Melissa Clark is a home cook just like the rest of us. Although her best-selling cookbooks and immensely popular New York Times food columns might indicate otherwise, many of her best recipes are born on busy weeknights when she’s trying to get dinner on the table. “I’m inherently lazy,” Clark admits. “I’m happy to work for the delicious, but I’m always looking for steps to simplify or ways to repurpose leftovers.” This is part of her ingenuity: Her vibrant food is bold without being fussy, bright without being overwhelming, aspirational without being intimidating.
In Dinner in French, her newest cookbook out this spring, Clark takes oft-daunting dishes and techniques, and makes them seem, dare we say, effortless. Her fingerprints are all over these recipes, merging old and new, with a nod to her Brooklyn roots. You’ll find ratatouille coated in schmaltz, soufflés tinted with harissa, and frizzled potato latkes oozing with Gruyère. Like all of Clark’s writing, this book is best enjoyed slowly — and with an appreciation for every detail. Each recipe, paragraph and caption is peppered with clever tips, ingredient swaps or ways to ease the workload. Here, the Queen of Dinner shares her essential rules of the kitchen.
Melissa Clark’s 10 Cooking Commandments
1 | Sharpen Your Knives
Having sharp knives makes cooking much more enjoyable. I find you can tackle almost any job with three knives: a chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated bread knife. I use one of those no-fuss $6 plastic sharpeners; it is incredibly easy to use and makes a big difference.
2 | Fix Anything with Salt, Butter and Lemon Juice
If your dish is tasting flat, you can liven it up with salt and freshly squeezed lemon juice. If your sauce or soup is too strong, you can round it out with butter (or olive oil). A combination of these three ingredients can rectify almost any drab dish. A few other secret-weapon ingredients: chili flakes, fish sauce and soy sauce.
3 | Save Everything
I try not to throw anything out as there’s always something you can do with your leftovers. If you have some leftover broth, boil it down to make a flavorful base for a soup or sauce. Leftover roasted vegetables? Toss them with pasta. Little bits of meat like chicken? Make a chicken salad. Whenever in doubt, I throw everything into a frittata.
See Jalapeño Fromage Fort recipe below.
4 | Buy a Microplane
I use a fine grater like a microplane for citrus zest, ginger and especially garlic. When I’m making aioli, sauces or salad dressings, I want the garlic to be smooth so that it emulsifies into the sauce. This handy tool saves you from the laborious task of mashing the bulbs into a paste.
5 | Learn to Love Anchovies
My goal in life is to make everyone love anchovies. Most people are turned off by the cured fish because they’ve likely had poor quality fillets flopped atop a pizza or Caesar salad. But when you cook them in butter or olive oil, anchovies melt into your dish, adding a complex saltiness. Add to pastas, sauces, dips, rubs or marinades for umami without any fishiness. They also have an earthiness that rounds out other flavors.
See Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Fennel and Anchovy recipe below.
6 | Brown Your Butter
I’m always looking for simple steps that will add more flavor to my recipes. If I’m melting butter to sear meat, toss with pasta, mix into cookie dough, drizzle on roasted vegetables, or brush on freshly baked breads, I first brown it in the pan to add a rich nuttiness.
7 | Swap the Main Ingredient
Think of cooking like getting dressed; pick out your favorite outfit and put it on anything. If there’s a particular sauce you like, try it with a different protein, eggs or a vegetable. If you have a favorite fish recipe, try it with chicken. If you love chicken Parmesan, try it with cauliflower.
See Asparagus Almondine recipe below.
8 | Change the Name
Sometimes a recipe morphs into something you didn’t expect. Instead of considering it a failure, turn it into a positive by changing the name. If your stew is too intense, thin it with broth and call it a soup. If you burn your onions, call them “charred.” If you overcook your green beans, call them “velvety.” If your fish gets too dark in the pan, call it “blackened.” It’s all about managing people’s expectations.
9 | Be the Boss
You know your kitchen and your likes and dislikes better than any recipe writer does. If you hate cilantro, leave it out or substitute basil or another tender green herb. If a recipe calls for roasting chicken at 500 degrees but you always do it at 450 and it works perfectly, then roast it at 450. You’re the chef; you’re in charge.
10 | Enjoy the Process
Do what you need to do to make cooking pleasurable and not a chore. Make it your private time by pouring a glass of wine and turning on some music. Invite your family in and cook together — or shoo them out. If you enjoy it, the food will taste better.
