The best kitchen wisdom from our favorite cookbook authors

After a year of cooking Quick & Dirty, we've learned a few things

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published February 19, 2022 5:30PM (EST)

Decorating a cake with chocolate ganache (Getty Images/kaz_c)
Decorating a cake with chocolate ganache (Getty Images/kaz_c)

Thanks to the incredible array of authors who've had cookbooks come out in the past twelve months, I've made some of the best meals and most mind-blowing desserts of my life over the past year,. Some of them were legends like Nigella Lawson and Lidia Bastianich; some were debut authors like Joshua Weissman and Molly Baz. From their books, I've gained new family favorite recipes and clever tips. And from our conversations for Salon, I've gained insight into ways good cooks approach the eternal questions of what to eat and how to prepare it.

As Quick & Dirty celebrates its first birthday, I thought it would be illuminating to look back at some of those interviews, and the best advice from them. Some of this wisdom wound up included with the recipes we ran, some appears now for the first time from the original transcripts. We hope they motivate, encourage and inspire you.

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Getting started

"I refuse to accept that there are just people who can't cook. I would say 90% of those people actually can, and are just afraid to make a mistake. We've all been through stuff in life, we've all done so many different things and had to learn so many things. And it's like, if somebody can get through figuring out how to write a check, or becoming a parent, or building a business? You can cook a chicken. Relax, you're okay." — Joshua Weissman, author of  "An Unapologetic Cookbook"

"I think a lot of people don't cook or struggle to cook for reasons that have more to do with not feeling good enough about yourself, about feeling like you have somehow failed at adulting by not being this cook in a way that you imagine in your mind. That makes it so much harder to step into the kitchen each time, and it really hurts people. With 'Good and Cheap,' I would get so many emails or people reaching out and saying, 'Thank you for that section that's just called stuff on toast. It makes me feel like I have permission to eat this way and that I'm not eating poorly.'" — Leanne Brown, author of "Good Enough. A Cookbook" 

"I always say to people, 'Cook for yourself. No one else is going to judge you. Your shoulders will lower, you'll learn what you like and what you don't like away from that feeling of judgment.' We live in an era of clickbait that there's this proliferation of articles that say, 'You've been cooking scrambled eggs wrong all your life,' as if there's ever one way to cook anything, or one way to eat scrambled eggs. If one person wants them as dry curds and the other person wants it more or less as a drink, fine." — Nigella Lawson, author of "Cook, Eat, Repeat"

"Jerry and I have committed to four dinners a week together that are vegan. Then he goes out with his friends. That's fine. But as a family, we've decided, 'Let's do four nights a week, see how it goes.'" — Jessica Seinfeld, author of  "Vegan, at Times: 120 Recipes for Every Day or Every So Often."

Easy dishes and superstar ingredients

"Honestly, canned chickpeas are my go-to. Drain them off. Roast them in the oven while something else is cooking, and then throw together some sort of salad of roasted root vegetables, greens, roasted chickpeas. Whatever random condiment is in there, that ends up being our dinner most of the time. Canned chickpeas, they're my girl Friday. They're so versatile." — Abra Berens, author of "Grist: A Practical Guide to Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes" 

"Homemade croutons are so much better than stuff you get the bag. They're so delicious. They add texture and flavor, not just to salads. You can like crush them up on pasta. You can turn them into a situation with your fruits and vegetables, just dump them in soup. They've always been like on the top of my list of favorite things to eat, period, and so I'm just singing their praises." — Dawn Perry, author of "Ready, Set, Cook"

RELATED: My year of cooking quick and dirty: How I lowered the bar and set myself free

"I have a spaghetti pomodoro. You take tomatoes, you chop them, you sauté them in the pan. It takes, seriously, 5 minutes to do it. It's olive oil, clove of garlic, a bit of tomatoes chopped. Then you cook your pasta on the side, you mix it together. It's very quick and easy to make and it's one-stop." — Eric Ripert, author of  "Vegetable Simple," 

"A good pantry staple is tahini. It's not just a spread for bread or for mixing in with hummus. I use it a lot in my cooking for sauces and dressing. It thickens a lot of things. Sometimes I put it in gravies. It's a good neutral base that has fattiness and a creaminess. Even though we're eating plant-based, we can still definitely eat good fats and incorporate that as much as we want into our meals." — Lauren Toyota, author of "hot for food all day" 

