An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace

by Tamar Adler, with a Foreword by Alice Waters
Published by Scribner, 2011

May 8th, 2012

We are cookbook fanatics and read them in the same way others enjoy novels. While memoir-style publications – part diary, part recipe guide – have dominated recent releases, it’s been awhile since we’ve come across a cookbook that is as poetic and profound as An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Tamar Adler, who never had any formal culinary training but did cook at the renowned Chez Panisse under its legendary proprietress Alice Waters, combines her two great loves in this book: words and food. Her effortless ability with both is immediately apparent. Waters, who penned the book’s foreword, says Adler has an “instinctive gift for cooking” and an “effortless way of creating meals” and it is this ease, her magical way of making a lot from a little, that she shares with her readers.

An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook of sorts but reads more like a lyrical manifesto that advocates an unhurried and pleasurable enjoyment of the things that sustain us. In an era of vegan, dairy- and gluten-free, when food intolerances are wielded as badges of honour, it is a joy to read Adler’s celebration of non-neurotic cooking and eating. Her book delightfully defies the notion that eating nutritiously and well must be expensive; the number of meals she can extract from a weekly run of roasted vegetables is astonishing and a testament to sheer creativity, while also being the “only proven elixir of youth”. While any home cook can advise on how to economize in the kitchen, Adler explains how this can be done and we can still relish the results. It’s no astonishing feat to produce a great meal with a prime rib roast, but she makes your mouth water reading her treatment of spring peas or roasted squash, ingredients that are a fraction of the cost. Her message is interwoven with recipes written in melodic prose rather than the staccato instructions that are most often found in standard texts.

An Everlasting Meal is inspired in part by M.F.K. Fisher’s classic How to Cook a Wolf on how to reign in spending during the war, a time when butter and eggs were rationed and needed to be used sparingly. Citing the Tuscans, who know a thing or two about food and who believe frugality is next to godliness, in their tradition she gives modest ingredients luxurious treatments. For example, she devotes an entire chapter on the possibilities that beans offer and she advises us to look beyond expensive varieties of fish like halibut and salmon and instead opt for nutritious and much less costly alternatives like sardines, available all year round swimming in olive oil and packed in tins. Useful tricks to maximize flavour like dedicating Parmesan rinds to soups and stocks to impart their essence, and keeping a pantry stocked with powerful ingredients like anchovies, olives, capers and pickles which pack a punch, are plentiful throughout the book. Waste not, want not is her mantra and Adler uses every last bit of animal cuts, rather than just feasting on the choice portions and throwing the rest away. She suggests slow braises to make tougher cuts tender, stretching meat in dishes like spaghetti Bolognese, and using bones to make stock. She then uses stock as the base for a myriad of dishes – bringing a risotto to life, adding noodles to turn it into a soup, or using the liquid to poach an egg. Drippings from meat offer many options we never imagined beyond its traditional use in gravy: they can be poured over lettuce, mixed with rice and herbs and toasted nuts, used in the place of bouillon cubes and spread on corn bread or biscuits much like butter.

An honest and practical mentor, Adler freely admits that regardless of how good a cookbook is and how many times the recipes therein have been tested, the cooking times will be inexact since this is determined by the heat of your stove and the temperature of your ingredients – two variables unknown to the author. Should things go awry, she offers solutions in a chapter called “How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat” suggesting salvaging overcooked veggies by smashing them and turning them into a mash with some butter and herbs or sprucing up dull food with lemon or a drizzle of white wine vinegar. If a cake is too dry, make a simple syrup and pour it over; if a cake breaks, break it more and layer it in a tall glass with cream and fruit and call it a trifle. This book is packed with tricks of the trade on how to make the most of not only your successes but your mistakes.

This is a tome you will cherish for years to come, not only for its recipes but for its prose. If you are at all doubtful of Adler’s culinary prowess because of her literary gift, we can assure you first hand that her dishes are as delicious as she makes them sound. We tried both her “Pasta with sardines” (p. 185) and “Rosemary cake” (p.222) to delightful results. Both were simple in their composition and execution with wonderfully flavourful outcomes. Her book and the food it yields remind us in her words that “this is why I’ve taken the time to cook; this is why I eat” – it’s what every cookbook should aspire to do.

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