AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Alison Roman wants you to chill out. Roman is a chef and food writer best known for her viral recipes and social media charm. In 2017, she published her first cookbook, "Dining In." Today she's a food writer for The New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine. And she's out with a new cookbook called "Nothing Fancy."
My co-host Ailsa Chang invited her over to talk about the new book and to cook some no-stress dishes.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: "Nothing Fancy" has a simple premise - don't think of cooking for others as high-stakes entertaining. You're simply having people over.
But simply having people over - that is not something I do. I have all kinds of insecurities about hosting dinner parties.
So totally full disclosure, I am your exact audience because I was so anxious about hosting you in my own personal kitchen...
ALISON ROMAN: Yeah.
CHANG: ...That my editor rescued me and offered up her kitchen.
ROMAN: Oh, my God. That's a...
CHANG: That's why we are here.
Here so I can finally learn how to cook for others without freaking out. We wander over to the dining room table, and I ask her about the whole philosophy behind "Nothing Fancy."
ROMAN: I feel like taking the word entertaining out of something just immediately alleviates anxiety because what I realized is also when you rebrand it as having people over, it not only makes you feel less anxious but your guests. I feel like if somebody invites me to a formal dinner party, I freak out about what to wear. What should I bring? How do I behave? But if someone's like, oh, it's casual; just come over, me, as a guest, I feel better. So I feel like it's mutually beneficial for everybody involved to kind of relax a little bit.
CHANG: It's so true. You soak up the energy of what the host is emitting.
ROMAN: Oh, yeah. I always felt it's like an animal that smells fear or something.
ROMAN: Like, I feel like that if you as the host are stressed out, your guests are not going to have that good of a time.
CHANG: What I also loved is that when I was reading your book, I felt like it was in part, like, a self-help book.
ROMAN: I've heard that a lot actually...
ROMAN: ...Which is - yeah - very funny to me.
CHANG: There's this one line that jumped out at me. It was, this is not about living an aspirational life. It's about living an attainable one. I felt like even just in the introduction, you're coaxing people to give themselves permission to let all their imperfections hang out there, invite people over to take in those imperfections...
CHANG: ...And be OK with that.
ROMAN: Yeah. I think that the way that we live in our homes alone or with our partners or families, we're very comfortable there. This is the space we've created. We feel good about it. We like that the books are stacked and piled on top of each other. We like that our pants mismatch and - because it's our home, and that's how we've curated it.
ROMAN: But all of a sudden, when we invite outsiders in, we're worried about all that stuff.
CHANG: Right. Well, it suddenly feels like an exhibit.
ROMAN: We, like, panic that maybe it's not right or - yeah.
CHANG: Yeah. Are you going to judge me by my space?
ROMAN: Exactly. And I think that increasingly in our world where - you know, I hate to bring up the word but Instagram is, like, the metric by which we judge ourselves. You know, I feel like from what we wear to what our homes look like to how our food should be, we're holding ourselves to these really insane standards. And I feel like they're not rooted in reality. So for me, I wanted this book to kind of serve as a reality check of, like, it's going to be OK. It's fine no matter what happens. Just having the people in your home and, like, opening a bottle of wine, roasting a chicken, that's great. That's all you need.
CHANG: I love that. All right, you need to teach me your ways.
ROMAN: I will (laughter). I will. I will do my best.
CHANG: OK, so we decided to make two recipes from the book - frizzled chickpeas and onions with feta and marjoram and roasted squash with yogurt and spiced, buttered pistachios. First up, the squash.
ROMAN: So if I'm doing this for a party, or for anything, really, I always think, OK, what's going to take the longest, and let's do that first. And so...
ROMAN: Yeah. So the squash, because it's inactive time, right? So we're going to cut it. We're going to roast it. I don't need to pay attention to it while it's in the oven. So I can get that going now and then can take care of everything else.
