Brooklyn native Melissa Clark has written more than 40 cookbooks, both of her own wide-ranging recipes and converting chefs’ and restaurant recipes for home cooks. She has contributed to The New York Times cooking section since 2007 and has won two James Beard Foundation awards. During the pandemic, Clark created “Dinner in One: Exceptional and Easy One-Pan Meals.” She will do a cooking demonstration and sign books at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at 6 pm Thursday, Sept. 22, and Mason Hereford of Turkey and the Wolf will provide snacks. Signed books also will be available at Garden District Book Shop. Find tickets at natfab.org, and more information about Clark’s cookbooks at melissaclark.net.
Gambit: What inspired this cookbook?
Melissa Clark: This was born out of the pandemic. It’s one thing to cook dinner four or five nights a week, but during the pandemic, I was cooking three meals a day. It was like, whoa, there are a lot of dishes. So, I was like, how can I make it easier on myself? The one-pot, one-pan solution made a lot of sense. A lot of the recipes were almost there. Maybe it was a pot and a skillet or a pot and a pan when you’re making pasta. But I was like, let me impose this discipline on everything and really make it one pot. I found that the food tasted just as good, and my cleanup was easier. But also, in the kitchen, it is easier if you have fewer pots and pans and bowls.
I always streamline, but on this one, I took a stand: Let me make these recipes with the least amount of mess and least amount of work possible. This was making everything simpler. Some of the flavor combinations I have worked on before. I have a chicken and potato dish that has harissa in it. It’s a sheet-pan dish that is really delicious from my last book, “Dinner: Changing the Game.” For this one, I took out the chicken entirely. I used cauliflower, but it’s the same flavors. Now it’s a vegetarian dish that cooks easier.
Using fewer ingredients and relying on the pantry were part of (dealing with the pandemic). Another thing was substitution, because you couldn’t get everything you wanted. A big part of this book is being able to swap things out. There is not one recipe in the entire book that you need to stick to. You can adapt every single one of them in some way. You can adapt it to what pantry staples you have. You can adapt it if you are having a vegetarian meal or a vegan meal one night. You can increase the vegetables in a dish. Do you want leftovers or not want leftovers? There are a lot of ways to personalize them.
The heart of my cooking is simplicity. I have learned so much from making other people’s recipes and trying new flavors and ingredients.
Gambit: How do you simplify recipes?
Clark: Take roast chicken and potatoes. You have a whole chicken and you’re roasting it with your potatoes together. What I did was use chicken parts and I sliced the potatoes on the thin side. So instead of having to cook your chicken for an hour, hour and a half, I shortened the amount of time. And it’s crispier, because when you roast a chicken, you get some of the parts that are crisp and some that are soggy because it’s steamed on the bottom. This way it’s crispy all the way through. You get a quick cooking dish and nice skin texture all around. I rarely cook a whole bird anymore.
There’s recipes for chicken and dumplings and for a chicken stew with gochujang. Often when you’re making any kind of stew with any kind of meat, the recipe will tell you have to brown all sides of it. But that takes a long time standing over the pot. I just do it halfway. You get the same caramelized flavor. You want a thin layer of caramelized flavor on the bottom of the pan, because that is the heart of your sauce. You can get that by browning half of the meat.
The desserts are funny. They don’t really belong in this book. But my editor knows I love desserts, so she was like, why don’t you do one-bowl cakes? Thematically it is similar, because you are stripping down the usual way you make cakes — you use at least two bowls, sometimes three bowls. I stripped that down to one. I nipped and tucked on the techniques to get these cakes. They are super easy weeknight cakes. You can make them on any weeknight and eat them all week long.
Gambit: What are you doing for your next book?
Clark: It’s going to be a basics book. It’s going to be a big book that teaches people how to cook. Where in recipes can you make it your own? What are the techniques that are riffable and what are the techniques that are nonnegotiable? I break them down by way of teaching people how to cook. It’s full of the recipes that everybody needs. These are essential recipes that you can then take and make it your own.
Everybody is different. What’s hard for one person may be easy for someone else. I say, break it down, but don’t dumb it down. People are a lot more skilled than they think they are.
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