Who is Ali Slagle? A fan of New York Times Cooking might recognize the name: nine of their fifty most popular recipes of 2022 are credited to her, the most of any of their contributors, including household names like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and Melissa Clark.
But despite the tremendous popularity of her recipes, Slagle herself is a bit mysterious. She crops up, cheerfully and occasionally, on NYT Cooking channels. Her 142,000 Instagram followers are a mere fraction of the followings of her food-celebrity contemporaries, like Molly Baz, Alison Roman, or Claire Saffitz. She doesn’t appear to be developing a platform; she has no Twitter, no Substack, no YouTube channel. She appears to live in a camper van.
Her relative anonymity — her personal brandlessness — may be one reason I’ve made so many of her recipes unknowingly. Oh yes, lentils cacciatore, lentils diavolo, lentils every way imaginable: that’s all her. Chickpeas or cannellini stewed, braised, or baked in tomatoes with a jar of capers or a handful of olives, a swirl of harissa, with parm or mozz layered on top: that’s an Ali Slagle joint! It turns out I’ve been cooking alongside her for years.
If you like Slagle’s low-key style, you’ll love her cookbook, I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To). The subtitle boasts of “Low-Effort, High-Reward Recipes.” Its meals are built around the constraints of modern life: time, energy, supplies, budget, and maybe, if you’re Slagle, space in your van. The inspiration for I Dream of Dinner doesn’t come from Michelin-starred restaurants or street food encountered on exotic travels; Slagle credits her mother and grandmother, and many matriarchs like them, who cook “quickly but thoughtfully, [feeding] extremely hungry people night after night.” These 150 recipes are all made in forty-five minutes or less, with eight or fewer ingredients.
Enticed by this promise, I dove in. Harissa Eggs with Pita and Dates: a satisfying lunch I’ve come to crave at least once a week. Good Sauce of So-So Tomatoes: ’tis the season! Harissa Chickpeas with Feta: hey, the jar of harissa was already open. This meal was even better as leftovers the next day, topped with a fried egg.
The recipes do get slightly repetitive: how many ways can you combine a can of chickpeas with a block of cheese? If you don’t like cumin, zaatar, harissa, or beans, this will be a difficult cookbook for you. But for a cook interested in dipping a toe into other trendy home-cooking ingredients — tahini, turmeric, tinned fish, gochujang — these recipes include just enough to feel current, without being alienating. After all, you probably don’t live in Brooklyn. In our golden era of home cooking, when the Barefoot Contessa claims to produce “easy” recipes and your cousin stylishly plates a Tuesday night entrée for her food Insta, Slagle’s humble, relaxed approach is a breath of fresh air through your musty pantry. Maybe all you really need, to eat well, is a can opener.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2023 World edition.