Ali Slagle’s “I Dream of Dinner” eased my weekday cooking anxiety
When it comes to cooking weeknight dinners, I find there are evenings where cooking is a breeze, and then there are the others – when I stare at the fridge in despair that an idea materializes in my work-thirsty brain before resigning myself to instant ramen. There is no middle ground. Lucky for me (and for you!), food stylist, recipe maker, and longtime BA contributor Ali Slagle wrote the handbook for getting through those “deer in the fridge light” moments: her already beloved first cookbook, I dream of having dinner (so you don’t have to)out April 12.
“When I go for walks or go out on the train, I play Dinner Tetris in my head,” Slagle writes in the intro. “The results of these daydreams (and actual dreams) become meals for me and recipes for you.” An ode to the art of “low effort, high reward” cooking, I dream of dinner is an easily navigable guide to getting a delicious dish on the table in less than 45 minutes and using less than eight ingredients.
The best part is that each recipe in the book (around 150 of them) is designed with flexibility in mind so home cooks can work with what’s already in our pantries. My personal favorite is the Never Repeating Slagle Salad, a choose your own adventure style dish that’s more formula than recipe. The ingredient list simply calls out the leaves, vegetables, protein, fat, dressing, and the all-important “wake-up” (a hot, crunchy, and/or salty item, like fried shallots, that sets your salad apart).
“It’s not a regimented book, but if you want to follow the recipe exactly, you can,” Slagle tells me on Zoom. She wanted the book to be “quick winks and tips to get you thinking about what’s okay to trade.” The goal is that you don’t go to the grocery store to [any] a thing” if you already have something in your pantry that would do the trick. The beauty and brilliance of I dream of dinner lies in its direct but easy approach to the many techniques presented in its pages. The book is divided into eight ingredient-focused chapters – like eggs, chicken, pasta, and sea creatures – which are then broken down by the key technique that turns the ingredient into a delicious dinner. In the Vegetables chapter, for example, recipes are divided into three main techniques: “Cook faster (or not at all),” which encompasses dishes like chunks of broccoli with cheddar and dates; “Roast”, where the fabulous Roasted Roots with Green Salsa live; and “Let them slouch,” which showcases incredible mashed cauliflower.
Imbued with the same conversational tone that defines Slagle’s accessible recipes for BA, Food52, NYT Kitchenand more, I dream of dinner makes no assumptions about the reader’s expertise in the kitchen. It is not a coincidence; Slagle (who edited cookbooks for Ten Speed Press) made sure to do her research. “Before I started writing the book, I held a focus group,” she says. “I was really curious [about] how people decided what to eat for dinner. I usually start with what I have in my fridge that is going to spoil soonest and the main ingredient, then I build from there.
Slagle’s prose is just as accessible as its recipes. Reading I dream of dinner it’s like having your close friend – who also happens to be a great cook – on the phone with you, talking to you through every step of the recipe while thrilling you along the way. This air of familiarity makes sense considering that Slagle’s primary inspiration for the book was the “soulful, scrappy, confident” cooking she inherited from her mother and nonna. (Her mom’s shortened box-and-jar chicken chili is the recipe she most often makes for herself.) But Mama Slagle provided more than just inspiration. “I developed this whole book during [lockdown] and for three months I lived with her,” says Slagle, “so she gave many of feedback. She wants to be my mom, like Kris Jenner.