Whether you’re new to the kitchen or just looking for fresh ideas, Melissa Clark’s new cookbook Dinner: Changing the Game has a little something interesting for every home cook.
For the last several weeks, I’ve been exploring Melissa Clark’s new cookbook, Dinner: Changing the Game (Clarkson Potter: March 7, 2017) in the hope of providing a well-rounded and thoughtful review. To start, what I have to say is overwhelmingly positive with only few critiques. Dinner: Changing the Game is a beautiful, well-written, practical cookbook, and for a number of reasons I would recommend it have a place on your bookshelves.
But it’s no surprise that Melissa Clark’s latest contribution to the genre is well received. With thirty-eight cookbooks under her belt and an ongoing column with the New York Times, Clark is a food writing pro and it shows. From James Beard and IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) awards to guest appearances across television and radio, she continues to make her mark on the industry.
Dinner: Changing the Game is full of recipes that are comforting and familiar, but often with a unique twist, alteration, or perfected technique meant to expand your skills and your palate. The author’s theme is relevant to many home cooks, and the subtitle “changing the game” refers to changing how we look at dinner. As Clark notes with an anecdote of a visit to a fancy restaurant as a teenager, while many of us still try to adhere to a traditional ‘one protein, two sides’ type of dinner at home, we rarely follow that when we eat out. We share plates, mix and match, and overall demonstrate a lot more freedom in what we choose to eat. Dinner is written to help you replicate this change of habits at home (which is far less expensive and often healthier than going out to a restaurant anyway). To quote: “It’s designed to help you figure out what to make for dinner without falling back on what you’ve eaten before. It’s about giving you options, lots of options” (p. 14). The focus is on expanding your kitchen repertoire, and most of all, making cooking (and eating) dinner fun again.
Style and Contents
Speaking directly to my own aesthetic preferences, the white-on-grey font of the cookbook’s cover is classic and refined, juxtaposed neatly with Eric Wolfinger’s stunning food photography. The beautifully bright photos feature not-quite-perfect, just a little bit messy dishes ready to be served. They pop with color and texture. This is the kind of meal I want in my home.
Melissa Clark’s introduction is warm, personable, and succinct. It’s followed by a chapter focusing on the chef’s essential pantry items – a relatively standard section in most cookbooks. These kinds of summaries are particularly helpful in cookbooks that focus on foreign cuisines, as it gets you familiar with a bevy of new ingredients you might have no previous experience with. Clark’s pantry is a little different – most things are familiar, but those handful of items that might be more exotic (pomegranate molasses, harissa, and kimchi, for instance) are simply described with a promise that if you pick up a bottle or jar, you’ll find a number of ways to use them in the book. She even offers a few substitutions if you can’t find some of the items or don’t want to spend the money on a specialty ingredient.
In today’s world, it’s easy to find any obscure ingredient online, even if you don’t have a gourmet market nearby to purchase from. But just because you can find something, doesn’t always mean you want to make the investment. Clark’s brief descriptions help the reader make an informed choice, and her inclusion of each item in multiple recipes make it worthwhile. I know I’m not the only person who has bought a specialty spice or oil for one interesting recipe only to find myself scrambling to find other ways to use it so it doesn’t go to waste – or worse yet, forgetting about it entirely until it’s way past its expiration date. Clark doesn’t shy from including these ingredients, but she’s practical about how someone might use them. This I can truly appreciate.
Aside from these introductory pieces and a few one to two page spreads on basic preparation, the rest of the book is recipes. Each includes a beautiful and often inspiring head note with pairing suggestions, substitutions, or a quick story, and most of the 200 entries have a mouthwatering photo to accompany it. This isn’t a memoir-style cookbook, but rather one that’s truly meant to be used.
