The Magical Place Where Baked Beans, Ziti & Pizza Collide

February 16, 2018

“At home,” writes Deb Perelman, “you can fix anything.” Specifically, she’s referring to transforming gloppy strip mall tofu and broccoli into a crispy, flavorful home-cooked meal. But this phrase could serve as her rallying cry.

“Fix”: to repair, to correct, to improve. But also, colloquially, “fix”: to prepare, to cook, to make. At home, you can fix food to your specifications, whether you want your food healthy, indulgent, simple, or covered in a mountain of cheese. Your home kitchen is your domain, and taking control of it is empowering.

Few understand that power as well as Perelman. She has an uncanny ability to figure out what people want to cook before they know they want to cook it. Perhaps best known as one of the OG food bloggers with her blog Smitten Kitchen, Perelman has gotten to this point in her career by writing home cook-friendly recipes that retain a bit of gourmet gloss. She’s a realist’s Martha Stewart, an older sister in the kitchen who laughingly tells you which steps you can safely skip (and which you emphatically cannot).

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For Smitten Kitchen Every Day, her second cookbook, she offers a collection of “triumphant and unfussy new favorites.” “Unfussy” is a nod to the fact that Perelman is now a mother of two and, while she still throws down in the kitchen, she also appreciates streamlined recipes. But do not be tempted to confuse practical with boring.

Every Day is full of recipes that will make you want to drop everything and go to the grocery store. Take Pizza Beans. What are pizza beans? They’re pretty much what they sound like. A bit closer to a baked ziti-with-beans than pizza-with-beans, but who cares when you’ve got tomato-sauced beans laced with sausage and vegetables, capped with browned, melty mozzarella? (You’ve got your car keys in hand already, don’t you?) Pizza beans are a perfect example of Perelman’s specialty: why-didn’t-I-think-of-that recipes that are within reach of most home cooks, and delicious to boot. So delicious, in fact, that every time I informed my boyfriend I’d be testing another recipe from Every Day, he’d hopefully ask if that meant pizza beans for dinner again. To his dismay, I only tested them once, but believe me, they will be back.

I also tested her Cauliflower Wedge, which doesn’t have much in common with the iceberg lettuce salad that inspired it, but does have roasted cauliflower sealed in a layer of crispy parmesan, then dusted with currants, capers, and parsley. I made a smoky chicken and cauliflower sheet pan dinner, studded with olives and lightly pickled red bell peppers. (The marinade there is for sure a keeper.) There was a simple, tomato-y farro treatment that, with a side salad and perhaps an egg on top, would make a fine meal. And, finally, a sort of upside-down coffee cake, in which the crumbly topping is baked underneath the cake in a cinnamony, sugary crust.

Many of these recipes are not quite as “unfussy” as the premise of the book would have you believe, but Perelman does keep flourishes to a minimum. The recipes range from super simple (one-pan farro with tomatoes) to more complex (the garnished and otherwise bedecked cauliflower wedges, the pizza beans that call for beans cooked from scratch). Make sure you read recipes thoroughly before attempting, as they’re not all appropriate for a random Tuesday night. She does seem to have a healthy appreciation for dish duty, and none of the recipes I tried made a mountain of dirty pots and pans. Frankly, in the cookbook world, knowing the author had her eye on the dish count is worth the price of the book alone.

It’s just another way Perelman hits her sweet spot. “There’s always been a completely pointless divide between people for whom cooking is a bother and people who luxuriate in the kitchen,” she writes. You can see the divide in food media—compare Pinterest-friendly recipes like make-ahead freezer meals and one-pot pastas with the specialty ingredient-laden chefs’ recipes of the glossy food magazines. Perelman’s genius is that she exists squarely between these two poles: She makes the delicious more accessible, and makes the accessible more delicious.

In Smitten Kitchen Every Day, Perelman doubles down on the idea that you can be both the person who adores spending time in the kitchen and the mom of two kids, who need to eat before they have a meltdown. It’s okay to want an astonishingly delicious dinner in record time. It “doesn’t mean that these dishes aren’t practical, that they cannot fit into a busy life, that they cannot accommodate picky eaters and grocery stores with limited imaginations;” it just means “making food that we are really, really excited to eat.”

See? She fixed it.

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Paula Forbes has reviewed cookbooks for nearly a decade for sites like Epicurious, Eater, Eat Me Daily, and now Food52. She's currently working on a cookbook about the foods and restaurants of Austin, Texas.