Cookbooks usually come in two varieties. First, there are those gorgeous, glossy food porn albums that you'd never dream of actually using (you wouldn't want to splatter sauce on them). Their recipes are usually so complicated that you probably couldn't use the book even if you tried.
Then there are the so-called "easy" cookbooks that you wouldn't mind spilling on at all — but that also rely a bit much on those slightly icky shortcuts, like canned vegetables and cream of mushroom soup.
Somewhere between those extremes sits best-selling food writer Pam Anderson's Perfect One-Dish Dinners: All You Need for Easy Get-Togethers.
Anderson tells NPR's Rebecca Roberts that the cookbook's "one-dish" concept grew out of an offhand comment made by one of Anderson's cooking students a few years ago.
"A woman raised her hand and said to me 'Pam, I can make one dish just fine, but when you start throwing in side dishes and vegetables and sauces and fancy desserts, I just get overwhelmed and shut down,'" Anderson recounts. "I paid attention to that woman and actually I started incorporating this way of cooking into my own lifestyle and realized, 'This is it. Just make one big, splashy, beautiful, gorgeous, delicious, memorable dish and you don't need to spend a lot of time on the other things.'"
Organized thematically, Anderson's book groups recipes as cohesive meals so that each one-dish dinner is listed with an appetizer, dessert, and sometimes, a side dish that complements it. Anderson says that's because she wanted to facilitate great cooking for the busiest of families.
"I understand that life happens. The dog gets sick, you have to pick the kids up unexpectedly at school, and that dessert you wanted to make just isn't going to happen," she says.
Enter the "instant alternative," Anderson's answer to the quandary of what to do with all those ingredients for the dish that just won't happen. The "instant alternative" is a shortcut version of her recipes that uses the same ingredients and leads to a dish that's similar to the original.
"I've got these beautiful little cakes in the book that start with a shortcake actually — you fill it with some raspberry jam and top it with some toasted almonds and make a cream cheese lemon curd frosting for the little cakes. Very simple," she says, "but the instant alternative is to take that jar of lemon curd and simply streak it into some premium vanilla ice cream and top it with the same raspberries that you would have used to garnish the cakes."
Even Anderson's more complicated recipes incorporate the kinds of shortcuts that will easily change the way you cook. Take her recipe for a lemony seafood pasta salad that calls for cooking the seafood in the water along with the pasta.
"You can use that technique for any kind of pasta that you're making," she says. "If you want to make a vegetable pasta, you don't have to cook the vegetables separately ... always just throw the vegetables in with the pasta. It's great."
In another recipe, Anderson calls for her parmesan muffins with prosciutto and basil to be scooped into a muffin tin instead of rolled out and cut. She recommends using a heavy duty roasting pan when browning meats for stews — because it doubles the cooking surface and saves time — and she suggests cooking your starch underneath your meat in dishes like her chorizo-stuffed pork loin with black beans and rice.
"You're getting your roast and your side dish in the same pan because that's the whole point," she says. "The drippings from your roast go down into the side dish and flavor it as well, so it makes it especially delicious."
Anderson says, these days, people are looking for more simplicity in their lives — and she's happy to give it to them.
"I am a real cook," she says. "I'm not somebody out there kind of creating dishes in a lab somewhere. I really live the having-people-over life."