The New York Nigella: simple home cooking with Alison Roman

“Iwant this to have a permanent place in your kitchen,” says Alison Roman of her debut cookbook Dining In, published in the UK this month. “I want the pages to be messy. I want you to learn something in each recipe that helps you become a better cook.”

The titles alone are appetising – I, for one, was powerless to resist her anchovy-butter chicken with chicken-fat croutons, or her chocolate-tahini tart with crunchy salt – and Roman’s breezy style carries you through the recipes with a minimum of fuss.

A Los Angeleno who’s been living in New York since 2010, Roman is big on Instagram (with 190,000 followers) and very much in tune with her audience, which leans towards the millennial. But the 33-year-old backs it all up with years of kitchen experience. She began cooking professionally aged 19, at the award-winning restaurant Sona in LA and later at Quince in San Francisco. “The first few months were rough,” she says, “but I became good at it and I loved it, even though it was emotionally destroying me and I was so poor.”

Alison Roman photographed at home in Brooklyn
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 Alison Roman photographed at home in Brooklyn. Hair and Makeup: Robert Huitron using Chanel for Art & Style NYCPhotograph: Mike McGregor/The Observer

The move to New York in 2010 was intended as an escape from the rigours of cheffing – “I got fatigued with the daily grind,” she tells me – but it took another couple of years, including a stint at David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar, before she got into food writing.

“A friend said, ‘Bon Appétit is looking for recipe testers in the test kitchen,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Cool, what’s that?’” The magazine took her on and Roman found developing and writing recipes played to her strengths. “One of my favourite parts of being a chef was teaching, explaining the hows and whys of cooking.” This comes through in her cookbook, which is crammed with useful tips – add fish sauce to umami-deficient stews, drop an egg yolk into a radicchio salad – and lucid guidance where it’s needed most.

Dining In was originally published in the US in 2017 and Roman, now a regular food columnist for the New York Times, is finishing the follow-up, Nothing Fancy, due out in the UK in October. She’s apprehensive about how the two books will be received. “All my favourite cookbooks are by UK authors,” she says, citing her long-standing admiration for Diana Henry and Nigel Slater, “so the fact that a UK publisher was interested in my book – oh my God, I was absolutely for it, but also very nervous.”

Ultimately, she says: “I’m writing for someone who’s like me. I’m busy, I don’t cook at home every night but, when I do, I really want to enjoy it. I want to simmer something for a long time, because that’s how you should cook it and it smells great.”

This is a sort of fridge-clean-out salad that always ends up looking fancier than it ought to. If I’ve got unused green beans, I blanch them. Potatoes about to turn green? I steam ’em. That way, I’m moments away from an almost intentional niçoise salad. Yes, the spiced lentils here make this a truly special version, but if you have any cooked lentils and some good tinned tuna on hand, this works with just about anything else you might have lying around: shaved raw fennel or broccoli, roasted carrots or sweet potatoes from the night before – you name it.

When it comes to buying the tuna, go ahead and splurge on the nice jarred or tinned stuff. Just make sure it’s packed in olive oil, not spring water, because, yes, there is a huge difference. The stuff packed in oil tends to be richer and more luxurious, whereas the tuna packed in water can come across as dry or watery – or worse, dry and watery.

Serves 4
eggs 2 large
green beans 100g, ends trimmed
salt
purple or yellow potatoes
 4 small
lemon juice 1 tbsp
freshly ground black pepper
spiced lentils with spring onion 1 amount (see below), plus any additional spice oil left over from the recipe
sustainable oil-packed tuna 185g, drained
radishes 4, chopped or sliced
mixed herbs 15g, such as dill, coriander, tarragon and/or flat-leaf parsley
lemons 2, halved

For the spiced lentils with spring onion
black beluga, puy or French green lentils 200g
salt
olive oil
 125ml
garlic 4 cloves, thinly sliced
crushed chilli flakes ½ tsp
coriander seeds 2 tsp, crushed
fennel seeds 1½ tsp, crushed
cumin seeds 1 tsp, crushed
lemon 1
spring onions 6 small, cut into 5cm pieces
freshly ground black pepper

To make the spiced lentils, cook the lentils in a large saucepan of salted water until just cooked through, 20-30 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, over the lowest heat, combine the olive oil with the garlic and chilli flakes, and the coriander, fennel and cumin seeds. Let the oil and spices cook until the oil is fragrant and the garlic begins to brown, 15-20 minutes. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemon and add it to the pan, along with the spring onions; cook for another 5 minutes, then remove from the heat.

Toss the lentils with 60ml of the spiced oil – no need to strain; I like the texture and crunchy bits from the seeds and spices. Season with salt and pepper. Halve the lemon and squeeze it through a strainer (to remove seeds) over the lentils, before serving with the additional oil alongside.

For the salad, prepare a bowl of iced water.

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil. Gently lower in the eggs and boil gently for 6 minutes. Transfer the eggs to the bowl of iced water and let them cool completely.

