Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace - By Tamar Adler

I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when my mother first gave it to me. “Cooking with economy and Grace”?

I felt a bit like Elaine Benes at her ill-fated job interview. “I don’t have grace. I’m never gonna have grace.”

I’m the girl who chops things willy-nilly, never really having the patience to develop good knife skills because I just grow tired of chopping stuff. I sometimes toss away anything I can’t immediately use. I throw seasonings in the pan because I think they will taste good, without making much effort to find out if they will actually taste good - or how much or too little will ruin or improve the taste. In short, I am not always the most patient or conscious cook.

As I said in a previous post, I wasn’t always sure where the book was going. It sometimes seemed like a stream of consciousness. Adler would take one ingredient, tell the reader how to prepare it, then run on to how to use it in something else, and then do something even further with it. It was information overload. What was I going to glean from all of this information filling my brain?  Adler was forcing me to think differently and I was resisting it.

The more I read, the more I began to feel a sense of what Adler was trying to convey to me. The first is consciousness. It’s funny how in the desire to put dinner on the table, I sometimes forget to stop and really pay attention. I don’t taste. I don’t take notice of the sights, sounds, and smells that will alert me to how something is cooking. Adler advocates even tasting plain water periodically as it boils. What a difference that makes from me dumping the juice of an entire lemon into a sauce without taking care to notice if it’s making the sauce too acidic. I don’t pay attention to the ways a piece of meat can signal to me that it’s time to be flipped (including just looking at a clock now and then to pay attention to average cooking times).

The other lesson I learned from the book was to think outside the box. Adler offers many options for how to cook certain ingredients. The first example was her advocacy for boiling vegetables and then reusing the water. I applied this lesson to my kitchen and my blog right away. She also comes up with ways to use those bits that we often throw away. Leaves and stems can be sautéed, boiled, and pickled. In a previous post I explained how I shredded a broccoli stem and placed it in brine to both flavor it and tenderize it. This weekend I bought a leafy romesco cauliflower at the farmer’s market. After roasting the vegetable, I quickly cooked those leaves in boiling water and pureed  them them with caramelized onions, olive oil, and freshly grated pecorino (Adler advocates for always having caramelized onions on hand). This is the type of vegetable mix that Adler might advocate spread on toast, folded into an omelet, mixed into risotto, or served over polenta.  I saved the cooking water for soup.

Adler devotes chapters to certain ingredients or techniques. She devotes a chapter on how to best prepare and use beans. One chapter waxes poetic on the various ways to cook eggs.  There is a chapter to inform the reader of everything one can do with rice. Another chapter gives endless ideas for sandwiches using all of those re-used vegetables. She centers a whole chapter on salads, asking the reader to reconsider what a salad is.  She calls a salad anything raw or cooked, chopped small, placed in a dish or bowl, and dressed with fat, salt, and acid.  She includes her stream-of-consciousness cooking ideas, but also gives some concrete recipes for dishes such as minestrone or ribollita that incorporate the ingredients she highlights in each chapter.

Some chapters I liked better than others. I was not terribly interested in her fish chapter. I also didn’t like the chapter where she advocates for using the bold flavors of olives, capers, cornichons and anchovies (although I am cool with capers and cornichons). The meat chapter, while it sounded tasty, is not that practical for me. She recommends cooking large joints of bone-in meat.  I'd love to do more of that, but I'd be the only one eating it.

Every technique or ingredient provides a leftover that can be made into a new dish. She also devotes a chapter to fixing mistakes. If you oversalt or overcook or burn a meat or vegetable, Adler will give you creative ways to turn it into a whole new dish.

One of my favorite recipes was one for baked ricotta where two pounds of ricotta are mixed with two egg yolks, fresh herbs, salt, and a quarter cup of olive oil then baked for twenty-five minutes at four hundred twenty-five degrees. The result is like a crustless quiche or savory cheesecake. I ate it for breakfast topped with roasted cherry tomatoes. I think it would also be useful cut up into small bites and served as an appetizer at a cocktail party, perhaps topped with some prosciutto slices or maybe some cornichons pressed into it.

One method she recommends is saving bones and vegetable ends for soup. This is one task I always do.  I save chicken carcasses, spines, and wing tips along with old carrots and onions for eventually making into stock. I'm starting to think outside the traditional box now and am saving other bones and veggie ends.  What other types of stocks can I make?  She is particularly gung-ho about cooking beans and using your leftovers for cooking beans, and then using the bean stock for soups.  I have not made a pot of beans in ages.  She gave me the desire to do that again.

Occasionally Adler does come off as being a little condescending, and even seems to be finger-wagging.  She assumes the reader has been doing everything the wrong way (i.e. not her way) all along and expresses disapproval of it.  She assumes the reader has access to farmer's markets and money for  ingredients that don't always come cheap (e.g. capers). 

While Adler's recommendations are meant to be economical, she forgets that there are other types of economy.  As a chef she has the luxury of always being in a kitchen.  I don't have that luxury.  I have short windows to cook most days.  I don't have the leisure time to spend hours canning and pickling and slow roasting.  When I have that kind of time, I don't always want to spend it all in the kitchen.  A day off from work in the winter might mean a day for baking, stock-making, and onion caramelizing. On the other hand, a day off from work in nicer weather demands I leave the kitchen behind and spend it riding my horses.  Does it cost me less to buy a head of broccoli, trim it myself, and use the stems for another recipe?  Sure it does.  However, there are many days when time will dictate I spend the extra money on pre-cut florets or even frozen vegetables.  I don't always have the time to visit the farmer's market on the one day it's in my neighborhood.  Sometimes I have to make late-night trips to the 24-hour supermarket to procure food. 

I'm not a 19th century homemaker (whose lives are often too well-glamorized by people like Adler).  I'm a 21st century working woman with some time-consuming hobbies.  I spend more time on cooking than many of my peers because I love cooking and care about my health.  I envy my blogging friends who can and preserve fresh food, especially those who have their own gardens.  Right now, I can't be them.  I can only do the best I can with the time I have.

In general I would recommend that any cook read An Everlasting Meal.  It will help you rethink how you use your ingredients.  It will get you back in touch with your instincts.  Although this sounds sort of new-agey, it will aid you in cooking more consiciously.  I believe it really is helping me pay more attention in the kitchen.  Just don't be too hard on yourself if you can't do it all, if you sometimes rush, if you occasionally neglect to economize.  Tamar Adler is not living in your shoes. Cook according to who you are.  Trust yourself.


Blond Duck said...

I loved this. I cook exactly the way you do, and I've been trying to slow down, savor and not waste so much. But at the same time, I tire of being perfect. There's a point where frozen vegetables are fine.

bellini said...

I would love to be that person that does not waste a thing. I even sometimes consciously think I wi do just that, but then time gets away from me and it just never happens.

Ann Minard said...

Sounds like an interesring book. My Mom had a knack for this even in everyday chores like ironing, she would use lavender water on all the clothes and have classical music playing and it was a time of refreshment for her.

Sue said...

A-MEN! I like that you got something out of this book, but brought your own spin to her "advice" as well. I think the longer we're in the kitchen, the more self-assured we become and we know what works and what doesn't. One big contribution to not wasting is to transform leftovers into other dishes. You're using up stuff, and you're also saving energy (yours and the stove's).

Blond Duck said...

I hope you're having a good week!

Anonymous said...

Great review, particularly on allowing yourself to fit your own life rather than taking the approach as prescriptive whether or not you have the time or resources to do so.