The Main Event: Reviewing the Recipes
What I’m trying to make clear with the above is that Dinner: Changing the Game is what I like to call a functional cookbook. The recipes are clean and well organized, with each fitting on one, maybe two pages. It’s made with use in mind, without sacrificing the materials of the book’s construction. Even at first glance, the descriptive titles of the recipes made it easy to spot the (many) things I wanted to try from the book. My only real complaint is the font style of the ingredient lists. Perhaps I’m just getting older, but in the midst of making recipes I often have to glance back to verify my measurements. The tiny font often made me squint to find out whether 1/2 or 1/3 of something was needed, resulting in a near mistake a few times.
That aside, it’s going to take me some time to try all the recipes I’m drooling over in this cookbook. In preparation for this review, I’ve managed to experiment with four very different dishes so that I could make a full assessment. I wanted to look at a few things – ease of use, accuracy of the timing suggestions, and overall quality of the finished product. All but one recipe lived up to – if not exceeded – expectations.
The first thing I absolutely had to make was the Blood Orange Chicken with Scotch Whiskey and Olives. I don’t think I’ve eaten a chicken recipe – out or in my own kitchen – as good as this. Granted, it hit a lot of my buzz words. As you well know if you’ve been following the blog, “whiskey” and “blood orange” are easy ways to catch my attention. Everything is proportioned perfectly in this recipe – even the salt is balanced to my tastes. The marinade for the chicken has a nice presence, and the only change I would make would be to reduce some of it further for a finishing sauce (a step not taken in the recipe). Clark’s instructions to cook the chicken parts were precise and resulted in the best chicken I’ve ever made, with crispy skin on the outside and a perfectly moist interior. The sweet citrus melds seamlessly with the smokiness of the whiskey, the brine of the olives, and the bite of the fennel. I foresee this becoming a new staple in my kitchen.
Next I wanted to try two of the recipes that boasted incredibly short prep and cook times (less than 30 minutes). I made the Marmalade Meatballs with Cider Vinegar Glaze and the Vietnamese Caramel Salmon. Both lived up to their turnaround times, and both were incredibly satisfying. The meatballs – which I served as recommended over a simple polenta – were a little on the sweet side, but I blame that on my homemade Blood Orange Vodka Marmalade (no regrets). I’d love to serve these little guys as appetizers. The Vietnamese Caramel Salmon I accidentally overcooked (my inattentiveness, not the cookbook’s fault), but even so the caramelized brown sugar and soy sauce glaze made up for my mistake. This dish just lacked a good side to accompany it – Clark recommends a simple side of rice, but personally I thought it could use something more creative. I consider that an excuse to experiment and make this restaurant-quality dish again.
The only dish I wasn’t impressed with was the Seitan Enchiladas with Cheese and Pickled Jalapenos. Full disclosure – I have no experience cooking with seitan, and hoped this would be a good introduction after the success of the previous recipes. While the texture wasn’t something I was used to, the seitan itself wasn’t my problem with the dish. I found the enchilada sauce to be uninspired quite frankly, and didn’t care for the sweetness the raisins added to the filling. It was also a bit of a hassle to construct the dish, as a number of the corn tortillas fell apart on me as I tried to roll them up with filling for placement in the baking dish. I’ve made a lot of enchilada and taco-style dishes in my kitchen though, so I may just have different expectations. It was all still edible – I just don’t see myself making it again.
Final Thoughts on Dinner: Changing the Game
There are still so many recipes I have yet to try from this book. I’m inspired by how concise Clark is able to keep her recipes while still allowing for interesting and unexpected ingredients. Even her timing estimations are more precise than most I have encountered in other sources. I feel like I could learn a lot – both about cooking and about recipe writing – from Dinner: Changing the Game. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Learning and loving, cooking and eating. Dinner has quickly earned its place as a workhorse in my kitchen, and for the Blood Orange Chicken alone I owe Melissa Clark a debt of gratitude.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. Further, this post contains Amazon.com affiliate links, and I will earn a commission if you purchase through these links. I recommend products honestly and because I find them interesting or helpful. All thoughts and opinions are my own.