Blanch the green beans in a saucepan of salted boiling water until bright green and just tender, about 4 minutes.

Bring 5cm of water to a simmer in a saucepan. Place a steamer basket inside and steam the potatoes until totally tender, 5-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and let them cool slightly before halving or quartering them, depending on their size.

Toss the potatoes, green beans and lemon juice together in a bowl and season with salt and pepper.

Spoon the spiced lentils into a large bowl and top with the green beans and potatoes, tuna, radishes and herbs. Gently peel the eggs and cut them in half lengthways, then nestle them in there. Squeeze lemon juice over the top and serve any extra spiced oil alongside.

Do ahead:
The spiced lentils can be made 5 days ahead and refrigerated.

Crispy chicken legs with rosemary, tiny potatoes and sour cream

Crispy Chicken Legs with Rosemary, Tiny Potatoes and Sour Cream Alison Roman Dining In
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 Crispy chicken legs with rosemary, tiny potatoes and sour cream. Photograph: Nikole Herriott/Michael Graydon

Conventional wisdom suggests that covering something in fat to slow cook it (AKA “making a confit”) is only worthy of some glorious game bird like duck or goose. But guess what, this isn’t 1778, and I think even Thursday-night chicken deserves this kind of treatment. It’s pretty much the most hands-off technique that will yield the most showstopping results.

Something to note is that while, yes, the chicken gets crazy, fall-apart tender and the crisped skin rivals even the best fried chicken, something else happens here that makes this worth cooking and justifies the amount of olive oil called for. As the chicken slowly cooks, the fat melts into the oil and infuses with the garlic and rosemary, leaving you with something so delicious that it is basically worth its weight in gold.

After straining the oil, I stash it in the fridge (it’ll keep for about a month) and use it to roast vegetables, crisp up potatoes, sauté greens – and, maybe in the most genius way possible, use it to fry my morning eggs.

Serves 4
chicken legs 4 (the drumstick and thigh should be attached)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
waxy potatoes 350g very small
garlic 1 bulb, sliced crossways
rosemary 4 sprigs
olive oil 375ml
chives 15g, finely chopped
sour cream 125g

Preheat the oven to 170C/gas mark 3.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Place it in a large baking dish with the potatoes, garlic and rosemary. Cover the whole thing with all the olive oil and bake for 1½-2 hours, until the chicken is basically falling apart and the garlic is golden brown. Remove the baking dish from the oven and let the chicken cool slightly.

You can serve the chicken straight from the baking dish, without crisping up the skin, but if you have about 15 minutes and a frying pan, I highly recommend adding in the next step.

Scoop out 2 tablespoons of the mixed oil and rendered chicken fat from the baking dish and place it in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Carefully remove 2 chicken legs from the baking dish and place them, skin side down, in the skillet. Cook for 5-8 minutes, until the skin is browned and crisp.

Return the chicken legs to the baking dish, crispy-skin-side up. Repeat with the remaining 2 chicken legs.

Sprinkle the chives over the sour cream and serve it alongside the chicken.

Raw and roasted carrots and fennel with feta and pistachios

Raw and roasted carrots and fennel with feta and pistachios Alison Roman Dining In
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 Raw and roasted carrots and fennel with feta and pistachios Photograph: Michael Graydon

This salad is a good exercise in the magic that can occur when you treat one ingredient very differently – in this case, raw and roasted. It’s doing a lot with a little; caramelised, tender bits of carrots and fennel mingle with slices of their raw, crunchy former selves. This salad is also terrific at room temperature and is easily doubled, making it great for feeding a crowd, so feel free to show off this little number at your next party.

Serves 4
fennel bulb 1 large, halved lengthways
carrots 6-8 smallish (preferably with their tops)
spring onions 8, halved crossways
olive oil 5 tbsp
salt and freshly ground black pepper
lemon juice
 2 tbsp, plus more as needed
coriander stems and leaves 30g
feta 90g, thinly sliced (if it crumbles a bit, that’s fine)
pistachio nuts 30g, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Slice half the fennel into 1cm-thick wedges and place them on a rimmed baking tray.

If your carrots have tops, remove and set them aside. Scrub the carrots (no need to peel) and place half of them on the baking tray with the fennel. Add half of the spring onions and toss with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast, tossing occasionally, until the carrots and fennel are browned and the spring onion begins to char (20-25 minutes). Remove them from the oven and let cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, thinly slice the remaining carrots and fennel lengthways and place them in a large bowl. Thinly slice the remaining spring onions on a strong bias and add to the bowl with the vegetables.

Once the roasted vegetables have cooled, add them to the bowl of raw vegetables. Toss with the lemon juice, coriander and some chopped carrot tops, if you’ve got them (if not, use more coriander, parsley, dill or mint – whatever you have). Season with salt, pepper and more lemon juice, if you like.

Drizzle with the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil and top with the feta and pistachios.

Do ahead:
This dish, without pistachios and feta, can be made 5 hours ahead; no need to reheat. Add the feta and pistachios when ready to serve.

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