Most cookbooks provide knowledge formulaically, in columns with neatly organized ingredients and the steps to make a delicious meal. But chef and writer Tamar Adler feels limited by this traditional format. Her new book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, combines recipes, stories, and techniques into a running narrative of how to build culinary skills. At first the book confused me with its friendly tone and unique organization, but I came to love Adler's novel approach to sharing her passion for cooking.
The book's chapters are titled in "how-to" format—"How To Boil Water;" "How to Have Balance;" "How to Snatch Victory from the Jaws of Defeat." None of the titles reveals precisely what tricks and tips will be contained in each segment. "How to Weather a Storm" provides insight on how to make the best of pantry staples, but also allows Adler to discuss being happy with what one has. "How to Build a Ship" is a chapter for those who dread cooking, in which Adler helps the reader dig deep for inspiration and food nostalgia. This whimsical organization gives the book a depth lacking from many cookbooks.
There are recipes studded throughout the chapters, though the formal instructions are by no means the only dish ideas in the book. Adler's stories of learning to cook, ideas for living well and simply, and descriptions of her favorite ingredients provide natural segues into all sorts of meal recommendations. Reading this book feels much like learning to cook from a grandmother or friend— long, caring conversation leads to simple instructions on how to make a homey stew or excellent appetizer. Adler's tone is relaxing and warm, with few expectations placed upon the reader to consistently produce haute cuisine from her humble kitchen.
One of the most valuable aspects of this book for the home cook is Adler's insistence on resourcefulness and ability to redeem even the most charred, over-salted, or undercooked foods. Throughout the narrative she gives many fresh ideas for leftovers—how about a hummus-like spread of well-roasted root veggies and a touch of olive oil, spread over pita? And she pays special attention to silly goofs that plague even the most experienced chef—try labeling and freezing a batch of over-salted rice, then adding it once in a while to an unseasoned soup. Her honest voice and lack of condescension make mistakes seem only natural (which they are!), and her quick fixes are as simple as they should be.
Adler's elaborate prose and gentle voice at first put me off, and I wondered if there was real culinary expertise in the guts of this book. But An Everlasting Meal was a wonderful surprise. I recommend it for a refreshing take on the traditional cookbook, and for some truly creative meal ideas that will help me get avoid another winter fueled by pureed soups.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.