Catching Our Tails

Two Christmases ago Andrew’s sister gave me the slim treatise on cooking and eating, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler.  To date, I don’t think we’ve used a single one of the recipes that Adler includes between her covers (unless you count the fact that we now salt pasta and vegetable cooking water much more liberally and I now can poach an egg). Come to think of it, I’ve even shelved it separately from the rest of our cookbooks: it somehow ended up in the office, between Living the Good Life and The Shear Ecstacy of Being a Lunatic Farmer.  Somehow, that seems apropos.

But if someone asked me to recommend one book to teach a novice how to both cook and eat well, An Everlasting Meal would immediately spring to mind.  Simultaneously unpretentious and comprehensive, it introduces the reader to such seemingly mundane concepts as “How to Boil Water” and “How to Season a Salad” in revelatory ways, and it tackles apparently unculinary challenges like “How to Live Well” and “How To Find Balance” in such a way that mealtime begins to occupy an almost sacred space.    There are a great many recipes within, but they are embedded within text that is as valuable as any method.  This is not a book to be searched, but savored.  I feel confident that anyone who reads it, cover to cover, and puts into practice the cooking philosophies that Adler advocates, will find him or herself producing food at once simple, satiating, and sublime.

Of the various culinary principles Adler articulates, Andrew and I have really taken to “catching our tails.”  What Adler means is that the tails of one meal are almost always the beginnings of another–our mission as cooks is only to recognize that potential.  The extremely forgiving appetites of our laying hens and of Patou mean that we almost never have to throw food scraps away, but our first preference is always to transform a leftover sauce, the dregs of a meal, or the rind of a piece of cheese into some other dish.  As Adler notes, “…at the bottom of any pot of vegetables or beans or grains or meat are unrepeatable flavors themselves, all the alchemy of today’s cooking distilled into a liquid you can neatly pour into a glass jar.”

So, if the economy of catching your tail does not appeal, perhaps the savings in time will.  By catching your tail, you can begin today’s cooking with all the benefits of yesterday’s flavors (assuming yesterday was a good day, of course!)  You can fly past all of the earlier simmering, chopping, flavoring steps and begin with a potion that is distilled deliciousness.

One way that we’ve incorporated tails into our kitchen is with rice.  Whenever we roast a chicken, the bottom of the roasting pan ends up awash in the rich pan drippings from the bird.  We store them in the fridge until we’re making rice or sauteing vegetables, then replace water or fat with the flavors of yesterday’s chicken.  It is universally divine.  Or, as yesterday, we took the greens from several bunches of turnips (a tail of a vegetable, at least outside of the South), and sautéed them with bacon end lardons (the unevenly shaped pieces that get trimmed from the bacon after curing–we sell them for $6/lb rather than $11/lb for bacon).  In the meantime, I substituted the leftover marinade from a winter carrot salad for a portion of the water needed for a pot of rice.  Once everything had cooked to proper doneness–greens wilted, bacon crisp, rice fluffy but with a golden crust on the bottom of the pan from the olive oil in the marinade–I mixed it all together, and that was dinner.  It took me less than 20 minutes, and tasted so good that Andrew had three helpings.

As Adler concludes: When we leave our tails trailing behind us we lose what is left of the thought we put into eating well today.  Then we slither along, straight linear things that we can be, wondering what we will make for dinner tomorrow.  So we must spot our tails when we can, and gather them up, so that when we get hungry next, and our minds turn to the question of what to eat, the answer will be there waiting.

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace

2 responses to “Catching Our Tails

  1. Love this post. I’ve been eating the tails of meals for years and hadn’t even realized it. You make it sound so much more appealing than my age-old dilemma of “should I keep this to making something else this week?” Thank you!

  2. Your posts always inspire me to cook well and confirm that I am on the correct cooking path. Thank you for sharing.

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