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Savor ‘everlasting’ meal

Lyrical book leads cooks down a path to waste less, stress less

The Columbian
Published: March 5, 2012, 4:00pm

I’m as guilty as anyone. I would come home from the farmers market each week loaded down with greens, root vegetables, apples, sometimes some meat. The last went in the freezer, and the rest went in what I like to call the refrigerator’s “rotter” drawer. Inevitably, some of those veggies helped the drawer live up to its nickname by wrinkling, blackening, molding and otherwise going off before I got a chance to cook them.

The use-it-or-lose-it challenge is particularly tough for us single folks. Even if you manage to buy in smaller quantities, you have to shop every day or two to keep on top of fresh produce before it goes to waste. If you’re a farmers market devotee and it’s wintertime, that’s simply not doable.

Tamar Adler has the answer: Instead of trying to keep everything fresh and raw until the clock is counting down toward mealtime, cook everything as soon as you get home. Not all in a jumble or stew, but separately and in ways that maximize each item’s potential.

And fit the pieces together later. Eat cold braised greens on crusty bread with ricotta, or simmer caramelized onions with little more than wine and stock to make soup. It goes for meat as well: Why cook a boneless, skinless chicken breast when you can roast a whole chicken and eat off it, in various ways, for days and then make stock of the carcass?

In Adler’s kitchen, there’s little that can’t be drizzled with olive oil, doused with salt, brightened with herbs and perhaps spiked with a pickle, olive or anchovy and turned into something delicious.

The former Chez Panisse cook lays out that philosophy in her lyrical book, “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” (Scribner, 2011). She wants home cooks to realize that it needn’t be so difficult or expensive, that you needn’t imitate the high-wire, high-tech act of restaurant chefs to feed yourself. But there are aspects of restaurant work that she thinks can inspire better systems at home, such as the practice of seeing yesterday’s roast vegetables not as leftovers, but as ingredients.

The everlasting meal of the title represents Adler’s insistence that the best way to cook isn’t to read a recipe, run out and get all the stuff and then start cooking. Instead, start wherever you are, use what you have and then use what’s left of that with other things that you have to make the next round, and so on. “For cooking to make sense,” she told me, “you have to have these built-in efficiencies and economies of scale.”

“An Everlasting Meal” doesn’t directly address people who live alone or who cook as though they do. But Adler’s methods seem almost tailor-made for the demographic. And sure enough, she identifies: At 34, she lives with a housemate in Brooklyn and they’re often fending for themselves. Although, truth be told, she gives them both a nice head start; long before most people think about cooking a meal days before, in fact she has already cooked much of the food.

“Depending on whether our schedules overlap, at 7 o’clock, I either pull out and start assembling for one, or if he’s there, I start assembling for two and ask him to either make new rice or do the dishes,” she said. “And he’s a lawyer, so it’s often just for me, and I’m a writer, so it’s often at 1 o’clock in the morning.”

It takes her all of 15 minutes, but that’s because the greens and beans are already tender, the poached chicken just needs reheating, and so on. “There’s been so much aggregate work put into it,” she said. “I am probably the ultimate convenience-food cook in a way; it’s just that my convenience foods are really great ones.”

Adler sympathizes with cooks who come home after a long workday and face the daunting prospect of starting from scratch to make a meal for themselves alone.

“If I didn’t have that long-term mindset, or that sense that cooking with a whole week in mind always made sense, I really don’t think I would have that final little bit of energy, no matter how good my intentions, to make myself a whole new meal without anybody else there,” she said.

There’s plenty more in “An Everlasting Meal” to inspire any cook, especially ones with an appetite for poetry like this in the chapter “How to Catch Your Tail,” which extols the virtues of using all parts of foods: “It’s no more or less lamb for being meat or bone; it’s no more or less pea for being pea or pod.”

Most of the recipes in the book, by far, aren’t really recipes at all: They’re squibs, buried in almost stream-of-consciousness sentences and paragraphs, mentioning what you might do with various versions of this or that, and they seem easy to file away into your subconscious as you read. The proper recipes demand to be tried more immediately, but in keeping with Adler’s spirit, I waited until I ran across those that called for ingredients I already had around.