CHANG: She cut the squash into these thick slices, placed them on a baking sheet, smothered them in olive oil and then added some fresh black pepper.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEPPER GRINDING)
CHANG: After that, she popped them in the oven.
(SOUNDBITE OF OVEN BEEPING)
ROMAN: Ooh, the oven's ready. So that's in. I'm not worried. I already feel great. I feel like when you are having people over, just doing one thing, you're like, oh, I feel like I can relax. So just start the process. And worst comes to worst, we have roasted squash, you know? We already know we'll have one thing to eat.
CHANG: Right. Exactly.
ROMAN: So everything else is a luxury at this point.
CHANG: And then on to the chickpeas - she adds chopped onions to a bath of olive oil simmering on the stove.
ROMAN: So as those go in, I'm going to peel my garlic, slice it and add it to the onion so they can kind of toast along with it.
CHANG: I hate peeling garlic.
CHANG: It's just so painstaking. I cheat, and I buy the peeled garlic stuff at grocery stores. How terrible is that? You look shocked. You look like you're judging me. I thought this was about not judging.
ROMAN: You're right. I will say, that I'm judging you for.
CHANG: All right, so while the chickpeas are browning, I take a minute to ask Alison if there's anything about cooking that does stress her out.
ROMAN: I am a pretty anxious person. And I think that cooking is one of the few things that doesn't actually stress me out anymore.
CHANG: I'm curious, though. Has your relationship with cooking changed since you've gotten more and more well-known? Because there is literally, like, a recipe called the stew...
CHANG: ...That you wrote - as in, the definitive stew. You are now Alison Roman, maker of the stew.
ROMAN: I am. That's me.
CHANG: Is it hard to be easygoing, be yourself, whatever Alison Roman, when now you have this big reputation, and people kind of expect you to be a certain way in the dishes you make, the attitude you exude in the kitchen?
ROMAN: Yeah. I think that if anything, I feel more empowered to be myself than I ever have before because what I realized with "Dining In," when I first published that book, I was like, everyone is going to love this book. How can they not? It's an amazing book. And when it came out, guess what? I was not. I was not everyone's favorite. People were like, I don't like her writing voice, or the recipes or too this or not enough that. And I was like, oh, I'll never be everything to everybody.
CHANG: That's right.
ROMAN: I will never be everybody's cup of tea. I will never be for everyone.
CHANG: I deal with the same realization.
ROMAN: One-hundred percent. And if you just let that go and you're like, well, the people that I am for are really going to support me and like me.
ROMAN: And the people that aren't don't have to read me or pay attention.
ROMAN: I'm smelling the squash. Are you?
CHANG: So pretty.
ROMAN: Aren't they nice?
CHANG: That looks like fall.
ROMAN: Yeah. And notice how all those seeds get really nice and toasted. They're going to be so good and crunchy, which is my favorite texture of food. I want - if it's a soft food, I'm not that interested. If you'll notice, everything I make is like crunchy or frizzled or frazzled or toasted. Yeah. I love that texture. And she's ready.
CHANG: It is time to plate. She stacks squash on a bed of lemony Greek yogurt and douses it in a mixture of spiced browned butter and chopped pistachios. I crumble feta over the chickpeas and onions and finish off the dish with fresh sprigs of marjoram. And then it is time to dig in.
ROMAN: Just kind of, like, break off a piece. And then drag it through the yogurt. Make sure you get some of those pistachio.
CHANG: I love it because it's oozy and crunchy at the same time.
CHANG: This was so much fun. Alison Roman, thank you so much for cooking with me.
ROMAN: Oh, my God. This was an actual dream. And I was so happy to do it. Thank you for having me.
CHANG: Alison Roman's new book is called "Nothing Fancy." You can find the full recipes for her roasted squash and frizzled chickpeas and onions at npr.org - just in time for your holiday parties. And tomorrow, you will hear some more ideas for impressive side dishes from three chefs from three different parts of the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF JENS LEKMAN SONG, "THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH")
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