For the past couple years, we've interspersed our more typical in-depth food and cooking articles with a series dubbed "Easiest Ever." The idea is to create seasonal recipes that are limited to only four main ingredients, not including pantry staples like salt, pepper, oil, and acidic ingredients like vinegars, lemons, and limes. That may seem out of place next to Serious Eats' more rigorous recipe investigations, but I'd argue it's just as important.
Developing solid techniques and understanding the "whys" behind cooking will make us all better cooks. But so will working on our more intuitive sense of how basic ingredients operate together. Coming up with a good recipe that seems like a complete thought within such extreme limitations is not at all easy, even for the most experienced among us. It's no lie that simplicity is often more difficult to execute well than complexity—when stripped of distractions, flaws become more exposed, low-quality ingredients have nowhere to hide, and the smallest details become that much more important.
For this recipe, I spent longer than I'd like to admit wandering the market aisles, debating what four ingredients to use. I knew I wanted to do something with cherries, which have exploded into season, and I knew that I wanted it to lean in a savory direction. But every decision felt fraught, since I only had three ingredients left to pick.
I thought about roasting the cherries until bursting and juicy, or possibly slowly drying them in a low oven. I considered what texture and consistency each of those methods would lead to, and how that might work in a dish. I worried that cooking the cherries might make something saucier and messier than I had in mind. Eventually, I settled on leaving them raw.
Next, I considered what to pair them with. The bitterness of radicchio was a very appealing prospect, possibly made even more interesting by roasting or grilling the leafy vegetable until lightly charred. But I was concerned about a lack of textural contrast between that and the cherries, as well as their similar color. Yes, appearance matters too! We eat with our eyes first, and with only two additional ingredients to add to my arsenal, I wasn't confident I could solve either issue to my liking. (Though, as I type this, I'm beginning to reconsider my doubts...I think that could have made a really delicious dish after all, the cherries cooked with sugar and vinegar into a fruity gastrique to be spooned over lightly charred radicchio, mint leaves scattered on top to add a bright color contrast and refreshing flavor. Next time.)
Eventually my eyes landed on jicama, the extremely crisp, juicy, lightly sweet tuber from Central America. Its white flesh would make a visual blank canvas for the red cherries to stand in front of, and its crunchy bite would be the perfect foil to the cherries' soft flesh. In a way, it reminded me of the popular and unexpected salad combination of watermelon and tomato.
So far, I had fruity and sweet, and crisp and juicy. I still needed aromatics, some more texture, and a healthy dose of sour to round it all out.
For the aromatics, I grabbed a bunch of basil; mint would have been the more obvious choice, which is precisely why I didn't use it here. Unexpected flavors add interest, as long as they don't clash with the food. I also decided I'd squeeze fresh lime juice over everything to add the balancing sour flavor this salad would desperately need. Plus, the lime gave me another avenue for aromatics: its zest. One of the best things about forcing yourself to work with limitations is that you find ways of getting more out of every ingredient.
In search of some extra textural variation, I hemmed and hawed about whether to used shelled pistachios or macadamia nuts. I liked the visual idea of the green pistachios, but my instinct told me the softer crunch of macadamias would be more pleasant, so I went with that, crushing the nuts into smaller pieces so they'd cling to each bite of cherry and jicama.
Even after all this, though, my decision-making wasn't complete. How would I cut everything? In a dish this simple, a detail as basic as what shape and size to make everything takes on extra importance. I'm not joking when I tell you that I debated how to cut the jicama for a good five minutes before committing to batons.
I decided to finish the salad with a drizzle of olive oil, which rounds out the sharpness of the lime and makes the salad seem less austere. With that, I was done, and the results were damned good, and even held up beautifully as leftovers the next day.
Should I have gone with the radicchio idea, instead? Pistachios? A different cut for the jicama? Maybe I made the best decisions or maybe I didn't, but what's important is that this exercise made me think about them all, with far more scrutiny than a more complicated recipe would have allowed.
You can take this recipe and make it verbatim, or change it up to suit your own instincts. Or, better yet, give yourself the same challenge the next time you go shopping, and see what you come up with. That's really the point of these "Easiest Ever" recipes—to get our creative juices flowing no matter what we make.