since childhood, and I can do it in my sleep. Sometimes we add crushed garlic, or hot peppers, but I was restrained by my four ingredients.
Others rose to the challenge. There were toasts topped with marmalade, Gouda, and prosciutto. Carrots with butter and cumin and borage blossoms, as beautiful to look at as it was good to eat. A simple salad with fresh lettuces, translucent, ruby-rimmed slices of tiny radishes, radish sprouts, and a light vinaigrette. Spicy stir-fried cabbage with bacon. Barbecue-smoked ribs rubbed with brown sugar and chili powder and cumin. Everything was delicious; everything came together into a meal, something more than a hodgepodge of ingredients carelessly thrown together.
The truth is that the limitation of having only four ingredients is no limitation at all, but rather a new kind of freedom. It forces you to think about what you don't need, and concentrate on what you do. This is home cooking, the kind you do every night; short on ingredients and time to put it all together (with the exception of the ribs, which take a couple of hours on the barbecue, I think), and long on flavor. I didn't really need to think about it - mint goes well with cantaloupe, burrata tastes good with everything, and hazelnuts add a nice crunch. Those quick pickles are easy to put together, take no effort at all, and everyone loves them. At the end of the day, I don't want a million flavors and ingredients and garnishes battling it out on my palate, much as I prefer the clear melodies of Bach to Beethoven's symphonies. I want to taste my food, enjoy it, savor every last bite.
I ate five of the ribs. Everyone made fun of me.