What’s the first step toward cooking and eating better this year? Perhaps you should start by learning how to boil water.
While that may not sound like much of a cooking technique, you will gain a new appreciation for the hidden potential of boiled food after reading the new book An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by the chef and food writer Tamar Adler. Placing a pot of water on a hot burner allows us to “do more good cooking than we know,” she writes.
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 flavourful dish: richly flavoured broth, to be eaten hot with vegetables or added to other dishes the rest of the week.
Go back to basics
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, 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 Adler, 34, whose credentials include stints at the restaurants Prune, in New York, and Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. “We think everything is supposed to be extraordinary. 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 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.”
Enjoy, not analyse, your food
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, 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,” 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.” Top 10 food to ward off cold
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 savoury, 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.
Uncomplicate the kitchen
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,” 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.”
The New York Times