Ms. Adler waits for a rapid boil and adds surprisingly large handfuls of salt, tasting until it’s reminiscent of ocean water. (People concerned about sodium can use less.) From that simple starting point, several meals can be created, from pasta adorned with gently cooked vegetables to a chicken, simmered and skimmed, cut up and served with a fresh salsa verde. The chicken leaves behind yet another flavorful dish: richly flavored broth, to be eaten hot with vegetables or added to other dishes the rest of the week.
To listen to Ms. Adler talk about cooking is to be drawn into a rhythmic dance where each step — from washing and chopping vegetables to cooking and seasoning the meal — flows effortlessly into the next, guided by the food itself, as well as by our own basic instincts about what tastes good.
A chapter called “How to Have Balance” focuses on bread; “How to Live Well” is devoted to beans. Her message is that cooking does not have to be complicated, and all anyone needs are a few basics to get started. In instructing readers on the art of intuitive cooking, Ms. Adler offers not just cooking lessons, but a recipe for simplifying life.
“There is this sense that to cook well means to be struck with inspiration,” said Ms. Adler, 34, whose credentials include stints at the restaurants Prune, in
“But in European and Asian food culture, food is simply supposed to be good and nourishing and enjoyable” — and, she added, far less stressful.
Why are so many of us intimidated by cooking? It may be that this convenience-food generation never got to see our mothers and grandmothers boiling and roasting meals without a recipe, turning the leftovers into hash or stew. Instead we are guided by cooking shows that celebrate the elaborate preparations and techniques that Ms. Adler calls “high-wire acts.”
“Anybody who grew up with a lot of home cooking around them knows that you can have eggs for dinner or that lentils can become pancakes tomorrow,” she said. “But sometimes we just don’t know that we can do that because they don’t do that on TV.”
One of her most important lessons is that we need to spend less time thinking about food and more time just enjoying it. Her suggestions about how to prepare vegetables contradict much of what we have been taught, or think we have.
For instance, while most of us stock our crispers with fresh vegetables and then spend the rest of the week racing to eat them before they turn brown, Ms. Adler buys up basketfuls of whatever vegetables are in season, and as soon as she gets home she scrubs off the dirt, trims the leaves, chops and peels, and then cooks and prepares all the vegetables at once — washing and separating lettuce leaves; drizzling cauliflower, beets and carrots with olive oil and roasting them in separate pans. Beet greens are sautéed, and chopped stems and leaves are transformed into pesto.
Many people, myself included, have long believed that vegetables are best if they are cooked just before they are served. But cooking vegetables as soon as you buy them essentially turns them into a convenience food, allowing them to keep longer and creating a starting point for a week’s worth of meals.
“We’re told that things need to be fresh,” Ms. Adler said, but too often “we all end up watching our food go bad, and then it doesn’t matter if it was fresh, because we didn’t get to eat it.”
Watching Ms. Adler cook vegetables is inspiring. (You can see her routine in two videos titled “How to Stride Ahead” on her Web site, tamareadler.com.) Roasted vegetables can be enjoyed immediately, but most will be refrigerated in jars for later in the week. Warmed to room temperature and drizzled with vinaigrette, they make a savory, earthy salad; or blended with broth and a splash of cream, they can be a hearty soup.
For another meal, the cooked vegetables might be used in a frittata or a warm sandwich. Cooked greens can be turned into a bubbling gratin, roasted vegetables are added to risotto, and everything left over can become an end-of-the-week vegetable curry.
The comforting lesson from “An Everlasting Meal” is that we already know plenty about feeding ourselves, and we don’t need to complicate things by trying to create something extraordinary every time we cook.
“I feel like people are being hit from all sides by a lot of confusing messages, and they are feeling like eating well is really hard,” Ms. Adler said. “This is not a question of expertise. Other than being an expert eater, which we all are by the time we start cooking, we’re already experts at knowing when things are done or whether they need more seasoning.”
Now we’re cooking: How to get Americans back in the kitchen
Kurt Michael Friese: I think Americans have been sold a bill of goods: I think they've been coerced into believing that cooking is a chore akin to washing windows, something to be avoided if possible and then done as quickly and grudgingly as they can manage. Too many people believe they don't have the time. That's the most common excuse anyway. And of course they do -- it's all a matter of priorities.
Tamar Adler: My sense is that there are three variables. A study that came out earlier this year found that 28 percent of Americans stayed out of their kitchens because they were scared they didn't know how to cook. The other two variables are obviously time and money. The same study found that one-third of Americans spent more time thinking about what to cook than actually cooking. In other words, we have a very skewed relationship to the act of cooking.
The thing about priorities is that if we don't know what cooking actually means -- that is, the kind of cooking that makes deep sense in our lives -- then of course we don't have time, or money.
It takes a very long time to cook in a way that isn't sustainable, and it's very expensive. And it makes sense to feel bullied by being told to make something that takes a long time and costs a lot of money a priority. But of course, that's not what we're saying. It just takes a lot of explaining and careful guidance to show the whole picture of cooking, and how much it can give you, if you do it with a certain mindset.
Kurt: I have long said that I may be a part of the last generation to have learned to cook at his mother and grandmother's apron strings. And if people are no longer learning to cook from their parents (because their parents didn't learn either), then we need to find some new ways to teach them. One thing I've called for is something I call The Public Hearth.
Tamar: That sounds wonderful.
Kurt: What did you want to achieve with your book? The first thing that pops into my head when I'm asked about why I write about food is MFK Fisher's response to the same question: "There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk, and that is what I say when people ask me, 'Why do you write of food, and not of love or war?'"
The second answer is mine, and it is that the means of producing our food has been meanly wrested from our hands, and we need it back. It sounds like a great communist exercise when I put it like that, but it's fundamental to our sovereignty to have the means to feed ourselves.
