learning to cook with economy and grace
In the world of food writing, M. F. K. Fisher is a goddess. She wrote in the early part of the twentieth century, and published the delightfully-titled How to Cook a Wolf during WWII, when shortages and rationing required creativity in the kitchen. I had heard her praised all over food blogs and in cookbooks. So when I stumbled upon a collection of her work in the most wonderful used bookstore I’ve ever found—William James Bookseller in Port Townsend, Washington—I bought it without a second thought.
And I was disappointed. The writing was delectable, and I could taste the food, but something about it made me uneasy. She was a foodie before foodie was a word, and it shows. There’s no hiding her elitism. If she invited me to a party, I’d probably love the meal but feel uncomfortable and unwanted. I’m not the sort of dinner guest she’d like. In one of her essays, she determines that the perfect number of dinner guests is five (plus yourself) and that you should choose them carefully. You wouldn’t want a bore at your table.
Well, no, I suppose not, but I also think there’s something to the injunction to love your neighbor, even if he’s dull.
I say all this because Tamar Adler, another writer whose name keeps popping up, has been hailed as the new M. F. K. Fisher. I was curious about her—she worked at Chez Panisse, the original farm-to-table restaurant, and she wrote another delightfully-titled book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. But I was nervous. I didn’t want to feel alienated by her writing the way I did with Fisher. (Also, if any readers here like Fisher, I’d love to know! Maybe she and I can yet be reconciled.)
So I put An Everlasting Meal on my Amazon wish list but ignored it, along with the other books I’ve added and forgotten. It wasn’t until my birthday in March that I went to Barnes and Noble for the afternoon (like mother, like daughter!) and picked up the book in my hands and began reading that I knew I had found a companion. Tamar Adler writes like a dream.
As a cook, she’s wise and reasonable. Things like: “Our culture frowns on cooking in water. A pot and water are both simple and homely. It is hard to improve on the technology of the pot, or of the boil, leaving nothing for the cookware industry to sell.” Or: “Little flourishes, like parsley, make food seem cared for.”
Her directions are more like life directions than cooking directions. For instance, she suggests that we have an unnecessary compulsion to cook our vegetables immediately before eating them. Instead, she recommends roasting pan after pan of vegetables at the beginning of the week, capitalizing on the hot oven by roasting garlic and toasting nuts, too, and then eating the vegetables throughout the week. Then, when you get a hankering for something, you can assemble it right then instead of waiting for the vegetables to cook. It takes the pressure off mealtimes and makes better use of energy.
She doesn’t always bother with formal recipes; she often simply describes what she’s doing in the kitchen: wash greens, boil water, poach an egg, top everything with grated parmesan.
She takes the simplest ingredients—usually some combination of olive oil, crusty bread, an egg, and maybe a roasted vegetable—and turns them into a something heavenly, something that, as I’m reading in bed, makes me want to sprint to the kitchen, poach that egg, break it over toast, and eat right then.
Until yesterday, I’d never poached an egg. Since then, I’ve poached five: one in water, four in a tomato stew called shakshouka. Again, no real recipe here, so I cheated a little bit and found this one online just so I could get the proportions correct. I started the onions and peppers going in the oil and then realized I didn’t have bread, so I left the stove on low and power-walked down to Crust 54, where I bought two parbaked baguettes, and marched home, loaves tucked beneath my arm. The house smelled delicious when I got back. I recommend forgetting the bread so you too can walk in, overwhelmed by the scent of frying onions and peppers.
Also, I should mention that Dan rated this meal highly. For about two years now, we’ve been rating our meals out of 10, so that our cookbooks are filled not with the rather unhelpful “Good!” but with actual comments and a grade. (Do we sound like lifelong students or what?) This one got 8.5 out of 10! That’s a happy sign.
big gulp olive oil
2 red peppers
4 cloves garlic
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
4-6 eggs, depending on how many you’re feeding
Heat the olive oil over medium heat. Chop the onion and the peppers into long pieces, mince the garlic, and sauté all three in the olive oil until they start to brown and become soft. Turn down the heat to low, add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt, and let the whole thing simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, dash down to the bakery and back.
When the sauce has reduced a little, make enough indentations for your eggs and crack them in, one at a time, but fairly quickly so the first doesn’t set before the last one. Simmer until the whites are just set and the yolks are still wobbly. This shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes. If it does, cover the pan and check on them frequently. There’s a small window between undercooked and overcooked, so remove them from the heat once they’re done, and don’t leave the lid on after they’ve finished cooking, either.
Serve with good bread, a generous drizzle of olive oil, and a peppery salad.
Serves 2 to 4.