Making it stretch

"Are you familiar with Richard Olney? For me, he is the greatest. Really super uncompromising on many different levels, but he was a huge fan of the whole concept of gratin with leftovers. So you have a leftover roast from the night before, or leftover vegetables. His whole thing was just to chop everything up, mix it together, dot it with butter, sprinkle some bread crumbs in there, pour a little bit of cream or no cream at all, and cheese on it, and just bake into the oven. It just completely changes everything around." — David Kinch, author of "At Home in the Kitchen" 

"The classic is really eggs, and what you can do with eggs — making a frittata with lots of whatever it is in the refrigerator and some kind of cheese and running it under the broiler. Then at least you've got something that looks like something." — Dorothy Kalins, "The Kitchen Whisperers: Cooking with the Wisdom of Our Friends"

"Sometimes, I invest in making something that I know will last for more than one meal so I can put it in the fridge and have a couple of dinners that way." —  Frances Moore Lappé, author of "Diet for a Small Planet" 

"Something that you can like prep a bit in advance or the day before is really good. Yesterday I j prepared a chicken and put it in the fridge. When I'm done talking with you, I can put it in the oven and then I can spend an hour talking with the kids or helping them with the homework. An hour later, dinner it's ready. Or make a large portion of something, so you actually want to eat two days in a row. It's important to have small tricks that makes everything a bit more easy." — Mikkel Karstad, author of "Nordic Family Kitchen: Seasonal Home Cooking"

Store bought is fine

"I don't shame anyone for doing anything in the kitchen. It's fine if you want to buy store bought things. Palmiers using store bought puff pastry is super easy. Just throw some nuts and sugar on there and roll it up and bake it, and it feels like it's some fancy French dessert." — Kristina Cho, author of "Mooncakes and Milk Bread

"Sometimes I make my own pie crust, sometimes I don't. Especially with Graham cracker crust, you can literally go to the store and buy one. I call it cheat codes. Like when you're playing video games, you get to skip something and to the next level." — Vallery Lomas, author of  "Life Is What You Bake It" 

Techniques worth knowing

"This is an argument in favor of more cowbell, always. I've long said the reason that restaurant food tastes better than home-cooked food so often is because they use more butter and salt than you can imagine, and that's true. I also think that once you realize that, you can kind of expand your understanding of that to say that actually, you need more hot sauce, you need more lime juice, you need more yogurt, you need more. If you can do that, it's going to taste pretty damn good. I also like the fact that my experience is I'm talking a lot about big flavors here, but I'm not talking about big portions. One of the interesting things about cooking for yourself and cooking for your family like this is, I bet your portion sizes come down." — Sam Sifton, author of "The New York Times Cooking No Recipe Recipes" 

"This is how I cook. I pull a pot, and try to get everything in there. Very Italian to put vegetables with proteins all together. Maybe at the most, a pot of water for the pasta or for the starch. But otherwise, it's all in that one pot. Time is precious, it's limited. How do we cut all the extra time and get to the basics? Cut down to the chase. Let's get something in the pot or let's get something in the oven, and we have dinner ready." —  Lidia Bastianich, author of  "Lidia's a Pot, a Pan, and a Bowl: Simple Recipes for Perfect Meals: A Cookbook," 

"Nacho success — You have to do a single layer on a sheet pan. I do is half the cheese first, and that creates a fat layer between the soggier toppings and the chips, and it's better to keep them crispy. And I make sure things are small, so you can get each of those chip bites with all of your different toppings." —  Dan Whalen, author of"Nachos for Dinner"

"Basic knife cuts, like the slicing, dicing, mincing, are really great to be armed with in the kitchen." — Brette Warshaw, author of "What's the Difference?: Recreational Culinary Reference for the Curious and Confused,"

'What I've been practicing myself is the swoopy, rustic frosting. It's something that anyone can do. If you just practice your swoops a little bit, and you get infinite numbers of redos when you're swooping, you can just keep swooping to your heart's content. It looks so stunning. There's something very nostalgic and just beautiful about a rustically swooped cake that just is very inviting, even more so than a perfectly decorated, completely smooth cake with amazing decorations on top. It just says, 'Come and eat me.'" — John Kanell, creator of Preppy Kitchen


More Quick & Dirty cooking: 

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

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