As a cookbook reviewer and the chief cook in the family, when it comes to simple weeknight dishes, I have seen everything. Even in the newest cookbooks, the same combinations keep turning up. How many ways can arugula go with goat cheese, basil with its perpetual companion, the tomato, roast chicken with fresh herbs?
My faith in the quotidian has been revived, thanks to “Cook This Now,’’ a spectacular new book from Melissa Clark, The New York Times columnist and veteran author. Clark already has a reputation for drafting elegant, workable recipes of her own and midwifing those of others. In “Cook This Now,’’ she shares the recipes that she cooks for her own small family, and they are as practical as you would suppose. But they are also anything but banal, and over the week that I cooked them, they breathed new life into my own routine.
Clark’s book is arranged by season (this is fast becoming the default mode for progressive cookbooks), but that is little more than a suggestion. These are recipes so accessible you could really make them all year round. There’s one weeknight dinner after another, and a great many of them take an hour or less.
Vietnamese grilled steak and cabbage salad with peanuts, mint, and chili offers the familiar palette, dabbed with lime and fish sauce. Yet the marinated cabbage slaw is an unexpected sensation, bright and crisp as lettuce.
Clark’s mouthwatering headnote sells me on skillet chicken with green garlic and lemon thyme. It also says that I can substitute ordinary garlic and ordinary thyme, since that’s what I have - to magnificent effect. I especially like her trick of oiling the chicken rather than the skillet for the browning step, and find myself wondering why I haven’t tried that before.
A similar economy of flavor marks shrimp scampi with Pernod and fennel fronds. Most scampi recipes achieve their effect with an overdose of butter, but at 3 tablespoons per 2 pounds of shellfish, Clark’s is on the lighter side. Fennel fronds highlighted with Pernod complete the picture, and if you use whole dried red peppers instead of flakes, as I did, you get to suck on them at the end for a farewell blast of heat and anise.
A dead-easy oven-roasted pork butt with rosemary, garlic, and black pepper flaunts a moist interior and gilded crust whose pungent mustard and garlic notes are coaxed into submission in the oven. It might also be the most conventional recipe I tried in this book, but there is no arguing with the terrific results.
Clark is endlessly inventive with vegetables, pulling them out of their old ruts and tweaking them in interesting new directions. Would I normally bother to assemble salted yogurt, chopped mint, and pomegranate seeds just to garnish roasted cauliflower? Probably not. Yet those three ingredients are all it takes to transform something ordinary into something divine. A raw kale salad with anchovy-date dressing manages to startle and entertain; the vinegar softens the hardy greens, while salty, fishy anchovies subside into the background after their shotgun wedding with dates and citrus.
A food processor makes quick work of shredded Brussels sprouts with pancetta and caraway, but the real surprise is on the plate. Caraway magically transmutes the skunky character of the sprouts, and you get a pancetta reward with every bite. And though I’ve roasted pretty much every vegetable that exists, I learn something with Clark’s crispy roasted cabbage. Now, after just one attempt, it’s become our best way to eat that winter staple.
“Cook This Now’’ is, for the most part, a dinner book, but Clark’s forays into breakfast and dessert are equally satisfying. Double coconut granola teaches me the use of coconut oil (I’ve had a sealed jar marking bewildered time in my kitchen for a year), which promotes even gilding in the oven and a subtle crunch. The world’s fastest weeknight dessert (5 minutes flat to pulse together)? Pistachio shortbread. Orange blossom water makes it taste like edible eau de cologne, which, as it turns out, is not a bad thing.
Clark is a gifted raconteur, and a master of a special kind of combination headnote-and-essay that is uniquely her own. That would be enough for those of us who enjoy reading cookbooks. But it’s the recipes that really showcase her easy genius. The book’s subtitle is “120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.’’ But it could just as well be “Now Why Didn’t I Think of That?’’ which is, if you think about it, the highest praise anyone who cooks can give another.
MELISSA CLARK will be cooking at noon on Nov. 3 at Northeastern University’s Xhibition Kitchen, located in Dining Hall Stetson West Eatery, 11 Speare Place, Boston. Free admission. Present ID or driver’s license.T. Susan Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.