Melissa Clark arrives at a Brooklyn coffee shop fresh from a run in the bracing cold. A food writer and native of the borough, where she now lives with her husband and daughter, Clark started freelancing for the New York Times in 1998 and has been on staff since 2012, producing a weekly recipe column and complementary video series. She is also the author or coauthor of more than three dozen books (she’s lost count, but estimates the total at 37 or 38). Her newest cookbook, Dinner: Changing the Game (Clarkson Potter, Mar.), is the fourth title representing her own concepts and recipes, after Cook This Now (Hyperion, 2011), In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite (Hyperion, 2010), and Chef, Interrupted (Clarkson Potter, 2005).
Dinner, Clark tells me, is designed to help readers “up their dinner game and get away from the 1950s idea of a protein with two sides.” In the introduction, she encourages readers to “engineer your cooking time so that it’s one of the most satisfying and loveliest moments of the day.” And this high-energy redhead practices what she preaches. “I love making dinner,” she says. “It’s my happy time—the rhythmic chopping and thinking about flavors, plus we make it a family activity.”
Yet, Clark goes on to observe, the last meal of the day is “kind of loaded.” She adds: “We hang our culinary hats on dinner. The judgment of whether or not you are a good person can rest on making dinner for your family.”
Clark hopes to help readers drop the baggage while picking up skills. “Learning to do something is so satisfying,” she says. “It promotes self-esteem. And it’s an itty bitty little leap to make. The first time you roast a chicken you’re learning, and by the second time you’re inviting people over. And cooking more is one way to make this world a better place. When you’re cooking for people you love with love, it makes them happy. It’s also a way to broaden your circle. Invite your friends over. Donate cookies. Volunteer to cook for soup kitchens. Cook for your mail people. There’s so much good will there.”
But cooking and baking are more than feel-good exercises for Clark. She notes: “When you’re using whole ingredients and supporting environmentally sustainable agriculture, you’re actually making the world a better place physically, and of course there’s your health. By making yourself and your family healthy you’re improving the health of your culture.”
Clark’s enthusiasm for all things culinary is impressive, especially considering that she turns out a column and accompanying video every seven days. “Keeping it fresh is really hard,” she says. “The recipes are easier to keep fresh than the writing. My best columns tell some kind of story about the food, about me, about the world.”
Clark explains that, ever in search of novelty for the column, she rarely repeats a recipe for her own family dinners. Of course, that doesn’t mean starting from scratch every night. “I’m always moving forward,” she says. “I always want to take a dish and make it better then last time. There’s an eggplant dish in the book that I made for the column by frying the eggplant, but for the book I broiled it and made it simpler. You can change recipes depending on what you have, what you can get, what your picky child may or may not be eating.”
But even someone charged with the task of forging new territory weekly must have a fallback, a dish that can be cobbled together from ingredients in the pantry. Clark says that for her, “at one point that dish was pasta with anchovies and chile, sometimes with bread crumbs or sautéed kale or spinach, sometimes with sardines instead of anchovies—but always garlic, always always always.” She adds, “That’s my constant.”
Clark says: “I also make a lot of soup where I throw in everything from the fridge, and in the summer I make clean-out-the-fridge salads. I like to put in a couple of things that make it rich and yummy—an emulsified dressing with tons of anchovies, or croutons, or a ton of cheese.”
This new cookbook overflows with such touches that transform a soup or salad into a satisfying meal, as well as clever twists and why-didn’t-I-think-of-that flavor combinations. A hearty escarole salad gains crunch from chickpeas tossed with smoked paprika and broiled to a crisp. Cumin-flavored chicken meatballs meet their match in a green chile sauce. “I find an association and take a twist on it,” Clark says, explaining how she came to combine soy sauce and pomegranate molasses (hit upon as a cousin to tamarind) into a glaze for tofu. “Some things I steal,” she admits with a smile, crediting Heidi Swanson’s website for the inspiration to coarsely grate the tofu that stands in for noodles in a cheesy gratin.
But one ingredient is a true Clark signature: “I use a lot of anchovies, and if that’s what I’m remembered for, it’s fine with me,” she says.
Clark holds an M.F.A. in creative writing, but not a culinary degree. Instead, while coauthoring books with master chefs such as Daniel Boulud and Claudia Fleming, she received what she calls private tutorials. “The most important thing I learned,” Clark says, “is that there’s no one right way to do something.” She adds: “One chef uses low heat. One uses high heat. There’s no ‘better’ way. There’s just a way that’s better for getting what you want. So depending on what you want, you’re dicing onions versus slicing half-moons, or thinking about the way the membranes are cut if you cut half-moons in different directions. If you want the onion to caramelize faster, you want to cut across and cut through the membranes. But say you want a really lightly cooked onion—then you cut it the other way.”
The experience of watching chefs cook convinced Clark that nothing is quite as effective as witnessing a demonstration. That’s where her weekly videos for the Times fit in. One of the most popular is on the prosaic topic of how to cut up a chicken. “The videos are great for people who never saw their parents cook and have no frame of reference,” she says. Clark also views them as a corrective to the “unrealistic” ideas viewers get from cooking shows.
More direct communication is another advantage of video. Clark says: “As a writer, I have to pull myself away from 19th-century purple prose. It’s easier to express myself on camera.”
The videos also provide some comic relief—and reassurance that even pros make mistakes, and that mistakes are rarely fatal to a dish. “I wish I could get the outtakes published,” Clark says. “I drop things, cut myself, things burn. I did a Facebook Live once where I forgot to put the butter in the recipe. But it was fine, and people made that recipe anyway.”
Natalie Danford is a novelist, food writer, and translator. Her translation of the slow food cookbook Osteria: 1,000 Generous and Simple Recipes From Italy’s Best Local Restaurants will be published by Rizzoli this fall.