COOKING CAN BE rewarding and restorative. But an overly elaborate recipe can quickly turn that act of self-care into self-flagellation. It’s awful to be midway through making something fun and tasty only to realize it requires some obscure ingredient or expensive equipment. What’s even worse is to be hit with hunger pangs and have another hour or so of kitchen labor before you can get it on the table. Luckily, for all the home cooks out there who are short on time and patience, there is food stylist and recipe developer Ali Slagle, who specializes in prescribing dishes that are “low effort, high reward.”
To understand what makes Slagle so special, just take the “Shortcut Chicken Chili” recipe from her debut cookbook, “I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To).” Unlike traditional chilis that can demand hours, Slagle’s is ready to eat in less than 45 minutes. And it swaps out all of those cramp-inducing diced peppers, onions, and tomatoes for ketchup, salsa, and hot sauce — allowing you to clean out your pantry instead of making a last-minute trip to the grocery for errant ingredients.
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So it goes without saying that Slagle is scrappy in the kitchen — it’s this quality that has endeared her to the foodies of Instagram, where she has more than 125,000 followers. But in September of last year, she was forced to put that scrappiness to the ultimate test when she decided to go on a six-month cross-country road trip with her boyfriend and her cat, August, in a 26-year-old Japanese van. In addition to visiting her family in California, the trip was really about seeking out new culinary experiences. “My inspiration doesn’t just come from eating at restaurants or going to friends’ houses,” Slagle explained to me over the phone. “A lot of it is from just changing my environment.”
And so she did. Instead of cooking in the lush test kitchens of outlets like the New York Times, where she’s a contributor, the road trip required her to make do with a tiny three-piece counter with a camping stove that was built in the trunk of the van, and a little Dometic fridge that was too small to hold a 12-pack of eggs. Despite the challenge, along the way she learned some new and invaluable lessons about what it takes to make magical meals in the smallest of spaces.
One of those lessons came early on in the parking lot of Cabela’s sporting goods store on the East Coast. “My boyfriend started this trip with one pair of Crocs and no other shoes. I was like, What are you doing?!” So while he looked for some much-needed hiking boots, Slagle took to making lunch. It was late in the afternoon and she was already starving, so it needed to come together quickly. “I wasn’t going to go to the store. So I had to ask myself, What do I have that I could make that’s also not going to attract too many questions? (Our van attracts a lot of attention.)”
The recipe developer decided to make a sandwich out of supermarket hummus, slices of cucumber, and some chili crisp. “I wouldn’t have typically made that because those aren’t things that I would think go together. But it had protein, crunch, and heat — and it was so delicious,” she said. The key ingredient was the chili crisp, which helped elevate the sandwich, hitting home the importance of having flavorful condiments in close-quarter cooking. From then on, most of the space in her little fridge was devoted to sauces and toppings.
Slagle had another aha moment while cooking in Custer State Park in South Dakota. It was at breakfast time and she had set out to make toast, bacon, and eggs in an iron skillet over the campfire — a go-to for her. She started with the bacon because it renders a lot of smoky, salty fat that you can use like olive oil. Typically, she’d use that fat to cook the eggs. But this time she used the bacon grease to toast some Dave’s Killer Bread from the supermarket.
“The flame was just right and the toast was perfectly golden,” she said. “I realized this toast is not a side toast. This is a wonderful toast. And then I was like, Maybe we don’t need eggs?”
And so she changed course, topping the bacon-fried toast with peach jam, chipotle hot sauce, and bacon; it became one of the most memorable meals of her journey. Slagle finds that moments like these are part of cooking in an unconventional space. “You can have a plan,” she says, “but don’t always stick to the plan. Let what is happening guide what you are doing.”
Slagle went with the fried rice, adding some broccoli and kimchi and cooking it all in a skillet on the camping stove in the trunk of the van. The experience showcased to her the importance of cooking batches of bases like rice or beans that can be used as building blocks for a number of different dishes. As opposed to rigid meal plans, these foundational ingredients allow flexibility that Slagle says is “actually more useful and beckoning to your taste.”
Although Slagle is no longer on the road and settled back in New York, she’s taking all the insight she’s gained from cooking in tiny spaces back into the big test kitchens she’s accustomed to.
“Cooking is my job. When I’m writing a recipe, I have to think, Will this be pretty? Will this do well on the internet? But cooking in the van really allowed me to swipe all of that from my brain and just think about what would feel good to eat.”
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Wilbert Cooper Writer
Wilbert Cooper is a Brooklyn-based storyteller who has spent the past decade producing documentaries for networks like HBO and Viceland and writing for publishers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He’s currently a staff writer at the Marshall Project, where he reports on law enforcement.
Mark Hartman Photographer
Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.