Cookbook author Ali Slagle takes the stress out of cooking because “it’s only dinner”

Ali Slagle wants to put some joy back in weeknight cooking. The recipe developer, editor, food stylist, and enthusiastic home cook has built a following around approachable, flavorful fare. Her debut cookbook, “I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To) Low Effort, High Reward Recipes,” puts it all together with tempting dishes like “all corner pieces baked pasta” and “forever chicken and rice soup.” Slagle joined me recently on a “Salon Talks” episode, which you can watch here or read below, about how to put the spark back in dinnertime, and why it’s okay that your carrots aren’t evenly diced. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Thank you so much for dreaming of dinner so I don’t have to. When I can’t one more time summon the  energy to get into that kitchen, what is the first step to help rally and prepare for that moment that arrives same time every night?

It’s really hard. I had this moment in the pandemic where I was like, what is left to eat? What ingredients are there? I go for a lot of walks, which is where I clear my brain, and the only thing I could think about was ginger and dill. I kept thinking about how that felt alive in a way that I wasn’t feeling alive. So instead of thinking about, “What protein am I going to eat tonight, or will I have a vegetable?” think about if there’s one semblance of anything that sounds exciting. Go with that, because just getting in the kitchen and cooking for yourself is a worthwhile effort.

You’re talking about reversing that process, because we have a tendency to start with that piece of chicken or maybe that box of pasta. Instead of doing it this way, thinking about the ginger, the dill. What’s that flavor, what’s that spice? What if I could build a meal around an herb?

Exactly. Of course it’s important to hit certain nutrition points, but really if you’re eating what you’re craving, it will just make you feel better.

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Throughout each chapter, you talk about ideas to boost and zhush up the flavor when I can’t look at another bean, I can’t look at another egg, I can’t look at another noodle. How do you strategize to make them something special? Whether it’s a crunchy element or a pow of flavor, what are some of those elements that we can be thinking about? 

There’s two categories of ingredients. There’s your chicken and potatoes, where you have to add and incorporate flavor in other ways so that they taste exciting in your mouth. Then there’s the other category of ingredients — the tubes, the cans, the pickles, the jars, that show up to the pot already thumping with possibility. I always think about, “What are the things that I can add to a dish where I don’t have to do anything to them to make them taste great?”

A lot of people talk about building your pantry, having stuff on hand. That’s important in terms of cooking on the fly, but it’s also important in terms of just being able to incorporate flavor really quickly. Those boring beans that you’re so sick of eating, a little dot of harissa will just make them alive and maybe less about the beans and more about the flavor that’s happening around it.

You also talk about texture. That’s a really big one too. A lot of this book is things that are really soft and cozy and comforting, like eggs, legumes, pasta. But then you have to oomph them up. Talk about how I can do that.

As a developer, we’re often thinking about hitting every texture point — the soft, the crunchy, the creamy — because that balance and that contrast makes food interesting. However, sometimes when you’re at home, you just want really soft food. You just want food in a bowl on the couch and every bite is really comforting. Sometimes softness is great. You don’t always have to add a riot of excitement. Sometimes you just want something really soothing, but texture also makes every bite really different. Incorporating things like already toasted or roasted nuts that you don’t have to like do anything to. Just adding a sprinkle of nuts will give each bite a little bit of contrast.

I love that from very early on in this book, you are not going to lie. When you’re an exhausted cook and a recipe starts with “Get out your toasted nuts, your roasted garlic,” now I have to do math. Talk to me about how I can be thinking as a home cook in terms of building in time in my day to get some of this prep work done. 

The way recipes are often written, there’s this prep in the ingredient list. It says “a quarter cup pistachios toasted and chopped.” That means I have to toast them, let them cool and then chop them. That’s 10 to the 15 minutes that you might not have allotted.

In this book, all of that prep work happens in the recipe and all of the recipes take only 45 minutes. Of course, we’re not robots. We’re not hopefully timing ourselves, trying to make it a race. We get distracted, we stop and start. But generally, if you’re in it and you go and follow the words, you can have dinner in 45 minutes with the chopping and the dicing and all of that.

A lot of us have created insecurities around ourselves, watching TV chefs and seeing that idea that it’s supposed to be a gourmet restaurant where everybody is on the line and everybody knows how to do everything quickly. Whereas maybe at the end of the day, the thing you need from your cooking is to slow down a little.

I didn’t go to cooking school. I never worked in a restaurant. I don’t know how to make perfect cubes of carrots. That is beyond my capacity. When I’m coarsely chopping something, every piece is not the exact same shape. For a restaurant cook, that means there’s un-uniformity in the food. But to me that means that food might cook at different rate and actually that’s a way to incorporate texture. I’m turning that frown upside down, but I think that just adds intrigue and it’s okay. It’s okay if your cuts aren’t perfect, the food will still be delicious.

