'NYT Cooking' writer Melissa Clark wants to make it easier to cook dinner
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Like a lot of families, we've gotten in the habit at my house in recent years of trying recipes from The New York Times cooking website. And we've noticed that many of our favorites are written by Melissa Clark. Over time, many other friends have said the same thing. Hers are just reliably good. This shouldn't be a big surprise, really. Clark is the author of more than 40 cookbooks and winner of multiple James Beard and International Association of Culinary Professionals awards. She writes a weekly column for the Times called "A Good Appetite," and she regularly produces cooking videos. So we are delighted to have Melissa Clark on the show as she publishes her latest cookbook, "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One-Pan Meals." Melissa Clark, welcome to FRESH AIR.
MELISSA CLARK: Oh, it's so good to be here. Thank you.
DAVIES: This cookbook has everything from meatball subs to peanut-crusted tofu. What gave you the idea for this one-pan cookbook?
CLARK: Well, you know, I've always been interested in making my recipes accessible and simple for home cooks, I mean, because that's how I cook. I just love to, you know, cook my meal, to get into the chopping. But the one thing that I don't love is the cleanup. So as part of the way I always cook, I've always been figuring out, how can I streamline? How can I make this recipe easier? How do I eliminate a bowl or do everything on one sheet pan or in one skillet? And I've been doing this over the years. But for this book, I decided, you know what? I know I've been kind of doing this. I want to set a challenge, and I want to do one pot only, I mean, one-pot meals with - that are classics, you know? But we mostly think of one pots as being a stew or a soup. And I wanted to just do it across the board. Give me one vessel - a sheet pan - one of my favorites - an instant pot - another favorite - a skillet, a casserole dish. How do I do a meal that would normally take two or three pans and do it in one?
DAVIES: Right. And that's how the book is organized, just by the kind of pot you get. I mean, we should note that there will be a few other dishes here. Sometimes you cook something in the pan, and then, you put it in a plate and then do other things but, really, only one cooking pot when it's over. The first section of recipes is stuff that you do in a sheet pan. You feel sheet pans are kind of underappreciated, don't you?
CLARK: As soon as I saw a recipe - and I don't remember where I saw the recipe for the sheet pan, you know, meal. But I thought, OK, this is exactly how I want to cook because not only is it, you know, a one-pan meal, meaning less clean up, I also get to put everything on the pan, I get to put it in the oven, and then, I can forget about it until it's done, and I can do other things. And I love to just, you know, multitask. So my dinner is cooking in the oven, and I can be making my salad. I could be setting the table. I could be calling my mom. I could be, you know, answering those last emails. So I started doing those meals. And once you start cooking on a sheet pan, it's really fun to be able to puzzle it out. OK, I have - you know, I've got my chicken, and I've got my potatoes, and maybe I have some spinach. How do I put them on a sheet pan in a way that everything comes out at the same time? And this has just been my obsession for the past. I'd say - I think maybe about ten years, I started really getting into it.
DAVIES: You want to pick a favorite recipe and tell us about it?
CLARK: Can I just tell you about one that I'm really excited about...
CLARK: ...Right now?
DAVIES: Yeah. It doesn't have to be the favorite - just one you like. Yeah.
CLARK: This is what - the reason I love this recipe is because I feel like it's a constant work in progress. So the first recipe that I published for harissa chicken with potatoes was in The New York Times. And this was - you take sliced potatoes - you marinate the potatoes in the chicken with a harissa paste, some olive oil, garlic. You know, there's cumin in there. It's such a simple marinade. And you throw it on the sheet pan, and then, I finished it with a little bit of yogurt sauce. So that was recipe No. 1. Then, I published it again in my cookbook "Dinner: Changing The Game," and I changed it up a little bit. And I made it a little bit easier, and I made sure the potatoes were a little bit more crisp - you know, changing the timing. And I changed the garnish a little bit and added more herbs. So that was version No. 2.
The version that I am obsessed with right now is in "Dinner In One," and it is sheet pan potatoes with harissa and cauliflower instead of chicken. And so it's meatless, but it's still a full meal. And what makes this so exciting to me is that when you, you know, roast cauliflower at high heat, those little crevices get really crunchy and brown. And to me, they remind me of chicken skin. So I have the same flavorings. I have that harissa paste. I'm finishing it with the yogurt and the herbs. I've got those wonderful potatoes. But I have that texture of the chicken, but it's completely vegetarian. So this is like - this is just my obsession of the moment.