Greens were a natural choice. I had several bunches of Tuscan kale that needed cooking, so I quickly sautéed some leaves with lots of garlic and a touch of crushed red pepper flakes, chopped some up, made a bechamel to stir into the greens, and set them to bubbling in a hot oven for a rich gratin that I spooned over toast. Another day, I spied a lone can of chickpeas in the pantry and followed Adler’s delightful instructions for turning it into a lusciously creamy-but-chunky sauce that enrobed penne.

I made more penne than I needed for one meal, and more sauce, just as the previous day I had more greens, and more bechamel. But I didn’t fret, because each one of those ingredients would end up as yet another piece in my own everlasting meal.

Greens Gratin

1 or 2 servings.

This preparation assumes you have cooked, seasoned greens in the refrigerator, such as kale, collards or Swiss chard. If you don’t happen to have any on hand, it takes only minutes to wash and chop the wet greens (2 1/2 to 3 ounces of leaves only), then saute them in a little olive oil and perhaps a dash of cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes, with no liquid other than the water clinging to the leaves after you wash them, until they are tender.

Serve over toast or rice.

Make ahead: This makes twice as much bechamel as you’ll need for the gratin. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week and is great as a simple pasta sauce or combined with just about any cooked vegetables to create other gratins. Adapted from “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace,” by Tamar Adler (Scribner, 2011).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the gratin dish(es)

1 tablespoon flour

1 cup milk, whole or low-fat, at room temperature

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 cup chopped, cooked, seasoned greens, at room temperature (see headnote)

Kosher or sea salt (optional)

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, then whisk in the flour and cook for a minute. Gradually whisk in the milk until thoroughly incorporated. Once the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low so that it is barely bubbling around the edges. Cook, stirring frequently, until the raw taste of the flour is gone and the flavors have come together to form a bechamel sauce, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from the heat and stir in the cheese. The yield is about 1 cup.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Use a little butter to generously grease 1 or 2 small gratin dishes.

Combine the cooked greens in a medium bowl, add 1/2 cup of the bechamel sauce and stir to combine. Taste, and add salt if needed. Spoon the mixture into the dish(es). Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the greens are bubbling around the edges.

Eat hot.

NUTRITION Per serving (based on 2, using low-fat milk): 100 calories, 5 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 90 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

Chickpea Pasta

2 to 3 servings.

Chef and food writer Tamar Adler’s version of this simple, traditional Tuscan dish is a revelation. It demonstrates that canned beans can be transformed with further cooking and a healthy pour of olive oil.

This technique creates a chunky but velvety sauce that clings to the pasta, or, in Adler’s words, is “completely devoted to it.” Adapted from Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” (Scribner, 2011).

15 ounces (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups) canned, no-salt-added chickpeas 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove garlic, cut into thin slices Kosher or sea salt Water Freshly ground black pepper 8 ounces dried pasta in shapes such as conchiglie (small shells), penne, orecchiette, farfalle or elbow macaroni

Drain the chickpeas in a colander, then rinse them for a minute.

Heat the oil in a small, deep pot over medium-low heat until the oil begins to shimmer. Stir in the garlic and reduce the heat to low; cook until the garlic has softened, about 5 minutes.

Add the chickpeas, a pinch of salt and enough water to barely cover the chickpeas. Increase the heat to medium, so the liquid is barely bubbling around the edges.

Cook uncovered for 30 to 45 minutes, adding small amounts of water as needed to keep the beans barely moistened. Taste five of the chickpeas; if any of them are not completely velvety inside, cook them a bit longer, until all the chickpeas are quite tender. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Season with pepper to taste.

Bring a pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and the pasta; cook according to the package directions. Just before you drain the pasta, reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

Stir about 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water into the chickpeas; this liquid should become integrated fairly quickly.

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Combine the still-warm pasta and the chickpeas and any of their remaining liquid in a mixing bowl, stirring vigorously enough to help form a creamy sauce. If the mixture seems dry, or if the creamy chickpeas aren’t sticking to the pasta, add more of the pasta cooking water and stir to incorporate. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Eat one serving hot; reserve the rest for another day, to enjoy cold or rewarmed.
NUTRITION Per serving (based on 3): 490 calories, 17 g protein, 81 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 130 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar.