“Simple: The Easiest Cookbook in the World,” by Jean-Francois Mallet, Black Dog & Leventhal. $19.99

Most of the time, I think it’s fair to judge a cookbook by its cover.

With the ease of looking up recipes online, I’ve come to see cookbooks less as reference books than as pleasure reading – really, adult picture books with recipes. So, aesthetics are important.

Upon seeing “Simple: The Easiest Cookbook in the World” by Jean-Francois Mallet, a dictionary-sized volume with bright yellow block letters on a black background, I was less than intrigued.

On the cover, the cookbook promises that no recipe has more than four steps or six ingredients. “Simple,” I assumed, meant “basic,” the type of cookbook for someone who doesn’t know where to start and doesn’t really want to learn, with uninspired recipes for overdone dishes.

But as someone who would describe her cooking style as simple – though more in the unembellished than in the block-letter sort of way – I opened it.

The two-page table of contents lists 200 recipes in four columns, not broken up or categorized in any way. As I flipped through them, however, an order emerged, and a rather specific one: appetizers, then soups and salads, pasta and rice dishes, pizzas, sides, entrees grouped by protein, desserts and dessert toppings.

Each recipe is laid out in the same way: On one page are pictures of each ingredient in its uncooked state with the amount of it to use, a short block of text with cooking instructions and a fact box with the serving size (indicated by stick figures), the preparation and cooking times, and any pantry staples needed, such as salt, pepper, oil and water. On the facing page is a photo of the finished dish.

“Simple” contains recipes that I would consider uninspired versions of commonplace dishes – prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, hummus, meatballs. But the vast majority were much less obvious, including Swiss chard gratin, Greek stuffed eggplant and lime and ginger cola chicken.

According to a short introduction, the premise of the book, originally published in France with the title “Simplissime,” is to answer the question: What should I make for dinner tonight? That, to me, implies easy-to-grab ingredients and short cooking time, and the cookbook definitely delivers that. But, more surprising to me, it also offers interesting dishes so that simple, last-minute dinner can also mean eating something different.

Seeing some of the recipes for things I already make, like Bolognese and spaghetti with clams, I was still skeptical that the dishes would deliver flavor-wise. How could they, with fewer ingredients than my already pared-down versions?

To put the book to the test, I decided to try the coconut curry noodle bowl with shrimp. The ingredient list maxed out at six and, though I did have to go to a second store to get Thai basil, in hindsight, I could have gotten all the ingredients there.

Preparation, cooking and standing time together was listed 35 minutes, and that proved accurate – if anything, a little overshot.

It was one of the easiest and fastest recipes I’ve ever made from a cookbook and, on top of that, had a deep and – dare I say it – complex flavor (though the “non-ingredient” of salt was crucial).

The only part I found confusing was that the recipe calls for chopped basil and doesn’t mention garnishing the dish with whole leaves, though the photo shows whole leaves with none of the chopped basil visible. I decided I probably didn’t want to eat whole Thai basil leaves and stuck to the recipe, which I am immediately adding to my repertoire and probably won’t even need the cookbook to replicate.

The title of this cookbook is certainly accurate but, I would argue, incomplete. I would call it, “Easy and Interesting.”

COCONUT CURRY NOODLE BOWL WITH SHRIMP

Serves 4

20 leaves Thai basil

20 raw shrimp

3 oz. rice vermicelli

1/2 chicken broth cube

2 tablespoons curry powder

32 fl. oz. coconut milk

Wash the basil leaves and chop them. Shell the shrimp.

In a large saucepan, combine all the ingredients, except the basil and rice vermicelli, with 21/2 cups of water. Simmer on low heat for 15 minutes.

Stir in the basil and rice vermicelli. Turn off the heat, cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir to mix. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at:

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