DAVIES: All right, good. So I want to a little talk about your life, your work routine. I mean, you are a busy woman. You know, you're writing this column, and you're constantly publishing new recipes that appear in the newsletter that people can get from The New York Times cooking website. And then, you've got, you know, the videos that you do. You know, we all have quotas in our work, some more formal than others. I mean, at FRESH AIR, we've got to come up with five quality interviews a week. How many new recipes do you feel like you need to come up with per - I don't know - a week, month? How's it measured?
CLARK: Yeah. So that's - well, so just for my column alone, it is, you know, 52 recipes a year, at least. That's the minimum. Often, there's more because I might do a column that has two or three recipes. So that's, like - say that's the minimum of about 60 recipes right there. Then, there's always extra recipes thrown in because I might report on a story that needs to have a few recipes. Let's just add a couple more there. So let's say we're up to 65 a year - so 65 recipes a year when I'm not writing a cookbook. But here's the thing: I'm always writing a cookbook on the side. So then, I need to come up with, say, another 50 recipes a year. So we're talking well over a hundred recipes a year.
DAVIES: Do you ever wonder if you'll run out of ideas?
CLARK: No, 'cause think about every meal you've ever had, right? I mean, there's always a different way to do it. There's always a slight variation that makes it a whole new meal. I love playing with my old recipes and changing them. I love playing with new things. You know, I'm the kind of person where if I go to the market and I see an ingredient I've never seen before or I've never used before, I will buy it and take it home and figure it out. And luckily, there is an entire internet to tell me what to do with something I don't know what to do with. So for me, the fun of my work is figuring out how to put tastes together and how to come up with new things. It's just - I don't know. I think about it all the time, too, you know? It's not even when I'm working, you know? I'll just be walking down the street, and I'll just think, gosh, you know, what would it be like if I took, say, roasted apples and I paired it with salmon? Has - what would that be like? Would that be too sweet? Would that be good? How do I make the apples a little bit sour? You know, it's like I'm already starting to think about a recipe just because I've passed, you know, a pile of apples, you know, in the supermarket window or something.
DAVIES: So I've read that you cook pretty much at home, right? That's where you do your work - and that you have a recipe tester who comes into the house some days. What does the tester do?
CLARK: OK, so I have someone who comes in once a week. And all of the recipes that I create for publication, they start with something that I've cooked at home. So say that I'm making dinner for my family and we're having a roasted - whole roasted fish. And I've put, you know, lemon, and I've put herbs in the middle. And I think this would be a really good, simple recipe, a whole roasted trout with lemon and herbs. Let's have that for a recipe for the Times. And I'll cook it for dinner, and then, I'll write down what I do. And one really important part of my process is I have a notebook in the kitchen. And - because if I don't write it down while I'm cooking, I will absolutely forget it. By the time dinner is over and I've had my wine and I've cleaned up everything, I don't remember exactly what I've done. So you have to have that notebook in the kitchen.
I take those notes - if the dish was good, if it came out well - and then, I type them into a recipe. So I already have the starting point. And then, when the recipe tester - right now, I'm working with a wonderful woman named Sofia. When Sofia comes over, she and I look over the recipe. We're like, OK, here's where to start. And she's going to cook it. And at the same time, we're going to be talking about it. Like, hey; you know, those herbs - like, what if we did - instead of just doing the simple herbs, what if we did it a little bit, you know, more - just a little bit more sophisticated and we made a chimichurri, right? And we added lime to the chimichurri. And so the recipe is evolving. And so it starts off as dinner. It becomes this movable thing. And then we come up at the end of the day, we've got this recipe that we think is pretty good. And then the question is, well, how do we make it better? And so we do it again, or we'll do it the next time she comes. And we'll say, well, OK, what if we did - what if we just increase the oven temperature by 25 degrees, just to make the skin a little crispy? Or what if we added just a little bit of lemon along with the lime? Does that make it, you know, a little bit rounder in the citrus flavors of the chimichurri?
And the way that we know a recipe is done is when we have cooked all day long, we've been eating all day long, but we're standing in front of that dish of food, and we just can't stop eating. Then we know the recipe is done. And that could take, you know, we could - it could take as little as two times testing it, or sometimes it can take, like, six or seven. For desserts, it often will take, like, 10 because desserts are really hard (laughter), and you have to just change one thing at a time. So for a baked good, or a custard, or an ice cream, it's a little more involved.
