Melissa Clark dropped by Politics and Prose last week in honor of her latest cookbook, Dinner: Changing the Game. It’s the 38th book she’s written or collaborated on. Since her last book tour, in 2011, she’s been making videos with the New York Times, so she was relaxed and engaging in her conversation with Bonnie Benwick of the Post.
Melissa’s had a lot of practice putting books together, and the new one is nothing less than expected: lucid exposition of her theme; creative combinations of protein and complementary vegetables, seasonings and condiments; beautiful illustrations (by photographer Eric Wolfinger); and no, I repeat NO, dreaded overleaf transgressions.
And there’s a reason for that: all the recipes are intended to be simple and easy enough to throw together after the family’s busy wage-earners return from a day’s work, or after a weekend day outside the house, while remaining delicious. And for the most part, they succeed.
There’s a little more than the collection of recipes: instructions on roasting a chicken, and a list of pantry staples to not be without. These run to the fairly exotic for those without access to ethnic food resources (think Aleppo pepper, preserved lemons, sambal oelek), but she does give substitutions and work-arounds for many of them.
As she said during the book event, She’s not worried about “harissa in the heartland.” Times have changed since her mother had to save up and freeze chicken livers one by one to make pate.
Many of the recipes will be familiar to those of us who have followed her column in the New York Times. She makes the magic look easy with her offhand mastery of ingredients and methods, not to mention the ease with which she produces a new idea, or reworking of an old idea, every week. But at the event she burst that bubble with tales of video outtakes and rushes to meet deadlines. No, no, Melissa, let me keep believing! And you’re still thin and pretty, too!
That said, she is guilty of a sin many Times and other cookery writers commit: she calculates the “total time” for many of the recipes to be far shorter than even an experienced cook (me) can execute, without a sous chef at their beck. Beware, reader, if you try to produce Shrimp Banh Mi in 25 minutes, unless you start counting after you have shredded the carrots, sliced the radishes, seeded and diced the peppers (two kinds), peeled and grated the ginger, peeled the garlic, peeled, smashed and chopped the lemongrass, peeled and deveined the shrimp, and split and toasted the baguette.
And to be fair, she had a plausible explanation when I asked her about this very peeve. “It’s the Times‘ convention to start timing the recipe after all the mise [en place] is done.” Well, OK then, but shouldn’t the home cook be warned?
As for the recipes, I cooked four: Roasted Sausage and Cauliflower (excellent, but you’ll want to double the quantity of white sauce), Fusilli and Roasted Cauliflower with Capers (you have to love capers; fortunately, we do), Winter Vegetable Hash (did not assume the promised cake-like aspect, and the quantity made was far too little to feed 4 to 6 as a main), and Butternut Squash and Red Lentil Soup (very similar to Melissa’s Times recipe subbing carrots for squash; that one said to puree only half the soup, which would IMHO improve the book’s recipe). On the whole, minor tweaks needed to achieve perfection are not that big a problem.
One last comment: all those pictures and heavy, glossy paper result in a book that weighs in at three and a half pounds. If you don’t already have one, I recommend investing in a cookbook holder.
Dinner: Changing the Game, by Melissa Clark, Clarkson Potter, New York, 2017.