An Interview with Ali Slagle + One-Pot Chicken and Rice
Talking kitchen economy, #vanlife, and edamame with the author of I DREAM OF DINNER—plus my new favorite "easy weeknight recipe."
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Ali Slagle’s recipes have a tendency to stop me in my tracks: I’ll be scrolling mindlessly through the Times cooking app and record-scratch into something like her Seared Chicken with Salami and Olives, or Baked Spanakopita Pasta. Her Rothkoesque combinations are urgently appealing, confidently simple, quietly innovative. They almost never require more than an hour of your time—you could call her genre “the thinking man’s easy weeknight recipes.”1
Ali has written over 200 recipes for the Times over the past few years, but it’s particularly exciting to see her style collected and synthesized in a new book, I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To). The book offers an antidote to stubborn cooking ruts—it reminds you of what dinner can be, offering paths forward that start squarely in your pantry.
The recipes in I Dream of Dinner are simple in that they take less than 45 minutes to make and rarely require more than 7 or 8 ingredients. They often suggest variations to accommodate your diet or the contents of your fridge. But unlike the algorithmic Skinnytastecore books that have animorphed out of the internet in the last decade, they don’t sacrifice vitality for ease. Ali’s recipes are magnanimous and adaptable without lacking perspective or verve: like a good pop songwriter, she knows that familiarity attracts, but fails without innovation.
Her recipes carry the comforting pragmatism of an impatient home cook: she maps out the smoothest way to get from ingredients to dinner, and maximizes flavor wherever possible. I especially love the One-Pot Chicken and Rice with Smoked Paprika, a breezy play on paella that combines crispy rice, juicy chicken, and a tomatoey, smoky heart—it’s excerpted below, and will be repeated in my kitchen soon. (Vegetarians can swap out the chicken for chickpeas!)
I got Ali on the phone last week2 to talk all about kitchen economy and what makes a recipe a recipe and why there are almost no potatoes in her book. Our [edited, condensed] conversation is below. Thank you Ali for taking the time and for helping me feed myself more thrillingly!!
Marian: Hi Ali. Can you tell me what’s in your freezer right now?
Ali: Oh! Let me go look. I have some cookie dough balls. Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream. Frozen udon and ramen. Bay leaves, peanut butter cups, Parmesan rinds, butter. Some sliced olive bread. And nuts. That’s it.
Marian: How do you use your freezer?
Ali: Well, I think it's good storage for things that go bad, like nuts. And I go through butter so quickly, I always have backup in the freezer because I can't store it all in the fridge. And then I use it for meal expediters: a broth, or a frozen noodle, or—I use shelled edamame so much, I'm surprised I don't have any. It’s a vegetable that tastes good and cooks quickly, but doesn't have the potential to die in the fridge.
Marian: I feel like you could help bring back edamame. It’s been in a fallow period.
Ali: I think it’s better than peas, no? It’s a great texture.
Marian: You're so right—I keep frozen peas, but I always resent them.
Ali: They're not as moreish as you want them to be. They're too fleeting, you know?
Marian: Yeah. And edamame has a much better texture. Why am I not keeping it in my freezer?
Ali: I don't know. You can get them anywhere. Also, on the topic of things that go bad, Andrea Nguyen taught me to keep fresh chilies in the freezer. And then you just chop it frozen, and it's much easier to chop. You don’t have to defrost it first—it defrosts as you cook it. And ginger, you know, it's easier to grate if it’s frozen.
By starting with ingredients that are already showing up flavorful, you have to do a lot less.
Marian: You're really good at innovating under an umbrella of accessibility—I'm curious, how do you develop a quick and easy recipe that is also good? How do you make something that's simple but not boring?
Ali: I think starting with ingredients that are already flavorful is a really big leg up. You'll see in my book that I pretty much never use potatoes, because I feel like you have to do so much to a potato until it tastes good. So by starting with ingredients that are already showing up flavorful, you have to do a lot less.