And then once the recipe is exactly where we think it - if we think it's perfect, then sometimes I will send that out to another professional tester who tests in her own home. And that way we see, well, you know, is her stove different? Are her ingredients different? And we'll get her feedback. So it really depends. But for the most part, it is between two and, say, six tests.
DAVIES: So you - so do you do several iterations in a day? You make it...
DAVIES: ...Make it again, make it...
DAVIES: ...Make it again?
CLARK: ...Sometimes, but, you know, sometimes it's better not to because we're kind of sick of those flavors. We're like, oh, let's not - no, we can't eat more fish. We got to move on to the pumpkin custard or (laughter), you know, it's like, here we go, we got to go to the - we got to do the pasta now, or the macaroni and cheese. We like to mix it up in that way. Also, another thing is we always have a lot of leftovers at the end of the day. So it's good if they're not just, like, six plates of trout.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. We are speaking with Melissa Clark. She's a food writer and cookbook author, a staff writer for The New York Times food section. Her new cookbook is called "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One-Pan Meals". We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark. Her latest cookbook is "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One Pan Meals".
You know, my wife and I got your cookbook last week. We immediately said, we got to try one and we cooked the farro with crispy spiced chickpeas and tomatoes and leeks. And it was really delicious. And when you look at the page, there's quite a bit of text there. And it, you know, and one of the things my wife said that she likes about your recipes is that you are very specific about it. You know, it's not just cook it over medium high heat for 10 minutes. It's like, wait till it looks like this, or tastes like this, or feels like this. Is that something that you've kind of learned over time that you need to do?
CLARK: Yes. You know, it's funny. It's like walking the line. I always - I want the recipes, I want you to open the book and look at a recipe and think, I can make that. That's simple. So I don't want it to be too cluttered. I want to be concise, but at the same time, I want to give you and your wife enough information to make the recipe so that it will come out delicious. So it's always this, like, what - how do I edit it? How do I make it shorter, shorter, shorter, but then with enough detail to make it absolutely foolproof no matter what. Like, even if you skip a step, like, you're reading quickly, you're still going to be able to figure it out. So that's always walking the line. And, you know, the thing about it is I changed the way I write recipes. The way I write recipes now is different from a few years ago because I keep learning. I keep learning what people need to know, what they want to know, and how they want recipes to be written.
DAVIES: Yeah, I was going to ask, can you think of an occasion where people cooked stuff and you realized, oh boy, I wasn't clear enough about this (laughter).
CLARK: Totally. That happens all the time. And the biggest thing is salt. How do I tell people who use different kinds of salt all across the country, all across the world how much salt to add to a dish? I'm using a particular brand. I love Diamond Crystal salt. Why do I love it? I'm used to it. I feel like the salt that you love is the salt you're used to. I can pick it up and I know exactly how much is in my pinch. And however, Morton's kosher salt, which is a lot easier to get in different parts of the country, is a lot heavier. So when I say teaspoon of kosher salt, if you're using Morton's, it's going to come out way too salty. So I - do I tell you to buy a particular brand? That's annoying. You don't want to have to go out and look for salt, a salt brand that you can't easily buy.
Or do I say, well, if you're using Morton's, use this much, and if you're using Diamond Crystal, use this much. That's also annoying because that's too much text on the page. And what if you're using fine sea salt? So this is, like, a work in progress for me, but it's something that I obsess over, I think about, I talk to people about, and I'm still trying to come up with the right combination of giving enough information so that I make sure that you don't oversalt your dish, but also making sure that the thing in your pan is flavorful and it tastes alive.
DAVIES: I have to tell you about a favorite dish of mine of yours. This is the - it's ginger scallion chicken, which I've made so many times. I think of it as my signature dish.
CLARK: I love that. I love that you think of that. That's my goal.
DAVIES: It's just that good. And I'll just briefly describe it. It's a chicken dish. It's cooked in a wok. You begin by, you know, cooking the chicken quickly, like 3 to 5 minutes till it's not pink anymore with some kosher salt. But before you do that, you take a couple of scallions and you slice - you quarter them lengthwise and then cut them into, like, one and a half inch squares. And you separate the white scale ends of the scallions from the green ones. So you cook the chicken, you put it on a plate, and then you take the green ends of the scallions - fresh, put them on top of the chicken along with a cup of chopped cilantro, set it aside. Then you take some oil, and you put the ginger in - it's three tablespoons of ginger. And you specify that you cut that ginger into little matchsticks about an inch long, so that's what I do. And I do that.
