In I Dream of Dinner, the recipe developer and stylist shows how to make dinner as quickly (and deliciously) as possible
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Our cookbook of the week is I Dream of Dinner by Ali Slagle. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Bacon jalapeño smash burgers; crispy potato, egg and cheese tacos; and 50/50 buttered noodles and greens.
Ali Slagle is used to cooking with constraints. On a recent six-month road trip from Long Island, NY to the West Coast and back, the recipe developer and stylist was prepared to reimagine her process from her to suit a camper van kitchen. But the experience ended up feeling more familiar than foreign.
Save the occasional stop at a short-term rental so she could test other people’s recipes in a full kitchen, adjusting to camper van cooking was relatively seamless.
“In many ways, it just put to test all the things that I already think about when I’m cooking. Which is, ‘How do I make something as quickly as possible, but still delicious, using as few tools with as few ingredients, and as little dishwashing as possible?’” says Slagle. “So, it was like an extreme version of what I already do.”
Whether cooking from her camper van or Brooklyn apartment (without a dishwasher, food processor or stand mixer), Slagle’s “low-effort, high-reward” philosophy has served her well. She develops recipes for publications including the New York Times and Bon Appétithelped Food52 with their cookbooks and was an editor at Ten Speed Press.
Though she has worked on many cookbooks during her career, writing her own was not part of the plan. With the encouragement of her editor, though, Slagle immersed herself in her debut, I Dream of Dinner (Clarkson Potter, 2022). What had once felt daunting became a fun challenge.
“My work is very everyday and very humble. And so, I always feel like it’s not important. Like it’s not worth devoting a whole book to,” says Slagle. “It definitely took my book editor (Jennifer Sit), especially, to be like, ‘This is actually what is important because it’s so everyday. Because it’s so basic. This is actually the stuff that people could rely on every single day.’”
Slagle was clear on her criteria for I Dream of Dinner From the start: The 150 recipes take less than 45 minutes to make and call for fewer than 10 ingredients (most are in the five-to-eight range).
Recipe headnotes are brief. Ingredient lists are more like shopping lists (quantities, measurements and preparation are detailed in the steps). And the chapter introductions are nuggets of technique-oriented tips.
She organized the book by main ingredient (eggs, beans, pasta, vegetables, chicken, etc.) as well as by the processes that transform them into a meal. Beans are crisped, pasta buttered, grains fluffed, chicken treated to an anti-marinade and seafood cooked fast and hot (or fast and low).
“Pretty much every recipe I’ve ever developed fits into one of these categories,” says Slagle. “And my hope was that giving you that back-of-the-napkin blueprint will show you the structure behind a recipe so that you can understand how to use the ingredients you have to make dinner.”
slagle wrote I Dream of Dinner in 2020, when so much about how we buy groceries and what was available shifted due to the pandemic. As she developed the recipes, she was especially conscious of the ingredient count, carefully considering each element and paring back where she could.
After she had worked through a recipe, she would think about what the dish would be like without each ingredient. “If I felt like it would still be good without it, I would go back and retest it,” says Slagle. “So, I really feel like every ingredient is pulling its weight.”
If something was missing, instead of heading to the grocery store to pick up the perfect ingredient, she looked at what she already had for the solution. This kind of creative problem solving is true to real life, Slagle adds. And as much as developing recipe involves a degree of aspiration, it’s also important to be realistic.
On some nights, frying an egg and toasting a bun fills the need for dinner. On others, a more involved recipe, such as Slagle’s lemon-pepper chicken and potatoes, offers a tradeoff: less effort but longer cooking time.
Cook this: Bacon jalapeño smash burgers from I Dream of Dinner
Cook this: Crispy potato, egg and cheese tacos from I Dream of Dinner
“One hundred and fifty recipes in the book allows me to do the full spectrum of that,” she says. “But sometimes I forget that the really simple stuff is also worth sharing. Because that’s what I’m making most often, and what other people might want to know about.”
Slagle’s crispy potato, egg and cheese tacos (squarely in the breakfast-for-dinner category) started as her way of adding more textures to the breakfast taco — typically a soft combination of sautéed potatoes, scrambled egg and melted cheese.
Crisp and melty, you don’t even need the tortilla, she points out. As you take a bite, egg yolk dripping, you’re reminded that often, it’s the simple things that satiate.
More than any other meal, dinner feels like a requirement, Slagle says. With I Dream of Dinnershe set out to remove as many roadblocks as possible by streamlining the process, grocery shopping and tools.
Before she started writing, Slagle did a focus group to understand how people decide what to make for dinner: Do they have a meal plan, or do they figure it out in the moment?
The results gave her insight into the challenges other home cooks face. She hopes the book helps both new or nervous cooks who want a detailed recipe to follow, and experienced cooks looking for fresh ideas.
“(Dinner) is something that hopefully we all get to do every single day. And so, I think with that essentialness comes a lot of dread, especially since the pandemic. Like, ‘I have to make dinner. I have to eat dinner,’” says Slagle. “But I wanted to reframe it and think about how that could be a moment for joy every single day.”