Down the AisleAlison Roman

Food Writer and Author of "Dining In" Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

If you haven’t come across Alison Roman on Instagram yet, you’re missing out. Whether it’s fishmongers, taco trucks, or simply put- some the most photogenic compositions of food you will ever feast your eyes on, she always finds some way to inject adventure and wit into her feed. Did I mention that it’s beautiful? If you prefer the feeling of print, you’ve probably already seen her work in the likes of Bon Appetit and the New York Times Cooking section, and her debut cookbook, “Dining In”, will be released this October. She had me laughing out loud as we walked through the aisles of Sahadi’s in Brooklyn, where she discussed, among other things, what to look for in the bulk bins, and how to be a stress-free dinner party host.


“It’s about rejecting the idea that cooking at home, whether for yourself or for others, is something that you just have to do– it doesn’t have to be a chore!”

 

So why Sahadi’s Market?

I love the bulk area. One thing I make often is granola, so I love to come here to pick out all of the ingredients. I also don’t always make it here every week, so I tend to get a little bit extra of everything so it can last me longer. The prices here are so good. This is the only place I have found where I can get roasted and unsalted hazelnuts, as well as pistachios out of the shell, all in bulk. Peanuts in the shell are my favorite snack of all time, and I can come here to get them in bulk.

What are the most coveted items you get at Sahadi’s?
First of all, they have this buffalo milk parmesan that is just out-of-this-world delicious, and it’s cheaper than a typical parmesan. I pick up labneh and olive oil here as well. The price point is the best I have been able to find while having such a high level of quality. Also…this shredded Halva…it is fucking awesome. It tastes like cotton candy. I am obsessed with this.

What are your other favorite grocery stores to visit in NYC?

I love specialty stores- Sahadi’s, Kalustyan’s, Deluxe Food Market in Chinatown; butchers- The Meat Hook, Fleischer’s, The Mermaid’s Garden for fish; and wine shops- Drink in PLG, September Wines in LES, Chambers Street in Tribeca, and Nolita Wine Merchants. I love any well-curated wine shop with weird and funky stuff. Wait…do wine shops count as grocery stores?

And honestly, I’m sure this sounds like a really boring answer, but I love Whole Foods. They almost always have what I need, and when I develop recipes, I like to make sure that any special ingredients I call for can be found there by someone in another state.

What are you favorite items to splurge on when you’re cooking at home?

Anchovies, olive oil and salt. You can always taste the difference. I cook with them so frequently that I really notice the difference between the good options and the cheap ones. Also, nutritional yeast. Bragg’s is the only brand I like, even if the bulk bin selection is cheaper.


“They almost always have what I need, and when I develop recipes, I like to make sure that any special ingredients I call for can be found there by someone in another state.”

 

Did you grow up in a household that cooked often and celebrated food?

Both of my parents cooked. We didn’t go out to eat often, so there was always food in the house. My mom worked a lot, and I remember having a routine I had where I would spend one night a week at my best friend’s house. It just so happened that every time I was there, we would have pasta for dinner. I remember trying to recreate the pasta sauce back at home. That’s my earliest memory of being interested in testing recipes and creating my own versions of my favorite meals.

When did you start to get the feeling that this was something you could do for a living?

I remember just being so obsessed with cooking, and I was thinking about food all of the time. I decided that I wanted to drop out of college and go to culinary school. When I told my parents, my mom started crying. She said, “You’re going to end up working at Hot Dog on a Stick!” So I went to my favorite restaurant in LA and spoke with the pastry chef there. I told him I was thinking of going to culinary school and asked if he had any advice for me. He said, “Don’t go, come work for me!” I did that and ended up loving it.

What are some of the most important things you wanted to achieve when writing your first cookbook, Dining In?

I believe there is a fine line between what people find inspiring and what people will actually end up making. I spent a lot of time testing recipes that I know will be worth it for people to make in their kitchens and to spend their time cooking.

I love the name of the book. What inspired the title?

I really struggled with the name for this book. The topic is so broad, like, “Recipes that worked! Stuff you can cook for dinner! Food I like to eat.” It was really challenging to come up with something catchy but not hokey. I spent a lot of time workshopping the name, and spent a lot of time pretty hung up on the fact that nothing seemed to fit.