DAVIES: You get those golden brown. Then you put in the white scallions and some soy sauce and a pinch of sugar. You cook it. You pour that over the chicken that already has the cilantro and green scallions, and it is so good. It is just so good. But as I've done this, I thought, now, how did she figure this - the order of things? This goes on fresh. That doesn't. You know, the ginger in matchsticks - this is the kind of thing you do with different iterations again and again.
CLARK: Yeah. Well, so that actually - that recipe is actually a recipe that I got from a former recipe tester of mine. It was her mother's recipe. And so this is a - it's actually a pretty classic Chinese dish for the - and so the matchsticks are classic. And what's great about this dish is that I wouldn't have thought to do matchsticks for the ginger because, to me, matchsticks for ginger - like, you really need a reason - I need a reason to tell you to take the time to cut those little ginger slices in...
DAVIES: (Laughter) It's not easy.
CLARK: Because it's not easy. It takes time, right? The payoff needs to be big. So part of my job is, is there enough reward at the end to make it satisfying that if you're going to cut those little matchsticks, there's a reason? And there is a reason - right? - because when you get them, they're chewy. They're crispy. They add the right amount of ginger flavor and the right texture, because, you know, if you grate ginger really finely, it adds a ton of flavor. It's very intense. But if you cut it into matchsticks, it's much milder. So you can use more. So then you can have that texture of the ginger as well. So it's really very important to do them. And I wouldn't tell you - I mean, I don't like fussy recipes. I don't like fussy instructions. And if I'm fussy, there is a really good reason for it. And you named the perfect recipe. Like, that is the recipe that might have one fussy step. And the payoff makes it worth it.
DAVIES: Do you ever have a dish that you just can't get right and have to walk away from?
CLARK: Oh, yeah. Yes. Oh, I had - in fact, I just had one. So you know, we're working right now - at The Times, we're doing Thanksgiving already. I know it's just October, but this is how - you know, this is how we have to do it. And I've been - I was having trouble trying to do a pumpkin whipped cream. So we're going to be doing this butterscotch pumpkin custard. The custard is so good. You do it in a big, you know, gratin dish or a casserole dish. So you can just put this whole, beautiful custard down at the table. And then, on top, I really wanted to do a pumpkin whipped cream. And I'd say it worked 50% of the time. And I could not figure out why.
I think that it had to do with the variations in the different canned pumpkin brands or maybe the - even just the different canned pumpkins, the acidity of that particular can or the amount of moisture in that particular can. And I just thought, you know what? I can't do this. I cannot give a recipe that is so unreliable. People would hate me because you want - you know, especially when you're cooking for Thanksgiving, it has to be 100%. So I ended up adding a little more pumpkin to the custard itself, so there's more pumpkin presence in the pudding. And then I did regular whipped cream on top. And it is still delicious. It's not exactly the dish that I had, you know, pitched to my editor. But it is a much safer bet for everybody, you know, who's cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
DAVIES: All right. So Melissa Clark's kitchen - we have the tester coming in. And you're, you know, doing dishes all day, hoping to get them just right. At the end of the day, you got a lot of food. Where - is it your family? Do you split it up? Where does it go?
CLARK: Yeah, we split it up. So we have kind of a crazy network of people who get the food. And (laughter) it's - we feed a lot of people, which is great. Well, first of all, my mother lives in Brooklyn, not too far from me. And unfortunately, she no longer cooks. So a lot of the food goes to her. Of course, my tester takes home to her family. My tester has a grandmother in her 90s, so, you know, her grandma gets a lot of the food, and then just my family - my husband and my daughter, our neighbors. Our neighbors are often, you know, the recipients of, hey; want a cake? Hey; got any - you want some pumpkin custard? So it travels. It travels, but never more than, you know, a two-block radius.
DAVIES: So there are cooking days, I've read, and days where you write. I mean, you've always been a writer. And writing is a big part of what you do. And I read that one of the things you do when you have a writing day is you spend time calling your sources, which kind of hit me. And I used to be a political reporter. And I would call sources for inside dope on what's going on all the time. What kind of people do you call for sources? And what kind of information do you get?
