Kathy Brennan – local author and food editor–has just released her second cookbook and is busy talking it up in interviews and events around the country. The conversational book is filled with doable, crowd-pleasing recipes, practical cooking tips, real life food experiences, and mouth-watering pictures.
Co-authored with Caroline Campion, “The Dinner Plan” is similar in tone and spirit to her first cookbook, “Keepers” – which won the IACP award for Best General Cookbook in 2014 – but is more strategy-oriented. Each recipe is tagged with one to five categories – Make-Ahead, Staggered, One-Dish, Pantry, and Extra-Fast – so people can easily choose what to make based on their particular schedule and situation on any given night. It’s a simple concept that really works.
Brennan attended culinary school in New York City, has cooked in restaurants, and worked at food magazines, including Gourmet and Saveur.
But despite her extensive food background, she wants to dispel the myth that she is cooking all the time. In fact, she confesses that she is in the trenches trying to juggle dinner Monday to Friday like everyone else, and says she is somewhat famous in her household for her cooking ruts—stretches where she makes the same few things over and over or even doesn’t turn on the stovetop!
Town Square Delaware: You seem to have coined a new term, “situational weeknight cooking” with The Dinner Plan.
Kathy Brennan: Well, we like to think so. Caroline and I are very familiar with the realities most people face come dinnertime, from our own experiences and countless conversations with friends, family, even strangers in the grocery store.
Keepers was borne out of that, but now more than five years later, everyone is even busier and families are running in a million different directions. The first thing to go is often a home-cooked meal, so we wanted our follow-up cookbook to again tackle the perennial weeknight meal struggle, while also finding a way to work with these very individual and ever-changing schedules.
So, we identified five categories of situations that people most commonly face during the work week and developed all the recipes around them and the chapters (Chicken and Pork, Pasta, Vegetables, etc.). It was like a jigsaw puzzle.
TSD: Right, these are such realistic situations so many families can relate to – you narrowed it down to five?
Brennan: Yes – we like to say: “Five categories, 135 recipes – the ultimate game plan for weeknight dinners!” They are:
Make-Ahead – Dishes that can be made ahead are like money in the bank. Unlike some so-called make-ahead recipes, though, ours require at most putting something straight in the oven or on the stove to cook or reheat. Some dishes can just be pulled from the fridge. Think Sheet-Pan Sausage and Peppers, Baked Penne, and Vegetable Rice Bowls.
Staggered – These dishes are perfect for those nights when everyone is coming and going at different times and you can’t be at the dinner table at the same time. They will go the distance and still look and taste good whether you eat them at 5pm or 8pm, so no more encrusted mashed potatoes and cold pork chops! Think Turkey Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce, Tex-Mex Salmon in Foil, and Kitchen Sink Burritos.
One-Dish – That’s a given. One-dish meals are popular no matter what your situation is because who wants to deal with lots of pots and pans, especially after a long day? Think Mexican Skillet Lasagna, Pasta Fagioli, or Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajitas.
Pantry – You should think of your pantry as your war chest. Stock it well, and it will save you from defaulting to takeout time and time again, because there are days when you just can’t make it to the grocery store—a kid is home sick, you’re running late, the weather is bad.
Any recipe marked Pantry can be made with long-shelf life ingredients from your cupboard, fridge, or freezer. (The full list of ingredients to make every pantry recipe is in the back of the book for easy reference. It may look long, but you probably have most of them already.) For instance, with bacon, eggs, parmesan, and pasta on hand, you can make Foolproof Carbonara in 20 minutes flat. Much less expensive and much better than take-out, guaranteed. Other Pantry recipes are Shrimp Scampi and Spicy or Not Black Bean Soup.
Extra-Fast – These recipes generally take 30 minutes or less, and like all of the recipes in our book, only require everyday ingredients you can get at your local supermaket. Think Skillet Chicken Parm, Thai Beef Salad, and Turkey Sloppy Joes.
TSD: The physical book itself – the design, layout and tabs for each of the five sections – makes it so much easier to use and explore.
Brennan: We owe our book designer for most of that. Our intention—particularly since this book is geared toward people who are likely time- and sleep-deprived—was to make it very user friendly. The clever tab format, which we’ve never seen before, has gotten a great response. Calling out the tips with a shaded background gives some relief to the eye and the sidebars interspersed among the recipes help break up the book and, like the tips, add value for the reader. A good cookbook is about a lot more than recipes. Some favorite sidebars include The New Dinner Party (yes, you CAN entertain on a weeknight), Not-to-Be Forgotten Meals (or, what we and others snacked on after school when we were kids), and Home Alone (what to make on those rare, and possibly cherished, nights when you have the house to yourself).
We really wanted this to be the hardest-working cookbook out there. A lot of cookbooks are beautiful and they have wonderful recipes and great pictures. But when you use it as a tool, they aren’t always as effective.
TSD: We discovered a fun little page at the back of your book that features lifesaver condiments. They look so yummy.
Brennan: : We introduced lifesavers in Keepers, and they were a big hit. We named them such because they are versatile, can be made-ahead, and keep at least several days. Better yet, they make everything you use them on taste better.
For instance, dollop some Italian-Style Salsa Verde on leftover steak or brush some Teriyaki Sauce onto store-bought rotisserie chicken and you’ve gone from something that’s pretty pedestrian to a restaurant meal. We offer six lifesavers in The Dinner Plan and eight in Keepers (the Ginger-Scallion Sauce will change your life!). But even if you just have one in the fridge, you’re already ahead of the game.
TSD: You have thoughts on the barriers to creating home-cooked meals, maybe even some of the excuses from folks who say they just can’t cook, or just don’t have time.
Brennan: We’ve had people come up to us and say, “I am the worst cook ever!” And we always tell them ‘No, you are not’ before even asking why they think that. Because what we tend to hear has very little to do with people’s cooking skills and a lot to do with emotional baggage. Maybe their mom was a great cook and they are afraid of not measuring up. Or no one ever compliments their food. Or they scorched a few meals (who hasn’t!) and have given up.
Our goal is to help people overcome that fear and guilt and whatever other emotional things are holding them back from cooking. Yes, there are time constraints, schedule constraints, and maybe some budget and skill constraints, but we believe one of the biggest reasons is the internal struggle. We want people to get rid of any notion of “measuring up” and to bring back a little ease and pleasure to home cooking. We don’t expect people to cook every night of the week or to make every dish on the table themselves (we often supplement with one or two store-bought items), but if they cook just a little bit more, they are on the right track.
TSD: What’s next for the culinary duo?
Brennan: We’re working on a video series called Keepers’ Kitchen Therapy that involves us going into people’s homes, hearing their cooking woes, and then talking through those issues as we cook with them–think The Nanny meets Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The episodes will draw upon both of our cookbooks, which were written to help people solve the dilemmas we all face come dinnertime.
“The Dinner Plan: Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule” will be available soon at Whimsy in Greenville. It can be found on Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble and other fine booksellers. @KeepersCooks on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.