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Reviewing An Everlasting Meal
Luckily for me (?) I have been through something like this before. (Not the pandemic part, but the exhaustion about food part.) When I was a restaurant publicist, I spent all day at work coming up with new ways to convince food reporters that my clients’ latest menus were exciting and new, and when I got home everything in the kitchen seemed stale. All my inspiration had been drained out at my desk. I ate a lot of Trader Joe’s frozen appetizers and had a lot of nights where potato chips or popcorn and red wine were dinner. (I am a very picky eater and also wasn’t making that much money at the time, limiting my takeout options significantly.)
I can’t say I’ve ever gotten tired of that combo, but I had to start actually consuming nutrients again at some point (although, at least popcorn is a whole grain!). Whenever I was ready to pull myself out of a rut, I would turn to An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, an unusual little paperback that declares,
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 would still call it a cookbook, but An Everlasting Meal goes a little deeper than a collection of recipes: it’s a guide to thinking about cooking. Adler’s poetic writing style invokes an inherent beauty in simple preparations, and trains you into a kind of mindfulness about the transformations anyone can achieve in the kitchen by understanding what ingredients can do.
An Everlasting Meal has chapters that address broad categories, but instead of “Equipment,” “Bread and Cheese,” and “Beans,” you get “How to Paint Without Brushes,” “How to Have Balance,” and “How to Build a Ship,” respectively. The writing is mostly narrative, dispensing cooking philosophies and tips on preparing certain ingredients, as well as full-blown recipes which are usually not broken out into a discrete list of ingredients followed by instructions. Many chapters are focused on concepts, like how to save a dish that seems ruined or how to turn canned foods into good meals (including “a salad for a natural disaster” which features canned bamboo shoots!) which have obvious utility these days.
The centerpiece of the book is the third chapter, “How to Stride Ahead,” which advises you to buy a bunch of produce at once, prepare it all in one day, and then translate that into meals throughout the week. Is this meal prep? Kind of, but looser. Rather than deciding on a bunch of meals in advance, you’re turning a bunch of vegetables into cooked ingredients that you can freestyle into meals throughout the week. Adler walks you through how to roast a variety of common fall vegetables and sauté greens, then transform them into salads, soups, sandwiches, and gratins, or cook them all into a curry. She assures you that this method of treating vegetables will earn you a comfort and familiarity with them that leads to better, more intuitive cooking: “You will have been silently practicing that ancient conversation in which cooks and their materials used to converse, feeling out unfamiliar conjugations, brushing up.”
The process of going to the farmer’s market—or in winter, more likely Trader Joe’s—and grabbing whatever produce enticed me, then bringing it home and preparing it all in a whirlwind, has brought me back into the fold of cooking many times. When quarantine started and I felt worried about going to the farmer’s market, I got a market box from a local restaurant and worked the same magic every couple of weeks. You obviously don’t have to go to the farmer’s market to do this, you just have to go into the produce aisle with an open and curious mind. You can give yourself the opportunity to be inspired, and you can exert a little bit of control over your life by spending enough time in the kitchen to create a bounty you can depend on throughout the week.
I do generally tend toward more structured meal prep, but especially in quarantine, this kind of freestyling with veg has been really helpful for having a lot of options on hand for lunch. Warming up some roasted cauliflower and topping it with a squeeze of lemon and some crushed up crackers makes a meal of hot dogs or chicken nuggets feel more substantial. Any roasted orange vegetable can turn into this incredible dip if you have some nuts and canned chickpeas on hand. And keeping a bag of shredded mozzarella in the fridge at all times means pretty much anything can be turned into a panini or a quesadilla. Perhaps not exactly the kind of elegant and elemental meals Adler describes, but still well within her general philosophy.
The recipes and methods in this book are solid. I’ve made chicken broth from it; learned to tell a bean was cooked by blowing gently to see if its skin wrinkled; learned to steam-roast beets and keep going until there was zero doubt they were cooked through; turned whatever roasted squash was languishing in the fridge into soup; and made one totally incredible baked chicken dish from a method hidden in a chapter focused on anchovies, olives, capers, and pickles. But ultimately what you come away with is new ways of looking at food and confidence about how to prepare it to suit your mood, which I think is what we all need more of these days.
You Might Also Like: Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater is also a paperback cookbook with super simple recipes. It’s a British classic that has had over 50 printings since it was published in 1992. I used it a lot in college because the recipes and ideas are inexpensive and great for cooking for one person.
Coming up next: Friday’s weekend recipe is my spin on the incredible baked chicken dish from the olives chapter of this book (except, my version doesn’t have olives). Two weeks hence, we’ll talk about Cooking Solo by Klancy Miller.
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