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Alison Roman talks about her new cookbook ‘Nothing Fancy’

And shares three recipes from the book out Oct. 22.
Alison Roman, author of 'Dining In' and 'Nothing Fancy' [Courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott]
Published Oct. 23

Alison Roman knew what I was going to ask her.

“Wait a minute, can I guess?” she said, during a recent phone interview. “Is it about my lipstick or nail polish?”

I was fielding questions from some fans of Roman, the 34-year-old food writer with an enthusiastic internet following who burst brightly onto the cookbook scene with 2017′s Dining In. Aside from questions about cooking, the next thing everyone wanted to know was Roman’s preferred lipstick.

This question is not meant to diminish her many professional accomplishments. Rather, it’s part of the iconography of Alison Roman, Your Cool Friend. It’s not just because her particular brand of casual yet stylish culinary expertise has taken off in the Age of Instagram, where Roman has 253,000 followers. It’s because the New York Times columnist, who has been cooking professionally since she was 19, seems like the kind of person who would cook you a delicious meal over a bottle or two of wine and also swap opinions about makeup preferences. Maybe she’d dump out her purse after you scarfed her olive chicken at dusk on a city patio. Maybe she’d let you try a swipe of her favorite shade.

Roman has become known for a couple of recipes (The Stew and The Cookies, anyone?) that went viral for their intense cookability and comfort factor. But they also tapped into something else: Roman’s ability to guide a regular home cook toward the kind of unfussy yet mouthwatering food you imagine she would serve. On her Instagram account, she regularly reposts photos of readers making her recipes, offering supportive accolades and helpful rejoinders, your own personal culinary fairy godmother.

Alison Roman, author of 'Dining In' and 'Nothing Fancy' [Courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott]

She and I were chatting on the phone about her second cookbook, Nothing Fancy, which debuted Oct. 22. It’s very much a sequel to Dining In, from the similar fonts to the vibrant, gorgeous photos and breezy, we’re-just-hanging-out vibe it conjures.

“I hope people think of it as a sister to Dining In,” she said. “I wanted it to feel familiar and different but also evolved."

It’s a book about “having people over," a phrase Roman prefers to “entertaining,” which can belie a certain level of preparedness Roman does not cop to.

That’s part of Roman’s thing, too. She doesn’t have a plan. She doesn’t have it all figured out. This book doubles down on the refreshing honesty Roman brings to not just her recipes but all of her various platforms, from cooking videos she hosts for the New York Times and other publications to her active Instagram account. Her recipes, consistently excellent and buoyed by deep culinary knowledge, always feel authentically her.

In Nothing Fancy, she proselytizes for anchovies, the ultimate umami bomb. She raves about iceberg lettuce. When’s the last time you heard someone say something positive about iceberg lettuce? She is not a fan of the ubiquitous avocado. “Avocados make me feel nothing” she writes. In those videos of Roman demonstrating her recipes, she doesn’t cut the root end off garlic cloves.

“I don’t peel anything. Ginger, carrots, garlic," she said. “I am constantly playing that game with myself of, ‘Can you eat it?’ and most of the time the answer is yes. My nature as a person and as a cook is I always asked why I was doing something. And if the answer wasn’t satisfying, I would always try to skirt it — especially if it took a lot of extra time.”

Her recipes do not reinvent the cooking wheel, using often very simple techniques and flavors — lots of flaky salt and acidic lemon — to create knockout dishes. But they always feel like they’re coming straight from her kitchen to yours.

In her introduction to the “mains” chapter of Nothing Fancy, she lets readers know that “everything in this section could be suitable for lunch or a very intense breakfast, so live your truth.” It sums up what comes across as one of her cooking credos: There are certain things you need to do in this recipe to make these ingredients taste good. Beyond that, everything else is flexible.

Here are some other things we asked Roman, from how she deals with all that internet attention to tips for having people over. Oh, and she did oblige me with an answer to the lipstick question.

“It’s MAC’s Powder Kiss Lipstick, in the Lasting Passion shade,” she said. “I love the color, love the way it goes on.”

She named a couple of others — MAC’s Versicolour lip stain in Feels So Grand, Smashbox’s O Gloss — and then, before we hung up, I got a text: a picture of the lipsticks currently in Roman’s purse, six little tubes splayed on the grass.

Alison Roman's second cookbook, 'Nothing Fancy' [Courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott]

Has the way people interact with your recipes on the internet affected the way you cook?

