How to Master Weeknight Dinners, According to a Seasoned Cookbook Author and Mom of Two
Jessica Battilana shares her tricks for prepping simple balanced dishes, getting kids to eat veggies, and more.
Most home cooks who have grown to love the process know there’s one major stumbling block to get from amateur to competent: the weeknight dinner. When you’re exhausted or so busy you can hardly think, there’s absolutely no shame in going to a restaurant, getting takeout, or having food delivered. But when you’re at 50% energy-wise, it can be that much more satisfying to make something delicious at home in half an hour or so.
Jessica Battilana, author of the new-this-month Repertoire<em>: All the Recipes You Nee</em>d, is a seasoned cookbook author, food writer, and mother of two. The first paragraph of her cookbook addresses the three-hour “gauntlet” that ensues right after school and before her kids’ bedtime. “We’re all tired,” she writes. But she developed a repertoire of recipes she can cook even when drained, and thinks weeknight home-cooked meals can “make you feel like a superhero."
“Concentrate on six recipes rather than a world of them,” she suggests to new cooks. “Even if it seems like a chore at first, if you push through you’ll get to a flow state,” in which cooking becomes truly pleasurable. “Any person can cook,” she laughs. “It’s not like becoming an Olympic cross-country skier.”
Here are more of her tips on nailing your own go-to dishes, how to get kids to eat veggies, and how to transition from annoyed amateur to competent cook—even if you’re Strictly Seamless at the moment.
What was your goal with this cookbook?
I tried to cover the spectrum of Desperate Wednesday all the way to a birthday party. Real life encompasses all of those things. More than anything, I hope people find things they want to cook over and over again.
Any tips for people seeking to pick their go-to “repertoire” dishes?
If you’re starting, the temptation is [to] get excited about something more complicated, but that can often be really discouraging. You gotta kind of cook in your pay grade. If you’re not a great cook, don’t pick the hardest thing in [a cookbook]. Make the spaghetti aglio e olio (garlic and oil) and get your sea legs under you.
The whole repertoire idea is you don’t need dozens and dozens and dozens of recipes. You need maybe a dozen, and you need to make them a lot. You’ll enjoy the process more if you’re not cooking something for the first time. Make it the way it’s written, and have an understanding of why it was done like it was done. Once you’ve made it a couple times, they you can kind of riff on it, but coming back to [recipes] is a huge part of why you become a good cook: “What happens when I do this?” “Maybe next time I’ll crank up the heat a little bit more.”
What mistakes do you see people commonly making?
I think people get very caught up in the idea of, “I have to have a protein, and a starch, and a vegetable.” You see a lot of, “OK, I’m gonna cook a chicken breast, make some rice, roast a vegetable.” That’s fine, but there are lots of other ways to hit all those bases. Think about a salads with grains and meat on it.
Any tips for shopping smarter?
I’ll go to the store and buy a bunch of different protein options, and then I’ll know what I’m going to make. I’ll buy some kind of ground meat knowing it could be a burger, a rice bowl, or a kebab. I’ll do the same thing with a chicken, knowing it could be a bunch of different things. I’ll get fresh veggies every couple days—I’m spoiled with the farmers market out here in California. I always have onions, potatoes, and a bunch of different kinds of rice [on hand].
Do you do those big weekly cooks?
I’m definitely not one of those cooks who will cook on Sunday for the week. That sounds terrible to me. I’ll make a slightly bigger batch that has legs. I’ll make harissa in a bigger batch. You have a boneless skinless chicken breast, you put harissa on it, it’s suddenly delicious. I’ll do a miso-ginger dressing that we just sort of have around. I’ll make a big batch of that green goddess dressing from the book: It can go on a chicken sandwich, salad, a pizza.
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Sounds like you’re a leftovers champion; are you?
Those types of [sauces] are really helpful because then you can take a boring thing and make it feel exciting—different one meal to the next. I don’t like to re-warm a dinner, but I do transform the leftovers a little bit. … You have something, a place to start.
How does that transformation work?
You cook one new thing. Just a straight re-heat on a pork chop or a chicken breast is gross, less nice to me. If I had leftover chicken I might make crepes and roll the chicken up in those.
The vermicelli bowl in my book is a great place to put leftover things. Rice bowls and noodle bowls are such a great place to put a quarter pound of flank steak, three shrimp: It all goes together, and doesn’t look like a total sh*tshow.
We’re big into fried rice in our house. Any combination of veggies left in the crisper drawer, any remaining bit of meat [goes into the rice]. The recipe in book uses hot dogs!
Any tips for preparing and eating more vegetables?
Sturdy vegetables like cauliflower will last a long time in the fridge. Sweet potatoes will last a long time in the pantry.
I’m a huge fan of the blanched vegetable—cooked in salted water, then rinsed in cold water. Then you can do any number of things. You can take them and heat them in a pan with a little bit of ghee or olive oil or salt and pepper and you have a lovely, perfectly cooked vegetable. (It’s hard in a skillet to get them cooked all the way through or caramelized evenly.) You could do asparagus that way with sesame oil and sesame seeds, or olive oil and shaved Parmesan. I’ll do that with asparagus, beans, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower. You could go from that [blanched] stage to roasting them in a really hot oven to caramelize them more.
The DIY tortilla soup recipe in your book intends to help kids feel autonomous, which kids tend to love. Do your kids eat their veggies?
I have two kids, six and four, and they’re totally deranged about vegetables. But [veggies] always show up. Last night I had asparagus, broccoli, and sweet peas, and said, “Pick your vegetable!” You get to choose, but there’s an array of things to choose from. They do. Sometimes it’s nice—it’s a parenting strategy in general, specifically as relates to food—if I I don’t put all my eggs in one basket [by serving only one vegetable].
I consider fruit to be in the veggie family. A couple of strawberries alongside the other stuff seems to go a long way: If you have the veggies there you’re much more likely to eat them.
Your green goddess dressing looks great; is it as flexible a recipe as most green goddess recipes are?
Always, yes, everything goes in. I think the tarragon is really nice. Any soft herb is fine. Cilantro, chervil, parsley, basil, tarragon, chives. I think you could make a very acceptable lighter version by reversing the quantity of mayo to yogurt. In the wintertime I [serve it with] a crudité: blanched cauliflower, broccoli and fennel. It’s so great when you’re desperate for something fresh-tasting.
Any parting words of wisdom for home cooks?
Many people consider this home cooking thing to be a real struggle, but people devote lots of time to other things. I think cooking at home if you have children is really important. I know there are meal kits and other things but I’m bothered by the idea that cooking is this chore that one should dispense with as quickly as possible. I hope that the book gets people to try new things. I feel like it’s this real pleasure that we’re losing touch with. That ritual and routine—even if you don’t have kids—is a really valuable life skill.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.