A New Way to Dinner — Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs

Most cookbooks give you recipes to cook. Wait, don’t close that tab!

I mean to say, the aspiration of most cookbooks is nothing more than giving you instruction sets to make new types of food. There is only so many recipes one needs. A handful of cookbooks could give you a lifetime’s supply of how to combine ingredients. The question quickly becomes “what’s next?”

For anyone beyond the complete kitchen beginner, cookbooks with something additional to teach are more rewarding and useful. Increasingly, I’m drawn to books with a clear ambition to do something beyond the basic steps of cook, serve, delicious.

Food52’s editors (Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs) have put together a cookbook with a grand ambition: to change how we approach putting together our nightly meal.

The book’s premise is that by spending a few hours of time on the weekend you can prepare for a week’s worth of delicious meals. The trade off is clear: sacrifice a little bit of time on the weekend to gain some back during the week.

The premise is nothing new. Time management experts (carrying degrees printed on napkins from Time University) have long gotten up on their soapboxes and told us to do this. And everyday, chefs in restaurant commit themselves to the art of the mis-en-place.

The question becomes: does this book teach us something new and valuable, or is it really a tired retelling of an old idea?

Structure and Design

  • Hardcover
  • 288 pages
  • No ribbon

The core format of the book is four weekly menu plans for each season. Two menu plans are from Hesser and two from Stubbs. Each menu plan provides for five meals and gives ideas for lunch and other ways to use the leftovers.

Each plan starts with a menu of what you’ll eat in that week. The next few pages are the battle plan for your weekend day of preparation. The following pages are then the recipies for each dish in that menu.

This is a book of unremitting production values. The writing throughout the book  is uniformly polished. Written in the signature Food52 tone, it is both inviting and casual yet also suggests a certain reserve or distance.

In terms of how the recipes are written, there’s a delineation between the steps you do earlier in the week as part of the day of preparation and the steps you do on the night the dish will be eaten. This is helpful if you are following the book’s approach but I could see it might get in the way of clarity if you were using this as just another cookbook.

The production values continue with the photography. Photos are aggressively styled.  I cannot get behind the overall Food52 ashetic. It’s so polished as to be avoid of any charm or individual personality. It’s almost as if they feed the contents of pinterest into a really smart computer and it outputs these results.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this book.

But—I have reservations:

Firstly, and most trivially, it is either a sign of success or failure that the recipes and menus from the two authors are indistinguishable. I cannot distinguish the recipes or writing  of one author from the other. It’s a positive sign in that it suggests the avoidance of gimmicks just for the sake of identification (it could have easily been Hesser’s recipes are all spicy fusion food and Stubbs are all home comfort food) but at the same time, the two present as a seamless organic seasonal trend conscious monolith.

Secondly, few books seem unaware of their privilege as this one. Every week will ask you to buy near industrial quantities of certain expensive ingredients. Worse, there’s often no suggestion as to alternatives if the budget cannot quite stretch to a kilo of black raspberries. The authors seem painfully unconscious of this element to their book. It is an expressly upper middle class lifestyle cookbook.

Thirdly, I’m not sure if the authors have considered the food safety elements to some of their preparations. One recipe asks you to cook almost a kilo of rice (!!), with the last recipe using that rice six days later. All food safety advice I can find suggests three days as being the absolute maximum for storing cooked rice. And aside from issues of food safety, there’s also an important consideration. Food simply starts to taste like fridge after a few days. The book sometimes asks you to make real sacrifices in the name of indulging the conceit.

On to what works about the book.

The technique (of preparing ahead of time) is not new. Yet, the version of this idea that the book puts forth is close to brilliant. Rarely does the book ask you to complete a whole dish. Instead, you complete time consuming yet easy individual steps like pick herbs, make dressings and sauces or prepare meal components (like make meatballs or grill some flank steak).

You know those currently popular meal delivery services? You are essentially replicating what makes those services so compelling, the idea that someone else does all the boring work of cooking, leaving you to do the fun stuff. Of course in this case, it is an earlier you who is doing the boring stuff, but the initial time and effort is quickly forgotten.

It’s a fantastic and workable approach and one that has allowed us to reclaim our weeknights without making huge sacrifices as to what we are eating. The New Way to Dinner model of preparation is superior to other competing styles of preparing your meals (such as making a whole dish and reheating it or make industrial quantities of one thing and eating it again and again).

And there’s something about this focused day of preparation that makes otherwise dull tasks seem more fun. It feels like a fun-spirited race against time: how can we get through these 9 or so prep steps as quickly as possible? It’s become a part of my week that I look forward to, oddly enough.

We’ve enjoyed this approach so much we’ve continued with it despite moving on to other cookbooks. I cannot imagine it will make sense for everyone, but it is going to be useful to a lot of people.

So a tick as to the overall approach. How’s the food? It ranges from very good to almost inedible.

