“My feeling about efficiency is that it’s often presented in a joyless way,” she says. “Like you have to be faster, faster, faster. You have to be done in 45 minutes, 30 minutes.” Instead, Slagle tells me, if you think first of the process, of the steps you need to complete a recipe, “your movements are more streamlined and you’re less frantic. Then you can enjoy the process.”
I’ve featured a handful of Slagle’s recipes in this newsletter in the past, but this one for a Greek salad with couscous and lentils is special because it’s from her new book, “I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To).”
Ideally, the cooking process involves being open to improvisation, shortcuts that might be specific to your kitchen setup, and personal preferences. For that to work, you can’t have too much to do. So Slagle writes recipes that don’t have too many ingredients and don’t require more than two different cooking processes, such as marinating; stovetop cooking (frying, sauteing, steaming, boiling, etc.); grilling; or oven cooking (baking, roasting or broiling). Her Greek salad recipe involves marinating and stovetop cooking.
“If you have less to do, your mind can travel a little bit more,” Slagle says. “You can think while you’re making a salad, Oh, I have some celery I need to use up and can throw in. … Let me use the end of this jar of mustard to make the dressing. … That leftover grilled chicken would go with this.”
In other words, when Slagle writes recipes, she’s aware that cooks’ full attention might not be on the task in front of them. Our minds wander. The dog needs a walk. A child wants a snack. “Because I cannot expect that the people cooking my recipes can give their full attention to the recipe, I want my recipes to be less intense — but always delicious,” Slagle says. “Because if something tastes good, no one ever says, ‘Oh, I wish that had been harder to make.’ ”
Here are a few of Slagle’s tips for being efficient in your cooking life:
- Cook from the hip: “If you feel comfortable not using a recipe, many times just cooking from the hip is more efficient.”
- Get comfortable with substitutions: “Recipes often fail in that they seem really specific, but if you get comfortable switching things out for things you have on hand, you’ll save lots of time — and money.”
- Minimize grocery shopping trips: “Shopping is this time suck recipe developers sometimes don’t consider when we’re writing a recipe, but going to the store takes time and is part of the process. As a home cook, if you don’t have to go to the store, you can be more efficient.”
Slagle’s recipe for Greek salad is a good example of how she’s always thinking about her favorite seasonal dishes and how to turn them into full meals. “I love Greek salad in the summer, and I could eat it as-is as a meal, but I’m also often thinking about how people are looking for that combination of starch, vegetable and protein in their meals,” she says. The feta adds protein but probably not enough. Still, she didn’t want to make the classic salad too complicated. Here’s how she added heft without too many more steps: First, you’ll boil some lentils in a pot of salted water, and when they’re about halfway done, you’ll add pearled couscous.
Meanwhile, halve some cherry tomatoes and chop some cucumbers. Season them with salt and let them sit in a fine-mesh strainer while you combine sliced shallots in a small bowl with a bit of vinegar. The couscous and lentils will be done at the same time, and when they are, tip the tomatoes and cucumbers into a serving bowl and use that same strainer to drain the lentils and couscous. Toss everything together, dress the salad and then top it with feta, olives, cracked black pepper and basil. I like this salad as-is or with warm pita on the side.
Slagle loves a good substitution, so she provided lots of them, below, and has these parting words: “Everyone has my permission to not make my recipes exactly as written — but if it doesn’t come out well, don’t blame me!”
Couscous and Lentil Greek Salad
- Instead of lentils, use cooked or canned chickpeas.
- In place of couscous, try rice or stale bread, ripped into rough croutons.
- The shallot is there to ensure a depth of flavor. If you’re using fresh summer tomatoes, you could skip the shallot.
- If you can’t have tomatoes, try this with sliced peaches, roasted red bell peppers or grilled eggplant.
- No feta? Try fresh mozzarella or dollops of yogurt and lemon zest.
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- 3/4 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
- 1/2 cup (3 ounces) dried green lentils
- 1/2 cup (3 ounces) Israeli or pearl couscous
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
- 4 Persian or mini cucumbers, chopped into bite-size pieces
- 1 small shallot, coarsely chopped
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved
- 4 ounces feta, crumbled
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the lentils and cook for 10 minutes. Add the couscous, stir to combine and cook until both the lentils and the couscous are tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
While the lentils and couscous cook, in a fine-mesh strainer, toss together the tomatoes and cucumbers with 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Let them drain in the sink.
In a small bowl, combine the shallot and vinegar with a pinch of salt.
When the couscous and lentils are just about done, shake the tomatoes and cucumbers to rid them of excess liquid, then transfer them to a large bowl.
Drain the lentils and couscous in the same strainer, and add them to the tomatoes and cucumbers. Drizzle with the olive oil. Using a spoon, scoop the shallot out of the vinegar and add it to the large bowl. Stir to combine, then add the olives and feta. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a sprinkle of the vinegar used on the shallot, if desired. Stir in the basil and serve family-style.
Per serving (about 1 1/2 cups)
Calories: 342; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 25 mg; Sodium: 891 mg; Carbohydrates: 25 g; Dietary Fiber: 9 g; Sugar: 3 g; Protein: 12 g.
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “I Dream of Dinner” by Ali Slagle (Clarkson Potter, 2022).
Tested by G. Daniela Galarza; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you make this recipe? Take a photo and tag us on Instagram with #eatvoraciously.
Catch up on this week’s Eat Voraciously recipes:
Monday: Panzanella With White Beans
Wednesday: Better Than Takeout Fried Rice