For easy cooking, Melissa Clark has ideas for 'Dinner in One' meals NPR's Ayesha Rascoe visits the food writer's home to talk and cook. Clark has a new book of recipes promising minimal fuss (and dirty dishes).

When Melissa Clark cooks, it's 'Dinner in One'

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So every recipe in this book you've made in this kitchen?


RASCOE: It's a very nice kitchen. We're in Brooklyn. It's - how do you describe it? I'm not good at describing stuff.

CLARK: Messy.

RASCOE: I recently visited Melissa Clark - cookbook author and food writer for The New York Times, in her really not very messy at all, very beautiful kitchen in Brooklyn. This kitchen is where all the magic happens. It's where Melissa Clark created, tested and tested again every recipe in her new cookbook, "Dinner In One," which has 100 recipes that you can cook in one pot, one pan, one slow cooker. Very easy-peasy.

CLARK: To me they're my go-to weeknight thing. Like, if I can not dirty an extra pot, I'm going to cook it in a one-pot. So these are things I've been kind of riffing on for years. And then when I did the cookbook, all I did was test them so I knew they worked, and then come up with ways to make them slightly more elevated. you know, like an extra little twist to make it slightly more delicious.


CLARK: You know, you always want dinner to be extra special, right?

RASCOE: Right. So these are created with convenience in mind, which I like, but it's also a little fancy.

There are recipes for miso-glazed salmon with roasted sugar snap peas, cheater's chicken and dumplings, even one-bowl cakes. Clark, whose New York Times column is called "A Good Appetite," has written dozens of cookbooks, but this one is a little different. Nearly all of the recipes can be done in under an hour and without using all the dishes in the cabinet.

CLARK: OK, imagine, like, writing a haiku.


CLARK: You want to express the biggest thought with the fewest amount of words? I mean, I have to say, it was fun. It was a challenge. Maybe I was a little obsessive.


CLARK: But the end goal was when I'm finished cooking, there is, like, three things in the sink.

RASCOE: OK. Is that what's going to happen today with this one? 'Cause we'll be...

CLARK: Counting?

RASCOE: ...Going through, and we're going to be, like, counting.

Because, of course, we're not here to just talk about it. We wanted to put "Dinner In One" to the test, so we asked Melissa Clark to pick a recipe we could cook together - cheesy bake pasta.

CLARK: Normally, when you make a baked pasta, you boil the pasta in one pot. You drain it in a colander, so therefore...


CLARK: ...Messing up two things already...

RASCOE: Two things. Yes.

CLARK: And then you put it into your dish, and you bake it.


CLARK: But what I'm doing here is I'm going to cook the pasta - we're going to cook the pasta...

RASCOE: We're going to cook...

CLARK: ...Right in the sauce.


CLARK: So should we get started?

RASCOE: Yes, I'm ready.

First things first, we line up all our ingredients on the counter - pasta, tomatoes, three kinds of cheese, and sausage.

CLARK: You can use either hot or mild Italian sausage. I chose the mild.


CLARK: When you use mild sausage, you can always add more red pepper flakes...

RASCOE: To make it a little more spicy.

CLARK: ...But you can't take it out, so...


As well as spices and herbs from not one but three jam-packed spice drawers. Like, y'all really should have seen these drawers.

OK, so look, now you see how she's a chef? She opened this drawer, guys, and there are all these little tins with labels on them.

CLARK: I love my label maker.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

She pulls oregano, fennel, garlic and bay leaves.

CLARK: And here's another thing. You could leave half of these herbs out, and it's going to taste the same. Remember how I said I always want it to be, like, slightly more delicious?


CLARK: These are the ways I'm going to do that.

RASCOE: Upgrade - to elevate it.

CLARK: Yeah, and it's like, this is the stuff I have in my pantry, you know?


CLARK: But if you don't have any of those in your pantry, you leave them out.


That's the thing about this cookbook. It's not doing too much. All the recipes are flexible. If, unlike me, you love vegetables, you could add a little spinach to this recipe. If you're lactose intolerant, Clark says, add more sausage and cut out the cheese. Hate cutting up garlic? Use some from a jar.

I just use the garlic that's already, like, in the little seasoning (laughter).

CLARK: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. That's how you measure it.

RASCOE: Is that bad?

There are no wrong answers when you're in the kitchen with Melissa Clark.

CLARK: Nothing's bad. If it tastes good, it's not bad. There's nothing...

RASCOE: Before she was the winner of multiple James Beard awards, Melissa Clark was a student getting her start in the food world at a restaurant called American Place.

CLARK: I was a coat checker. I was a hostess, as well.



RASCOE: Did you lose a lot of people's coats?

CLARK: Maybe a couple of umbrellas but never a coat.


CLARK: But it was my first time to really peek in behind the scenes and see what the chefs were doing, and they knew I wanted to be a food writer at that point.

RASCOE: How does that happen? Like, how do you decide, I want to write about food?

CLARK: You know, it was funny because it was a long time ago. It was before food writing became a thing. You know, now it's a thing.

RASCOE: Yeah. It's a thing.