CLARK: Well, you know, a lot of what I do at the Times is reported work as well. So it's not so much that I'm calling people necessarily for recipes. Although, I absolutely do that. But usually, when I'm calling sources, I'll be calling people to report a story on, say - I did a big story on merroir and oysters. So I was calling oyster farmers to talk about, you know, how their particular way of farming oysters affects the flavor. Or I did another story on kelp, on how kelp is one of the most sustainable foods you can eat. It's great for ocean health. It is very good for you. So I would call scientists to talk about health and nutrition and, you know, kelp nutrition. I would call kelp farmers to talk about, you know, how they harvested. And of course, on all of - I was also going to these places and seeing them. But, you know, usually, when I do my reported stories, if I go, say, to Maine to talk to kelp farmers and I'm out on a boat, I'm - my note-taking, it's a little hard, you know? You're on a boat, like...
DAVIES: Yeah (laughter).
CLARK: ...Cold, wind. So I always call and I do, you know, a lot of interviewing after the fact. So I try to - and I try to do all of my testing on one day and my phone and my sitting work and my writing on another day just because - you know how you get in the groove of something? And I'm really bad at dividing things up. I'm bad at doing an hour of this and an hour of that. So I try to keep them separate. And it also just makes more sense on my cooking days because if I have my recipe tester come in, then we work - you know, we are working every second of that day on those recipes.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Melissa Clark. She's a food writer and cookbook author. She's a staff writer for The New York Times food section, where she writes the weekly column A Good Appetite. She has a new cookbook titled "Dinner In One: Easy And Exceptional One-Pan Meals" (ph). She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark. She writes a weekly column titled "A Good Appetite" in The New York Times food section. She also produces regular cooking videos. Her latest cookbook is "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One-Pan Meals."
You like to go to restaurants. You get ideas there?
CLARK: Oh, yeah. Restaurants are essential. You know, that was part of the thing that was so hard during the pandemic, was not going to restaurants and not getting those ideas because chefs think in completely different ways from home cooks. I truly believe that they just - their brains just light up in different places. And I love to go to restaurants and see what they're doing. And, you know, often, you'll go to a restaurant, and you'll have this amazing plate of food, and there'll be, you know, six things on the plate. There'll be the - you know, the pork fillet, and there'll be the vegetable garnish and the sauce and all of this. And I could take one element of that dish, like just the vegetable garnish or just the sauce, and do an entire dish of that from that. Like, wow. You know, I - and it's just the way that they combine things in ways that I wouldn't have thought of. So going to restaurants, super important plus super fun plus then I don't have to cook, and that's really nice.
DAVIES: You say that professional chefs, their brains light up in different ways from home cooks. Different from your brain, too? I mean, you've been doing this a long time.
CLARK: Yeah, no, definitely. Yeah, you know, they - it's a different discipline. I really believe it. And I also think that when chefs - when professional chefs cook at home - I've heard this from a lot of them - they cook - they really cook differently. I mean, it's a different - to be able to go into a restaurant and do food service for, you know, 60 covers, 80 covers, 200 covers is completely different from cooking for a family of four or six or even eight. And the way that you have to think about how to create the meal and how to get the food out, it's just - you're flexing different muscles.
So for me, when I can see what they do on this large scale in this - and usually a slightly more elevated way - but not always. Sometimes, you know, I'm getting ideas from, you know, corner - you know, really simple restaurants, corner restaurants that are just, you know, in my neighborhood 'cause I get ideas everywhere. But when - you know, when you can just take a moment and really think about what you're eating and think about how those flavors go together and not just flavors, but textures, and how everything works on a plate and you just can take a few of those elements and bring them into your home cooking - I think home cooks can do this as well. It's just about paying attention.
A lot of it is garnishing, you know? I mean, I - you know, I had this - I have this one recipe. It's for this cherry tomato pasta where you soften the cherry tomatoes in oil and you add a cup of herbs. And when I first published that recipe at NYT Cooking, there were so many comments. A cup of herbs? A cup of herbs? Like, that just seemed like too much for people. But then, you add it, and you think, oh, no, actually, this is exactly the right amount, and it tastes great. And I got that from restaurants, you know, just, again, seeing, like, wow, they're using a lot more garnish than I would at home. And they're - and, you know - and they're mixing it up. They're not just using one type of herb. Maybe they're using, like, five different kinds. And can I - what can I take from that and, you know, incorporate it into my own recipe?
DAVIES: Yeah, like the cilantro that we put on that - my favorite - ginger-scallion chicken. It's a lot, right? And it...
CLARK: Yeah, right? Is it, like, a cup (laughter)?
