With 'Nothing Fancy,' Alison Roman Aims To Rebrand Having People Over For Dinner

Dec 18, 2019
Originally published on December 18, 2019 9:05 pm

Dinner parties often come with expectations and stress, but author Alison Roman wants you to know it doesn't have to be that way.

In her new cookbook, Nothing Fancy, Roman stresses that preparing dinner for others doesn't have to be a piece of performance art. It's dinner and doesn't have to be perfection.

"I feel like taking the word entertaining out of something just immediately alleviates anxiety, because what I realized is also when you rebrand it as having people over, it not only makes you feel less anxious, but your guests, [too]," Roman says.

People also have to realize that you don't need a special occasion to have friends over for dinner, says Roman, and that you don't need to entertain your guests with matching dinnerware or by getting rid of the stacks of books and other things that make your home cozy.

"I think that increasingly in our world, where, you know, I hate to bring up the word, but Instagram is like the metric by which we judge ourselves both aesthetically, and ... I feel like from what we wear to what our homes look like, to how our food should be, we're holding ourselves to these really insane standards, and I feel like they're not rooted in reality," Roman says.

"I wanted this book to kind of serve as a reality check of ... it's gonna be OK," she says. "It's fine no matter what happens. Just having the people in your home and like opening a bottle of wine and roasting a chicken — that's great. That's all you need."

Roman prepares food from her cookbook Nothing Fancy, she measures out spices, peels garlic, and tosses squash on a pan mid-roasting.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Whether she's getting ready to have people over on a Sunday night or preparing for a holiday such as Thanksgiving, Roman says she usually breaks down the menu in the same way. She starts with snacks, then moves to a salad, then sides, a main dish and then something sweet tops it off.

"You don't have to have all five things to make a great meal," she says. "For me, I'm more likely to create an entire meal out of all side dishes than anything else. And I've done that quite a few times."

Together with NPR's Ailsa Chang, Roman made Roasted Squash with Yogurt and Spiced, Buttered Pistachios and Frizzled Chickpeas and Onions with Feta and Oregano — two side dishes from Nothing Fancy that both can be made within an hour.

"If I'm doing this for a party or for anything really, I always think 'OK, what's going to take the longest?' and let's do that first," Roman says. "The squash, because it's inactive time. We're gonna cut it. We're gonna roast it. I don't need to pay attention to it while it's in the oven, so I can get that going now and then take care of everything else."

Roman stirs the chickpeas as they cook from the recipe Frizzled Chickpeas and Onions with Feta and Oregano, scoops chopped pistachios onto a knife, and a holds half lemon to be squeezed into yogurt.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Roman says just starting the process immediately helps everyone relax. At the worst, you'll at least have one dish to eat. As she's continued her cooking career, Roman has learned a few other tips that make having people over easier and fall in line with her philosophy that it's not entertaining.

"In my old age, I have learned to ask for help because it makes my life easier," she says. "I become less frazzled."

Just having someone open a can of chickpeas or taking the leaves off the oregano can take the pressure off, get everyone involved in the process and set the tone for a more relaxed evening. There's no need to prepare the entire dinner alone.

As Roman says in Nothing Fancy, "This is not about living an aspirational life; it's about living an attainable one."

Roman plates the squash from the recipe Roasted Squash with Yogurt and Spiced, Buttered Pistachios, browns butter, and crumbles feta onto the chickpeas.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Below you'll find the recipes from Nothing Fancy, as well as recipes from chefs around the U.S. that can be made ahead and taken to holiday get-togethers with friends or family.

Roasted Squash with Yogurt and Spiced, Buttered Pistachios

Serves 4 to 6

1 winter squash, such as Red Kuri, kabocha, or acorn, sliced into 1½-inch wedges (1½–2 pounds)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup raw pistachios, finely chopped

½ teaspoon ground cumin

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

Pinch of ground cinnamon

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Flaky sea salt

1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Remove the seeds from the squash if you want (I leave them in, as I enjoy their crunchy texture as they roast, but whatever you like!) and toss the squash on a rimmed baking sheet with the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and roast until the squash is totally tender and golden brown with caramelized bits, 40 to 50 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small pot over medium heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the butter has browned and started to foam, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add the pistachios, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and red pepper flakes, if using. Season with flaky salt and set aside.

Combine the yogurt and lemon juice in a small bowl and season with salt. Spoon the yogurt sauce onto the bottom of a large serving platter or bowl. Arrange squash nestled into each other and spoon the buttered pistachios over everything. Top with flaky salt and a grind of black pepper or a pinch of red pepper flakes.

