“I never went to cooking school and I've never worked in a restaurant,” says New York-based recipe developer Ali Slagle. Accordingly, her philosophy involves creating dishes from readily available ingredients. This is the root of her first book I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To), which features 150 “low-effort, high-reward” recipes. Each uses less than ten ingredients and takes 45 minutes or less to make, rescuing produce lurking in the back of your fridge to create simple suppers.
We speak to Ali about the process behind the book and how she became a recipe developer, contributing to NYT Cooking, Bon Appétit and The Washington Post. Below, she also shares a summer recipe for turmeric shrimp with citrus and avocado.
How did you start developing recipes?
When I was in college I interned at a cookbook publisher called Ten Speed Press, which is a part of Random House. I learned a lot about recipe structure and book design, and I realised that it could be a career. I edited Food52's Genius recipes and cookbook, and really got to know the author very well – she ended up hiring me to work there. So I moved to New York, and at the time, it was a very small startup, where everyone does everything. As a result, I got a taste of so many different things: food styling, prop styling, recipe development, writing. Then four years ago I went freelance, because I had all these skills that I could use in many different ways.
And how did the idea for your book I Dream of Dinner come about?
An editor reached out to me and said if you ever have a book idea, I'm here. Given my time at the book publisher, I knew how much work went into making a book so I always thought I’m never going to write a cookbook. But the more I started thinking about what people really need, the more I realised that it wasn't really on the market yet – recipes that meet people where they are. So whether you’re tired, or you don't want to cook but feel like you have to, or you just want really delicious food that doesn't consume your whole day. There are quick and easy dinner recipe books out there, but none of them really spoke to me.
How did you go about structuring the book?
I had a big focus group because I knew that the way I cook dinner is not necessarily the way everyone else cooks dinner. I wanted to understand how everyone approached the question of what to make for dinner. A lot of people start with the main ingredient, such as the big protein, so I organised the book so that there is an anchor to each dish. Beyond that, I think a lot of times, if you're an experienced cook, you don't necessarily follow a recipe really closely. So it's important to me to give people the techniques they need to turn that main ingredient into dinner. Within each chapter, it's organised by “techniques”, which is kind of air quote-y, because they're not the techniques you'd learn in cooking school. They're really how I think about what I can do to an egg or a bean or a piece of chicken to turn it into dinner.
Can you talk me through the testing and development process that went into the book?
There are so many recipes! Everyone was like, did you lose your mind? Most books are about 70 to 100 recipes. But I really wanted to think about every instance, every situation that people might be in when they need a recipe. Typically, I would make a draft recipe and go to the store and buy ingredients for those recipes, but because of the pandemic, I was only shopping once a week. So I would buy as many things as I thought I might need hoping that I covered myself. At first I was very annoyed that I couldn't go to the store every day, but actually I think it made me be more creative with the ingredients I had and I think that actually made the book stronger.
I think that links to the techniques as well. I feel like you don't need much kitchen equipment. Am I right that you'd been travelling a bit?
After this book wrapped I thought, I have no more ideas – I don't know how I'm going to publish another recipe, my well was so empty in terms of inspiration! And we weren't eating out, we weren't eating at friends houses, so nothing was coming to me, in terms of inspiration. I thought if I travel and am able to shop at different stores and go to different restaurants, I might get inspired again. So my boyfriend bought this old Japanese van and converted it with a couch, a bed and a mini kitchen. And we have things for our cat, who is called August.
Does that mean you've got quite a limited kitchen setup?
We travelled for six months, and in the back of the van, there's a cabinet that pulls out and it's a little camping stove, a small counter space with a cutting board. But it's set up in a way that is organised, and in many ways it is more efficient than my kitchen in Brooklyn. If you have tools that you know how to use, it's really all you need. I feel like that really was put to the test in the van. But then because I'm testing other people's recipes, I did need a full kitchen, so we'd stop every so often to stay at real houses, so I had an oven and things.