CLARK: Right. It's, like, a big thing. But back then, when I started out doing it, people would say, oh, you want to review restaurants?


CLARK: This was right at the beginning of food blogs coming out on the internet, and I was right there in that time. And I thought, along with a lot of other people, hey, you know, I want food to be my lens for looking at the world. I want food to be how I tell my story and how I tell other people's stories. To really understand someone and to understand their soul and their mind, I really feel like you need to see what they eat. You need to learn how...

RASCOE: Oh, my gosh.

CLARK: Right?

RASCOE: I don't want people looking at my soul about what I eat.


RASCOE: OK, so then I have to ask you what you eat. What does that say about yourself?

CLARK: Definitely says I grew up in Brooklyn.


CLARK: Especially if you catch me on a bagels and lox Sunday. But I think for me, really, what I want to show people in my cooking and what I want to show them about me and my culture is the idea of sharing and being together in the kitchen. That's the most important thing.

RASCOE: To get back to the food, even though it's not wrong, we will not be using garlic from a jar this time.

CLARK: Because I want the thin slices...


CLARK: ...And you can't buy those.

RASCOE: You can't buy those. Yeah.

CLARK: You just have to - and what's so great about the thinly sliced garlic is that it melts in the sauce, and it gets sweet...


CLARK: ...And that's what we're going for here. So...

RASCOE: So Melissa Clark gives me a garlic-slicing machine...


CLARK: Perfecto.

RASCOE: ...And pulls a 12-inch skillet off the wall. She adds olive oil and the sausage, which she squeezes out of the casing like toothpaste.


CLARK: So I'm just going to saute this sausage meat in some olive oil, and I'm going to let it get brown. So I'm breaking it up with the side of my wooden spoon so that more of it can get in contact with the oil, and it can get a nice brown crust on it 'cause that brown crust on the sausage is what's going to give you extra flavor.

RASCOE: Now you can hear the cooking of the sausage coming out. You got to talk like we're at the Masters.


RASCOE: It smells good. I haven't eaten today. I'm a little hungry.

While the sausage gets good and brown, we crush the fennel with a mortar and pestle.


CLARK: Now, I'm also going to add some salt right now, just a pinch of salt, and you're going to see I add salt in several stages.


CLARK: So I'm adding salt right now 'cause I want the garlic to absorb it.


CLARK: If you add salt as you go, it seasons it better rather than adding it all at once.

RASCOE: That's a gem.

CLARK: OK. And now I think it's tomato time.

RASCOE: Then it is tomato time with the optional bay leaves.

You obviously love to cook, but are there times when you're just, like, I'm over it?

CLARK: Oh, God, yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Hello, takeout?


RASCOE: What's your favorite takeout? Because people may think Melissa Clark doesn't do takeout.

CLARK: Oh, yeah. No, I totally do takeout. I like to do takeout on things that takeout does better than me, like sushi.

RASCOE: Oh, yeah.

CLARK: Takeout does sushi better than me. I'm, you know, not afraid to tell you.


RASCOE: Once that sauce has gotten nice and thick, we add the pasta.


RASCOE: Little, teeny, tiny shells. Really cute. Then we let it simmer a little bit more. Then fold in mozzarella, top with more mozzarella, spoonfuls of ricotta.

CLARK: And now we're going to sprinkle the parmesan cheese over the top.

RASCOE: Now we're getting parmesan.

CLARK: Yeah.

RASCOE: Now it's getting really good.

And stick the whole skillet in the oven to bake.


CLARK: And if you think that I'm just going to stand around...


CLARK: ...Then you do not know me.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

There is none of that in Melissa Clark's kitchen.

CLARK: Shall we count how many pots and pans I've used...


CLARK: ...And start cleaning up?

RASCOE: Yes. Yeah. Let's start doing that. Let's see. So we got the garlic slicer.

CLARK: Uh-huh.

RASCOE: In total, we used that garlic slicer, a knife, a wooden spoon, a measuring spoon, a mortar and pestle, a cutting board and the pan. For those of you following along at home, that makes a grand total of eight.

This does seem like a one-pan thing. This is legit. We have tested it.


RASCOE: But the ultimate test, of course, will be the taste.



RASCOE: When the cheese is brown and toasty on the top, we take the skillet out of the oven...

CLARK: Here we go. That's what I'm looking for. See - it's bubbling. Look at that bubbling action.

RASCOE: ...Add some basil from the garden and dig in on the back patio.

Very good. I like this sausage too with the cheese. Why am I chewing and talking? I shouldn't do that.

And so I won't do that. But if you want to try the recipe for cheesy baked pasta - and I will say it was delicious and also pretty easy - take it from me - though we did dip out before doing the dishes - you can find it on our website or in Melissa Clark's new cookbook "Dinner In One."

Thank you so much for allowing us to be in your kitchen, and I'm very proud of myself for the work that I did.


CLARK: I think you did half of the cooking, Ayesha.

RASCOE: No, you guided it, and this was a lot of fun.

CLARK: Oh, my gosh.

RASCOE: Thank you so much.

CLARK: Well, thank you for coming over. I loved it, and I'm glad we got to eat together.


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