A dollop of fiery harissa, a spoonful of pungent chili garlic paste, even a drizzle of balsamic vinegar’s more sophisticated cousin, pomegranate molasses — each or all of these can make the difference between food eaten for food’s sake and the dazzling meals we look forward to that taste better simply because we allowed ourselves to find our groove in the kitchen.

New York Times food writer and columnist Melissa Clark’s new cookbook, “Dinner: Changing the Game,” offers more than 250 recipes that she hopes will inspire cooks of all experience levels to get back into the kitchen and make a conscious effort to enjoy the one meal of the day that many of us find the most difficult to conquer.

Clark will be in Richmond to discuss her cookbook as part of the Junior League of Richmond’s 72nd annual Book & Author luncheon and dinner May 4.

By phone from outside her New York City home last week, Clark talked about how the cookbook was two years in the making, though in reality, she’s been hearing from her readers for nearly a decade with the same old gripes about dinner.

Simply put, “dinnertime overwhelms them,” Clark said. “The grind of making dinner every night is really hard.”

And because of that, she said, the small joys of working in the kitchen vanish and creativity suffers.

But find some flair with simple sheet-pan meals, throw some eggs (everyone has eggs, right?) into a skillet with herbs and cheese and other staples, and find even one or two new ingredients for boring chicken and fish, and suddenly dinner is elevated. Add a glass of wine, your favorite music and good conversation, and just like that, dinner is a renewed experience.

Clark said she wanted the cookbook to be a balance between familiar flavors and those that make us stretch our taste buds just a little.

She offers tips for a well-stocked pantry and includes items like harissa, the increasingly popular North African paste made from chilies and tomatoes and a variety of spices, and pomegranate molasses, a tart and caramel-y syrup made from boiling down pomegranate juice, water, sugar and lemon juice or citric acid. In addition to a variety of vinegars and olive oils and mustards — both Dijon and whole-grain — she suggests Asian fish sauce, sambal oelek — a sauce of chilies, vinegar and salt — plus things such as Indian pickles, preserved lemons and Thai red curry paste.

They might sound exotic, but these items are not expensive and can be found in grocery stores or online.

“The work is in the shopping” for the ingredients, Clark said, noting that condiments such as Asian fish sauce are now so common they can be found practically everywhere, including big-box retailers. “When you have those things, you’re done (and) you get so much more in terms of flavor.”

While not intentional, Clark said, her book easily serves everyone from carnivores to vegans. The chapters are broken down by main ingredient: chicken and then everything else in the meat category, fish and seafood, pasta and noodles, tofu and seitan, beans and legumes and veggie meals, salads, dips, pizzas and much more.

She emphasizes that each recipe is designed to be a meal unto itself, other than the occasional side of bread or perhaps a small salad.

For example, Clark points out that there’s an entire chapter on eating eggs for dinner, and she covers a range of recipes, from Japanese Omelets with Edamame Rice to fritattas, poached, fried and scrambled eggs, and Shakshuka, the Middle Eastern dish of eggs cooked in a hearty tomato sauce with herbs and spices and vegetables.

“We forget — most of the world eats eggs for dinner,” she said.

Clark, a wife and mother, knows the monumental efforts it takes to provide good food each night.

“We’re all overwhelmed, and I totally relate to that,” she said. But just spending 15 minutes one night a week to expand your palate and coax new flavors from the same tried-and-true protein or vegetable, “it feels so much better.”

— Adapted from Melissa Clark’s “Dinner: Changing the Game”

— Adapted from Melissa Clark’s “Dinner: Changing the Game”

— Adapted from Melissa Clark’s “Dinner: Changing the Game”


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