Monday, October 28, 2013

Cooking to Save the Planet: Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal

When I blogged several days ago about our method of shopping weekly and cooking most of the vegetables we buy on the day that we shop and then storing them for use in meals later in the week, I told you I'd post a follow-up piece about Tamar Adler's book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace (NY: Scribner, 2011). I read the book two summers ago, loved it, made copious notes and told myself I'd blog about it. And then I somehow neglected to do so.

Adler shops and cooks pretty much as I described our method in my last posting. She 

・buys what's seasonal, fresh, and locally produced 
・focuses on economic shopping by cooking what's widely available in a given area, rather than delicacies or exotic items shipped in from elsewhere 
・plans meals flexibly around what happens to be on hand when she shops--and is seasonal, fresh, locally produced, and reasonably priced
・centers meals on fresh fruit and vegetables, grains, pasta, rice, potatoes, dried pulses, and cheese, rather than meat
・tends to use meat as a condiment for the other ingredients of a meal rather than the star of the show.

Like me, she also likes to do a marathon cooking all at once of the fresh vegetables she brings home from the market each week. She finds this cooking of many vegetables simultaneously and/or in succession soul-enriching, as I do, since it immerses the cook in sights, smells, textures that place the cook in vital contact with the earth as she or he cooks. 

And, again as I do, she stores the various vegetables she's cooked each week (by boiling, roasting, or sautéing them in butter or olive oil, etc.--whatever's appropriate to that vegetable and suits her fancy for the week) for use in later meals. As she points out throughout the book, when one has, say, several sweet potatoes roasted and set aside, or a bunch of rapini sautéed in olive oil, it's easy to turn either or both into a main dish by serving the vegetable warmed (or cold, as the occasion demands) with a poached egg on top, with a homemade crouton or two on the side. 

Or over pasta with parmesan grated on top. Or over rice. Or quinoa or grits or puréed potatoes. Or wrapped in a tortilla. Or as a salad, perhaps with some roasted walnuts topping the salad. Or folded into an omelette. The possibilities are almost endless, and are limited only by the suitability of a particular vegetable to the treatment you wish to give it, by what you have on hand, by what you like and what goes well together.

As is obvious, this way of thinking about shopping and eating allows families to find ways to eat fresh, well-prepared vegetables, and plenty of them, on a daily basis, with other staples including dried beans and peas, pasta, grains, and cheese to complement the vegetables, enhance their taste, and add to their nutritional value. This way of thinking about shopping and eating is deeply traditional for many cultures around the world, and was traditional for many American subcultures until fairly recently, and it developed precisely to permit people to subsist (and eat well and healthily) on what was locally grown and available in their part of the planet.

It's a shock that so many people--in the United States, in particular--have either never learned how to think about food in this way, or have forgotten what they once knew from their cultural heritages about cooking and eating in the way that Adler describes. As she notes, her approach to buying and cooking food echoes practices from significant food cultures of the world from France to the Mediterranean to Africa, India, and Asia. 

Adler also understands and writes sympathetically about the traditional foodways of the American Southeast, and has lived (and cooked) in that part of the country. I love that she recognizes that grits and polenta are "identical twins" (p. 124), a point many food snobs who deplore the former while devouring the latter with gusto have always amused me by failing to see. 

There's a great deal to love about Tamar Adler's book. I love that she tweaks the nose of those strange food neurotics (they're well-represented in the American food establishment) who imagine that boiling vegetables depletes them of flavor and nutritional content. To those folks, she replies: "Add more water. You can't ever have too much water for boiling your vegetables" (pp. 5-17). (And, it goes without saying, boil additional batches of vegetables in the water you've just used to boil one whose taste won't fight with the next ones you cook in the same broth, and save the broth for soup later.) And to the salt-obsessed, she suggests, "When you think you've added enough salt, add some more." 

I love the way in which she speaks constantly of adding a "long pour" of olive oil to this or that dish. I love that she recognizes that "[l]ittle flourishes, like parsley, make food seem cared for" (p. 69). I like that she recognizes something that people in warm climates from India through the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Africa to the American Southeast have long known--that frying vegetables is a way of maximizing their flavor, piquing their interest for people whose appetites are challenged when the weather is dauntingly hot, and controlling the amount of heat generated in kitchens in very warm weather. 

