Thursday, January 17, 2013

{Books for Cooks} An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace

Writing book reviews is something I do a lot for my day job, which is finishing my doctorate in Canadian literature and trying to figure out what I'm going to do after more than a decade in university. Mostly I write about poetry, but I read just as many books about food as I do collections of poetry (many more, actually) and there are so many of them that I want to hand to you and say "Read this. You will love it. It will make you hungry and it will make you happy and it will make you want to go cook something." I can't hand you a book, but this is the next best thing. And if there are any books you'd like to hand to me, do share in the comments. 

I was away from  home all of last week, taking a course at the University of Maryland. I do this sort of thing a few times a year, usually culminating in a week or two in Victoria, B.C. in June. One of the best parts about that trip is that the place I always stay has a full kitchen, and so I get to cook up loads of beautiful produce that's at least two weeks ahead of all the green things at home. This time around, I wasn't quite so lucky--I got to escape housekeeping for a week, since I was put up in a hotel, but I missed my kitchen almost as much as I missed my cat. Knowing I would, I brought Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace along with me for company. And I'm so very glad I did.

I keep a notebook, one that I carry with me almost everywhere, to I write down recipes, meal ideas, restaurant reviews, and musings about food--and life in the kitchen--more generally. I started reading An Everlasting Meal on the plane from Toronto to Washington D.C., and I didn't put it down until I finished it on the metro between Washington and College Park. I'm terrible at writing while in motion, but I needed to scrawl this immediately, as soon as I'd closed the covers: 
Read this book as many times as you can. It will make you a better cook, a better writer, and maybe even a better person.
I meant it then, and I mean it now, having read the book through again before I got home from my trip on Sunday. This book is the real deal.

The subtitle--cooking with economy and grace--is the key to Adler's cooking philosophy, and it's one that I wholeheartedly share. It is about trusting yourself to make use of what you already possess in the kitchen: hands to hold a knife, a tongue to tell you when something tastes good, food that doesn't require a recipe to become a meal. It's about the economy of taking the ends of one meal and letting them drift gracefully into the next, so that you never have to stand in front of the fridge contemplating what to make for dinner. Dinner is always already started. No meal ever has to be made from scratch and the chain continues unbroken--last night's pasta gets tossed with some eggs and some of the greens you cooked at the beginning of the week to become today's pasta frittata; that frittata gets sandwiched between two toasted and buttered slices of good bread for tomorrow's sandwich, and that same good bread, gone stale, meets olive oil and garlic in a hot pan to become crisp croutons that top a bowl of soup or make a bed for a panful of sauteed mushrooms topped with a poached egg. And on. And on.

Reading An Everlasting Meal, and contemplating my place in the kitchen in light of its message, is profoundly comforting and inspiring. It is a celebration of the home cook and of simplicity. We're living through an era when so many don't cook--are afraid of cooking, are intimidated by the seeming complexity of cooking--and when the most celebrated kind of cooking--modernist cuisine, molecular gastronomy, whatever you want to call it--seemingly requires a batter of odd equipment and a Master's degree in chemistry. But as Adler reminds us, as for what you need in order to cook, "there are too many equipment lists in the world already. A meal is cooked by the mind, heart, and hands of the cook, not by her pots and pans. So it is on the former that I recommend focusing your attentions." The same simplicity of approach goes for technique and ingredients. Buy good fresh things like eggs, bread, roots, greens, cheese. Do simple things with them. Boil them. Roast them. Apply olive oil, salt, and heat. They are done when they smell and taste good to you, and you decide when that point is. They go together in whatever combinations appeal to you.

The other part of this book that makes me love it so is the fundamental relationship between food, creativity, and ethics that is its foundation. The essay "How to Catch Your Tail" is perhaps the best example. Tails are all of those things that we might normally put in the trash or pour down the drain--the green parts of leeks and the stems of parsley, the brothy liquid that pools around a pot of cooked beans, the starchy olive oil left over from cooking the potatoes for Spanish tortilla. All can and should be caught, tucked into the fridge, and used to enhance tomorrow's cooking, be turned into vegetable stock, salsa verde, a pan of roasted potatoes slicked with olive oil that already carries their essence. Catching our tails is an ethical way of engaging with food. Nothing rots in the back of the fridge because it doesn't belong in any of the recipes we've planned for the week. We use what we have instead of buying more. We become creative in combining tails and ends and staples into something that we want to eat, and that we're happy to serve to others. And we never have to search for the start of a meal.
When we leave our tails trailing behind us we lose what is left of the thought we put into eating well today. Then we slither along, straight, linear things that we can be, wondering what we will make for dinner tomorrow. So we must spot our tails when we can, and gather them up, so that when we get hungry next, and our minds turn to the question of what to eat, the answer will be there waiting. 
I didn't know what to make for lunch today. But I had bread, thin and seedy and perfect for toasting. I had a pot of deep red kidney beans, swimming in their broth, that I'd tucked in the freezer. I toasted the bread and drizzled it with some green olive oil from the bottle that a few cloves of garlic also live in. I quickly wilted a few handfuls of spinach while I let a cupful of beans bubble away in some of their broth, and then mashed some of them with a fork so that their starchy middles made everything thick. I scooped the spinach onto the toast, then spooned over a rubble of beans. I drizzled over some basil pesto from the jar I keep in the fridge, then shaved over the last of a piece of Parmesan (the rind goes in the freezer to enrich a pot of soup) and sprinkled on some flaky salt and dried chili for colour and heat. It was simple. It was what I had around. And it was perfect.

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