DAVIES: It's - I forget whether it's cup or a half-cup. It's a lot, and it's right. It really brings it all alive. You know, you don't do this anymore, but for a long time, you would write cookbooks with well-known chefs. What was that like?
CLARK: Oh, I loved writing cookbooks with chefs because here's the thing about chefs. Every single chef does it - they're - differently, you know? Like, you think - or at least I always thought there was, like, one technique, you know? Like, there was one way to chop an onion or one way to peel garlic or just, like, this one way that you would make a sauce. And it turns out that every single chef has their own way of doing it, and they're all different. But the best thing is that they're all right.
So learning from chefs, I learned how, you know, to cook their food - different techniques. But then I also learned to trust myself because, like, well, you know, it works for them. They're all doing it differently. So why don't I do the thing that works for me? And then, I - and so I've taken that lesson, and I've tried to, you know, tell everybody else out there, you know what? Hey; guess what? You may not be a trained professional chef. But you know what you like to eat, and you're doing it your way, and people are really liking it. So just keep doing it that way, and have confidence.
DAVIES: You know, I know that you like to explore cuisine from a lot of different places. Do you have to be careful when you do your own take with a traditional recipe because, you know, some may be, you know, offended that you're violating a traditional culture or being inauthentic? And I guess - does this happen?
CLARK: Yeah, well, this has happened. I don't know if you've heard about the pea guacamole story.
DAVIES: I've heard about the pea guacamole. Tell us about the pea guacamole (laughter).
CLARK: Let me tell you about the pea guacamole story. So this was not my recipe. This was a recipe I reported on. It was Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant ABC Cocina at Union Square. And in his kitchen, the recipe - they served a pea guacamole. So it was avocados and green peas from the farmer's market, which was, you know, right by his restaurant at Union Square. And the thing about the peas in the guacamole, they fix the color so you can do it a little ahead because, you know, guacamole quickly turns brown if you just use avocado, right? But if you put green peas, it really fixes that color. It adds sweetness. It's delicious. It just - you don't really - you know, you don't - actually, texturally, you're not really aware of the peas. But in terms of color and the sweet flavor, I thought it was a great dish. So I reported on his dish, gave the recipe, didn't hear anything for a couple years. And then, somebody at the Times tweeted, put peas in your guacamole. Trust us. And that was a problem.
CLARK: Then, I heard from everybody from the Twitterverse including President Obama and Jeb Bush, and both of them thought it was a very bad idea to put peas in guacamole. In fact, most people think it's a very bad idea. But I stand by it. I think it is great. I think the problem with that tweet was that it didn't bring in the context of the recipe. It didn't say, this is a famous chef who has his spin on a traditional recipe. I mean, it was a little bit careless.
And I think when you are changing a beloved recipe and you are adapting it, you need to do it with respect. And you need to really think about, first of all, why are you doing it? Is there a reason? You need to explain that reason off the top. You need to tell people what the original dish is, you know, so that people don't think you're just not aware of what the authentic dish is. And if you respect a dish, if you are careful with the way you present it, I do believe that you can make some changes to make it your own as long as you are completely transparent about, you know, I have changed this dish, and this is why, and this is my vision, with great respect, you know, to the original.
DAVIES: A kitchen is the place that everybody in the family uses. Everybody's comfortable there and, you know, spends time there. Your kitchen is also your workplace. Do you have rules for your husband and daughters' use of the kitchen?
CLARK: Oh, no. They have rules for me.
DAVIES: What are they?
CLARK: So, well, you know, by 6 o'clock, everything needs to be cleaned up, put away. And the kitchen needs to become our space again. And one of the things that is really important to my husband, especially, is he wants to feel like it's his space, too. You know, he doesn't want to feel like he's interrupting us. So that's something that is - it's actually been a little bit hard to navigate. But we have the rules. You know, the rules are in place, and they work really well. But as long as I'm done by 6, as long as by 6 o'clock, you know, my assistant is packed up, out the door, the kitchen is clean, and then we can have our family time in there. And that's - I mean, and that's - it's important to me, too, because I want - I mean, I love being in the kitchen. That's where I want to be with my family. I don't want to be reminded that it is just a workplace. I don't want it to be cluttered. I want it to be a place of peace and calm and amazing food.
DAVIES: Wave the wand, and it's home again.
CLARK: Well, spend half an hour cleaning up at the minimum (laughter).
DAVIES: Yeah, clean it up and then wave the wand.
CLARK: Make sure everything goes away.
