Meet Jenny Rosenstrach: mom, cook, and author of the blog Dinner: A Love Story and the book of the same name. On her much-acclaimed blog, Jenny speaks to every busy parent who dreams of sitting down to a real family meal every night of the week — and actually enjoying it. She knows how lengthy your to-to list is, and she has all the simple, foolproof recipes you need (in addition to some genius time-saving tips). And she promises never to judge you for not buying the organic broccoli.
With back-to-school mode in full gear, we asked Jenny all about her favorite dinners — both for the family and for entertaining — along with her best advice for pulling off weeknight meals. Read on, and get inspired.
Tell us about your background and how you got into food writing and blogging.
I was a magazine editor for most of my life until the magazine I was working for (Cookie, owned by Conde Nast) went out of business. I launched Dinner: A Love Story soon after because I wanted to help parents figure out the family dinner problem. I didn’t necessarily have all the answers, but since I had worked in many food departments, I definitely had a few. I was instantly addicted to blogging. To this day, the novelty of producing something that’s 100% mine has not worn off. The novelty of doing 100% of the work without help from photo editors, designers, and assistants, however, definitely has.
What’s the story behind the name of your blog?
It’s important to me that readers instantly feel welcome when they first enter Dinner: A Love Story. Design-wise, that meant adding a lot of homey wood and texture, as if you are entering my kitchen. But more important, it meant coming up with a title that telegraphed joy and family. So much of the conversation around dinner has the subtext of dread – I don’t have time for dinner, I don’t have ideas for dinner, I can’t believe dinner’s here again…you get the idea. I wanted the name to show that dinner doesn’t have to be a slog, or a source of stress (I’ll conveniently omit the period of my life when my daughters hit the terrible twos here) and that it can actually be a source of happiness once you get into the rhythm of it.
What’s your favorite recipe on your blog and why?
That is a really hard question. It’s different depending on what the scenario is. (Like for instance, I am head-over-heels in love with braised short ribs when it comes to entertaining.) But 90% of the recipes I find myself declaring my undying love for are the ones that are fast, easy, relatively kid-friendly and flexible. In other words, the ones in my book and on my blog. I am currently making pulled BBQ Chicken Sandwiches a lot because in addition to having all the qualities above, they are freezable, a golden word to a working parent. I freeze the pulled chicken in single serving batches and pull out on nights when my 11-year-old gets home from soccer at 8:30 or when my 9-year-old is not happy with the tandoori burgers. Come to think of it, that’s another big favorite right now. So much better than boring turkey burgers.
You’re hosting a dinner party tomorrow night. What would you serve?
If we’re talking fall, basically, anything that is made in a Dutch oven. Those short ribs mentioned above are insane – especially with polenta and fresh greens. As are Great Grandma Turano’s meatballs. Andy’s pork ragu (from my book) has never let me down. Neither has Marcella Hazan’s bolognese with tagliatelle. It was one of the first dinners I learned to make for guests in the 90s and I still pull it out today when I’m stuck. It always delivers. Always. Well, unless I am serving vegetarians, which means, I go directly to Bugiali’s Minestrone.
What ingredient(s) do you look forward to the most every year?
Tomatoes. The tomato sandwich in my house is not so much a lunch as it is religion.
What do you eat when you’re alone?
There are perils to working from home – one of them is loneliness (it’s just me and the MacBook Pro til the kids come home from school) and the other is that I am next to the refrigerator all day long. I always have ingredients for three or four healthy snacks and mini-meals (smoked trout on rye crisps with pickled cabbage!) so I’m not tempted to cook my most favorite thing in the world: A bowl of those skinny egg noodles with salt and a mound of butter. My mom made them for me as a kid and they are my weakness. I am not going to say I don’t give in to this temptation every now and then. In fact, I do all the time.
Someone who says “this is delicious” after the first bite — even if it’s decidedly not. I don’t think there’s anything stranger than cooking for someone who’s not appreciative or who doesn’t acknowledge how much work goes into cooking a meal.
And also having John Lasseter over would be kind of cool, too. I have a script I’d love to run by him.
What’s on your dinner playlist?
That’s a question for my husband, Andy. These days it’s pretty much only Heartless Bastards, Kurt Vile, and Drive-by Truckers. When he gets into a band he goes deep down the rabbit hole. Occasionally, though, we are able to sneak in some Bruno Mars and Johnny Cash.
What was the first food blog you ever read? Which ones do you read now?
Julia and Julie of course! It was the first time I ever heard the word “blog.” (“It’s web plus log, but combined,” explained the New York Times). But, to be completely cliché here, I think the first blog I was really inspired by was Smitten Kitchen. Deb Perelman was the first food blogger I ever read who didn’t take herself so seriously. She has such a great voice – and really had fun in the kitchen, you could tell. That’s what I read it for, her voice. In fact, I think I’ve only made two or three Smitten Kitchen recipes since discovering her five or six years ago. One of them was her classic birthday cake: A-MAZE-ing.
What are your top tips for weeknight cooking for a family?
Get the Momentum Going. Decide what’s for dinner while you are having breakfast, and complete whatever task you can to get ahead, no matter how small you think it may be. Set a pot of water on the stovetop (9 times out of 10 you’ll need to boil something); assemble all the non-perishable ingredients you’ll need on the counter; chop an onion. It’s less about saving time as it is about getting the momentum going, about committing to it.
Don’t Be Too Ambitious. If you want to impress someone, make a three-pot, four-shellfish paella for dinner. If you want to sit down with your family with any kind of regularity – and enjoy doing it — make something simple. That Whole Wheat Pasta with Spinach and Caramelized Onions, from my book Dinner: A Love Story, comes to mind immediately.
Enlist the Family. Even if only one person in the house knows how to cook, there are so many satellite duties that the non-cooks can help out with. Shopping, cleaning up, pouring milk, plopping down the Heinz on the table, and, most important, deciding what’s for dinner. It’s so much less of a burden when it’s not all on one person. Dare I say, it’s even fun.