He would probably be surprised to learn it, but Mother Jones writer and food editor Tom Philpott has changed the way I cook. The roots of this revolution had been brewing for some time but I read his post about cookbooks and lights went off in my head. You’re Using Recipes Wrong: Here’s how cookbooks and food sites are wasting your time argues that cookbooks geared towards a single meal are exhausting, impractical and wasteful. You read a recipe and create a shopping list based on the ingredients you’ll need. You find another recipe or two, then you go to the store and shop based on this list. You make the dishes, possibly quite successfully, but you are tired, exhausted and there’s a better than good chance that the next day you have nothing in the house to eat. You work full time, you have kids maybe, other obligations certainly, and while you love your time in the kitchen, it’s a lot of effort and you still need to eat out or worse, call for delivery.
Just as I was reading Tom’s article, I was digging into what I assume is an excellent book on a foreign food that I had no expertise on. The final dishes looked terrific but as I scanned the ingredient list, my heart sank. Cooking from this book was going to mean a lot of shopping and I would need many ingredients that I wouldn’t normally use in my day to day cooking. I found myself judging new books based on their ingredient lists. Of course, I love learning new tricks and novelty but it was becoming exhausting.
At around the same time my 16 year old son came to live with me full time. The nights of wine and cheese if I didn’t feel like cooking were over. He’s a great eater and will try anything and if he knows I’ve worked hard, he’ll do his best to enjoy it but the train was leaving the station and I needed to get on board.
In Philpott’s article, he mentioned Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, which on the surface is an updated version and tribute to M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, a fun and important book that is sadly less than useful because our pantrys our so much different now than they were when Fisher wrote the book. But the spirit is the same. You can run an efficient kitchen and save loads of money and more importantly, always have something good eat on hand.
I had a copy of An Everlasting Meal and when I first read it, I wasn’t taken in. As a friend described it, “It’s a little too twee.” I picked it up again and this time the voice coming from the book was extremely helpful, just the teeniest bit pedantic but mostly like a friend sharing her secrets. Or rather for me, like Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz: I’ve had the secret all along! She’s just helping me figure it out for myself. I would say most of what she writes, I kind of already knew, but she puts all the pieces together in a logical, appetizing way and if you are like me, things change for the better after reading An Everlasting Feast. If you pick it up and find yourself irritated, put it away and try it later. It’s a great book, but maybe not an everyday book.
There are many great concepts in the book, but the most important for was that your food, the beautiful bounty you bring home from the farmers market or specialty store, is never going to be as good again as the moment you lay it on your counters before you put it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. Cook them all on Sunday and keep them in the fridge and mix and match as you want throughout the week.
My son has asked to eat vegetarian during the week and freestyle on the weekends. I suggested roasted vegetables and grains for the bulk of our eating and luckily he’s on board. So Sunday morning I crank up the oven and have sheet pans and mixing bowls on hand as I chop carrots, toss them in olive oil and then roast them. While they roast I get the zucchini ready with the same treatment. Then on to broccoli rabe, etc. On the stovetop in a beloved clay cazuela I’m sauteeing braising greens. The very last thing is the black walnuts. I turn off the oven and put a sheet of walnuts in and leave them for 6 minutes. It seems to toast them perfectly and this is good as they are very expensive but add an indescribably something, especially to greens. Of course there are always beans on hand.
For grains I’ve been loving farro and wheatberries but brown rice and wild rice are also favorites. The wild rice, when cooked like pasta, leaves you with a delicious broth, which can be used on its own or matched with bean broth, vegetable broth or even chicken broth. Wild rice and mushrooms is a perfect combination, by the way.
The result of all this cooking is that the fridge is loaded with containers of cooked food. For dinner, I can take some beans, some wild rice broth and puree them, heat them and add some cooked braising greens like chard and call it soup. I can whip up a quick tahini sauce and top off a plate of roasted carrots over farro. My son can make his own lunch of brown rice, Eye of the Goat beans and salsa and make his own tiffin. I can have another cup of coffee on a busy morning.
It’s funny after 57 years to finally “get” it. I’ve been so passionate about food but now I have a real working kitchen. A meal isn’t a time to panic. How the different components work together is a fun game and I often surprise myself.
I’m not getting rid of my cookbooks and I’m probably going to keep buying books I don’t need, but I look at them in a different light now. Shopping is fun. Cooking is even more fun. The meals around here are better than ever.
Inspiration and literal recipes from cookbooks are important but it’s more important to develop your own cuisine, based on what you like and what you easily can get. I still will be cooking obscure Mexican favorites or Tuscan peasant food now and then with the help of books, travel and friends, but day to day, my own food is front and center and ready to serve.