Most afternoons around 4:30 p.m, a couple of words come to mind, separated by a comma and followed by an exclamation point; sometimes I say them out loud. The first, a four-letter profane beginning with “F”, is not worth printing here. The second is “dinner”. It wasn’t always like this. When I was in my twenties, dinner was the reason I got up in the morning: if I had no plans to go out, I would spend hours fantasizing about what to cook for the most important meal of the day. She often had enough time for an after-work trip to the grocery store, to gather ingredients for some complicated recipe she’d never made before; sometimes it even entertained me.
In my thirties, I had children, two of them, two years apart. They get up at dawn. I am very lucky to have full time babysitting, and at 9 IN THE I start a race against time to manage professional and domestic affairs without them under my feet. When they were newborns, dinner was pure sustenance: half a takeout from the nearest place possible; grocery store meals I ate while standing in front of the fridge, a baby strapped to my chest. But when the younger girl began to eat solids and go to bed at the same time as her older brother, a new ritual arose. We start eating a proper family dinner, the four of us sitting together at a table around 5:30. p.m, not because of any moral panic (although the supposed benefits are an added bonus) but because it made the most logistical sense. The only thing that seems more difficult than cooking one meal for a group of four is cooking separate meals for two groups of two.
I really wouldn’t have a problem with my kids having frozen chicken nuggets and broccoli (both dipped in copious amounts of ketchup) at every meal, but it’s not what I like to eat more than once in a while. I wanted a wide variety of dinners that were quick and easy to prepare, comprised primarily of pantry or freezer staples, and required minimal advance planning and preparation. I wanted them to be deconstructed enough to be able to separate their components, in case the little dictators rejected one or two particular ingredients, as they usually do. And I wanted them to be exceptionally delicious, even exciting. Fight. And then a cookbook came out, written by a young recipe developer named Ali Slagle. Was called “I dream about dinner (so you don’t have to)”, which, speaking of dreaming, I felt I could have manifested.
The idea that cooking dinner can be a huge hassle for working Americans, especially those with young children, is retro, it’s the conundrum that brought us dinner TV, but timeless. “Home cooking”, a 1988 collection of essays and recipes by writer Laurie Colwin, which has become a cult classic in the last decade, includes a musing called “Easy Cooking for Exhausted People”. In it, Colwin writes: “Once upon a time I was a person who liked to have friends over for dinner, and now that I have a son I am someone responsible for three meals a day plus snacks. . . . Even if you like to cook, [it’s] enough to get a person down, especially if the person has something else to do, like picking up a kid from school, writing a novel, having time for necessities like shopping, not to mention keeping up with friends and a casual conversation. with one’s partner.” She suggests having “some really easy things under your belt that practically cook themselves”: boiled beef, veggie chili, baked pears.
With no disrespect to any of Colwin’s recipes, more relevant to my current situation is an essay from his second collection, “More Home Cooking”, 1993. In “Why I Love Cookbooks,” adapted from a talk she once gave to a culinary society, she writes, “There’s nothing like a cookbook to explain how we used to live. If you want to know what real life used to be, I mean, domestic life, there’s nowhere you can go that gives you a better idea than a cookbook.” “I Dream of Dinner” is one of several easy dinner-themed cookbooks to come out in recent years, along with others this fall: This month, Melissa Clark followed up on her excellent “Dinner: changing the game” (2017), whose title smacks of this era’s obsession with disruption and hacks, though it’s actually quite poignant, with “Dinner in One: Exceptional Easy One Pan Meals.” by Ina Gartengo to dinners” comes out in October. In 2016, the founders of Food52 published “A new way to dine: a manual of recipes and strategies for the week ahead”; Earlier this year, Lukas Volger released “Dinner Bites – Small Bites, Full Plates, Not To Be Missed.” From America’s Test Kitchen, recently: “Illustrated Dinner: 175 meals ready in 1 hour or less” Y “Five-Ingredient Dinners: Over 100 Quick and Tasty Meals.” I was a bit horrified to learn of the term “overturned dinners”, for Crock-Pot meals, as exemplified by books like “Dump Dinners: 50 Easiest Crockpot Dump Meal Recipes for Busy People.”
More than any other, Slagle’s “I Dream of Dinner” seems to explain to me how I’m living right now, linking me and my cohort as young urban professionals with unlimited access to specialty stores like Sahadi’s and H Mart, or at least a willingness to buy global pantry items online: the kind that goes out of their way to eat local, seasonal ingredients, but also stocks up on organic frozen vegetables at Trader Joe’s. Some of Slagle’s recipes assume a certain worldliness on the part of the reader, but then disguise it: there’s a Croque Monday (a stripped-down, open-faced monsieur) and a White Bean Bake with French Onion (made with cannellini in a can). A plate of roasted peppers with mozzarella and croutons is “as if romesco sauce,” a staple of Spanish cooking, “had never been blitzed.” Other recipes draw on more humble concepts without seeking to elevate so much as celebrate and reimagine: fish with sour cream and onions; Buffalo salad with blue cheese toasties.
The book’s table of contents is an encyclopedia of popular ingredients of the day (beans and farro, gochujang and tahini, cauliflower and chicken thighs) and an invitation to experiment with the perhaps untapped potential of others (packaged gnocchi, sushi rice, tempeh ). If I pick up some veggie or protein on a whim at my local Saturday market, just because it looks good (frozen lamb kielbasa from the merino wool farm, or a crimson head of radicchio from Treviso), I can almost guarantee I’ll find one. I use it on “I Dream of Dinner” on a Wednesday, when I start to realize the end of the day is coming and I start to panic. I’ve come to look at my pantry drawer full of neglected grains, a two-pound bag of bulgur purchased for a now-forgotten, very specific recipe, say, in a new light.
Slagle is generous with permission to break the rules in the service of minimizing effort or maximizing pleasure, ideally both. Lentil soup goes “on spring break,” lightened up with peas or sugar snap peas; the baked pastry is made on a cookie sheet so that each square is as crispy as a corner; salad eggs are hard fried rather than boiled. He plays with words: chickpeas braised in olive oil can be “dumped over pasta” and “squashed vegetables” are pounded with a rolling pin before tossed with feta and dill. Each recipe is titled a bit like a magazine article, with a chatty subtitle: “Charred Veggies with Turmeric Peanuts: To keep sweet veggies from getting cloying, burn them. A little bit.” I used that lamb kielbasa (plus farro and prepared horseradish mixed with sour cream) to absolutely spectacular effect in their “Crispy Grains with Kielbasa & Cabbage.” the pot, they flee through a wave of heat under the grill”).