When I was an intern in Santa Fe, New Mexico a thousand years ago, my mother sent me a three-page letter (yes, a letter. It was that long ago). Worried that her underpaid intern son might be starving in the desert, she wanted to pass along her wisdom on how to cook and eat on the cheap. It was called “Good Old Mom’s Three Days on One Chicken and Other Depression Folklore.” It kept me fed that long hot summer and later became a family treasure.
I was reminded of it recently when I had the opportunity to read An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. Ms. Adler has certainly made her bones as a cook, having worked in such legendary establishments as Chez Panisse in Berkeley and at Prune in New York. It may have been there, under James Beard award-winning chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton that she found her voice as a writer. Hamilton after all is not only among the most talented chefs in New York, but is also the author of the widely acclaimed memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter–a must-read itself.
An Everlasting Meal is part memoir, part cookbook, and part self-help manual for all who wish to cook better with less; and these days, who is not among that group? She points out, for example, that “Minestrone is the perfect food. I advise eating it for as many meals as you can bear, or that number plus one.”
The book is full of that kind of clever phrasing. Adler clearly shares my fondness for MFK Fisher, and can channel her at will, it seems. Her writing is never pedantic, never preachy, always smart, descriptive, and leisurely. It is as practical as the recipes she includes.
Her recipe for the classic Italian peasant soup is simple and uses lots of ends and bits, like Parmesan rind and the end of a good piece of hard salami. These and many other ingredients are simmered “45 to 60 minutes, until everything has agreed to become minestrone.”
Adler reminds us that “Some vegetables are persistently underrated.” Here I’d have listed turnips, but she looks toward ones we take for granted, like onions and celery, and finds both comfort food–onion soup–and less common dishes like celery poached with lemon and topped with a handful of breadcrumbs.
There is good food to be had in the barest of pantries, Adler assures us, if we are resourceful enough and know the basics of how to cook. In a chapter entitled “How to Weather a Storm,” we find recipes for chickpeas with pasta, spicy green beans, and fish cakes made from canned salmon or mackerel. There’s even one called Salad for a Natural Disaster, made of ingredients she found in a chef’s earthquake kit, presumably while in the Bay Area.
Perhaps most helpful for the frugal but passionate cook is the inclusion of an appendix subtitled “Further Fixes,” where we learn two dozen or so suggestions for what to do when things have gone wrong. Meat a little dried out? Make crispy lardons. Chicken undercooked? Remove it from the bones, simmer in butter and chicken stock and toss with egg noodles. Curry too spicy? Eggplant too salty? Rice or lentils overcooked? Adler includes fixes for them all.
In a time when we can all appreciate the value of frugality in the kitchen, when each of us can ring a wry smile from the Tuscan proverb she quotes: Si stava meglio quando si stava peggio (“We were better off when things were worse”), it is refreshing to know that with just a little effort, and a lot of love, delicious healthy meals are waiting to be awakened from their slumber in the back of the pantry.