Last evening, I came home from grocery shopping and almost immediately began to cook my dinner. A very simple one of boiled broccoli, flattened with a spatula and tossed in a pan with spaghetti, olive oil, and garlic, and sprinkled with Parmesan. This morning, just to put something in my stomach before my morning workout at home, I warmed the boiled broccoli stalks from last night in the microwave, sprinkled them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmesan, and ate them on toast.
Some of you may recognize these super simple dishes. It’s from a book that changed the way I cook and the way I see cooking, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler.
I’m someone who spends a lot on food. I could spend a lot less on eggs, vegetables, and certain kinds of meat, but I prefer to buy organic, hormone-free, or antibiotic-free whenever I can afford it. And since Thailand has more organic farms these days, I’m all for supporting these local farmers and producers. But frankly, the idea of making the best out of every ingredient and saving parts of vegetables and meat that many people probably throw away still feels daunting and intimidating to me.
One of my best friends, Mrigaa, who’s a wonderful home cook, recommended the book to me in 2011 or 2012. I didn’t hesitate to buy it because I had always loved food narratives and, deep down, the subtitle, Cooking with Economy and Grace, encapsulated the kind of cooking I had always wanted to achieve.
At first, I fell in love with the way Adler writes. Her prose is spirited and buoyant. Through her deep understanding of and respect for food, she gives it life and character. But I wasn’t cooking from it yet. Work and stress got in the way, and I put the book aside after a few chapters.
I picked up the book again in 2015 and, this time, finished it. Its final paragraphs moved me to tears. I reread them several times before closing the book. The beauty of her writing inspired me to start keeping a journal of my meals. I did this privately for only a few entries, which gave me great satisfaction, but I again became consumed by work and cooked less and less until I quit my full-time job at the end of March this year.
From this book, I learned that it’s the small things that make a big difference. I used to use very little salt in my cooking. But thanks to the first chapter of the book, “How to Boil Water,” I now use it liberally because, according to Adler, it’s good for pasta and vegetables to be sitting in bubbling water as salty as the sea:
“All ingredients need salt. The noodle or tender spring pea would be narcissistic to imagine it already contained within its cell walls all the perfection it would ever need. We seem, too, to fear that we are failures at being tender and springy if we need to be seasoned. It’s not so: it doesn’t reflect badly on pea or person that either needs help to be most itself.”
She also recommends salting the water with your hand to get a sense of the amount needed. I agree, and I’ve been doing it this way since reading the book. With practice, your hands remember more accurately than your eyes.
But the major turning point came when I cooked beans the Tuscan way and as described by Adler (Chapter 9: “How to Live Well”). Only some of the recipes are written out in the more traditional way. Many are weaved into the prose. This one, too, has to be marked well for future visits and read with patience.
To be clear, she doesn’t rhapsodize incessantly about eggs and beans and herbs and heirloom tomatoes. It’s a how-to book after all (An Everlasting Meal is modeled after M.F.K Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf). Adler gets to the point without a single gratuitous word. She just knows how to make a how-to book sing, beautifully. And there’s a lot more to water, salads, eggs, roasting vegetables, cooking rice, and making beans than we think.
So making beans from scratch, then eating them in various ways—spun in a blender into soup, accompanied by rice, or just as they are—had a profound impact for me. The smell, the long, simmering process, and the resulting flavors were so comforting. I had never spent that much time cooking a dish. I remember that, for a while, eating food laden with MSG in chain restaurants felt soulless and empty.
I also learned from her that eggs are delicious with olive oil, Parmesan, and a dash of anything in the vinegar family (Chapter 2: “How to Teach an Egg to Fly”). Her chapter on salads, “How to Season a Salad,” opened up another world of simple salads for me.
To this day, I still struggle and stumble and rush through the cooking of a meal and fall back into my bad habits. But I will never forget the first time I cooked those beans and how it emboldened me to keep going in unfamiliar directions.