Cookbook helps those in a dinner rut

Food writer visits Madison to tout new cookbook
Cookbook helps those in a dinner rut
Photo by Kathy Brozyna

Have you ever sighed heavily while asking yourself yet again, “What am I going to make for dinner?” We all feel the weight of the question, and while we want to cook a wholesome dinner and bring our family to the table every night of the week, who has time? You’d be surprised how much time and energy it takes to come up with a relatively quick to make, easy and delicious meal.

As I learned while sitting down to chat with Melissa Clark–a food writer who creates recipes every week for her New York Times column “A Good Appetite” and an author of 38 cookbooks–sometimes all it takes is a little nudge to lift us from the dinner time rut.

Clark, who was in town promoting her newest cookbook Dinner: Changing the Game as part of a partnership between the Wisconsin Book Festival and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities, offers suggestions in the form of exciting recipes. For instance, if you’re bored of the same roast chicken and potatoes, maybe marinade it this time with harissa paste, sauce it with yogurt and garlic, finish it with fresh herbs like mint and dill and a squeeze of lemon.

On every page she poses this alluring question: “What if we changed dinner time from a daunting task waiting for us at the end of a long day to something we look forward to while we play our favorite song, twirl around our kitchen and sip from a glass of wine?”

Hmm, you might say.

The book has more than 200 such suggestions and is beautifully styled with plenty of delicious photography. Pages and pages of recipes, mostly one-sheet-pan wonders, are inspired by world flavors such as Vietnamese, Korean, North African, Turkish, Italian and Mexican.

Dishes are built on a variety of ingredients: from lamb and chicken to pasta, tofu, beans and vegetables. There are sections on grain bowls, soups, dips and “Salads That Mean It.”

And a pantry list to help you get ahead of the game. The key to getting dinner on the table quickly, according to Clark’s book, is to stock your kitchen shelves ahead of time. Most of the ingredients have a long shelf life and can be found in the grocery store. However, Madison happens to be an oasis of Asian and Middle Eastern grocers, so finding what you need shouldn’t be difficult.

She offers, “To anyone feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of yet another dinner time, I want them to read this book, and to get ideas, become energized, excited and inspired.”

Although Clark admits to having a huge sweet tooth and has written many dessert recipes for her column, there are no such offerings at the back of the book. Melissa wanted to stay focused on helping her readers bring a good dinner to the table night after night.

We talked for a moment about legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher who taught readers how to nourish themselves well in the lean times of the 1940s and how Fisher was questioned about why she chose to write about food over more important and serious matters.

“Food is not everything,” Clark says. “It is still really important to society. Not that I think eating well makes everything better. But it makes a lot of things better. For people to cook their own food, to cook whole foods … is a transformative process not just for the food but for the person.”

She continued to speak of the necessity to feed ourselves and our families well, how important it is to choose ingredients that haven’t been “churned out in a factory,” and to support farmers and artisans “people who are doing good work for the world.”

And something that I hadn’t considered before, “If you can cook, you learn something. Having those skills will satisfy you emotionally. You’re improving yourself. Cooking can be linked to self-esteem.”

“There is good in helping people cook,” she believes. It helps get people through the front page headlines.

And it is important to write about these things.

I asked if she could recall that first moment when food became something more for her. She was only 7 or 8 years old, and it was a “savory meal” prepared by her babysitter.

“Roast chicken, green beans, little new potatoes with lots of butter and what [her babysitter who was Argentinian] called fritos, fried dough–an empanada dough she would fry.”

Slowly it was coming back to her. “And I remember all these tastes and textures: crunchy, doughy, chewy, fried, greasy skin, crispy roast chicken, soft flesh. The green beans were crunchy and green and they tasted so good and the potatoes had all this butter on them. And I think I was drinking ginger ale. It was just such a good meal. And I don’t think I ever thought of it going together like that.”

“The food wasn’t special, it was just good.”

Isn’t that what we hope our dinners will be in the end?