Jalapeño Fromage Fort
Makes 1 cup
Fromage fort is what I make when I want to use up all those lonely bits of leftover cheese that are a tad too small to put on a cheese plate. This version is what I imagine the classic French spread would come back as after a Texas vacation, speckled with cilantro and pickled jalapeño and spiked with tequila. A variety of cheeses makes for a more richly flavored spread, but even a few will add dimension. MAKE AHEAD This can be made up to a week in advance, refrigerated and brought to room temperature before serving.
4 oz. mixed cheese bits (discard any rinds before weighing)
½ cup shredded Cheddar cheese
½ cup fresh goat cheese
⅓ cup fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, packed
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. dry white wine
2 Tbsp. pickled jalapeño, chopped
2 tsp. tequila (optional)
1 clove garlic, finely grated
½ fresh jalapeño, chopped
Ritz or other crackers for serving
1. In a blender or food processor, combine cheeses with cilantro, butter, wine, pickled jalapeño, tequila, garlic and fresh jalapeño. Blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Scrape into a serving bowl, cover and let rest at room temperature at least 2 hours. Serve with crackers.
Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb with Fennel and Anchovy
Makes 12 servings
I like to marinate lamb with fennel seeds and anchovies because it gives the meat so much flavor, you don’t even need a sauce. The aromatic rub melts into the meat, yielding an incredible amount of flavor. When I’m grilling for a large group of guests with different meat-doneness preferences, this is the cut I reach for. A butterflied leg of lamb by its nature is uneven, so the thicker parts stay redder than the thinner spots.
1½ Tbsp. fennel seeds
1 Tbsp. cumin seeds
1 Tbsp. coriander seeds
2 Tbsp. fresh fennel fronds or basil leaves (or a combination), minced
5 cloves garlic, finely grated
4 oil-packed anchovy fillets, minced
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon zest
1 Tbsp. salt
½ Tbsp. pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 5½- to 6-pound boneless leg of lamb, butterflied and fat trimmed (your butcher can do this for you)
1. Heat a medium dry skillet over medium heat. Add fennel, cumin and coriander seeds and cook until toasted and fragrant, 1 to 3 minutes. Using a mortar and pestle, lightly crush seeds.
2. In a large bowl, combine seeds with fennel fronds, garlic, anchovies, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Drizzle in as much oil as needed to make a paste, about 2 tablespoons.
3. Add lamb, rubbing paste all over meat. Cover (or stuff into a resealable plastic bag) and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
4. When ready to cook, heat an outdoor grill to high. Grill lamb 7 to 12 minutes per side, about 125°F for medium-rare. Transfer to a carving board and tent with foil. Let lamb rest (it will continue to cook) at least 10 minutes before slicing.
Makes 6 servings
In this riff on a French staple, I treat steamed asparagus like delicate trout fillets, covered in a toasted-almond brown butter and seasoned with lemon juice and herbs. It’s simple but devastatingly good. I like to serve it as a first course, where it can command all of the attention, rather than as an easily overlooked side dish.
2 bunches asparagus, woody ends trimmed
7 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ cup sliced almonds
juice of ½ lemon
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh tarragon leaves, chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh chives, chopped, plus chive blossoms for garnish (optional)
flaky sea salt, for garnish
1. In a large pot fitted with a steamer rack, bring an inch of water to a boil. Steam asparagus until slightly less tender than you’d like (you’ll finish cooking it later), 3 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a clean dishtowel and pat dry.
2. In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in almonds and cook until butter is deeply golden and smells nutty and almonds are pale gold, 2 to 5 minutes.
3. Add asparagus to skillet and season with salt. Cover and cook over medium-high heat, shaking pan so sauce coats asparagus, until asparagus is crisp-tender and almonds and butter are a deep golden brown, 2 to 5 minutes. Take care not to overcook asparagus.
4. Add lemon juice, parsley, tarragon, chives and a few grinds pepper, shaking pan to distribute. Transfer asparagus to a plate and spoon over almonds and butter. Garnish with chive blossoms and sea salt before serving.
Recipes reprinted from Dinner in French, copyright © 2020 by Melissa Clark, and Dinner: Changing the Game, copyright © 2017 by Melissa Clark. Photography copyright © 2020 by Laura Edwards and © 2017 by Eric Wolfinger. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.