Very good? A Thai beef salad was rewarding and delicious. We have made the fish tacos twice. The meatballs were not as good as the meatballs from Genius Recipes (another Food52 book) but were the second best meatballs I have made. A limeade is the perfect summer drink.

Inedible? Well, there were misses in both execution and concept: a 5 day old rice salad was inedible and awful. That Thai Beef Salad was great but less so on each successive outing. Some of the recipes in a summer menu were certainly not appropriate for stinking hot summer. Some dinners consist of a lot of food (too much!) whereas others amount to just a sandwich (not enough!).

Here are the menus from the two weeks we spent with this book:

Menu One (Summer, Merrill Stubbs)

  • Limeade with basil, blistered cherry tomatoes, Thai beef steak, jasmine rice and blueberry ice. (While the combo of mediterranean roast tomatoes and Thai beef salad didn’t work for me, every component of this meal was really good. The blueberry ice was outstanding.)
  • Fish tacos with pickled onions, Spicy Peach Salad and Chocolate ice cream with cinnamon and chili ‘dust’. (As mentioned above, the fish tacos are excellent. The spicy peach salad was fantastic and elevated mediocre peaches. The cinnamon  and chili ‘dust’ is a fun way to elevate supermarket ice cream, although you’d be unlikely to do it again and again.)
  • Penne with blistered cherry tomatoes and corn; strawberry ice cream (Average pasta and yes, you have to buy both chocolate and strawberry ice cream this week.)
  • Steak and avocado salad with crisp rice and cashews, and blueberry ice (Our crisp rice failed and simply merged into an unstoppable fried monster that still threatens smaller pacific islands. The salad makes use of the last of the Thai beed Salad which is not, it must be said, a dish that holds well.)
  • Jasmine rice salad, cantaloupe with chiles, lime and salad. (Inedible. Dry after six days in the fridge. This should not exist. We skipped the cantaloupe because one of us cantaeatit.)

Menu Two (Summer, Amanda Hesser)

  • Crab and avocado salad, blistered cherry tomatoes, watermelon (I am not a big crab man, and given the sudden sky rocketing of the price of prawns here, I was forced to substitute chicken instead. Despite going off-piste, I was entirely happy with the result.)
  • Meatballs with tomato and zucchini, quick tomato sauce, spaghetti, boiled green beans with mustard dressing, black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream (The meatballs were great, as was the fantastic mustard dressing for the beans. The ice cream—this week you make your own—did not quite work out: the quantities were way too much for our ice cream maker, so it did not quite churn properly.)
  • Watermelonade, Crab toasties, Peaches with sour cream and chili (The watermelonade was perfect and just the thing for summer. On the other hand, the peaches with sour cream feels like an awful choice for summer and so we abandoned it. The toasties were smart, though (although curiously named: toasties is short for toasted sandwich and is a term mostly used in Australia, whereas Americans seem to favour the word ‘melt’ which better fits what these actually were.)
  • Pasta with garlic, tomatoes, basil and brie, beans and their dressing and some more ice cream (The authors go on this weird bit about how they seem to think they are bringing back brie to which the rest of the cheese eating world will say “huh?”).
  • Meatball sandwich with fresh mozzarella and basil, watermelon or peaches (I think a sandwich is the best thing to do with meatballs, so I had no problems with this. I like that the menu suggestion is to just eat some fruit already.)

Why this book?

  • You want to eat good food without spending hours cooking each night
  • Or, you just want a decent collection of recipes and can overlook the recipes being formatted with the assumption you will be making them ahead of time
  • You are comfortable with the Food52 brand, aesthetic and tone

Score

Nigella ░░░░ Donna Hay Attractive, evocative writing versus simple and direct?
Ottolenghi ░░░ Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus quick and easy?
Mark Bittman ░░░░ Ferran Adrià Can you cook the food every night or is it more specialist or obscure?
Gwyneth Paltrow ░░░ Nigel Slater Do you see photos of the author or photos of the food?
#KonMarie ░░░░ Old, old cooked rice And does it just spark joy?

I can—and do—recommend this book. However, keep some of my reservations in mind. This book is not going to be for everyone.

Seven Spoons — Tara O’Brady

Seven Spoons knows how we like to cook and eat: borrowing liberally from multiple cuisines, a focus on flavour and achievable results. This book is fantastic.

I have a confession to make: I think authors of cooking blogs tend to make really good cookbooks. Given the immense competition in the space, one has to have a certain extra element to shine brightly enough to attract an audience.

However, some cooking bloggers tend to chase the audience a little too hard: so we see a whole lot of recycled garbage depending on whatever is popular in a week. To put it another way: it is not honest food, and it is not the food people should actually eat.

There are a handful of examples that to describe with the phrase ‘blogger’ is reductive. People who fall into this small group are undeniably first tier food writers (and often incredible photographers and marketers and business people.)

