Conquering the Dinner Plan

Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion's new cookbook aims to help you conquer the weeknight dinner, one recipe and trick at a time.

Courtesy of Abrams Books.

If you’ve ever needed help in the meal-planning department, you’re not alone. Searching for recipes and shopping for ingredients can be time consuming. Trying to put a healthy dinner on the table can feel overwhelming—especially in the middle of the workweek.

But getting quick, healthy meals made for your family doesn’t have to be a chore. In their new cookbook, The Dinner Plan: Simple Weeknight Recipes and Strategies for Every Schedule (Abrams), Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion aim to help you conquer the weeknight dinner, one recipe and trick at a time.

The cookbook covers recipes in the usual-suspect categories: fish and shellfish, chicken and turkey, beef and pork, pasta, soups and sandwiches, sides and more. There are recipes for familiar dishes such as shrimp scampi, slow-cooked pork shoulder, and turkey Sloppy Joes, as well as more inventive ones, like curried coconut noodle soup or honey-miso wings.

The recipes themselves are approachable and helpful, and don’t require expensive equipment or exotic, hard-to-find ingredients. But the best part of the recipes is the way they’re categorized. Brennan and Campion divided the 135 recipes into five different categories to help you address the biggest weeknight dinner hurdles: make-ahead, staggered, one-dish, pantry and extra-fast.

Make-ahead recipes are good for days when you have a few extra minutes to prep. Staggered meals are ideal for the nights when family members may be coming home to eat at different times—especially helpful on a night filled with kids’ sports practices or longer-than-usual commutes. One-dish meals are perfect for nights when you don’t want to clean a bunch of dishes. Pantry recipes utilize ingredients you should already have on hand. Extra-fast recipes should take no more than 30 minutes to pull together, even on the busiest of busy weeknights.

The Dinner Plan is an excellent resource for on-the-go families, with dozens of recipes that can make getting a home-cooked meal on that table just as easy as picking up take-out.

We caught up with Campion, a New Jersey native and current Peapack-Gladstone resident, to talk about the process of co-authoring a cookbook, which recipes are her favorites, and her go-to local farms and markets.

After growing up in New Jersey, what are some of your fondest food memories?

I grew up in South Orange and Maplewood (my childhood home was in South Orange, right up the street from my grandparents, but half of my friends and schools were in Maplewood). My family goes back several generations in the Oranges: My grandfather, Maurice Fennessy, was a police officer in South Orange and I went to the same high school as my dad and all of his siblings, Columbia High School. It was a terrific area to grow-up in, especially because of the food. For pizza alone we had: Bunny’s, Reservoir, Star Tavern, Roman Gourmet, Joe’s and (sadly departed) The King. Then there was also the original Town Hall, a German-style Delicatessen, on South Orange Avenue where they made the original Sloppy Joe sandwich (house-made roasted ham, turkey, or roast beef on buttered rye bread with Swiss and Russian dressing) made by Jack Burdorf. I don’t care what anyone says about their town deli’s sloppy joe, Town Hall’s was the best and the first. (The Town Hall Deli is still in South Orange, now located just off South Orange Avenue at 74 1st Street.) 

How did you and Kathy Brennan meet, and what led you to author this cookbook together?

We met while working as editors at the food magazine Saveur in New York City. It was a dream job (I’ll never forget my first day assignment was to taste-test 20 different varieties of artisanal bacon), where we both learned a lot from both chefs and excellent home cooks from around the world. After we had left for different jobs and then moved with our families out of the city, we stayed in touch and found ourselves talking about the adjustment to cooking every night when you don’t have the luxury of the city’s specialty markets or take-out delivery when you had to work late. We also noticed that families and friends were struggling with weeknight dinner: They were either in a rut—cooking the same few dishes on rotation—or they were looking for more confidence to cook from scratch. So we decided to write a cookbook that married our professional lives and skills as food writers, with our personal lives as moms with busy families living in the burbs.

How were The Dinner Plan recipes chosen?

For our new cookbook, The Dinner Plan, and our first cookbook, Keepers, we combined recipes that were both personal to us and that we thought home cooks needed in their lives. Some of the dishes were well-tested versions of everyday favorites that we made for our own families; others were dishes we picked up during our days as food magazine editors. There are also many based on meals from our childhoods. We both are very lucky to have mothers from different countries (my mother is from Belgium and Kathy’s is from Japan) so we have been greatly influenced by their backgrounds and cooking; that’s why you’ll see recipes like Japanese Fried Chicken in The Dinner Plan (a must try!) and French Carrot Salad. We love these recipes because of the memories they bring back, but we also made sure to stick to dishes that were always uncomplicated. Although some recipes might be unfamiliar to some readers, we made sure that were truly meant for home cooks, so they’re simple, not loaded down with steps, and all the ingredients could be located at a regular supermarket.

We’ve all heard of make-ahead meals and recipes that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less, but where did you get the idea for staggered” meals?

The idea came from the responses we received after publishing Keepers. We spent a lot of time talking to readers who had families, about what they were still struggling with on a typical weeknight. The most frequent response was the challenge of making dinner and getting people fed when everyone was on a different schedule. So one kid just left for play rehearsal, while another is coming home from soccer practice and another is still at swim team, and your spouse has to work late while you’re trying to pick kids up and still find a slot of time to make dinner (amongst a hundred other small tasks). So we came up with the idea of having recipes for dishes that could be served over several hours—“staggered” as people arrived home—while holding up and tasting great. We’re particularly pleased with this idea because we feel like it truly speaks to the modern family, which (like it or not) is incredibly scheduled during the late afternoon and early evening hours, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice a healthful, home-cooked meal.

It’s a bit like asking if you have a favorite child, but do you have a favorite recipe in the book?

I do love them all but I have to say that I’m very pleased with our Skillet Chicken Parm, which is the result of many experiments trying to create a version that is as delicious as the traditional version, but requires just one pan and no breading (so it’s also a more healthful version, too).

What are your favorite local food markets or farms?

I’m lucky to live in the hamlet of Peapack-Gladstone in Somerset County, which I consider one of the most beautiful and farm-rich parts of the Garden State. I flit between several farms and markets for ingredients: River Bend in Bernardsville for meat; Griggstown Farm in Princeton for chicken, Thanksgiving turkey and terrific sausages; Melick’s in Oldwick for apples and cider; Metropolitan Seafood in Lebanon for all of my fish; Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley for cheese; and my vegetables are from the Flocktown Farm CSA based in Pittstown. I wish we had more small, specialty markets and general stores in my area, but that’s sort of a dream project of mine. In the meantime, I just end up cooking a lot more at home!

Click here to leave a comment
There are no photos with those IDs or post 165579 does not have any attached images!

Get dining articles like this delivered straight to your inbox

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.