I never develop recipes with the intention of them becoming viral. I only develop recipes for them being cookable and delicious. I genuinely think they’re all good, and it’s interesting what people latch onto. I know certain things people will always be attracted to, but there’s a reason I just don’t do sheet pan dinners. That’s not interesting to me. My goal is to be honest with myself about what I find delicious and interesting.

What kind of food media do you consume?

I actually avoid it like the plague. No shade to anyone in the food community, I just think things are becoming so derivative; originality is so lacking these days. Because everyone’s work is so accessible to everyone, and there’s no checks and balances. I would rather die than be accused of ripping someone off. Dig deep, turn off your phones, figure something else out than what everyone else is doing. There’s only so many combinations of ingredients, I know that. Maybe there’s only one truly original thing I’ve ever done. But I strive for originality, and I think reading other food media is the death of that.

Can you tell us a bit about the new cookbook?

It’s not full of hosting tips. It’s full of tips for keeping your sanity when you’re having people over. I had a crisis when I sent it to the printer, like, “Oh no, I don’t have any canapes in this book!” But it’s truly reflective of how I cook when having people over. And it’s what I make when I have people over all the time, little snacky things. I want people to feel empowered to use these recipes on a Tuesday night when they’re alone, too. I truly feel like it’s all-purpose.

Do you have any tips for staying calm when having people over?

I’m not a very calm person. I wouldn’t say that’s my vibe at all ever. I can’t tell where entertaining stress and my stress stress begins; it’s all the same anxiety. And I accept that as part of my personality. Every time I feel stressed in the kitchen, I have to ask myself, what am I doing? Why am I stressed? Is it worth it? Is it because I wanted to make one more dish? ... It’s important to give yourself permission to pivot. Don’t worry about disappointing people with what you were going to do. Having people over should elicit joy and make you feel good.

Anything you should always have on hand for guests?

A well-stocked pantry will really save you. Stuff that’s ready to eat. I always keep Parmesan on hand, anchovies, dual-purpose foods, things you can serve but also cook with. I always keep a box of cookies like interesting German wafers or Japanese pocky, so if I don’t feel like making something, I can at least serve something fun and whimsical. Keep some vanilla ice cream around. Always have seltzer on hand. Citrus, which you can cook with and also serve in a drink.

RECIPES

I spent a couple days cooking through Nothing Fancy, setting out to select a few recipes to make. I ended up dog-earring at least 15, every section — snack time, salads, sides, mains, after dinners — full of highly cookable, intriguing dishes. These are ingredients and preparations you’ve seen before, but in true Roman fashion, there’s something surprising about them, more elevated than the simple ingredient list would indicate. Her method for making baked potatoes is a complete revelation (cook them in a really hot oven directly on the rack); her steamed and grilled broccoli recipes are strangely addicting. Here are three dishes I loved that would be good for holiday entertaining — excuse me — “having people over.”

Smashed Sweet Potatoes With Maple and Sour Cream

Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Maple and Sour Cream, from the 'Nothing Fancy' cookbook by Alison Roman. [Courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriot]

1 ½ pounds small sweet potatoes (about 4 to 6)

1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter

¹⁄₃ cup pure maple syrup

¼ cup toasted buckwheat groats (kasha)

2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves

Flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Using a fork, prick the sweet potatoes all over so that they don’t explode in the oven (which might happen!). Place directly on the wire rack and bake until totally tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the sour cream and lime juice and season with salt and pepper. It should be fairly tart and salty. Smear on the bottom of a serving platter.

Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, use the palm of your hand to crush them slightly.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Working in batches, add the potatoes, pressing lightly to make contact with the skillet. Season with salt and pepper and cook until lightly crisped and browned on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Flip and continue to cook until browned and crisped on the other side. Transfer potatoes to the serving platter and repeat with any stragglers.

Without wiping out the skillet, add the maple syrup and cook until it’s thickened and starting to caramelize, about 2 minutes. Pour all over the sweet potatoes. Top with the buckwheat, thyme, and lots of flaky salt.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Reprinted from Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman (Clarkson Potter, 2019)

One-Pot Chicken With Dates and Caramelized Lemon

One-Pot Chicken with Dates and Caramelized Lemon, from the 'Nothing Fancy' cookbook by Alison Roman. [Courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriot]

3 ½- to 4-pound chicken, or 3 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or legs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 lemon, cut into thick slices crosswise, seeds removed

2 shallots, halved lengthwise

4–6 medjool dates (3 ounces), pitted

4 sprigs fresh thyme or oregano, plus more for serving

1 cup water

2 teaspoons ground Urfa chile, or 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Season the chicken all over with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large (at least 8-quart) Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the pot breast side up, and using tongs or your hands (be careful!), press lightly to make sure the skin comes into even contact with the pot bottom. This is your chance to brown the legs and render that excess fat! It’s rarely offered in whole-chicken recipes, so take advantage. (If using parts, just sear the chicken skin side down.)