Tara O’Brady is one of these people. It is, then, no surprise that her 2015 best-seller Seven Spoons (from the blog under the same name) is a delightful cookbook and one that makes me happy whenever I have occasion to read or cook from it.

The book presents eclectic recipes that is exactly the sort of food you want to eat: driven by flavour, approachable rather than fussy, and constantly impressive.

Structure

286 pages split across the following chapters: Breads & Breakfast | Lunches | Soups, Starters & Snacks | Suppers | Vegetables & Sides | Sweets, Treats & Sips | Staples.

I haven’t spoken about this yet, but I really love a table of contents that lists the recipes under the chapter headings (as opposed to just the bare headings). I first noticed this in Ottolenghi’s Plenty and have fallen in love with every single book that has done it since.  It’s a great way of finding a recipe and understanding the context of a book.

Tara happily dispenses with any sort of page fillers (like a conversion table, oh brother, or a Sources section which I riled against last week). Instead space is wisely devoted to an extended introduction, written in her incredibly warm and intimate voice, and then a useful discussion of some key ingredients.

The recipe format is elegant, although the text is perhaps a little on the tiny size. Tara’s clear writing makes it easy enough to follow her instructions, although given how much white space is on each page I think the text could have been sized larger (or spaced looser). Of course, it’s almost admitting to be a philistine to say white space should ever be sacrificed.

I expect a fair bit from photography (not because I think it is easy, but because there’s so much fantastic food photography out there, so one either has to rise to the occasion or yield the floor) and this book exceeds those expectations.

The photography is gorgeous: and made even more so when you consider Tara herself took all the pictures. Her sense of composition results in quite dynamic photos; moreover she has such an appreciation for texture. She has excellent taste and the execution and design of the book is a testament to that taste.

(I did, as legally obliged, take a shot of whisky when I came across the picture above of a salad resting against some Carrara marble, the absolute shibboleth of those who write about food on the internet).

Thoughts

Were the food from Seven Spoons awful, you could almost still recommend this book: her writing, photography and design is enough to make it enjoyable. Of course, though, the food is just so good (which is another thing I like about the best internet food writers: all their recipes have a sense of being refined and improved again and again until just right.)

The tagline of the book is ‘…recipes for any and every day’ and this certainly rings true: the food feels quotidian (and not in the pejorative sense, but rather this is food for our everyday life).

I think the inclusion of a Lunch chapter is testament to this approach of creating simple yet well executed food that is suitable everyday. There is an undeniable sense that this is the food Tara herself eats and shares with her friends and family.

Here’s what we’ve cooked:

  • Messy Bistro Salad with Spanish-Fried Egg and crispy Capers: We make this every few weeks and it is almost my favourite salad: crispy, salty, oozy
  • Glazed eggplant with roasted shallots and greens: A nice take on nasu dengaku
  • Baked-Eggs, North Indian-Style: An excellent option for any meal
  • Mushrooms and greens with toast: The chilli and taleggio elevate this to almost art
  • A burger treated like a steak: A show stopper of a burger: rich, decadent and just right for when a meat-focussed burger is called for
  • Naan: Although home made naan will always be a paler shadow, this came close enough
  • Vietnamese-inspired sausage rolls: A clever way of updating the standard sausage roll with the flavours of Vietnam: lemongrass, fish sauce and chilli
  • A pot of braised vegetables: Elegant, restorative, and a clever way of combining a few vegetables
  • Lemon bucatini with roasted kale: I didn’t fall in love with this, although it had promise
  • Speciality restaurant lentil kofta curry: Even though my kofta fell apart, the flavours of this were incredible
  • A refreshing salad with charred green onion dressing: Another favourite salad: the combination of soft lettuce, apple and peppery sprouts is very nice
  • Baked Irish Mash: Open the dictionary to comfort food and you’ll see this recipe
  • Basic, Great Chocolate Chip Cookies: Not the best CC cookies, but far from being forgettable
  • Plum macaroon cake: A cake that would impress Mary and Paul
  • Blueberry poppy seed snacking cake: As delightful as it sounds
  • Blood orange stout cake: The sort of cake you dream about on a cold, wet, rainy day: perfectly dense, sticky, and sweet

Why this book?

  • You like food, or photography, or just things made with love and care
  • You like the idea of cooking flavour driven food
  • You want to spark an expensive ceramics addiction

Score

Nigella ||||| Donna Hay Attractive or evocative writing versus simple and to the point?
Ottolenghi ||||| Barefoot Contessa Elaborate or involved recipes versus simple and straightforward?
Mark Bittman ||||| Ferran Adrià Can you cook from this book every night or is it more specialist or narrow?
Jamie ||||| Nigel Slater Photos of the author or photos of the food?
Kondo ||||| An old telephone book And does it just spark joy?

You should buy this book. If you’ve already bought it, buy another copy for a special someone.

Please use this Amazon link if you’d like to buy a copy.