I’m as guilty as anyone. I would come home from the farmers market each week loaded down with greens, root vegetables, apples, sometimes some meat. The last went in the freezer, and the rest went in what I like to call the refrigerator’s “rotter” drawer. Inevitably, some of those veggies helped the drawer live up to its nickname by wrinkling, blackening, molding and otherwise going off before I got a chance to cook them.
The use-it-or-lose-it challenge is particularly tough for us single folks. Even if you manage to buy in smaller quantities, you have to shop every day or two to keep on top of fresh produce before it goes to waste. If you’re a farmers market devotee and it’s wintertime, that’s simply not doable.
Tamar Adler has the answer: Instead of trying to keep everything fresh and raw until the clock is counting down toward mealtime and then fitting it into a predetermined recipe, cook everything as soon as you get home from the market. Not all in a jumble or stew, but separately and in ways that maximize each item’s potential.
And fit the pieces together later. Eat cold braised greens on crusty bread with ricotta, or simmer caramelized onions with little more than wine and stock to make soup. It goes for meat as well: Why cook a boneless, skinless chicken breast when you can roast a whole chicken and eat off it, in various ways, for days — and then have the carcass with which to make stock?
In Adler’s kitchen, there’s little that can’t be drizzled with olive oil, doused with salt, brightened with herbs and perhaps spiked with a pickle, olive or anchovy and turned into something delicious.
The former Chez Panisse cook lays out that philosophy in her lyrical book, “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” (Scribner, 2011). She wants home cooks to realize that it needn’t be so difficult or expensive, that you needn’t imitate the high-wire, high-tech act of restaurant chefs in order to feed yourself and your spouse or family, if you have one. But there are aspects of restaurant work that she thinks can inspire better systems at home, such as the practice of thinking about yesterday’s roast vegetables not as leftovers, but as ingredients.
The everlasting meal of the title represents Adler’s insistence that the best way to cook isn’t to read a recipe, run out and get all the stuff and then start cooking. Instead, start wherever you are, use what you have and then use what’s left of that with other things that you have to make the next round, and so on. “For cooking to make sense,” she told me in a phone interview, “you have to have these built-in efficiences and economies of scale.”
“An Everlasting Meal” doesn’t directly address people who live alone — or who cook as though they do. But Adler’s methods seem almost tailor-made for the demographic. And sure enough, she identifies: At 34, she lives with a housemate in Brooklyn, but she’s single, he was until very recently, and they’re often fending for themselves. Although, truth be told, she gives them both a nice head start; long before most people think about cooking a meal — days before, in fact — she has already cooked much of the food.
“Depending on whether our schedules overlap, at 7 o’clock, I either pull out and start assembling for one, or if he’s there, I start assembling for two and ask him to either make new rice or do the dishes,” she said. “And he’s a lawyer, so it’s often just for me, and I’m a writer, so it’s often at 1 o’clock in the morning.”
It takes her all of 15 minutes, but that’s because the greens and beans are already tender, the poached chicken just needs reheating, and so on. “There’s been so much aggregate work put into it,” she said. “I am probably the ultimate convenience-food cook in a way, it’s just that my convenience foods are really great ones.”
Adler wouldn’t have it any other way, and she sympathizes with other single cooks who come home after a long workday and face the daunting prospect of starting from scratch to make a meal for themselves and themselves alone.
“If I didn’t have that long-term mindset, or that sense that cooking with a whole week in mind always made sense, I really don’t think I would have that final little bit of energy, no matter how good my intentions, to make myself a whole new meal without anybody else there,” she said.
There’s plenty more than these do-it-in-advance strategies in “An Everlasting Meal” to inspire any cook, especially ones with an appetite for poetic lines like this one in the chapter entitled “How to Catch Your Tail,” which extols the virtues of using all parts of foods: “It’s no more or less lamb for being meat or bone; it’s no more or less pea for being pea or pod.”
Adler is charmingly down-to -earth, and that’s where many cooks may identify with her the most. In the “How to Weather a Storm” chapter, for instance, she writes about how to make the best use of canned ingredients, and not just the “tins and jars of exotic food” that she admits are her vice. Even the humble canned bean gets its due, and this from someone who devotes another entire chapter (“How to Live Well”) to the glories of cooking them from dried.
Most of the recipes in the book, by far, aren’t really recipes at all: They’re squibs, buried in almost stream-of-consciousness sentences and paragraphs, mentioning what you might do with various versions of this or that, and they seem easy to file away into your subconscious as you read. The proper recipes demand to be tried more immediately, but in keeping with Adler’s spirit, I waited until I ran across those that called for ingredients I already had around.
Greens were a natural choice. I had several bunches of Tuscan kale that needed cooking, so I quickly sauteed some leaves with lots of garlic and a touch of crushed red pepper flakes, chopped some up, made a bechamel to stir into the greens, and set them to bubbling in a hot oven for a rich gratin that I spooned over toast. Another day, I spied a lone can of chickpeas in the pantry and followed Adler’s delightful instructions for turning it into a lusciously creamy-but-chunky sauce that enrobed penne.
I made more penne than I needed for one meal, and more sauce, just as the previous day I had more greens, and more bechamel. But I didn’t fret, because each one of those ingredients would end up as yet another piece in my own everlasting meal.
Yonan writes Cooking for One monthly. He is the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @joeyonan.