Cook, without moving, until the chicken is nice and browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Seriously, no peeking! Nothing exciting will happen before 5 minutes, I promise you.

Add the lemon slices and shallot, maneuvering the chicken however you need so that the slices come into contact with the bottom of the pot. Let everything sizzle in the chicken fat until lightly caramelized, about 2 minutes.

Add the dates, thyme, and water. Sprinkle the top of the chicken with the Urfa chile and place the lid on. Put the Dutch oven in the oven and roast until the dates are plump, the lemon is jammy, and the chicken is almost but not totally cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes (it will look mostly cooked through and a little anemic from getting covered with the lid).

Remove the lid and drizzle the chicken with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and continue to cook until the liquid has reduced by half and the top of the chicken is an illustrious, glistening golden-brown, another 20 to 30 minutes (depending on if you’re using parts or whole bird).

Let the chicken rest in the Dutch oven for 10 minutes, then transfer to a cutting board and carve. Serve along with the shallot, lemons, and dates, with some more thyme and flaky sea salt sprinkled over.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Reprinted from Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman (Clarkson Potter, 2019)

Crispy Chocolate Cake With Hazelnut and Sour Cream

Crispy Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut and Sour Cream, from the 'Nothing Fancy' cookbook by Alison Roman. [Courtesy of Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriot]

For the cake:

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more for the pan

8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, at least 67 percent cacao, finely chopped

½ cup Nutella, hazelnut spread, almond butter, or tahini (see Note)

6 large eggs

½ cup hazelnut or almond flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the topping:

1 cup heavy cream

¼ cup confectioners’ sugar

Pinch of kosher salt

1 cup sour cream

¼ cup Nutella

Brandied, maraschino, or Luxardo cherries (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-inch springform pan with softened butter or nonstick cooking spray. (You can use any 9-inch cake pan, but line it with parchment paper with some overhang so you can easily remove the finished cake.) Sprinkle the inside with sugar and rotate the pan to coat the bottom and sides evenly; tap out excess.

Make the cake. Combine the chocolate, Nutella, and butter in a large heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over a small pot of simmering water and heat, stirring often, until the chocolate and butter have melted and you can stir everything together to a smooth, creamy mixture. Remove from the heat and set aside. (Alternatively, microwave in 30-second increments until evenly melted.)

Separate four of the eggs, placing the whites in a large mixing bowl (either a bowl fitted for a stand mixer or a bowl large enough to handle a hand mixer). Place the yolks in another large bowl and add the hazelnut flour, cocoa powder, salt, and the remaining 2 whole eggs and whisk to blend well. Using a spatula, gently and gradually mix the egg yolk mixture into the melted chocolate mixture (don’t use a whisk here; the batter is quite thick and will get stuck in the wires).

With the mixer on high, beat the egg whites. When they start to get light and foamy, gradually add ¾ cup sugar, a tablespoon or two at a time, and continue to beat until egg whites have tripled in volume and are light, fluffy, opaque, and hold stiff peaks. They should look like a very good meringue that you could frost a cake with (that’s not what you’ll be doing, but just saying).

Using a spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture until just combined and no obvious white streaks remain (this will look cool — maybe take a picture!); avoid overmixing (that would deflate all that air you worked so hard to build into those egg whites).

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and bake until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top looks puffed and lightly cracked, like a soufflé (it should still have a little jiggle), 35 to 40 minutes.

Let cool completely (if you have a wire rack, use it). During this time, something seemingly tragic will happen — the center of the cake will collapse, causing further cracking around the edges. This is the intended effect, so don’t worry — it’s where those crispy edges come from, the reason we are all here.

Prepare the topping/accompaniment. Using an electric mixer (or a good old-fashioned whisk and elbow grease), whip the cream, confectioners’ sugar, and salt in a medium bowl until you’ve got medium-stiff peaks, then whisk in the sour cream. For a streaky effect, fold in the Nutella using a spatula or if, you know, who cares, just whisk it in. Use this mixture to top the cake, but I prefer to eat it on the side (so as to not ruin the cake’s crispy texture) with some delicious cherries for snacking on in between bites.

Note: Using an unsweetened spread like almond butter or tahini will give you a slightly less sweet version of this cake, which for my taste, is still perfectly sweet enough.

Serves 8 to 10.

Source: Reprinted from Nothing Fancy by Alison Roman (Clarkson Potter, 2019)

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