We all could use a little dinner inspiration — even Ali Slagle, who dreams of dinner. In “Dinner Is Served” she asks colleagues about one night when they somehow transformed ingredients into dinner with all this life going on.
This month’s installment: Ruby Tandoh’s essay collection Eat Up! and her forthcoming cookbook Cook As You Are (Knopf, November 2022) both celebrate cooking in all its pleasure and pure deliciousness, but also its messiness and ordinariness — whatever your reality. Where she is right now is not cooking much more than food to keep herself alive, including a dish so weird she wondered whether she’d lost her mind.
To be honest, I have not been cooking much recently at all. I can’t describe how acute the resistance is to even getting a pan out of the cupboard. I’m just like, I don’t want to, I can’t, I refuse to. It seems like such an insurmountable task.
I go through this in cycles. It’s partly the aftermath of having done a cookbook, of being so switched on and interested in cooking for a period of time. And at the moment I work part-time at a local cafe, so I’m washing lots of dishes and dishing out lots of food, so when I come home I can’t face the idea of cooking. There’s probably some kind of rockier emotional terrain as well, but when I do cook it’s been a time of, like, one-pot meals. That’s where I’m at at the moment.
I recently made a recipe that I came up with while I was doing recipe testing for the cookbook. And it was one of those weird ones — I mean, I’m sure you know this feeling, like sometimes you make things you come up with and you’re like, I’m really happy with how I executed it. I’m really happy with the twist I’ve got on it. But sometimes you come up with things that you’re like, have I lost my mind? Is this just some weird thing that I happen to like and everyone else will find repulsive? [A.S. note: I play a game in my head called “good or gross?”]
This recipe was the latter camp. Usually I make it with gnocchi, those little potato dumplings, and chile crisp oil and capers and Parmesan and butter. You just melt the butter in a pan, you get it sizzling, you add the capers and chile crisp. After you’ve more or less cooked the gnocchi, you drain them and put them in the pan and let them get crispy in all the oil and butter and you just serve it with Parmesan. It is fucking delicious and it asks nothing of me. I was really relieved when I got a couple of messages on social media after the book came out in the U.K. with people saying, “Oh my God, this is great, I never would have thought to do this.”
This dish format is just something carby and something oily. I don’t know to what extent a nutritionist would recommend it as every single meal, but it’s good enough for Italians. Just pasta with olive oil and garlic and some chile — that is a thing [spaghetti aglio e olio]. And it was refreshing when I finally just relaxed into understanding that a dish can just be that. Not everything has to be a whole nutritionally balanced package, or fancy and show this craftsmanship. It really can just be something that tastes delicious.
I’m suddenly realizing that I’ve sounded so negative and that’s not my intention. I just didn’t want to lie. I’ve been cooking whatever I can muster the energy to cook at the moment. [As a recipe writer] it’s not enough — well, it is enough — but it doesn’t feel like enough to just make a dinner that tastes good. It’s like, would I feel comfortable sharing the recipe, and if the answer is no, then suddenly it’s like, oh well, I’ve done nothing. But we have done something. We’ve kept ourselves alive one more day.
To get out of these ruts, I feel like the most important thing is opening up life a little bit so that the light can come in from outside, whether that’s reading a cookbook or just scrolling on Instagram or whatever it is — just seeing other people cooking or feeling other people’s enthusiasm about anything, to be honest. It doesn’t even have to be about food — just having a sense that there are people in the world with curiosity who are not shut down.
Which is actually why I felt quite galvanized by your cookbook as well. Just a reminder that cooking can be fun, it can fit into your life rather than being this hulking obligation that you have to keep going back to. When you open yourself up to witnessing inspiration, it can spark something. It certainly does for me.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Ali Slagle is a recipe developer, stylist, and — most important of all — home cook. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, and her cookbook is called I Dream of Dinner (so You Don’t Have To): Low-Effort, High-Reward Recipes.
Daniela Jordan-Villaveces is a creative director and illustrator. She was born in Bogotá and raised between Colombia, Holland, and the U.S. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles with her husband, their son, Lou, two kittens, and a pup.