There’s something fascinating about a cookbook by a chef who used to be a picky eater of the most extreme kind.
Earlier this month, Nikki Dinki was prepping for a dinner party, scouring the Union Square greenmarket for poblano peppers for a tomatillo salsa to accompany fish tacos. Other dishes she was planning were yellowfin crudo with lime-ginger granita and spaghetti squash polenta as a bed for chili-rubbed flank steak. She’s come a long way since eating only a handful of foods.
“You never really know where life is gonna take you,” Dinki said, reminiscing in the shade of park trees in Union Square. “My mom literally still can’t get over it because I ate not a single vegetable or protein until I was 20.”
Dinki co-hosts “Junk Food Flip” with Bobby Deen on the Cooking Channel.
She said for one of her birthday meals, when she got to eat whatever her heart desired, she picked lasagna noodles, bagels, and ramen noodles. She liked to scoop up the ramen noodles with her bagel.
In an infamous incident described in her new cookbook, “Meat on the Side: Delicious Vegetable-Focused Recipes for Every Day,” she hid her uneaten broccoli in an open heating vent. The next week, a stench filled the house, forcing the young culprit to ‘fess up.
The young Dinki was the only one of five siblings to be a difficult eater, and her mom finally threw in the towel and let her cook her own meals.
“That was an amazing punishment,” Dinki said. “I would just make cereal or ramen noodles or bagels or plain pasta noodles or macaroni and cheese. … A lot of people think I didn’t like food, and it wasn’t that. I loved eating and creating my meals. I just ate five things. It was a very different love affair with food, without the variety.”
But her health caught up with her. When she was 20, she knew she wasn’t feeling well. “I was significantly shorter than my entire family. I knew that nutrition had to affect my body, but when you only know how you feel, then you don’t really know you could feel better,” she said.
Another catalyst was the desire to take part in social activities focused around food, like simply going to a restaurant, on a date or with friends, and having a meal like everyone else. “It was embarrassing because it was not a normal thing to not eat anything,” she said.
She knew that by eating something again and again, she would grow to like it. She forced herself to eat foods that hadn’t touched her lips in years, starting with tomatoes. It wasn’t long before eating and cooking became fun. She started a cooking blog and was soon noticed by Food Network, which sought her out as a contestant for the ninth season of “Food Network Star”—and the rest is history.
These days, Dinki looks radiant and healthy. When she started varying her diet, it was first with vegetables; she was a vegetarian for years before she started adding meat to her diet.
The dishes featured in her cookbook retain that veggie-centric focus, but the recipes have a different sensibility than the many farm-to-table cookbooks out these days. Dinki herself said that hers is not a farm-to-table cookbook, actually, and many of the combinations are unusual.
For example, she makes a tarte Tatin not just with apples, but with thick rounds of leeks and half-moon slices of Granny Smith apple, sprinkled with crumbled goat cheese and drizzled with honey. To save time, she uses puff pastry for the crust. It’s a delicious combination—a mix of savory and sweet that just works. But perhaps the most beautiful part is how little time it takes, and this is true of many of the recipes.
One of her most requested recipes is Eggplant Meatballs. Despite its name, it has zero meat, but instead has loads of cremini mushrooms mixed with a purée of eggplant and breadcrumbs, with egg to bind it all. It takes very little time to throw together, and after 25 minutes in the oven, these umami-filled “meatballs” with a little bit of char are downright addictive, so much so that I never missed the meat (and I do love meat). If anything, I liked the texture better than that of many meatballs, which can be dense and leave me feeling heavy.
Dinki includes side notes at the end of her recipes: “FF” for “family-friendly,” with tips to encourage kids to eat their vegetables; “50/50” for how to create both meat and vegetarian versions; and “make it meaty,” with ways to add some extra protein.
Taste trumps everything else in Dinki’s book. “It’s about really yummy food that happens to have a vegetable-focused element to it instead of what is traditionally meat-focused,” Dinki said. “I think the book provides really fun ways to expand your palate.”
As for that broccoli, she isn’t about to ram steamed broccoli down anyone’s throat. She’s been there before.
“No way,” she said, “and how many people like steamed broccoli? So I tend to char it up and add seasoning and garlic, and mix it into a taco. That’s a very different broccoli.”
See Nikki Dinki’s recipes: