We gave a lucky handful of community members a sneak peak of Amanda and Merrill’s new cookbook, A New Way to Dinner, and we’ll be featuring one of their reviews every day this week in celebration of the book's release—we'll see how their dinner game changed when they followed the plans for the book.
When testing this cookbook, I found three situations came to mind:
As children, my brothers, sister, and I used to come down from doing our homework to sit with our father and talk over the day as he ate his late dinner, after an evening shift as a pharmacist. Sometimes, he would ask for a bit more meat or vegetables so he would “come out even” at the end of the meal.
When I was making my first Thanksgiving in my 20s, I had a fair amount of cooking under my belt. Still, one of the biggest worries was everything coming out ready at the same time.
Last, now, living and cooking alone, and doing some cooking for friends, I want to eat good food, but not the same thing three times in a row, nor have too much food leftover at the end of the week.
We want the Goldilocks solution: just the right amount of food, variety, cost, and time investment to eat well at home. But how to do it?
This book addresses these issues in 16 year-round menus, with attendant shopping lists and cook plans. The writers, Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, are businesswomen and trained cooks, who also put family dinner on the table week in, week out. The plans are heavily loaded to batch cooking at the start of the week, with some small tasks later on.
Shop the Story
Television shows and other cookbook writers have used similar approaches, but our authors find a nice balance between using too many ready-made ingredients (expensive and some degrade quickly) and too many fancy sub-recipes (chefs—you know who you are). So we get real food, from real ingredients, with the occasional yelling of “uncle”—real-life admissions that sometimes we're too tired, the pantry is empty, or we've run out of ideas, so let’s order pizza.
As all reviewers were asked, I tested one week’s plan (Amanda’s fall menu of tomato soup, short ribs and chicken, butternut squash and fennel). Some dishes I ate at home; some I took to friends’ tables for Rosh Hashanah, where we found some dishes more to our taste than others (the butternut squash puree and the chicken were big hits).
In addition to all of my thoughts on quality/time trade-offs, I had another test for the book: Would it work for someone (me) who keeps the kosher (Jewish food) laws?
The plans are geared to a household of 4. If yours has many more, double up. If you have fewer, cut the recipes in half or only make some of the dishes. I found the quantities generous, and had more leftovers than expected. This makes sense if you are amortizing your time, and you can often freeze or re-purpose intentional extras.
From experience and reading, I think this book is usable by and valuable for kosher, halal, and vegetarian cooks, but would require too many adjustments by vegan or paleo cooks, or someone with a severe allergy in the household.
If you go away for vacation to a place with limited grocery shopping, or you don’t want to give your precious free time to it, use these plans for cottage/boat/skiing weekends. Also, if you have guests in town and, again, want to have more time with people and less with the slow lane at the check out, use these (week) plans for a long weekend with friends.
Market inspiration or strictly-planned menus?
If you’re a fan of “look and cook” (what looks good at the market is what I buy and cook that night or three), this book may sound too rigid for you. It’s not. The authors plan for seasonality. And no one says you have to cross every t and dot every i. If someone in your family doesn’t like fennel, choose another vegetable from that season’s menus. Also, I found the planning, shopping, and cooking a nice way to shake up my cooking habits.
Thinking back to my three original situations, this book would have helped my mother cook for a big household and plan for my father’s off-schedule meals, and it would have helped my younger self plan how to have Thanksgiving dishes ready to serve at the same time. Now, it will help my current self make tasty meals with some variety on a week-by-week basis.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).