The hardest part about hosting an Alison Roman-themed gathering to review her new cookbook Nothing Fancy: Unfussy Food for Having People Over, was letting go of my own aspiration to always be the hostess with the mostess and embrace the entire ethos of the book that “it’s not about entertaining…it’s just about making dinner.” The second hardest part was deciding which of Roman’s seemingly unfussy yet undeniably gorgeous looking recipes I was going to cook for my friends.
I couldn’t think of a more appropriate group to cook for than my book club, women who have gathered and dined together over Roman’s #TheStew and devoured #THECOOKIES. (For those unfamiliar, Roman’s now famous Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Tumeric first published in her New York Times column and her Chocolate Chunk Shortbread Cookies from her 2017 cookbook Dining In, went completely viral. The Stew has over 6,000 reviews on The New York Times cooking site and her shortbread cookies have been referred to as the recipe that broke the Internet.)
Within the first page of Nothing Fancy it is clear that Roman is speaking to readers who may lack the confidence to cook and host their own gatherings and that her book is meant to “give them permission to not be perfect and the confidence to say, I’m going to try this and even if it doesn’t turn out exactly how I thought it would or as good as promised, I’m still proud of it.”
Her approach to cooking is making food taste and look good without being too fussy about it. That yes, cooking takes some planning ahead but by following straightforward recipes can also be somewhat spontaneous and casual.
Following Roman’s advice in Nothing Fancy posed a challenge for me, someone who loves to cook and host but prefers to have as much of the preparations complete, the dishes clean and drinks mixed before my guests arrive. I forced myself (at least for the evening) to forget the tricks and tips I generally rely on to ease my own anxiety about cooking and hosting which are somewhat at odds with much of what Nothing Fancy is trying to achieve.
Using Roman and her book as a guide, I decided to not be afraid to ask for help and invited my friends over earlier than normal, assigning tasks in the kitchen like setting up the Aperol spritz bar, mixing sauces, slicing bread and sprinkling salads with fresh herbs. I cooked a range of dishes from the book including dips, snacks, kind-of-salads, grains, mains and dessert.
The biggest winners were those dishes that were packed with flavor yet surprised me with their simplicity and really could be thrown together on the fly. I made the Spicy, Giant, Crunchy Corn a day ahead of time. It’s hard to imagine improving upon corn nuts as a snack but this recipe certainly does. They’re completely addictive, so much so that many of my friends requested “to go” bags with whatever remained at night’s end.
The meal was not without its disappointments. I tried making the Labneh Dip with Sizzled Scallions and Chile and ended up having to throw it away. Following the recipe exactly as written, I gently swirled my scallions and red-pepper flakes waiting for my oil to turn a bright fiery orange as Roman instructed, only to watch my scallions burn to a crisp and stink up my kitchen. Thankfully, I salvaged the labneh by using it in the Creamy Sesame Turmeric Dip which turned out to be my favorite recipe. It was a perfect dip for cut up veggies, and I would argue better as an accompaniment to the main course, the Salmon with Soy and Citrusy Charred Scallions. It even made an appearance the next day as a delicious spread for my morning toast.
The Tiny, Salty, Chocolaty Cookies called out to me but don’t even play in the category of #THECOOKIES. I couldn’t quite get over the texture which Roman herself forewarns is really a cross between a brownie and a cookie. In reality they’re globs of rich, salty chocolate which I decided to serve in ramekins with vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries (call me a purest!).
The biggest takeaway from the book came to me as I was busying myself in the kitchen and looked over at my friends laughing and catching up over delicious snacky things and cocktails. Staying true to Roman’s advice in her book, I embraced a little chaos, reminded myself to not apologize that dinner wasn’t ready quite yet and instead, just enjoyed my company and some really good food.