One of my most thrilling moments of culinary discovery was when, at age 16, a friend and I went to dinner at a “fancy” restaurant using our baby-sitting money.
We were paying. We were without any grown-ups. And we could eat anything we wanted.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to order a proper meal. I didn’t even have to get an entree. What I craved was two appetizers, the crab salad and the rustic pâté. Then my friend and I split three desserts. It felt both rebellious and liberating, and very adult.
I think these days a lot of us eat this way at restaurants, putting meals together from a variety of small plates and side dishes and splitting entrees and desserts. We aren’t afraid to mix it up to get what we really want.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
But at home, dinner still often means a protein and two sides. And this can make cooking night after night a challenge because it ignores our evolution as a food culture. That’s not how most of us eat – or want to eat – on a daily basis. Today’s dinner can take a lot of different forms. But the conundrum for cooks is that we haven’t defined what those forms are. So it has left many of us struggling in a void between what we think a proper meal should be, and what we actually want to cook and eat for dinner.
But the fact that our collective tastes have changed is a boon for the cook, an excuse to get creative. We’ve fallen in love with diverse ingredients: preserved lemons, kimchi, miso, quinoa, pork belly, panko. Now that these items are becoming more available, they can become kitchen staples, expanding our horizons once we figure out how we like to use them. And they are a path out of the tyranny of a perfectly composed plate with three distinct elements in separate little piles: the meatloaf, the mashed potatoes, the peas.
More pleasing, at least for me, is a giant salad filled with oozing, creamy Burrata cheese, ripe juicy tomatoes and peaches. Serve it with a baguette you picked up on the way home or squirreled away in your freezer, and maybe some salami, and that’s all you need for a meal. Likewise, a grain bowl made from brown rice or red quinoa and topped with corn, black beans and avocado or fried tofu and kimchi.
Or to satisfy an urge for something slightly more traditional, how about a platter of chicken and caramelized Brussels sprouts with coriander seeds and lemon zest? But instead of cooking and serving the meat and vegetables separately, you roast them together, dirtying only one pan, allowing their flavors to mingle. The crisp-skinned chicken takes on the sweetness of the sprouts, and the sprouts grow rich with chicken fat. The toasted, cracked coriander seeds add earthy, herbal notes and a nice bit of crunch, and the lemon zest and chilies, used in greater amounts that you’d typically see, amplify everything without any extra work.
These are simply made meals that reach a very high bar, both in terms of taste and also preparation. Less is more here: more flavor, less work. Expand the way you think about dinner, and you change the game.
Once you get into the groove, cooking dinner can morph from a dreaded chore into a beautiful dance. Take, for instance, the recipe here for lemony pasta with chickpeas and parsley. Here’s what the kitchen choreography can look like.
First, you make a bold entrance. Édouard de Pomiane, the great French chef and author of “French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life,” first published in 1930, suggested that as soon as you walk in the house, before you’ve even taken your hat off (they all wore hats back then), you should put on a pot of water to boil. Chances are you will need it for something in your meal, and if not, you can at least use it to make your coffee when you’re done. (They all drank coffee after dinner back then; I would make mint tea.)
While the water comes to a boil, you’re smashing and peeling your garlic cloves, mashing up your chickpeas and heating your skillet. Water boils, salt and pasta go in. Oil is poured into the skillet, followed by garlic, onions, rosemary, red pepper flakes. Sauté until tender, then add your chickpeas. When the pasta is ready, drain and add that to the skillet, too, along with lots of parsley, lemon zest, perhaps some cheese.
Of course, you’re drinking wine and chatting with your loved ones while you’re doing this. Or maybe you’re rocking out to your favorite music while you chop. Or you’re enjoying a precious moment of serenity and quiet before dinner.
Engineer your cooking time so that it’s one of the most satisfying and lovely moments of the day. That sweet spot – the glass of wine, the conversation, the good food – is what I look forward to all day long.
Coriander-seed chicken with caramelized Brussels sprouts
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
3 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (use your favorite parts)
1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, trimmed, halved if large
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
5 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Grate lemon zest, and then quarter the bald lemon, seed the quarters, and set them aside.
In a small, dry skillet set over medium heat, toast coriander seeds until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Crush the seeds lightly in a mortar and pestle or with the flat of a heavy knife blade.
Pat chicken pieces dry, and place them in a large bowl along with Brussels sprouts. Add crushed coriander seeds, ground coriander, lemon zest, salt, red pepper flakes, garlic and 1/4 cup olive oil. Toss well. Marinate at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight in the refrigerator.
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
In a small bowl, whisk mustard with remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil. Arrange chicken pieces on a large rimmed baking sheet and brush the mustard mixture over them. Scatter the Brussels sprouts around the chicken.
If using breast meat, roast until pieces are just done, 20 to 25 minutes, then transfer to a plate and tent it with aluminum foil to keep warm while dark meat and Brussels sprouts finish cooking, another 5 to 10 minutes. (If you are only using dark meat, roast chicken and Brussels for 25 to 35 minutes total.) Serve with reserved lemon wedges on the side.
Lemony pasta with chickpeas and parsley
Kosher salt, as needed
8 ounces regular or whole-wheat fusilli or other short, sturdy pasta
2 cups cooked chickpeas, home-cooked or canned
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1/2 onion, diced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
Pinch of red pepper flakes, plus more as needed
1 1/2 cups chickpea cooking liquid (from a homemade pot; do not use the liquid from the can), vegetable stock or water
3 cups fresh parsley leaves (from 1 large bunch)
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Finely grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Ground black pepper to taste
Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Add fusilli and cook until it is just shy of al dente. (It should be slightly underdone to your taste because you’ll finish cooking it in the sauce.) Drain well.
While the pasta is cooking, prepare the chickpea sauce: Place chickpeas in a large bowl and use a potato masher or a fork to lightly mash them; they should be about half-crushed.
Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add garlic cloves and fry until they are golden brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in onions, rosemary, red pepper flakes and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Then stir in chickpeas and the cooking liquid, stock or water. Bring to a simmer and cook gently until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
Stir in pasta and parsley, and cook until the pasta has finished cooking and is coated in the sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Quickly toss in cheese, butter, lemon zest, black pepper to taste and salt if needed. Drizzle with olive oil and shower with additional cheese before serving.