Soon after I got the book deal, I was home for Christmas and remember driving to the beach through Topanga Canyon with some friends. I was talking about how hard it was and how stuck I felt. My best friend was like, “Just tell me why you’re writing the book.” I started spouting out the millions of reasons, and eventually got to, “I want to help people eat less at restaurants and dine in more… Oh! Dining In! Obviously!” It kind of encompassed everything without putting me or the food into a box. Dining In can be a literal thing you are doing, but it also says something about the way we are often treating dinner- making it an event. It’s about rejecting the idea that cooking at home, whether for yourself or for others, is something that you just have to do– it doesn’t have to be a chore!


“There is a fine line between what people find inspiring and what people will actually end up making.”

 

Do you consider yourself a “dinner party” type of person?

I am. I host them often, and I’m very casual in my approach. They are the least formal thing ever, like, “Do you guys want to come over and eat some food?”

Do you have any tips for people who are intimidated by the idea of having people over for dinner?

My best tip is to invite people over that will A- be honest with you, or B- just be happy to hang out. I don’t invite people over if I’m nervous to cook for them or have a feeling that their impression of me is somehow hinged on my success as a host. I don’t have time for that. I’m already anxious enough as a human.

I usually start by figuring out how many people I’m having over. That is a good way to determine what I will make- ranges of guests, like “6 and under”, “6-10”, or “10 or over”. I approach it kind of in the same way I would curate a playlist. What type of vibe am I trying to achieve? Also, last bit of advice- a dinner party is not the place to try out a brand new recipe that you have never made before. Don’t do that to yourself.

Any other advice to home cooks?

I think it was Julia Child that said something to the effect of, “Never apologize for the food.” There is nothing worse than a cook coming out before you eat and saying, “Guys, I’m really sorry, but there wasn’t cilantro so I had to use this and…” No one will notice, and no one will care. Just do your best and people will be happy to have it.

 

Take-aways:

  1. Alison RomanRecipes and cooking
  2. Sahadi'sGrocery Store
  3. Fleisher'sButcher Shop
  4. Mermaid's GardenSustainable Fish
  5. Drink PLGWine Shop
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Alison Roman’s Little Gems and Cabbage with Pickled Turnips and Lemon-Tahini Dressing

Some version of this salad is in constant rotation at my house, especially after a Sahadi’s run. I go through about a jar of tahini every month, thanks mostly to the dressing here, which I use on everything from chicken to this salad. I love food that’s heavy on crunch, which explains why this, my favorite salad, is like, 99% crunch. It can be adapted to include whatever you have on hand or whatever vegetables you fancy. Typically I’m throwing in anything I need to use up- probably herbs that are on their way out, and hot pink pickled turnips- which are not only crunchy, but hot pink, which makes them salad MVP. And sure, while there is basically zero nutritional value, I really love little gems (romaine works if you can’t find) for their superlative crunch.

Ingredients:

  • For the Dressing:
  • ¼ cup tahini
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely grated
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • For the salad:
  • 2 Persian (or 1 hot house) cucumbers, thinly sliced (about 1 ½ cups)
  • ½ preserved lemon, finely chopped or thinly sliced
  • ¼ small head red cabbage, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup thinly sliced pickled turnips, or any other pickled vegetable you fancy (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 heads little gem lettuce, halved lengthwise (or one head romaine, quartered lengthwise)
  • 1 cup picked tender herbs, such as cilantro, parsley or dill, or combination of, coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup chopped pistachios, walnuts, almonds or cashews
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Serves

4

For the dressing:

Whisk tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and ½ cup water together in a small bowl and season with salt and lots of pepper. Add more lemon juice if you like it on the tangier side. This dressing can be kept for up to a week, so take advantage of that and make a double batch.

For the salad:

Combine the cucumbers, preserved lemon, cabbage, pickled turnips and lemon juice in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and let sit a few minutes to let the juices come out (this will be your dressing of sorts).

Place lettuce on a large serving platter and drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Top with cucumber mixture and any juices that have accumulated. Scatter herbs over and season with salt and pepper.  Drizzle dressing over, and top with seeds and nuts, serving any leftovers alongside for more dipping/drizzling.

Back to down the aisle