What does your refrigerator look like? I opened mine a few months ago and found something akin to a forgotten Smithsonian warehouse, a hodgepodge collection of moldy, shriveled leftovers. The mess–some of it slimy, some of it stinky, most of it expired–reflected the disarray of my cooking habits.
I was tired of wasting food. I was tired of not being able to cook without a recipe, buying more and more ingredients that were used once and never touched again. I couldn’t go to the grocery store without doing a doctoral dissertation’s worth of research beforehand. I’d buy all the ingredients for several meals, then forget which recipes I had chosen. That lovely bunch of expensive watercress had invariably dissolved into a goopy mess by the time I noticed it in the corner of the crisper drawer.
Friends think I’m a good cook, but it’s not true. Sure, I can pull together pretty much any recipe you throw in my direction, but that’s not the hard part. Real cooks don’t need recipes. Real cooks know how to taste along the way and make their own adjustments, their own substitutions, their own courageous flourishes.
I found my path to redemption in An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. Much more than a cookbook, Adler’s philosophy brings us back to the basics of food preparation, nurturing creativity, reducing reliance on recipes, and teaching us to bring all of our senses to the experience of both cooking and eating.
My first step in putting Adler’s prescriptions into motion is to clean out the refrigerator. Once I purge every expired container (furry sour cream, moldy tomato paste, crusty hummus) and clear out the produce drawers (mushy cucumber, shriveled strawberries, petrified limes), I am ready for a fresh start. And no, my husband never did eat the chili leftovers he swore he would get to if I just left the container there a little longer.
I buy a case of mason jars. I go to the farmer’s market and grab whatever looks interesting. I come home, turn on the oven, take out my rimmed baking sheets and baking pans, and start chopping everything into cubes and florets.
Broccoli pieces are on one sheet, cauliflower pieces are on another, butternut squash on another, root vegetables (carrots, turnips, rutabagas) can be mixed if you’d like. Everything gets drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with kosher salt; sprigs of fresh thyme or unpeeled garlic cloves can also be thrown into the mix. Beets are scrubbed and nestled whole into their own baking dish, then are slipped into a free corner of the oven.
All the racks of the oven are in use, appealing to my economist’s sense of efficiency. As soon as one tray comes out, something else can go in. After the vegetables are chopped, you can move on to pulling stale bread into bite-sized chunks to roast into croutons, or add a small tray of walnuts to toast.
Once things are cooked up and cooled off, each gets stored in its own sparkling mason jar. You can see the end-result in today’s photo. When I open my refrigerator now, I am met with a jewelry box of ingredients for the coming week’s meal creations. This is only the start, of course, the assembly of the building blocks as described in just one chapter of Adler’s multi-layered book.
When I asked myself why I was so moved and inspired by An Everlasting Meal, I realized it went beyond bringing order to the chaos of my refrigerator. Adler’s approach offered yet another way to practice presence, enriching our awareness of life’s textures, aromas and tastes, deepening our appreciation of the journey.
I’ll be writing more about mindful cooking (and eating!) over the next couple of weeks. I’d love to hear about your own experiences. Have you ever had a verging-on-spiritual experience from an exquisite bite of food?