Restaurateur Danny Meyer is the driving force behind many New York restaurants, including his flagship Union Square Cafe and the wildly popular Shake Shacks. Every afternoon, all across the city, staffers at his establishments sit down for “family meal,” when the front and back of the house fuel up for the stresses of service to come. In “Family Table,” you get to peek into the dining room to see what’s for supper. Author Michael Romano heads up culinary development in Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group; coauthor Karen Stabiner teaches feature writing at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The (usually) junior cooks who prepare these meals are not so different from you and me: They have to use less-expensive ingredients, and they’re on a deadline to feed a lot of people with a minimum of fuss. So their recipes are foolproof and versatile for weeknights, and they include many one-pot meals in which the protein, vegetable, and carb happily commingle.
Some do so with little fanfare. A warm garbanzo bean salad with fennel, red onion, and parsley is blazing fast if you’ve got canned chickpeas on hand. It adds up to exactly the sum of its parts, satisfying rather than soul-stirring. It doesn’t sound like a good idea to fill a lentil salad with raw squash dice, but for the first several bites the texture is intriguing enough to keep your attention. You think about whether the thyme and the sherry vinegar actually go with the dried cherries, until you tire of that and start wishing there was meat.
The most successful of the recipes in “Family Table,” among the many dinner salads, is a Japanese eggplant and bulgur salad. The eggplant is roasted, which is more than half the battle right there. Peanuts contribute crunch, while mint, cilantro, and Thai basil contribute different kinds of freshness. I could have used a little sweetness — perhaps honey — but the remainder vanishes before I have a chance to try.
A coconut curry pasta I sample two ways, made by a friend with gluten-free rice pasta and made by me with regular rigatoni. The faintly chewy, slightly sweet rice version’s the winner, despite a vague instruction to reduce some coconut milk to the consistency of “a sauce.”
Many “Family Table” proteins rely on do-ahead maneuvers — marinades and rubs — to minimize labor at a busy time of day. The best of them is “pushcart” chicken, a messy, spice-encrusted riot of flavors rolled about in a sweet lime brine. You could imagine wolfing it down on a street corner, but it’s even better in the comfort of your home.
The laconically named Thai beef is easy to like, picking up salty flavor from a soy, sesame, and citrus marinade that conveniently doubles as a dressing. A scattering of lemongrass fades, disappointingly, into the background, but the seared beef and cool romaine are good partners on a summer table. A “Goan-spiced” braised pork sits out a few hours, rubbed with cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cloves, and cider vinegar. It’s supposed to go into the oven along with its “juices,” but what if there aren’t any? I tentatively add a few tablespoons of water and a little more of the vinegar. But it’s still dry after its hour in the oven.
Vegetable sides are uniformly quick and mostly well-conceived. Spices lend their warmth to a cool cucumber salad, which despite lemon and mint, doesn’t quite have the acid to shine.
Escarole and apple salad is easy to throw together, with a smoked paprika dressing that tastes eerily like blue cheese. An asparagus gratin credited to Meyer himself is like most gratins, the roasted vegetables given a mayonnaise-crumb coat and run under the broiler. But it’s still satisfying and good for seconds.
Roasted broccoli combines the textural excitement of panko with the bite and funk of pecorino and lemon zest. Although the topping falls off into the pan, it’s good enough to go after with a fork. A side of roasted cauliflower is really cauliflower piccata, the natural sweetness of the vegetable drawn out with lemons and capers. Even when the crisp bits of the cauliflower soften, as they always do, it’s a combination of flavors that never stops delivering.
The biggest hit is a surprise: a dead-easy buttermilk panna cotta with a rhubarb-strawberry compote. Planning to head to a large dinner, I triple the recipe and cross my fingers that it will set. It does, only needing just a little longer than expected, and the resulting dessert is a knockout.
Although we only spent a week with this book’s abundant offerings, I felt I could have spent a month without running out of easy, vibrant weeknight mains. You may encounter a few ingredients that are restaurant, rather than home, staples (Aleppo pepper and panko), but overall, “Family Table” seems to fit as comfortably when the table in question seats four as when it seats 20.