And I definitely rely on comfort foods and iterate from there, because I think that's an entry point for a lot of people. If they understand something as a riff on Caesar salad, they're more interested in following through with it.
When I first started developing recipes, I was so anxious because I was like, I know how to cook what I know how to cook, but there's so much I don't know how to do. I've never worked in a restaurant, you know? But I started appreciating that limitation and understanding how to iterate the techniques I knew. The book is organized by technique, and every recipe I've ever developed fits into one of these techniques. So if you have a good understanding of one or some of these, you can make a lot of different things.
Marian: To me, your book is really about economy—how do you think about economy in the kitchen?
Ali: I think the goal is “no waste”, in all the ways. I really don't like wasting time. That's why I try and make recipes as streamlined as possible. And then, there's so many things that we throw away that are very delicious. I'm always like, instead of putting something in the compost bowl, can I use it in the dish? So there's a corn pasta in the book, and the corn cobs are boiled with the pasta to gently infuse the pasta. Or there's a salsa that uses carrot tops.
But it's really just about keeping everything contained. I learned a lot about that when I worked for Martha [Stewart]'s meal kit service. When you're getting a box of ingredients, the recipe developers try really hard to use everything in the box, so that it's more dump-able, and requires less measuring. It’s such a fluid and calm way to cook. So I try to do that in my own recipes, but with supermarket quantities: the whole box of pasta, or the whole thing of chicken, or the whole tube of tomato paste. Because wasting food is bad, obviously, but it also doesn’t become this thing where you have to figure out what to do with [what’s left over]. I have this fridge guilt where I look at a half piece of cheese, like, I gotta do something with that—it’s a mental stress. So many of the things I cook outside of work are like, okay, I have all of these strange bits from cross-testing. How can I make it a thing?
Marian: Do you think that has helped you develop recipes that are amenable to leftovers?
Ali: Well, part of the side effect of working on this book during the pandemic was that I would only go to the grocery store once a week. So I kind of had to guess what I would use for development that week. Instead of thinking of my dream ingredients for a recipe, I would be constrained by what I already had in my fridge. It was kind of annoying in the moment, but I do think it made for a tidier list of ingredients throughout the book so that you can make two or three recipes and not have to shop for many things.
Marian: How did living and cooking in a van for 6 months affect how you think of recipe development and economy?
Ali: A lot of my pretenses about store-bought efficiency really shifted. Like soup mix—soup mix is delicious! Why don’t I cook with soup mix? (Obviously, there's a lot of sodium.)
Marian: What did you do with the soup mix?
Ali: We had a little fridge, so I would buy whatever brassicas were around, and I would beat some eggs, and I would just boil broccoli or whatever in the soup mix and then stream in the egg, like stracciatella or egg drop soup. We ate that a lot. We'd have a miso mix, a ramen mix, and a chicken noodle soup mix and I would do egg and vegetable in that almost every night.
I think that a recipe oftentimes can share an idea, and not necessarily provide instruction.
Marian: That sounds so good.
Ali: It was really good! All of your snobbery just goes away and you're so thankful for food that is warm and nourishing and comes together in a couple of minutes. It made me want to try even harder to streamline my ingredients and my processes. But I also have commenters in my head who are like, this is so simple. Why is this a recipe? With the cinnamon toast, some people were like, this is amazing. And some people were like, this is so dumb. But I think that a recipe oftentimes can share an idea, and not necessarily provide instruction.
Marian: What is your version of comfort food, as somebody who is cooking all the time?
Ali: A fried egg on some sort of carb is what I have lived on for many years. There's a recipe in the book for a fried egg on a toasted potato bun. And my editor was like, that's not a recipe, can you swap in something else? And I was like, I just want people to know that this can be dinner. Because it's fast and it satisfies and you don’t have to think that hard.
Marian: I want to talk about how you came up with the structure of the recipes for the book, because they’re different from a standard recipe.