DO AHEAD: Squash can be roasted several hours ahead of time, wrapped loosely, and stored at room temperature. It doesn't need to be reheated before serving, but you can if you like.

NOTE: Most winter squash works here, but my favorites are the larger, thick-skinned varieties such as Red Kuri, kabocha, and acorn, because you can eat the skin (and the seeds!). If using something like a butternut or honey nut, slice it into 1-inch-thick slices rather than wedges.

Reprinted from Nothing Fancy. Copyright © 2019 by Alison Roman.


Frizzled Chickpeas and Onions with Feta and Oregano

Serves 4 to 6

½ cup olive oil

1 large red or yellow onion, thinly sliced

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

4 garlic cloves, smashed

Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

4 sprigs fresh marjoram or oregano, plus more leaves for garnish

2 ounces Greek, Bulgarian, or French feta, very thinly sliced or crumbled

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has softened, and is just starting to brown, 5 to 8 minutes.

Add the chickpeas, garlic, red pepper flakes, and half the marjoram leaves. Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat in the oily business. Continue to cook, shaking the skillet occasionally to make sure nothing is sticking and that the chickpeas are getting equal attention from the oil and heat, until the chickpeas are golden brown and appear fried around the edges and the onion is a deep golden brown and looks somewhere between fried and caramelized, a term we now call "frizzled."

Taste a chickpea or two and make sure it's plenty seasoned, adding salt, pepper, and/or a pinch of red pepper flakes, if you like things on the spicier side.

Remove from the heat and transfer to a large serving bowl. Top with the feta and remaining marjoram.

DO AHEAD: Chickpeas can be made a few hours ahead, kept covered loosely at room temperature. Feel free to reheat in a skillet over medium-high heat before serving, as they'll lose a bit of their crispness as they sit.

Reprinted from Nothing Fancy. Copyright © 2019 by Alison Roman.


From Anthony Lamas, chef of Seviche in Louisville, Ky.

Vidalia Onion Pudding

Serves 8

16 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the pan

6 large eggs, beaten

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon kosher slat

1 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 teaspoons baking powder

6 medium Vidalia onions, trimmed and julienned

Position a rack in the center of a convection oven and heat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9 x 13 x 2-inch baking dish.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and cream. In a small bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, white pepper, and baking powder. Gradually add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, whisking until smooth. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the 16 tablespoons butter. When the foaming subsides, add the onions and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are caramelized, about 30 minutes. Move the pan off the heat and fold the onions into the egg mixture. Pour the mixture in the prepared baking dish and bake for 30 minutes, or until the pudding is set and the top is slightly brown. (Check with a toothpick inserted in the center of the pudding; if it comes out clean, the pudding is done). Let sit for a few minutes before serving.

CHEF'S TIP: You can use Spanish onion or Texas Sweets when Vidalias are not in season. The pudding is still delicious, but with a slightly different flavor. Just add a bit more sugar to make up for the lack of sweetness in the onions.


From Mashama Bailey, executive chef and partner at The Grey in Savannah, Ga.

Seafood Middlin

Serves 2 to 4

1 ½ quarts fish stock or water or chicken broth

1 pint Carolina Gold Rice Grits

¼ cup small diced shallot

¼ cup small diced celery

½ pint small diced onion

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoons saffron

4 ounces white wine

2 ounces olive oil

4 ounces peeled, cleaned and roughly chopped shrimp

4 ounces of small diced light flaky fish like flounder or snapper

Salt to taste

Pepper to taste

1 ounce of chopped parsley

Heat stock or water on stove to a low simmer in a sauce pot. Do not reduce, just hold it hot and place it aside.

In a separate pot with a wide bottom heat olive oil over medium heat. Add celery, shallots and onion with a pinch of salt and sweat with no color.

Add Carolina Gold Rice Grits with another pinch of salt and stir to coat with oil and start to toast. This should take five minutes. Add, tomato paste, saffron and white wine and stir until wine is evaporated.

Stir in 2 cups of the hot stock. Cook at a simmer, stirring until stock is absorbed. When fully absorbed add another 2 cups and stir until the stock starts to evaporate and rice grits soften. Add another 2 cups and stir until all of it is incorporated. The rice grits should be 80% cooked through. Fold in your shrimp and the diced fish. Add butter or more olive oil, 2 teaspoons of salt and hold until ready to eat.

