If #TheStew means anything to you, Alison Roman needs no introduction. As a cookbook author and contributor to The New York Times and Bon Appétit, she crafts dishes that have a tendency to take over Instagram feeds (like the recipe for the aforementioned stew, a creamy coconut-laced stock filled with turmeric-spiced chickpeas and greens, which was published in the Times last fall). From slices of thick country bread heaped with plump tomatoes and buttery shrimp, to chocolate-chunk-studded shortbread cookies (#TheCookies), her recipes are irresistible to home cooks, even when they involve more intimidating ingredients – a whole fish, for example. In 2017, the former Bon Appétit editor and Milk Bar pastry chef released her debut cookbook, Dining In. Her latest, Nothing Fancy, is all about cooking for – and inevitably impressing – your friends and family. We caught up with Roman in her breezy, plant-filled Brooklyn apartment, where she was busy preserving lemons and whipping up a pot of beans for new-parent friends, to chat about cooking-and-eating vacations, desert-island ingredients and what she thinks when people say her food is sexy.
Alison Roman Wants to Get Everyone Cooking (and She’s Well on Her Way)
enRoute How does it feel when your recipes become hashtags?
Alison Roman It feels really good, I’m not going to lie! I work hard and my goal is to get as many people cooking as possible, so the fact that it’s my recipes being cooked is really special. I’m doing the work I set out to do.
ER Why do you think people are so compelled to share when they’ve made your dishes?
AR Instagram is almost like being in one big cooking club. When someone else is involved, it makes you feel like you are part of something, and it’s also gratifying to post it and be like, “Oh, I did that.” There are certain people who cook my recipes [and share them] the day they come out, which is really nice – it’s like instant gratification. And I want to respond to everybody, but I should show you my DMs. I mostly respond when I’m in bed – probably not great for my sleep cycle.
ER How do you describe your cooking style?
AR It’s unfussy and delicious; it’s real food and easy to execute. I use a lot of citrus and herbs and chili, things that generally have pretty intense, bold flavours. Someone recently told me, “Your food is very sexy. You use a lot of olive oil and you use your hands, and it just feels sensuous and sensual.” I took that as a huge compliment. People say, “Oh, you write cookbooks? What kind?” And it’s always challenging for me to articulate because, to me, it’s just food that makes sense.
ER With your new book, Nothing Fancy, are you trying to get people to lighten up about hosting and entertaining?
AR Definitely. I think that if you panic or feel stressed, then the people who are at your house will feel panicked and stressed, and that’s not what you want people to walk away with. You want them to feel a sense of relief and calmness and peace when they’re at your house. You want them to think, “Oh, this is such a nice way to spend my time.”
ER What’s a good dish for someone who typically feels panicked to start with?
AR Honestly, all of the recipes in Nothing Fancy are designed to be a success with very minimal effort. There’s not a ton of tricky technique. There is a pork shoulder recipe where all you do is rub it and put it in the oven with a can of beans. That’s it. There’s so much in there that’s like, “It’s 4 o’clock, people are coming over at 6, I could make this tonight.” And that was the goal. The things that take a lot of time are very hands-off, and things that are very involved are ready in 30 minutes.
ER Does travelling influence your recipe development?
AR One hundred percent. It probably influences me more than anything else. Every time I go to a new place, even if it’s not exotic, I find something there that’s extremely inspiring: watching other people cook, eating at restaurants, shopping, going to markets, ingredients – the whole scope of it. I recently went to Formentera, in Spain, which wasn’t exactly a food trip, but it was very, very delicious. It inspired me to eat more seafood.
ER I read that if you’re travelling and staying in a place with a kitchen, then you’re on a “cooking and eating vacation,” which is your favourite kind. What have been your most memorable cooking and eating vacations?
AR I went to Portugal two years ago for my cousin’s 40th birthday, and I cooked for like 40 people, which was pretty intense, but also really fun. I was grilling sardines, grilling meat and making dips and bread – it was wild. That was definitely a cooking and eating vacation. The other ones are a little more meandering, like renting a house with friends and we’ve got four days in the house, and one of those days is going to be spent cooking. It depends on who’s there, how many people, if they have kids or not, what time we need to eat, where are we, time of year, but we’ll make anything from pork shoulder to chickens to pasta to stews.
ER If you’re staying in a house or Airbnb, you never know what will be stocked in the kitchen. Do you have any cooking tools or ingredients that you travel with?
AR Flaky salt all the time. In a Ziploc bag. No tools, though. I’m not going to check a bag just so I can bring my own knives. I try to make do with whatever kitchen situation I have. If you have a sheet pan or a skillet or pot and a knife, you can make anything.
ER What’s a go-to dish for you in a situation like this?
AR A roast chicken is my answer for pretty much anything. It’s always perfect, whether it’s two people or six people. I go to a lot of places alone, especially when I’m writing, and I’ll roast a chicken and eat it for dinner. The next day, I’ll have cold chicken in a salad for lunch and then I’ll carve the rest of the meat off and start a soup with the bones. Then I’ll have soup for dinner, pick the meat, put it back in the soup, and then maybe the next day I’ll have the last of the meat.
ER What are your desert-island ingredients?
AR Lemon, olive oil and flaky salt. That’s a very boring roster, but I honestly feel like I couldn’t cook anything without those things.
Alison’s Favourite Souvenirs
The cookbook author gives us the backstory on three international gems on display in her apartment.
“I found this in Sicily. It was just on the street in a flea-market situation, and I thought, ‘I have to carry this back with me.’ It’s not especially light, and I had been travelling around Italy for a few weeks, so it wasn’t the most practical thing that I could fit in my suitcase, but it was so beautiful. I use it to keep matches in, but I also use it for dips or nuts or olives when I’m entertaining. It actually appears in Nothing Fancy, because I used it as a prop a few times.”
“I got this in Midcoast Maine, right outside Belfast, which is a place I travel to every year to visit one of my best friends. When I’m there, one of our favourite activities, outside of eating every single crab we can find, is going to all the flea markets in the area. I found this little fella and just had to have him. Every time I see him, I think of my friend and I think of Maine.”
“I got this little ox in a small clay village outside of Hoi An. I was so taken with it – they had all different kinds of animals, and so I got one for each member of my family depending on the animal that I thought spoke to them. And then I realized that I also wanted one. And while they’re all kind of identical, they all have this very unique expression, and this guy’s face spoke to me – he’s making a funny face, and I thought it was cute.”
Click here to see Alison's favourite spots to eat and drink in Mexico City.