Kurt: Very true. And what I spend a lot of time pointing out to people is that cooking is the simplest, purest, most tangible way we can convey our love for our family and friends. What we feed our children is both metaphorically and literally what they become. That's what I mean by priorities.
So I try to teach people the real basics of cooking. How to make a stock, the difference between braising and roasting, how to break down a chicken, etc. General knife skills, too -- nothing is a greater time-saver for the home cook than strong knife skills.
Tamar: I want to get away from admonishing people that their priorities are wrong. The great, lucky thing is that when you know how to throw your scraps into a pot to make stock -- then how when you have stock, all you have to do is poach an egg in it and toast some stale bread -- feeding people well is freeing.
I wrote my book to be on the side of everyone who's scared, and everyone who wants to prioritize cooking, but can't see how to -- for whom it's a priority they feel they have to trade off because they're not skilled enough.
They have [so few] advocates now. You are one, and Samin Nosrat is one, and I'm trying to be one. Michael Pollan in his next book is going to be one, and we have to keep it up.
Kurt: And it's the same entities scaring them from cooking as feeding them the stuff that confuses what's healthful and not.
Tamar: Yes. I had a few great conversations with trendologists when I was writing my New York Times op-ed on the value of a grandmotherly perspective on cooking -- like the one we have on Thanksgiving -- and both said that food companies were trying to get people not to cook.
And because [companies like] Kraft or Velveeta, with their Cheesy Skillets, and organic premade burritos, etc., cater to a lot of the trends -- i.e. people wanting to feed their families organic food, and artisanal food -- what those really things mean, and how easy and affordable it can be to engage them, gets obscured.
Tamar: Maybe we should touch on the idea of the professionalization of cooking. We think we're supposed to be chefs. We idolize chefs, we think we're supposed to be able to cook like them. We go to restaurants and imagine that what we get is cooking. And that the alternative is premade.
Kurt: There has been a move over the last two decades to make chefs into rock stars, and while I wanted to be a rock star when I was 15, I no longer do. I like that the attention is beginning to shift toward the farmer, who after all is doing most of the hard work. We chefs too often are, in Tony Bourdain's parlance, "People who swan around in white coats and take credit for other people's toil."
The most obvious thing people could learn from the pros, though, is mise en place.
Tamar: I am, again here, a little contrarian. Chefs are amazing, but a lot of what they do is organizational, and about the incredible difficulties in staying inspired while running a volatile organization -- dealing with a million moving pieces and people with different needs, and equipment that breaks down.
Home cooks need to learn from skilled, grounded home cooks. They can learn mise en place, but they get that from the Food Network. What they don't get from the Food Network, or from the lionizing of the restaurant or from many food magazines is [suggestions like] save onion skins, or make frittatas from anything. I think that's what grandmothers used to teach.
Kurt: As my mother told me back in the '80s, "quiche was not developed as a test of masculinity, it was developed to get rid of leftovers." I worry about what people learn from TV because it's too much like porn: People who are prettier and more talented than you doing things you'll never do in places you'll never do them. It stresses people out to think that they need to live up to that standard.
Tamar: Exactly. Two days ago I did a shoot for Martha Stewart Everyday Food, and the editor-in-chief stopped the art director from putting things in little perfect bowls because she didn't want to make it aspirational. She wanted it to be approachable for home cooks, which made me really happy.
This brings us to the difference between having an intimate knowledge of food versus fetishizing it.
Kurt: Yes. Is there a more fetishized food than bacon?
Tamar: Bacon is a great example. Bacon is a sort of magic food, a little like olives, or anchovies, in that if you have a little, anything else you have seems special. If you have a tiny bit of bacon around, simple pasta with butter and cheese becomes a wonderful version of carbonara. Or an egg, fried in [bacon] fat, seems rustic and hardy. If you have olives, you can make olive paste, which disguises the fact that other than that you only have toast. A couple of anchovies transform anything, from pasta, to salad, to stale bread. But I didn't feel able, in my book, to say that bacon was magical for all those reasons, because instead of understanding bacon as deeply economical, and all it takes to transform a staple into a great, rustic meal, we [now] understand it as something that needs to go into bourbon and chocolate. Even into peanut butter! We manage to pervert the most useful things, and in so doing, lose the ability to really marshal them.
Kurt: The same thing happened to skirt steak.
Tamar: We need to rebind cooking to the sort of simple love we have for our pets and children, unbind it from passion and rebind it to tenderness.
Kurt: That's an excellent point. But I also believe traceability is vital -- knowing the source of your food and shaking the hand that raised it when possible. Also understanding the importance of biodiversity -- becoming aware that there is more than one kind of squash, or apple, or pig, and that we need there to be more than one kind. It also helps to learn about food from as many different cultures as possible. Eating their food with them is far better than "walking a mile in their shoes" to get to know that culture.
Tamar: And part of it being important to you is knowing that it can be important without being everything. It can matter, but not matter to the exclusion of all else. In order for that to be true, we need to know how to cook, and the kinds of cooking that are not time-intensive and denatured -- like the stuff on Top Chef or Iron Chef -- but the quiche which uses leftovers.
Kurt: Where do you think class comes into it?
How do we get the single mom in a trailer with four kids to read [your] book? Or at least to understand its ideas?
Tamar: That's what I wanted my book to do. We need to keep our message focused on cooking, and on the sort of cooking that's economical. We need skills classes to be affordable. [I want] to get a grant to get my book handed out at community centers, and get FoodCorps to teach how to make pasta with eggs, and make good soup from a can of chickpeas. We need to make cooking into the second part of food justice, and food sovereignty, and talk about feedings ourselves as something we deserve to be able to do.
Kurt: Indeed. It's even patriotic!