When ready to reheat and serve in a pot add the last 2 cups of stock and stir over low heat until the rice is loose and fully coated with your stock. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir with a large spoon in a warmed large bowl. Garnish with herbs.


From Genevieve Ko, cooking editor at the Los Angeles Times

French Beans With Miso Vinaigrette

Serves 12.

Kosher salt

1 bag (2 pounds) trimmed French beans

2 tablespoons white miso

2 tablespoons distilled white or white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon honey or maple syrup

1 small jalapeño, very thinly sliced, seeded if you'd like

White sesame seeds, for garnish

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 3 tablespoons salt, return to a boil, then add the French beans. Boil until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain well, rinse under cold water until cool, then drain again.

While the beans cook, whisk the miso, vinegar, oil, honey and a pinch of salt in a large bowl until smooth. Add the beans and half the jalapeño and fold until evenly coated.

Transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the remaining jalapeño and sesame seeds.

NPR's Aubri Juhasz, Connor Donevan and Jolie Myers produced and edited the audio story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Alison Roman wants you to chill out. Roman is a chef and food writer best known for her viral recipes and social media charm. In 2017, she published her first cookbook, "Dining In." Today she's a food writer for The New York Times and Bon Appetit magazine. And she's out with a new cookbook called "Nothing Fancy."

My co-host Ailsa Chang invited her over to talk about the new book and to cook some no-stress dishes.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: "Nothing Fancy" has a simple premise - don't think of cooking for others as high-stakes entertaining. You're simply having people over.

Hey, Alison.

But simply having people over - that is not something I do. I have all kinds of insecurities about hosting dinner parties.

So totally full disclosure, I am your exact audience because I was so anxious about hosting you in my own personal kitchen...

ALISON ROMAN: Yeah.

CHANG: ...That my editor rescued me and offered up her kitchen.

ROMAN: Oh, my God. That's a...

CHANG: That's why we are here.

Here so I can finally learn how to cook for others without freaking out. We wander over to the dining room table, and I ask her about the whole philosophy behind "Nothing Fancy."

ROMAN: I feel like taking the word entertaining out of something just immediately alleviates anxiety because what I realized is also when you rebrand it as having people over, it not only makes you feel less anxious but your guests. I feel like if somebody invites me to a formal dinner party, I freak out about what to wear. What should I bring? How do I behave? But if someone's like, oh, it's casual; just come over, me, as a guest, I feel better. So I feel like it's mutually beneficial for everybody involved to kind of relax a little bit.

CHANG: It's so true. You soak up the energy of what the host is emitting.

ROMAN: Oh, yeah. I always felt it's like an animal that smells fear or something.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROMAN: Like, I feel like that if you as the host are stressed out, your guests are not going to have that good of a time.

CHANG: What I also loved is that when I was reading your book, I felt like it was in part, like, a self-help book.

ROMAN: I've heard that a lot actually...

CHANG: Really?

ROMAN: ...Which is - yeah - very funny to me.

CHANG: There's this one line that jumped out at me. It was, this is not about living an aspirational life. It's about living an attainable one. I felt like even just in the introduction, you're coaxing people to give themselves permission to let all their imperfections hang out there, invite people over to take in those imperfections...

ROMAN: Yeah.

CHANG: ...And be OK with that.

ROMAN: Yeah. I think that the way that we live in our homes alone or with our partners or families, we're very comfortable there. This is the space we've created. We feel good about it. We like that the books are stacked and piled on top of each other. We like that our pants mismatch and - because it's our home, and that's how we've curated it.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROMAN: But all of a sudden, when we invite outsiders in, we're worried about all that stuff.

CHANG: Right. Well, it suddenly feels like an exhibit.

ROMAN: We, like, panic that maybe it's not right or - yeah.

CHANG: Yeah. Are you going to judge me by my space?

ROMAN: Exactly. And I think that increasingly in our world where - you know, I hate to bring up the word but Instagram is, like, the metric by which we judge ourselves. You know, I feel like from what we wear to what our homes look like to how our food should be, we're holding ourselves to these really insane standards. And I feel like they're not rooted in reality. So for me, I wanted this book to kind of serve as a reality check of, like, it's going to be OK. It's fine no matter what happens. Just having the people in your home and, like, opening a bottle of wine, roasting a chicken, that's great. That's all you need.

CHANG: I love that. All right, you need to teach me your ways.

ROMAN: I will (laughter). I will. I will do my best.

CHANG: OK, so we decided to make two recipes from the book - frizzled chickpeas and onions with feta and marjoram and roasted squash with yogurt and spiced, buttered pistachios. First up, the squash.

