G Daniela Galarza
THE WASHINGTON POST – Writing a good recipe is an exercise in efficiency. Someone who does that particularly well is Ali Slagle, a recipe developer I’ve long admired.
“My feeling about efficiency is that it’s often presented in a joyless way,” she said. “Like you have to be faster, faster, faster. You have to be done in 45 minutes, 30 minutes.” Instead, Slagle told me, if you think first of the process, of the steps you need to complete a recipe, “your movements are more streamlined and you’re less frantic. Then you can enjoy the process”.
I’ve featured a handful of Slagle’s recipes in the past, but this one for a Greek salad with couscous and lentils is special because it’s from her new book, I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To).
Ideally, the cooking process involves being open to improvisation, shortcuts that might be specific to your kitchen setup, and personal preferences.
For that to work, you can’t have too much to do. So Slagle wrote recipes that don’t have too many ingredients and don’t require more than two different cooking processes, such as marinating; stovetop cooking; grilling; or oven cooking. Her Greek salad recipe involves marinating and stovetop cooking.
“If you have less to do, your mind can travel a little bit more,” Slagle said. “You can think while you’re making a salad, Oh, I have some celery I need to use up and can throw in. Let me use the end of this jar of mustard to make the dressing. That leftover grilled chicken would go with this.”
In other words, when Slagle wrote recipes, she’s aware that cooks’ full attention might not be on the task in front of them. Our minds wander. The dog needs a walk. A child wants a snack. “Because I cannot expect that the people cooking my recipes can give their full attention to the recipe, I want my recipes to be less intense – but always delicious,” Slagle said. “Because if something tastes good, no one ever says, ‘Oh, I wish that had been harder to make’.”
Here are a few of Slagle’s tips for being efficient in your cooking life:
– Cook from the hip: “If you feel comfortable not using a recipe, many times just cooking from the hip is more efficient.”
– Get comfortable with substitutions: “Recipes often fail in that they seem really specific, but if you get comfortable switching things out for things you have on hand, you’ll save lots of time – and money.”
– Minimise grocery shopping trips: “Shopping is this time suck recipe developers sometimes don’t consider when we’re writing a recipe, but going to the store takes time and is part of the process. As a home cook, if you don’t have to go to the store, you can be more efficient.”
Slagle’s recipe for Greek salad is a good example of how she’s always thinking about her favourite seasonal dishes and how to turn them into full meals.
“I love Greek salad, and I could eat it as-is as a meal, but I’m also often thinking about how people are looking for that combination of starch, vegetable and protein in their meals,” she said.
The feta added protein, but probably not enough.
Still, she didn’t want to make the classic salad too complicated.
Slagle loves a good substitution, so she provided lots of them, below, and has these parting words, “Everyone has my permission to not make my recipes exactly as written – but if it doesn’t come out well, don’t blame me!”
COUSCOUS AND LENTIL GREEK SALAD
Chewy pearl couscous and tender lentils turn a Greek salad into a full meal fit for brunch, lunch or dinner. Adapted from Ali Slagle’s cookbook, I Dream of Dinner, this smart combination is full of savoury texture and spritzy flavours.
Instead of lentils, use cooked or canned chickpeas.
In place of couscous, try rice or stale bread, ripped into rough croutons. The shallot is there to ensure a depth of flavour. If you’re using fresh summer tomatoes, you could skip the shallot.
If you can’t have tomatoes, try this with sliced peaches, roasted red bell peppers or grilled eggplant. No feta? Try fresh mozzarella or dollops of yogurt and lemon zest.
– Three-quarter teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
– Three ounces dried green lentils
– Three ounces pearl couscous
– One pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
– Four Persian or mini cucumbers, chopped into bite-size pieces
– One small shallot, coarsely chopped
– Two tablespoons vinegar
– One-quarter cup extra-virgin olive oil
– Half cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
– Four ounces feta, crumbled
– Freshly ground black pepper
– Half cup fresh basil leaves, torn
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the lentils and cook for 10 minutes. Add the couscous, stir to combine and cook until both the lentils and couscous are tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
While the lentils and couscous cook, in a fine-mesh strainer, toss together the tomatoes and cucumbers with three-quarter teaspoon of salt. Let them drain in the sink.
In a small bowl, combine the shallot and vinegar with a pinch of salt.
When the couscous and lentils are just about done, shake the tomatoes and cucumbers to rid excess liquid, then transfer them to a large bowl.
Drain the lentils and couscous in the same strainer, and add them to the tomatoes and cucumbers. Drizzle with the olive oil.
Using a spoon, scoop the shallot out of the vinegar and add it to the large bowl. Stir to combine, then add the olives and feta. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a sprinkle of the vinegar used on shallot, if desired. Stir in the basil and serve family-style.