June 08, 2012

book review: An Everlasting Meal

"We don't need to shop like chefs or cook like chefs; we need to shop and cook like people learning to cook, like what we are--people who are hungry." -Tamar Adler

I first heard about Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal--Cooking with Economy and Grace on Joy the Baker's blog. She mentioned that it was pretty good, and I figured that a cookbook on using up odds and ends in your kitchen might be helpful to read. I ordered it off amazon and hoped it wouldn't be too slow going.

Uh, slow going? This book is fantastic. If you like to cook, like to eat, or sometimes are around food in your life, you should read this book.

image via goodreads.com

5 Reasons to Read An Everlasting Meal

1. You will gain a more holistic view of your food

Adler starts out simply enough, saying "This is not a cookbook or a memoir or a story about one person or one thing. It is a book about eating affordably, responsibly, and well, and because doing so relies on cooking, it is mostly about that." 

I appreciate that this isn't a list of ingredients Adler expects you to collect.  Rather, she expects you to have certain types of things in your kitchen and teaches you the principles (with specific examples) of how to combine them together again and again so you are neither wasting food or eating bad/boring food. It's specific strategies, but more than that, it's looking at your kitchen and saying "what do I already have, and how can I make it tasty right now?"

2. No more looking at a full refrigerator saying "there's nothing to eat"

Adler walks you through how you might set up your kitchen for success--roasting vegetables at the beginning of the week, simple ways to cook large cuts of meat which will last you for several days. She talks about principles of taking what you have and turning it into something new and just as tasty as the original thing.

For example, one of the things Adler talks about a lot in the book is how most food is made better with the addition of an acid and a fat. I knew this, but had never really thought about it in practice. ANY vegetable is seven times better with butter, but it becomes ten times better when you add a squeeze of lemon to the mix. So when I'm looking at my fridge and frustrated because all of the vegetables are a few days old and cold, why not slice them up very thinly, drizzle with rice wine vinegar and a long pour of olive oil? Add salt and pepper to that and they become a dish, not just insipid leftovers. 

(she also has a whole section on how pretty much anything can become a topping for toast. amen.)
3. But there are also some good recipes!

apple and half-cooked vegetable salad
olive oil tart dough
pork shoulder braised in milk with garlic, sage, and lemon

....to name a few.

I love the way Adler writes the recipes--it's so conversational and homey. You imagine that you're sitting in her kitchen as she teaches you how to cook. "Unimaginable amounts of fat will rise to the top of this while it cooks--there is fat in the pig and fat in the milk. Skim it off if you're eating this immediately."

4. Rescue strategies when you think "oh no, I've totally messed this up"

There's a whole chapter (How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat) and an appendix (Further Fixes) on what to do with burned vegetables, overcooked meat, burned rice, on and on. And these are not fixes like "throw it all away and start again."

At the same time, Adler doesn't only focus on practical tips, she also offers the philosophical. "Then there is the art of letting go. Being moved to surrender is an act of grace. Be glad today's failure is behind you. . .Here is a good recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches. Perhaps deciding you'll still have a delicious meal, [despite] burned, salty, spicy, oil, broken, undercooked [food], will be your victory today."
5. It will help you rediscover the joy of cooking.

One of the last chapters of the book has my favorite line. In "How to Drink to the Saints," Adler says "We're anxious about serving, but the simple, blessed fact is that no one ever comes to dinner for what you're cooking. We are all hungry and thirsty and happy that someone's predicted we would be and made arrangements for dealing with it. . .It is for recognition of our common hungers that we come when we are asked."

That's the crux of it all--while cooking is fun and it's always exciting to try new things, the ultimate fulfillment when you cook comes from the interplay between the people at the table and the food that drew them all to this same place. Maybe it's a rowdy group of boys in the middle of their Star Wars marathon or just you and a friend who stopped by, but the point is not what you cooked, it's that you love them enough as a person that you stopped what you were doing, gathered up a few things, and fulfilled one of their needs.

in conclusion: Buy the book here, if you want. Make sure you check out the chapter titles. Also, although I'm a huge fan of my kindle and kindle books, this is a nice one to have "for real" and pencil little notes in the margins or dog ear pages of some of the recipes. I will definitely be re-reading this one for quite some time.

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