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: It’s easy to imagine Zingerman’s Mail Order as a real-life, culinary Santa’s workshop. One of their elves, Brad Hedeman, has been with the company since 1994 and is in charge of curating the products we might have given (or received!) as gifts this year. He lives the holidays twice and also makes dinner for his family. What’s the dish that he can make any time of year?
As a marketer, I live through the holiday season twice: when we’re planning catalogs back in May/June and then again in November/December. My job is to curate our selection of products at Zingerman’s mail order. That usually means traveling around to meet producers, get their story, and bring it back for our staff and customers to learn from. After I pick the products we should sell, I write about them for our catalog and website.
We do 50 percent of our entire year’s revenue in the seven weeks of the holiday season, and we do half of that the week before Christmas. That means 25 percent of our entire year’s revenue happens in one week of the year. We’re usually a company of about 100 employees and we hire an extra 500 people just to work the holidays with us. It’s crazy.
In addition to all that, I’m also the one that usually makes dinner for the family each night. I often make a pasta dish with tinned tuna, Parmigiano Reggiano, olives, and olive oil that’s really easy, very flavorful, and my wife and two kids love it. A four-year-old German shepherd mutt named Maple will get some, too, if she’s very good and patient.
The only thing that has to cook is the pasta, and you can prep everything else while that happens. Figuring pasta is going to take 9 to 11 minutes to cook, I’ll chunk up about a quarter pound of Parmigiano Reggiano (not grated, but chunked with a knife). I gouge out nickel- to half-dollar-sized chunks; it’s the variety of sizes that adds another level of texture and complexity to the dish, especially if you have a nicely aged parm with little crystals of crunchy flavor in there.
Then I’ll open a jar of olives and drain it. This is the one ingredient that changes: I use whatever olives I have in the fridge or pantry. The common theme is I almost always use brine-cured olives as opposed to oil-cured — that bit of saltiness cuts through the rich oiliness from the olive oil and tuna tin. I do not prep them in any way, so I leave the stone in and everything. For me, the effort of prepping little olives isn’t worth the payoff and my family has just learned to slow down when they get to an olive and chew carefully!
Finally I open a tin of Ortiz tuna but I don’t drain off the oil. As a matter of fact, that’s an important part of the meal.
When the pasta is done cooking, I drain it (reserving some pasta water), dump the pasta in a serving bowl and combine it with the Parmigiano Reggiano, the whole tin of tuna and oil, and the jar of olives. I mix all that up and give it a generous squeeze of lemon and some healthy glugs of olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste and if I’m feeling fancy, I’ll garnish with bread crumbs before serving in bowls.
It’s also easy to riff on this one. You can change up the tinned fish (tinned branzino or even sardines work well), and if I have some in-season veggies like tomatoes, I might add them to the mix. Jarred, preserved vegetables work well, too. I had some pickled asparagus from a producer that I added the other day and that was a nice addition. I always serve the dish with good crusty bread (like the paesano that we make) and that sort of completes the meal. It’s a healthy, hearty, sop of a dinner that’s easy to prepare and is always a hit.
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, Colombia, and raised between Colombia, the Netherlands, and the U.S. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles with her husband, their son, Lou, two kittens, and a pup.