DAVIES: Now, after a day of cooking, do you want to cook for your family? Or do others in the family take the apron for a night and cook or what?
CLARK: Well, usually, since I've been cooking all day, there's lots of food.
DAVIES: There's lots of food, right.
CLARK: But, you know, when I'm - you know, there are some days when I will do a little cooking in the kitchen and a little bit of writing. And even so, I'll still want to cook at the end of the day, you know? And I think especially - I felt particularly this way during the pandemic, the divide between work life and home life, between work and relaxation. Like, when do you turn it off, right? When do you just say, I am done and I need to stop? And, you know, if you cook all day and then you cook dinner, there has to be a divide. So for me, it's like a glass of wine or a cocktail or a piece of music or a sitting down for 10 minutes and just chatting, you know. And we would always sort of figure out, like, what is that thing today? But it was like this ritual. OK, here we are. It is 6 o'clock and I'm turning off, and how am I going to transition?
DAVIES: We are speaking with Melissa Clark. She's a food writer and cookbook author. She's a staff writer for The New York Times food section. And she writes the weekly column A Good Appetite. Her new cookbook is called "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One-Pan Meals." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New York Times food writer and cookbook author Melissa Clark. Her new cookbook is "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One-Pan Meals." Let's talk a little bit about your background. You grew up in Brooklyn, right? Your parents were both psychiatrists. Is that right?
CLARK: Yep. That is right.
DAVIES: When did you begin to think deeply about food and get interested in it?
CLARK: Oh, always, always. It was - you know, food was our family language. And I think there are a lot of families out there who can relate. It's like we were the kind of family that communicated in food, you know. Like, we'd sit down to breakfast, and we'd talk about what to have for dinner. And we'd sit down for dinner one night, and we'd talk about what we were going to eat the next night. And if we ever had anything to say to one another, it was always over dinner. You know, food was - it was a lubricant. It made it more fun to talk because we were always enjoying a meal together. It made it easier to talk because you could focus on not just the words but the whole experience. It put us at ease, you know.
And it was - it's funny. It was such a way of communicating that when I met my husband and he would come home from work, I would say, what did you have for lunch? And he would say, I'm fine. How was your day, honey? And I was like - and to me, asking him what he had for lunch was me saying, you know, how was your day? How are you? Did you take care of yourself? Did you feed your body? How are you? But it took me a long time to actually just say so how was your day? And now he says to me - he'll say, hey; my day was fine. And by the way, I had tuna for lunch, so...
DAVIES: So you went to Columbia and - or you went to Barnard first, right?
CLARK: Barnard, then Columbia, yeah.
DAVIES: Then Columbia. And you got an MFA in writing. And I gather writing was kind of a career choice apart from food, that you knew you wanted to write. And then at some point, you started a catering company. This is a pretty ambitious thing for a young person to do.
CLARK: Yeah. Well, you know, it wasn't like - I wouldn't say it was a catering company, but I - when I was at Columbia doing my MFA, I noticed that all of the dissertation part - you know, you'd have these dissertation gatherings, these receptions, and all of the professors would get their catered food. They'd get these plates from the deli down the street. And I thought, that deli down the street's making an awful lot of money. I could do that. I could make these little, you know, fancy little hors d'oeuvre cheese plates, and I could make that money. And, you know, I was fancier than the deli down the street. I mean, I boiled purple potatoes and cut them in half and put smoked trout mousse on them. And it was all fancy. And so I had this little company basically just for Columbia professors. But it was great because I learned a lot.
And then I started doing a little bit of private chefing in professors' homes. I started doing small parties in their homes. And then it culminated at a wedding. I did a friend's wedding and - 150 people in Pennsylvania. And that was way out of my league. I was not a professional enough caterer. And I remember we got a - we made all the food. We got to the wedding site, and there were no tables. There were no prep tables. They assumed we would bring them. I didn't think enough - I hadn't done it before. I didn't know that we were supposed to bring them. And so we had to spread everything out on the floor. It was horrible. I was on my hands and knees making little petit four plates. I thought, I'm never doing this again.
DAVIES: Were the couple OK with what...
CLARK: Yeah. I mean, the food was beautiful. It was all - I mean, we put down big - you know, we had these - luckily, we had these big tons of plastic, you know, tarps. So it was all fine. We were able - but it was just we were on our hands and knees putting together these plates. It was - and we had some tables. We just didn't have enough tables.
DAVIES: How'd you get to The New York Times?
