Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.
Some people make cooking look easy. Which is great news for everybody else who struggles to come up with something satisfying for dinner (... again!). Turning a stressful daily question into a breezy, simple, and even enjoyable routine is Ali Slagle’s specialty. As a professional recipe developer (her food has been featured in "The New York Times," food52, and "The Washington Post," among other publications), one might argue that’s, well, her job.
This may be true, but she also has fun doing it—and she inspires home cooks everywhere to take the same approach to dinner. Nowhere is this more evident than in her upcoming cookbook "I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To)." In Slagle’s “jazzy marketing copy” (I lifted that delightful line from her website), she explains that the collection is meant to inspire maximum joy with minimal effort. Sounds good. Oh, and half of the recipes are plant-based. Sounds great! It’s also cleverly organized by main ingredients—so satisfying a craving for spaghetti is almost as easy as flipping to the “noodles” section.
But there are plenty of cookbook authors who serve up inspo and technique how-to. What sets Slagle apart is her approachable, refreshingly relatable attitude toward cooking. She’s the kind of person you want to hang out with, sharing conversation as you both chop cucumbers. In a recent Instagram post, for example, she shared a picture of her small kitchen, explaining that although “you haven’t seen it in Architectural Digest,” it saw her through six years of recipe development—including "I Dream of Dinner." In other words: If this kitchen can turn out dinner, so can yours.
As further proof that Slagle’s dinnertime vibes are more fun, less fuss, she recently taught us how to cook chicken smash burgers. They’re really good. You should definitely make them—but first, let Slagle explain why.
Who will benefit from checking out your cookbook? Can cooks of all skill levels appreciate it?
Yes! Even if you’re a confident cook, you still need new dinner ideas. The book is for experienced cooks stuck in a cooking rut just as much as it’s for new and nervous cooks.
What are the most common sticking points for people struggling to get into a routine of cooking homemade dinner? How can we address them?
I think people are often too ambitious and that often starts at the grocery store. They load up on lots of fun ingredients with a master plan for the week, but then life happens on Tuesday and That roast chicken you’d planned is so not happening and on Wednesday Uh-oh maybe the chicken smells kind of funny and maybe it went bad? The pressure and guilt just keeps mounting and mounting as you continue to not follow the plan… and more food spoils. Instead, take it one day at a time, use ingredients that don’t expire quickly, and cook things you’re super super excited to eat. I think this is why, when I first started cooking in college, a lot of what I made just happened to be vegetarian: Beans, kale, farro, and lemons felt like less pressure than an expensive chicken.
What’s more helpful about an ingredients-first approach to cooking?
If you’re the kind of cook who needs to hold onto a recipe for dear life, do that: The book has 150 of them! But sometimes recipes are too rigid for real life. That’s why the book’s recipes are organized by main ingredient and then further into the techniques I use to turn these ingredients into dinner.
Let’s say I have some beans—I know I can stew them, crisp them, or add crisp texture to them. Once I’ve chosen how I’ll cook them, I think about what ingredients I have to complement the beans. This “birds’ eye view approach” can free you up to use what you have to cook what you feel like eating, which means less food waste, fewer trips to the store, and more time to do other stuff!
In the video, you taught us how to make chicken smash burgers. Can you share your “try this” pitch?
Can you tell yet that I have chicken anxiety? It can be hard for new cooks to tell when chicken is done, especially with ground chicken, but not so with this smash burger. With meat so thin, it can’t not be cooked through by the time it’s browned on both sides. Anxieties aside, though, it’s also really delicious. The chicken is cooked in bacon fat and marbled with juicy red onion and jalapeño. It’s light enough for a weeknight meal, but not too earnest, and also it takes so little time and anyone (even the non-cook in my family) can make it.
What societally-ingrained “rules” around dinner do you think we need to ditch?
The “shoulds” have gotta go. Should include a vegetable, should have a certain quantity of protein, should eat at a reasonable hour, should clean as you go, and so on. This is why I included a “recipe” for a fried egg sandwich in the book. Here’s the recipe: a fried egg on a toasted potato bun with a squirt of ketchup. It’s come through for dinner many nights and has fed me in ways a vegetable can’t.
- Your dream breakfast-for-dinner spread:
A classic diner breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and jam.
- What splurgy condiment, seasoning, or sauce do you always have on hand for elevating meals?
I just finished Xi’an Famous Foods’ chili oil that I bought early in the pandemic so it’s time to re-up—I did try making the recipe from their cookbook, but it’s not the same (the author admits he kept some spices a secret).
- Plate or bowl?
Both. A blate (bowl plate).
- Favorite spot in your home for eating—that isn’t the dining table?
Outside on the stairs, which get sun from morning until dusk.
- If you could invite any fictional character over for dinner, who would it be?
I’d love to eat cookies for dinner with Cookie Monster. I met him a few years ago and it was the best day of my life but he ate all the cookies before I could have any so I’d like a redo. [The Spruce Eats’ note: Although Cookie Monster is DEFINITELY real and NOT fictional, we’re going to let this slide because we hope Slagle gets another chance!]