ROMAN: So if I'm doing this for a party, or for anything, really, I always think, OK, what's going to take the longest, and let's do that first. And so...

CHANG: Squash.

ROMAN: Yeah. So the squash, because it's inactive time, right? So we're going to cut it. We're going to roast it. I don't need to pay attention to it while it's in the oven. So I can get that going now and then can take care of everything else.

CHANG: She cut the squash into these thick slices, placed them on a baking sheet, smothered them in olive oil and then added some fresh black pepper.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEPPER GRINDING)

CHANG: After that, she popped them in the oven.

(SOUNDBITE OF OVEN BEEPING)

ROMAN: Ooh, the oven's ready. So that's in. I'm not worried. I already feel great. I feel like when you are having people over, just doing one thing, you're like, oh, I feel like I can relax. So just start the process. And worst comes to worst, we have roasted squash, you know? We already know we'll have one thing to eat.

CHANG: Right. Exactly.

ROMAN: So everything else is a luxury at this point.

CHANG: And then on to the chickpeas - she adds chopped onions to a bath of olive oil simmering on the stove.

ROMAN: So as those go in, I'm going to peel my garlic, slice it and add it to the onion so they can kind of toast along with it.

CHANG: I hate peeling garlic.

ROMAN: Why?

CHANG: It's just so painstaking. I cheat, and I buy the peeled garlic stuff at grocery stores. How terrible is that? You look shocked. You look like you're judging me. I thought this was about not judging.

ROMAN: You're right. I will say, that I'm judging you for.

CHANG: All right, so while the chickpeas are browning, I take a minute to ask Alison if there's anything about cooking that does stress her out.

ROMAN: I am a pretty anxious person. And I think that cooking is one of the few things that doesn't actually stress me out anymore.

CHANG: I'm curious, though. Has your relationship with cooking changed since you've gotten more and more well-known? Because there is literally, like, a recipe called the stew...

ROMAN: Yes.

CHANG: ...That you wrote - as in, the definitive stew. You are now Alison Roman, maker of the stew.

ROMAN: I am. That's me.

CHANG: Is it hard to be easygoing, be yourself, whatever Alison Roman, when now you have this big reputation, and people kind of expect you to be a certain way in the dishes you make, the attitude you exude in the kitchen?

ROMAN: Yeah. I think that if anything, I feel more empowered to be myself than I ever have before because what I realized with "Dining In," when I first published that book, I was like, everyone is going to love this book. How can they not? It's an amazing book. And when it came out, guess what? I was not. I was not everyone's favorite. People were like, I don't like her writing voice, or the recipes or too this or not enough that. And I was like, oh, I'll never be everything to everybody.

CHANG: That's right.

ROMAN: I will never be everybody's cup of tea. I will never be for everyone.

CHANG: I deal with the same realization.

ROMAN: One-hundred percent. And if you just let that go and you're like, well, the people that I am for are really going to support me and like me.

CHANG: Yeah.

ROMAN: And the people that aren't don't have to read me or pay attention.

CHANG: Exactly.

ROMAN: I'm smelling the squash. Are you?

CHANG: So pretty.

ROMAN: Aren't they nice?

CHANG: That looks like fall.

ROMAN: Yeah. And notice how all those seeds get really nice and toasted. They're going to be so good and crunchy, which is my favorite texture of food. I want - if it's a soft food, I'm not that interested. If you'll notice, everything I make is like crunchy or frizzled or frazzled or toasted. Yeah. I love that texture. And she's ready.

CHANG: It is time to plate. She stacks squash on a bed of lemony Greek yogurt and douses it in a mixture of spiced browned butter and chopped pistachios. I crumble feta over the chickpeas and onions and finish off the dish with fresh sprigs of marjoram. And then it is time to dig in.

ROMAN: Just kind of, like, break off a piece. And then drag it through the yogurt. Make sure you get some of those pistachio.

CHANG: I love it because it's oozy and crunchy at the same time.

ROMAN: Yeah.

CHANG: This was so much fun. Alison Roman, thank you so much for cooking with me.

ROMAN: Oh, my God. This was an actual dream. And I was so happy to do it. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Alison Roman's new book is called "Nothing Fancy." You can find the full recipes for her roasted squash and frizzled chickpeas and onions at npr.org - just in time for your holiday parties. And tomorrow, you will hear some more ideas for impressive side dishes from three chefs from three different parts of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENS LEKMAN SONG, "THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.