Friday 16 Nov 2018

Adler’s Sage Advice on Eating and Living Well

Tamar Adler’s book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace is a delightful guide to feeding ourselves with delicious, homemade, whole foods that use all parts of all things. Just as bones become broth, so can stems become pesto or rinds and peels and veggie scraps form the start of a delicious braise or flavorful sauce. Leftovers and extra pieces can inspire the next meal. This approach of non-wasting and finding inspiration in what we already have feels all-around good.

Adler, a James-Beard-Award-winning chef who worked in the Chez Panisse kitchen under Alice Waters, weaves musings on life into her expert cooking advice. Her prose is lively and direct; Adler’s singular talent in both writing and cooking shines. She offers recipes, techniques, and advice on how to think about cooking, from shopping to seasoning to planning meals to improvising.

Alice Waters writes in her introduction, “How rare and wonderful it is to have a book grounded in instinct, prompting the reader to examine the world around him- or herself differently, allowing cooking to become a continuous, integrative process that flows from meal to meal.” And so in this way, Adler helps us learn to cook better and more confidently, with less elaborate and stringent planning and more ease. She explains how to develop the instinct for cooking. (Eg., “You must taste and taste. Taste everything, and often… Only by tasting can you learn to connect the decisions you make with their outcomes.”)

Chapter names illustrate Adler’s cooking-as-life philosophy: “How to Find Fortune” (on making the proverbial meal-from-nothing), “How To Stride Ahead” (on cooking a bunch of vegetables to have on hand for recipes in the coming days), “How to Be Tender” (on choosing meat from “happily-raised” animals, cooking it beautifully and making the most of it), “How to Feel Powerful” (on using pantry staples to add flavor punch to any meal), “How to Catch Your Tail” (on using leftovers and often-discarded scraps), and “How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat” (on transforming kitchen mistakes into something different but good).

She writes about decadent gratins and bright pastas and rich curries, and yet she also makes vegetables the star of the show. We know they’re the cornerstone of healthy eating, but Adler also makes them enticing and adaptable. (Secrets include a hot oven and lots of good oil for dressing.) You don’t need a particular plan other than buying what looks good at the farmers market and then roasting a bunch of things at once to get your start.

I love her admonition about buying leafy greens, which brings out the absurdity of our current food culture:

Greens must be bought whole. The balance of the universe dictates that one man’s head is another man’s tale. In Provence, warm baked Swiss chard tarts, studded with raisins, are made only with stems. There, Swiss chard leaves are cast-offs, sometimes used for bean and vegetable soups, more often fed to the chickens.

Here, we sauté leaves of Swiss chard and throw their good stems away. More often we buy greens precut in bags, relinquishing their stems to the companies that hack greens up, only to then buy them back in frozen tamales and canned minestrone soup. A more efficient approach is to buy and use both ingredients, since they come conveniently attached to each other.

And truly, once you’re in the habit of proceeding this way—taking a few moments to prepare ingredients for later rather than grabbing a last-minute, packaged thing when you’re already tired—cooking whole, unruly, fresh foods becomes not a hassle but a pleasure.

I’ve been doing Adler’s multi-veggie roasts with enjoyment on my end and appreciation from the people I’m feeding. Several times I’ve braised grass-fed beef according to her recipe. Then I’ve served it with its fabulous saucy liquid over mashed sweet potatoes or boiled squash or risotto made with the leftover braising liquid as broth. With a batch of braised meat on hand, there’s always something to create a meal around. A small serving of nourishing, slow-cooked meat goes a long way with an array of vibrant vegetables dressed with olive oil and salt.

And take this advice on how to fall in love with cooking again or for the first time: “My answer,” she says, “is to anchor food to somewhere deep inside you, or deep in your past, or deep in the wonders of what you love…

Let the smell of hot tarmac in the summer remind you of a meal you ate the first time you landed in a hot place, when the ground smelled like it was melting. Let the smell of salt remind you of a paper basket of fried clams you ate once, squeezing them with lemon as you walked on a boardwalk. Let it reach your deeper interest. When you smell the sea, and remember the basket of hot fried clams, and the sound of skee-balls knocking against each other, let it help you love what food can do, which is to tie this moment to that one. Then something about the wind off the sea will have settled in your mind, and carried the fried clams and a squeeze of a lemon with it.

Whatever your starting point, this book will help to you become a better cook. And most powerfully of all, it’ll make you want to be one; will help make cooking and eating well a source of continual, simple joy.

Butternut squash risotto with Adler’s braised beef

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