I think people really do need recipes. And oftentimes people just want something to cling to, to just zone out and follow after a day’s work.
Ali: It's based off of Nigel Slater’s book Eat, which was definitely a north star for me. The subtitle of that book is “the little book of fast food,” and it's basically his quick little dinner ideas. I worked on that book when I was [working as a cookbook editor] at TenSpeed and just loved the casualness of it— it didn't feel hard or exacting.
But I did want to incorporate a little bit more structure just because as much as people are like riff! You don’t need a recipe! I think people really do need recipes. And oftentimes people just want something to cling to, to just zone out and follow after a day’s work. The ingredients list morphed into a shopping list, so you can scan and see what you need and if you have it. And then once you bring the ingredients to the counter, the assumption is that the recipes use a store-bought size of everything. My hope is that it's a fluid cooking process.
I was really fixated on the goal of this book, which was to make dinner tonight. And so a lot of elements of a recipe did feel superfluous. I understand the purpose of a headnote, but in this iteration, in this moment in your life, like, I don't think a headnote is essential to completing this recipe and achieving the goal. But a not-recipe with no measurements—I feel like you need some sense. A handful is so different for people. I don't know how to follow a not-recipe, you know?
Of course a downside is that someone doesn’t read the recipe first, and they don't have enough of something. But also I think that those moments are when you actually start cooking for yourself and developing an intuition in terms of how to swap ingredients. And those are the moments when I've learned how to cook.
Five Recommendations from Ali:
Barefoot Contessa Family Style
“I learned to cook from that book when I was 12 or 13, and that was a huge triumph.”
Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet
“My mom had this book, and I loved looking at it. It was too advanced for me to cook from as a kid, but the flavors were really exciting to me.”
“This is super-concentrated dashi, and you can make it into a soup or dipping sauce, but at Estela they use it to baste steak. It’s such a quick way to add levels of flavor.”
“I made this shortbread for the New York Times that was just mixed nuts with rosemary pressed into shortbread. And then I was like, what else can you do with mixed nuts? So I made a salsa with them. Just chop them with some herbs and garlic and vinegar.”
Liquid Aminos in a spray bottle
“I mostly like it on popcorn!”
Chicken & Rice with Smoked Paprika
COOKED CHICKEN [MB note: I poached a pound of boneless skinless chicken thighs and highly recommend you do the same]
SMOKED PAPRIKA [I used hot—yum]
1. Thinly slice 4 scallions, keeping the white and green parts separate. Thinly slice 5 garlic cloves. Shred 2 to 3 cups cooked chicken.
2. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium. Add the scallion whites, the garlic, 3 tablespoons tomato paste, and 1 teaspoon smoked paprika. Season with S&P and cook, stirring, until a shade darker, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in 1 cup sushi rice until well coated.
3. Add 2 cups chicken stock, the chicken, and 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a lid, baking sheet, or foil, and cook until the rice is tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Uncover the skillet and poke five or six holes in the rice to help steam escape. Increase the heat to medium and cook undisturbed until you start to see browned rice at the edges, 5 to 7 minutes. If you don’t see oil bubbling around the edges or in the holes, drizzle in another tablespoon or two of oil.
5. To eat, loosen the edges and flip the rice onto a big plate, or scoop spoonfuls from the pan, making sure to get some of the crispy rice on the bottom. Top with scallion greens, S&P, and a squeeze of 1 lemon.
Instead of chicken, use drained chickpeas, thinly sliced summer squash or asparagus, cherry tomatoes, peas, or cauliflower.
Use 2 cups already-cooked rice instead of the sushi rice and stock.
Also nice to toss the scallion greens with a soft herb (cilantro, parsley).
Reprinted from I Dream of Dinner. Copyright © 2022 by Alexandra Slagle. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Mark Weinberg. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.
Do I need to disclose that I know Ali personally? She and I are both alumnae of Food52 dot com, where she worked as an editor after I left. I pretend no lack of bias!