CLARK: You know, isn't it all about being in the right place at the right time? I - a friend of mine knew the editor of the brand-new Dining In Dining Out section. She was his assistant, and she helped him write a book that he co-authored with Pierre Franey, who at that point was the 60-minute gourmet at the Times. And she went on vacation. She gave me her job while she was away. I struck up a friendship with this editor. And a few years later, he called me and he said, you know, we have this little thing, this column called the Food Chain. And are you interested in writing it? And what it was was - and this was back in 1987 - you know, back before wikiHow, if you wanted to know how to beat egg whites until they were frothy, you know, or until they held stiff peaks, you actually wrote a letter to the Times, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, mailed it, and then I would open this letter, and I would write the reply, and we would publish it. And it was called the Food Chain.
And that was actually my first byline. It was about whipping egg whites. And I remember my mother was so excited. She saw my name in the Times, and she called me up. And she goes, did they pay you for that? And so I joked with her. I was like, no, Mom, I had to send a $25 check to make sure that they spelled my name right. But, of course, they did pay me. I mean, I was just kidding her. But it was like this, you know, that was my first New York Times byline. And I just hung around. I just - I wouldn't leave. Every time they asked me to do something, I said yes, no matter what. And eventually, I started freelancing for them quite regularly. And then in 2007, I started the column. Pete Wells was the editor. Actually, before he was the critic, he was the editor of the section. And he asked me to start the column. And so that's when "A Good Appetite" started.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. You know, I began your introduction by saying how, in our house, we've realized that. Melissa Clark recipes are good, and other people see them too. You know, it's funny because you like people who serve you a good meal. You inspire a lot of other people to serve their friends and family good meals. And this is in the, you know, maybe millions of people for you by now. That must feel kind of cool.
CLARK: My favorite thing is when someone says, I made your X recipe and it was delicious, but I changed 50 things of it. That is what I love to hear. I love people who take my recipes and change them and just, you know, make it their own. To me, that's the best. Because I know that I've not inspired - just inspiring someone to cook, but I'm inspiring someone to play with the recipe. You know, because I don't know - I mean, it's like, I know what I like. And I make recipes for the foods I like. But people like different things.
DAVIES: You know, you're an omnivore. You eat all kinds of stuff. But, you know, you're eating less meat. This book, you know, half of the recipes are meatless. Are there kind of ways you're kind of trying to nudge Americans in terms of diet and nutrition?
CLARK: Yes, I have this - I actually have a whole - it's not very secret - but I have an agenda. I want people to eat less meat. I want people to enjoy the meat that they're eating more and focus on it. I think that when we eat meat, we need to pay attention. And we need to enjoy every bite of it and not take it for granted because it is a precious resource. Plus, I think vegetables, I mean, I love vegetables. I'm happy when I'm eating more of them. I think I feel better when I eat more of them. So for our health, I want people to eat more vegetables. For our planet, I want people to eat less meat and more vegetables. And I also think it's one of the most delicious ways to eat. So this is what I'm pushing.
I'm also trying to get people to eat sustainable things that they don't necessarily think that they like, like shellfish. Some of the most sustainable ocean food that you can eat is shellfish - mussels, clams, oysters. People can be intimidated. They think that they're hard to make. And I'm trying to get people to eat more of them and to make it friendly and maybe eat fewer species that are endangered. So this is just, you know, I mean, and the way I can do that is I can write recipes that help people get there.
DAVIES: Melissa Clark, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CLARK: Oh, thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Melissa Clark is a staff writer for the New York Times Food section, where she writes the weekly column "A Good Appetite" and produces cooking videos. Her latest cookbook is "Dinner In One: Exceptional And Easy One-Pan Meals."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S EAT HOME")
DAVE FRISHBERG: (Singing) I like to stroll on the Costa del Sol at sunrise. And to me, Waikiki is the place to be speaking fun wise. I like to dine in a Florentine palazzo. You can laugh and call me fatso. That's OK by me. I like to stick with the first-class ticket buyers, setting trends with my trendsetting friends, the frequent flyers. I like to shop on the Champs-Elysees, eat curry and old Bombay, and spend New Year's Eve in either Tel Aviv or Rome. But if it's all the same to you, let's eat home.
DAVIES: That's the late Dave Frishberg from his album "Let's Eat Home." Coming up, John Powers reviews "RRR," the wildly popular Indian film he calls an epic action bromance. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARY BURTON'S "MOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.