Everything that Adler says about adding more salt, not fearing the amount of water one uses in boiling, pouring a "long pour" of olive oil into a dish, depends on a central insight of the book--namely, that "[a] meal is cooked by the mind, heart, and hands of the cook, not by her pots and pans" (p. 64). She's not encouraging an inexperienced cook to walk into the kitchen and begin throwing salt around without proper attention to what she's doing, to the dish she's preparing, to the taste that results as she adds pinches of salt, stirs, simmers, tastes again. For Adler, cooking is far more art than precise science, and it requires that the cook immerse herself in the textures and tastes of the food she's preparing--and not depend slavishly on a written recipe dictating how this dish must be cooked.

More bons mots from the book I relish include this one: 

Hot vegetables is a doctrine every bit as encumbering to good vegetable eating as pressure to leave them raw until right before dinner. Room temperature is the temperature at which most vegetables taste best. When we eat antipasti at Italian restaurants, they are gloriously oiled and vinegared and perfectly tepid. So, often, are Spanish tapas (p. 44). 

This makes absolute sense to me. The tradition handed down in my family as I grew up was one that had developed in Southern farm kitchens in a period prior to refrigeration, when the noontime meal was prepared as soon as breakfast had been eaten, and the many vegetables fresh from the garden to be eaten for dinner at noon were cooked in the cool of the morning, before the day's heat had set in, and then left to stay just beyond room temperature on the stove all morning.

And they were then served and eaten at the same temperature. The notion of piping hot vegetables mystifies me, given the foodways that prevailed in my family's household as I was growing up, which are much closer to the Italian and Spanish traditions Adler describes above than the serve-it-piping-hot traditions she's critiquing here.

By the same token,

The best soups are a day old. Soup mustn't be fresh, but mature. They needn't taste of their ingredients, but only give their ingredients somewhere to be left off and picked up again (p. 47).

Yes again: part of what makes vegetables cooked ahead of time and then kept warm more flavorful is that the flavor of the vegetables deepens and matures as the vegetables sit a while. The same principle applies to soups, which almost always attain more complex flavors after they've sat a day or so and are then reheated. The flavors deepen because the vegetables and herbs in the soup impart more flavor over a period of time, and as the soup is reheated.

And, of course, "Take an old cold tater and wait": as Adler points out, having baked sweet potatoes on hand long made perfect sense to many American families, given the ease (and lack of expense) with which this food rich in nutrition could be grown, its long-keeping qualities, and the need to quieten querulous children as they complained about how long it was taking for the other food to arrive on the table (p. 46). I can well remember my grandmother telling me that her mother always had a Dutch oven full of baked sweet potatoes waiting in the fireplace when she and her siblings came home from school, and the first thing they did when they came home was go to the fireplace, retrieve a potato, peel and eat it.

When does it not make good sense to have several cold sweet potatoes on hand, as Adler rightly wonders?

The only wrong note the entire book struck for me when I read it two summers ago was Adler's statement that in the South, black-eyed peas or crowder peas are often served with chopped scallions, watermelon pickles, pepper vinegar, and sliced white bread (p. 113). In my family, the scallions and watermelon pickles would almost certainly have been replaced by piquant homemade chow-chow, though there certainly was always a bottle of hot peppers covered in vinegar (homemade, too) on the table to be added to beans, field peas, and greens.

But a slice of white bread with the field peas would have been as unthinkable as, well, sugar in cornbread. We never ate dishes of cooked dried beans or dishes made with field peas with any bread other than cornbread--with cornbread made with white cornmeal, buttermilk, eggs, bacon drippings,  salt, a pinch of soda, and nothing else. Certainly not with sugar . . . . The cornbread, with its earthy taste and rich, grainy texture, was, we thought, the perfect complement to the beans or field peas, and we often used it (when we weren't eating in a public place where this would have been considered ill-mannered) as a base onto which we spooned the beans or peas with their pot liquor and then mashed them a bit to blend them into the cornbread.

There may be regions of the South in which other foodways prevail and in which white bread (or "light bread," as we called it) is served with black-eyed peas or crowders, but if so, those regions are new to me. Growing up, I'd have been insulted to be served tasteless, insubstantial, good-for-nothing light bread with beans or field peas. To my discredit, I was insulted on the one occasion in which a former in-law served me such a meal a number of years ago. It just seemed so . . . slapdash, so inconsiderate. So deliberate, not to go to the very little trouble of baking a pone of cornbread to go with the beans.

I highly recommend Tamar Adler's book to readers of this blog. It's one of the best food books I've read since, well, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and Karen Hess. It's gone onto my shelf of essential food books--a small shelf in the two floor-to-ceiling bookcases in which we store our cookbooks--right beside those classic writers. And that's high praise indeed, as far as I'm concerned.

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