And if I want a restaurant meal I can go to a restaurant.

I mean, it’s a carrot, it’s just not worth the stress. It’s only dinner.

It’s not also just the ingredients though, but it’s also about the tools. Talk about some of the things that we can use as home cooks. We don’t necessarily need that top of the line food processor, but there are things that can make it a little less stressful and unpleasant.

The book does not use a food processor, a blender, a stand mixer, mostly because I do not own them. I have never felt the need for them. If you have a knife that is not working against you, meaning that it feels good in your hand that you are not afraid of it, then a knife and a good cutting board can do all of those things with ease. I think there is some joy in touching your food and smelling it as it is being chopped.

The microplane, I use it in so many of my recipes. It makes such fast work of things that are really rigid and fibrous and maybe a little bit tiresome to chop by hand. I think too, a sheet pan. We talk a lot about a sheet pan, but a sheet pan can be something that’s not just for roasting. Oftentimes a recipe says to cover a skillet and a lot of skillets don’t come with a lid. You can use a sheet pan. You just turn it upside down and use it as a lid. If you have a few tools that you know how to use in many ways, you can make everything in this book.

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It doesn’t have to be expensive either. That’s another thing I really appreciate about this book. It uses a lot of low cost ingredients. It takes a long time to get to the shrimp. Was that a priority in creating this, in making meals that are not just accessible but affordable?

It’s funny you mentioned that because when I started developing recipes for the Times, I would read the comment section and people kept saying, “This was so inexpensive to make, this was so budget friendly.” I never thought about my food as budget friendly. I just enjoy humble ingredients that can live on your shelf for a long time. The shrimp to me is a special occasion, mostly because of cost, but also because they go bad really quickly. It doesn’t always feel weeknight friendly.

I developed this book during the pandemic, where supply chains really affected ingredients in a way that I felt like I couldn’t predict. I was thinking, is our meat supply going to just disappear by the time this book comes out? Where I was living when I was writing it, there was a lot of seafood. Seafood was more available than meat. I started thinking about what’s accessible is really dependent on where you live. I just try and give a range of ingredients.

It’s also that one of the barriers to cooking can be cost. I feel more intimidated about screwing up a steak than I would an egg. If you’re trying to learn how to cook and feel like a confident cook, one of the ways in is by using budget friendly ingredients. What are some of your hero ingredients? I want to know what’s in your pantry.

Partly it’s what I enjoy eating, but also what can survive in my fridge or my pantry for a long time. I eat a lot of eggs. I worry about my cholesterol sometimes, but I eat a lot of eggs. I think they’re fast. There’s a lot of ways to cook them. There’s a whole chapter of eggs in the book, but in many different preparations. I’ll always have a dark leafy green around like a kale or a broccoli rabe just because I do really crave greens and they survive for a long time. They also have a range in terms of their use, whether soup or salad.

I’m not a meal planner just because I never know what I’m going to want to eat. I think it’s more important to have ingredients that you know how to use in lots of ways so that you can cook what you want really quickly. It’s also really important to always have something that brightens around. I use a lot of lemons. Sometimes when we cook something quickly, it can feel a little mild or mellow and you just want something to excite your palette. A little squeeze of lemon and a little salt can do that.

When you’re first starting to learn how to cook, you taste something and you’re like, it’s not quite right, but I don’t know what’s wrong. I have definitely had that experience, and it’s so frustrating when you’re like, I know that I want to add something, but I can’t figure out what. Oftentimes it’s more acid, so more lemon or more salt.

Or sometimes it’s something sweet. I always feel like honey is also a secret ingredient.

If something is like too aggressive, too spicy, too acidic, travels in your nose, a little sugar can really help.

Speaking of little sugar, I have to confess that I never dream of dinner that I’m not also dreaming of dessert. There are no desserts in this book. Why?

I enjoy baking as a leisure activity. I’ve only developed one baking recipe in my life and it consumed my life. It was a cookie and … it was wild. I prefer like a store bought dessert. I’m a big store bought ice cream person. I like to make like simple snacking cakes, but I like to follow someone else’s recipe for that.

When I go on the New York Times, your dessert recipes, I think 99% of them involve store bought ice cream. As someone who feels like I can’t not serve my family dessert, I can’t not have a dessert. What’s a way to zhuzh up my supermarket ice cream, because I still want dinner to feel like it’s made with love down to the last element?

I’ll give you some ideas. The first idea is inspired by something you see in Italy a lot, which is often a brioche bun with chocolate ice cream inside. But you could just use a buttered potato burger bun with a scoop of ice cream.

I will eat the hell out of that.

I’m sure people are like, that’s wild, but it’s delicious. Then I think something crunchy on top of ice cream, whether it’s a nut or a cookie or something salty. Something salty on ice cream is really good. A potato chip, pretzels. So scoop of ice cream with something crushed on top. Very easy, and good.

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