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.
I don’t do baked pasta.
This is because I grew up in a family of pathologically bad cooks. Poor execution aside, the food I grew up eating was fat-and-meat-and-starch-heavy and utterly unbalanced, and so as a result, “comfort food” is for me the opposite of what it is for many people: I want clean, balanced, vegetable-driven (but not necessarily vegetarian), nutrient-dense, well-thought-out, bright and tasty food.
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I like my fats and my animal proteins, but it’s the vegetables that really make my heart sing. I've never made baked pasta because I viewed it as inherently imbalanced—too fatty, meaty, and starchy to even be redeemed by a hearty side salad with a bracing vinaigrette.
The Baked Pasta With Sausage Ragu from A New Way To Dinner was exactly what I normally avoided. The ingredient list read to me as “Heavy, Heavy, Heavy, Heavy”: heavy cream, mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, sausage—exactly the not-comforting comfort food I avoid cooking at all costs. But the ingredient list on this particular week’s meal plan—Merrill’s first plan for Fall—had pretty much the exact vegetables we had received in our CSA box that week, and so my reluctance to bake pasta was trumped by my reluctance to do more shopping.
Eternally the good student, I went ahead and made the dish exactly as written—not adding greens or diced carrot as I am wont to do—and vowed that I would eat a very small portion of it with a very large green salad to make it acceptable for me. Well, the best-laid plans, etc., etc. Everyone at the table—myself included—absolutely devoured that baked pasta.
It was ridiculously good; replete with meat, starch, and fat, yes, but somehow also fresh and bright from the heaps of fresh late-summer tomatoes in the sauce. And what’s more, I didn’t feel overly stuffed after dinner. I also didn’t feel un-nourished. On the contrary, I felt the comfort and nurturance that well-executed comfort food provides.
Upon asking my 7-year-old daughter—who likes virtually nothing and would never, ever touch sausage just on principle of its looking gross to her—if she liked it, she shouted, “I COULD EAT THIS EVERY DAY!” And that's what she did. She had the ragu over pasta every single day, at least once but sometimes twice a day, for the whole week. This skewed the availability of the ragu for me and her dad for subsequent meals, but it was well worth it to see my daughter happily devouring food I had cooked.
Then there was The Best Red Wine Vinaigrette. I pretty much consider myself to be long past looking up vinaigrette recipes. I’ve got the acid-to-fat ratio that I like, and the rest is just a matter of tweaking the flavor profiles this way and that depending on my tastes that day. Furthermore, this particular recipe looked so basic that I had a really hard time believing it would produce, in Merrill’s words, “vinaigrette nirvana.”
Where was the dijon mustard? The minced clove of garlic or shallot? The dash of maple syrup? The herbs? But again, good student that I am, I followed the recipe to the letter. Wow. Just wow. Vinaigrette nirvana. That one little tablespoon of sherry vinegar takes it to a whole other level. I stood corrected (or as my daughter says, “I stood correctly”) once again.
And then, simmering cooked chicken and potatoes in the nirvana vinaigrette for the Warm Chicken Salad—what? So simple, and yet it never would have occurred to me to simmer chicken in a vinaigrette for salad. SO, SO, good. It was the perfect light, bright meal to balance the richness of the base recipes of that week.
The meal plan in the book was great. There was a bounty of dinner-worthy meals in my fridge all week long. But what really surprised and delighted me was the power of the simple things to satisfy. The crispy-topped, noodle-y, meaty, tomatoey deliciousness of the baked pasta, the perfection of a three-ingredient vinaigrette, the tangy warmth of shredded chicken and potatoes warmed in the vinaigrette over fresh, sweet, delicate lettuce leaves.
The new way of thinking for me was less about a way to keep the meals going throughout the week without killing myself in the kitchen after work—I am pretty good at that already—but more about broadening my perspective on what things could provide nourishment, nurturance, satisfaction, and yes, comfort to myself and my family at mealtimes, and that was a very happy surprise.
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).