Could you tell us the story behind the turmeric shrimp recipe you share with us?
For The New York Times I did this ginger dill salmon with citrus and avocado, which was a really popular recipe. I developed that in the darkest time of the pandemic for me professionally, because it was January and I was thinking, what ingredients are left? I don't want to eat, I don't want to cook. All I could think about was this combination of ginger and dill and how that felt alive in a way that I didn't really feel. I was also really homesick for California, because this time of year is when we are under snow in New York, but California has all this citrus and it's still sunny and the farmer's market is abundant. Citrus just felt so exciting to me and I didn’t have it. So I developed that salmon recipe and the shrimp recipe is a riff on that, with the combination of citrus and avocado and a crunchy vegetable. So here it's cucumber matched with a spiced seafood. You have this grounding seafood and this really alive, juicy, crunchy salad.
What is really important to you when sourcing ingredients?
It's important to me that my recipes can be made in all different cities and towns. I think I have an idea of what ingredients are available around the country, but I hadn't really put that to the test. On this trip, we stayed in towns that only had one grocery store. That was definitely a learning experience. I think sourcing is obviously really important. If you buy things from a farm, they will probably be more flavourful, but I also understand that in some places in the country, that's just not really an option. And I don't think that that should preclude you from making good food.
What would you suggest for someone who has been cooking for a while, but wants to mix up what they usually make?
I think the thing is that even if you're the greatest cook of all time, you still need new ideas. I really wanted to get that across in this book. These are ideas, no matter your skill level. Oftentimes people think, I make this dish, but if you zoom out on that dish, you actually know how to create and have a structure that can be adapted to make many different things. That's what I'm trying to show with the structure of the book – okay, you make this pasta dish, but you can swap ingredients within that technique and have a whole different dish.
What are your plans now?
We’re in New York for the summer, deciding where we're going to travel next. I think that will really influence what my work looks like. We are thinking about going to Mexico City for a while, so we'll see what that is like. I do feel inspired again. Some time has passed since that crush of book development. I'm going to keep developing recipes in other places.
Turmeric Shrimp with Citrus and Avocado
1 pound large shrimp
1 tsp turmeric
2 Persian or mini seedless cucumbers
1 grapefruit (Or use oranges and kumquats like I do in the video linked below.)
1 fresh chile (Jalapeño, serrano.)
Salt (I use kosher salt.)
Extra virgin olive oil
1. Peel and devein 1 pound large or very large shrimp. Pat very dry. Toss on the cutting board with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon ground turmeric.
2. Cut 2 Persian or mini seedless cucumbers into bite-size pieces (peel if desired) and transfer to a serving plate. Salt them. Cut the top and bottom off 1 grapefruit and place the grapefruit on a cut side. Follow the curve of the fruit to cut away the peel and white pith. Halve the fruit through the top, then slice into ¼-inch-thick half-moons. If your pieces are especially large, halve again. Add to the cukes and season with salt. Cut 1 fresh chile (jalapeño, serrano) in half lengthwise.
3. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high until smoking, about 3 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then add the chile, skin side down, and the shrimp. Cook the shrimp and chile over high heat until golden and charred in spots, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until the shrimp is opaque on all sides, about a minute longer. Transfer the shrimp to the cucumbers and grapefruit and season with S&P.
4. Finely chop the chile, then add to the shrimp. Halve and pit 1 avocado. Use a spoon to scoop thin slivers of the avocado and plop them right onto the plate. Season everything with S&P. Squeeze half of 1 lime (about 1 tablespoon) over everything and cut the remaining half into wedges for serving. Drizzle with olive oil and season with flaky salt and more pepper as you wish.
5. Serve with tortilla chips, rice, quinoa, mint or coriander.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photographs, video and recipe courtesy of Ali Slagle.
I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To) is published by Clarkson Potter.
Ali wears our Square Collar Organic Poplin Dress in Montella, which is also available in Slate.
Watch Ali make the Turmeric Shrimp with Citrus and Avocado on our Instagram.