Leftovers Become Luxurious With Help from “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook”

by Alicia Kennedy

Published: 3/27/23, Last updated: 5/19/23

Tamar Adler’s 2011 book “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” came out at a time when male chefs were being celebrated as rock stars, Anthony Bourdain ruled the airwaves, and “Top Chef” was appointment viewing for a certain type of restaurant-goer. Her book, which began by extolling the virtues of boiling water, went completely against the grain of the food culture at the time. There was no bombast, and there was no hubris: Adler wanted readers to be guided by their palates and instincts, as she was. Though she’d cooked at the storied Chez Panisse restaurant, what she really wanted to demonstrate for people is that what they were capable of creating at home with whatever was available could be just as good.

“An Everlasting Meal” had some recipes, but it was more about an ethos, a philosophy of the kitchen. Now, with “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A–Z,” she is providing an alphabetical and ingredient divided guide to what to do with leftover vegetables, pickles, sauces, snacks, and much more, with a chapter that includes both meat and tofu. A reader of the original “An Everlasting Meal” can intuit what the cookbook version looks like. Indeed, what Adler has provided is a guide to cooking intuition — an encyclopedia of what to do with herb stems, lingering falafel, and extra sardines. “Anything that is true of a Carrot, cooked,” she writes under the entry “Parsnips, cooked,” “is true of a parsnip.” The introduction reminds the reader, “the amount of leftover mashed potatoes you need is the amount you have.” To some, this will be a relief; to others, a source of anxiety. But Adler tries to get the audience onto her wavelength, building their confidence by reminding them, “All cooking really requires is perception, practice, and patience.”

While it may be a popular approach with many cookbook authors and recipe developers today, Adler wanted to do more than write a guidebook for replicating her own palate — and she succeeds. There are short essays introducing each section, named in the style of her clear influence, M.F.K. Fisher. (“How to Grow Old” is the bread chapter.) She basically forces the reader to trust themselves, which could be off-putting to anyone who wants to be guided in a more strict manner. But it’s refreshing to read a cookbook that tells you that, in fact, you’ve evolved to know what you’re doing with food, that your senses of smell and touch are better than a timer or a measuring spoon or a corporate label warning that the food may be expired. It’s also exciting to be shown that the everyday grind of the kitchen can be elevated and appreciated. Shouldn’t we be reminded that finishing a dish with flaky sea salt is worth the fuss because of the occasion it provides, even to something as simple as your morning toast or an afternoon frittata filled with roasted vegetables that were past their prime?

119 Billion

Pounds of food wasted each year in the U.S.

“The Everlasting Meal Cookbook” is being regarded as part of a trend of low- or no-waste cookbooks — quite a divergence from the cultural moment its inspiration met on the marketplace 12 years ago. So much of the last 30 years of food media and culture — beginning with the 1993 debut of Food Network — has been about getting people back into the kitchen and teaching through the work of restaurant chefs, like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, or grand dames of home cooking, like Ina Garten and Martha Stewart. These have focused on recipes in a very straight-forward manner, recipes that assume no know-how or instinct on the part of the reader. This is how the new American home cooking culture has evolved: Not in the kitchen with family or friends who pass on knowledge and tricks of the trade, but by following recipes to the letter in pursuit of perfection.

But the pandemic invited a reconsideration of cooking with, as the subtitle of Adler’s first book went, economy and grace. Extreme price increases from inflation and our uncertainty about the future have helped many of us see that perhaps there’s nothing wrong with finding a culinary use for yellowing arugula or even eating the “fermenty” beans left out overnight (with some care, of course, “at one’s discretion”: “I have eaten these at my own and, discreetly, survived,” she writes). A staggering 119 billion pounds of food goes to waste each year in the U.S., according to Feeding America; 40 percent of food is thrown out. It does seem that the time is right for a guide to dealing with all these leftovers and rotting heads of lettuce stuffed in refrigerator drawers.

Adler has long been an antidote to authoritative recipe style, and now the culture is catching up a bit with a new wave of cookbooks, which includes the forthcoming “Perfectly Good Food: A Totally Achievable Zero Waste Approach to Home Cooking” by Irene and Margaret Li and “Bread and How to Eat It” by Rick Easton and Melissa McCart, which focuses not on home baking but on how folks have used bread from fresh to stale in a variety of ways throughout history.

In 2015, Adler wrote for the New York Times Magazine about her fondness for an older style of recipe writing, “Often old recipes hang their teaching on narrative, with an almost biblical surety that the way to cement information in the human mind is to plot it on a closely described arc of action. They are firmly anti-idealistic. They are full of contingencies.”

That’s what you’ll find in “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook,” ushering in this new wave of anti-idealistic cooking instruction that welcomes uncertainty and frugality, quite the opposite of our nation’s food system and supermarkets, which were built by design to offer everyday luxury in the form of endless abundance. Adler injects the notion of using up everything, down to the last drop of vinegar in the bottle, with an essence of luxury, even as she doesn’t shy away from reminding the reader that rot is natural. Indeed, what is more luxurious than cooking good food and not adding to those billions of pounds of waste?

Author photo by Aaron Stern
Stale bread photo by gashgeron/ Adobe Stock
Carrot peels photo by Deymos.HR/ Adobe Stock

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