One would think that at the end of a long day perfecting recipes in Bon Appétit’s test kitchen, the last thing that Food Director Carla Lalli Music would want to do is go home and cook dinner — but it turns out that’s not the case. In addition to keeping her family of four (she has two kids, ages 9 and 15) well-fed in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and helming BA’s culinary cruise ship, Carla somehow also found the free time to write one of the year’s best cookbooks, teaching the rest of the world that cooking really isn’t all that hard to do.
Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook (published this spring) is a kind of half-time pep talk to home cooks everywhere, equipping them with basic techniques to quit over-complicating the whole shebang once and for all. We recently chatted with Carla in her home kitchen to find out how she makes grocery shopping less of a chore, why she taught her kids’ babysitters how to cook, and how to make a to-die-for dinner with absolutely zero plan at all. (Bonus: She’s sharing five of those to-die-for dinners for all of your weeknight dining needs.)
A Week of Dinners from Carla Lalli Music
Pasta All’Amatriciana with Confit Tomatoes
Canned tomatoes are great. Confit canned tomatoes are better. If you keep a batch of the olive oil-infused tomatoes in the fridge, you can make a sauce with long-cooked flavor in 20 minutes.
- Get Carla’s recipe: Pasta All’Amatriciana with Confit Tomatoes
Greek-ish Grain Salad
I started putting salad on top of cooked brown rice when I was eating dinner at my college cafeteria, and I guess I never stopped. The only difference is that no one called this a grain salad back then. This is the big salad of my dreams, and if I ever open a diner, this will be on the menu.
- Get Carla’s recipe: Greek-ish Grain Salad
30-Minute Spatchcock Chicken and Vegetables
I know, the promise of half-hour chicken is often a letdown, but this one really works, and it’s because you preheat the oven with the pan inside the whole time. Here’s what my sister texted the last time she made it in her one-bedroom rental apartment: “I did your chicken and our house got smoky. Not great for my marriage but skin is so crisp. A trade-off I’m okay with.”
- Get Carla’s recipe: 30-Minute Spatchcock Chicken and Vegetables
Buttery Pan Clams with Ginger and Scallions
This is what you make when you forgot to plan for dinner and need something that cooks super quickly. Pick up the clams and a baguette on the way home from work, and everything else you need should already be at home — ginger, garlic, scallions, butter. The clams cook in about 10 minutes and give up plenty of sauces for dunking.
- Get Carla’s recipe: Buttery Pan Clams with Ginger and Scallions
Eggs in Purgatory
I love breakfast for dinner. This is one of the few dishes my dad liked to make when I was growing up — essentially poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce, served with a really simple green salad you can throw together while the eggs are in the pan.
- Get Carla’s recipe: Eggs in Purgatory at Bon Appétit
Weeknight Cooking Questions for Carla
After a long day in the BA test kitchen, what does dinner look like for you? Is it hard to get into the cooking zone again?
My whole goal with weeknight cooking is to have the total time and the active time that I’m cooking be the same. I try to organize everything so that I get whatever it is that needs to be cooked started, whether that’s a pot of grains, a piece of protein, or whatever it is, and use that time to prep the rest of the ingredients. From there it all comes together pretty quickly.
You’re just go, go go!
I’m not a meal prep person — I don’t plan stuff out in advance. One of the tenets in my cookbook is to keep the right mix of ingredients in your kitchen at all times, so that way you don’t necessarily have to plan for whatever recipe you’re going to make, but you can always find yourself in a good position to cook.
Was this always your cooking style?
When my kids were little, I wanted to make sure that they were eating exactly what I wanted them to eat, so for a while, my style was completely different. But then I realized that I was was using all of my downtime to prep for meals that I wasn’t even going to be present for.
Part of my new strategy as the kids got a little older was having babysitters who I could help become better cooks — they were interested in cooking and open to ideas. I would even workshop a lot of BA recipes with our babysitters. That way, I could really use my weekend time instead of sequestering myself in the kitchen to do all of this big-batch stuff. I felt like my presence and attention was what I needed to give when I was not at work, but I wasn’t giving that to them — I was giving that to shopping, and unpacking, and putting away, and prepping, and stressing, you know?
Being out of eggs is the worst.
Totally! Which brings us to grocery shopping. Your cookbook, Where Cooking Begins, teaches that grocery shopping is a strategy that can be mastered. How did you master it?
I started using online shopping services, which I felt guilty about in the beginning. Like am I really shopping online for food? But I usually only order things that come in a bag, box, a jar, or a can. Those things you can outsource. I really do enjoy picking out other ingredients, though, so I retained the things that actually excite me about cooking, like produce, good bread, cheeses, meat, and fish. You should absolutely shop for the things that vary in quality — it will increase your creativity and your excitement to be in the kitchen. The things that are mundane and kind of like check-it-off-the-list stuff — don’t do it anymore. It’s a shopper’s world. There’s so much competition in the digital delivery world. Maybe you’re an Instacart person, an Amazon Fresh person, a Fresh Direct person — there are so many options.
Okay so we have the farmers market and online delivery services, but what grocery stores do you love?
If I am on my way home and I know I have greens, grains, and dairy, but I don’t have protein, sometimes I go into Eataly because it’s really close to the BA office. I just go directly to the seafood or meat counter. They have great produce too, but, you know, you have to live like a queen to buy it, so you can’t get tripped up over there! In my neighborhood, I live near Provisions and they have a really good nose-to-tail butcher counter and seafood counter. They are sustainability-minded and work with local farms.
And then on the weekends, I make a trip to The Meat Hook for everything whether it’s lamb, pork, beef, chicken. I love the experience of shopping there. They’ll fabricate any cut for you and they even have funny cuts you might not be able to find at a regular butcher shop. I like going there without a plan because I know I’m going to interact with someone who’s really smart. It’s like talking to a good sommelier — you might not know every grape, but you know what you like.
What are some of the things you always, always have on your grocery list?
We always have Persian cucumbers because my younger son loves crunchy vegetables. We pretty much always have a Greek yogurt in the fridge. I like Wallaby and the Fage 5% milk fat version. And there’s always a leafy green — kale or Swiss chard. I feel weird if we don’t have a braising/sauté green in the house. I buy two big bunches and braise them for two hours with a lot of whole spices. I’ll just set it up and let it go low and slow, and those greens can get incorporated into meals. Also eggs. Being out of eggs is the worst.
Okay, so say you had to cook dinner out of whatever is in your fridge at this very moment. What’s going on the plate?
Let’s see, I made a batch of those greens over the weekend. I came home earlier, my husband was out, my kids are away, so I was going to have a solo dinner. I made basically aglio olio and used my precooked greens — even though they had turmeric and mustard seed and fennel in them. I tossed it all with that and a bunch of Manchego. It was good. I was like turmeric on pasta? It was actually really good.
When everyone is home, what are some of the things that your kids always request?
They both really love a slow-roasted whole chicken because it kind of turns into rotisserie chicken. I buy a whole chicken and then do salt and pepper and whatever dry spice I feel like — a lot of times it’s oregano, a mild chili flake, Aleppo pepper, or gochugaru. McCormick makes gochugaru which is pretty amazing. I’ll coat the chicken all over, inside and out, put it on a rimmed baking sheet and cook it on 300 for three hours. It gets really crispy, the herbs get super browned, and then you don’t even need to carve it — the legs pull right off.
My older son was just at camp for six weeks and when he came back, he just really wanted vegetables. That’s the one thing they just don’t do a good job of — the salad is iceberg and bad tomatoes, sliced bell peppers. So we had BLTs the other night with really good tomatoes — that was a great dinner.
Are there any ingredients you’re currently obsessed with?
My younger son was diagnosed with a sesame allergy when he was about a year old, so we really had to avoid it in our house for the past eight years. He was re-tested in the spring because we were suspicious it had gone away — he had accidentally had sesame and nothing happened. So he got tested for everything and the sesame allergy is now undetectable. Suddenly sesame oil is back in play!
The other night I grilled whole eggplant which I love but nobody else in the house does, so I grilled them until they were collapsing and made a dip with gochujang, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and we ate it on crackers and everyone was pretty into it. So sesame oil, tahini, hummus, halva, bagels — sesame is back for us.
A whole new world! So we’ve got the right ingredients, now what are some of the gadgets that every cook should own?
Every cook should own a black steel pan because they have all the heat conductivity of cast iron but they’re lightweight and incredibly easy to clean. I think a lot of home cooks buy low-quality pans. A black steel pan is not expensive, but it’s high-quality, so for the same amount of money you get something that you’ll own forever.
Everybody should also own a carbon steel blade knife that feels good in their hand that you can sharpen easily. I think a lot of people buy knives online but don’t ever hold them in their hands. And last, I think you should own thick rubberized food service cutting boards. I like wood cutting boards also, but the rubberized ones are really easy to disinfect and are really easy on your knives. They’re just totally indestructible.
Your book has a gorgeous dessert section. Do you leave room for dessert on weeknights?
My husband always has bars of dark chocolate — he has them hidden in random places like the TV room, his sock drawer. My older son is not a big sweet-tooth guy.And my younger son is allowed to have dessert on the days that he goes to jiu-jitsu. He’s really into Diana’s Bananas right now; they’re just like a chocolate-dipped banana. So good. We call them Diañas Banañas.
For me, my work day is kind of unpredictable as far as what I’m going to consume being in the test kitchen. July and August have been Thanksgiving and Christmas development, so I’m not really looking for another dessert during the week!
Speaking of the test kitchen, you’re always cooking with such fun people— especially for your series Back to Back Chef. If you could cook dinner with anyone right now, who would it be?
I’m obsessed with Schitt’s Creek right now, so I’d have dinner with Moira and David. Catherine O’Hara is so unbelievable in the show, I can’t even deal with her. And the guy who plays her son, Dan Levy, they just kill me. So I would like to have them come over and have dinner with me.
What would you make?
There was this really funny episode, where they make enchiladas. They’re reading the recipe and it says to “fold in the cheese.” And David’s like, “What do they mean, fold in the cheese?” And she’s like, “What it says, David, fold it in.” So I think we might have to make enchiladas.
Thanks so much, Carla! Follow her on Instagram, watch her video series Back to Back Chef, and find more of her delicious recipes in her cookbook, Where Cooking Begins.
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