“All roasted vegetables are most delicious when they’re completely, completely tender. Test the doneness of cauliflower and squash and root vegetables by tasting them. When you don’t wonder, but reach to eat another, they’re done.”
– Tamar Adler, An Everlasting Meal.
The description above is about as close as you get to a recipe in Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace but the author’s prose-y descriptions of how to delve deeper into one’s overall method and m.o. in the kitchen have stayed in my mind in ways that recipes themselves definitely don’t. Adler’s writing is very good and the sense of gaining access to the inner sanctum of a much more evolved cook is more awe inspiring than intimidating, though I have to admit that in my ambition to take in and digest her concepts before moving on to the next chapter I have been stuck for a while on chapter three entitled, ironically enough, “How to Stride Ahead.”
Adler is an accomplished chef and an accomplished writer, having worked at a high level professionally in both arenas. Her premise, which I can deliver in nutshell fashion though I haven’t finished reading the book, is that cooking is an ongoing thing that will be more successful if you think less about recipes and more about incorporating processes into your habits. “Great meals rarely start at points that all look like beginnings,” Adler says in her introduction, “They usually pick up where something else leaves off. This is how most of the best things are made – imagine if the world had to begin from scratch each dawn: a tree would never grow, nor would we ever get to see the etchings of gentle rings on a clamshell.”
Some of her advice is about making and cooking your vegetables all in one big session and then talking about how you can use them later during the week. She also talks about using the water you used to boil pasta or veggies as stock for other things (part of building the economy or conservationist muscle for which she advocates). I once, fresh from a re-read of the “How to Stride Ahead” chapter, which is about vegetables, boiled broccoli in the water that I’d boiled the pierogies in and I felt terribly virtuous at the time though I haven’t repeated that act probably because I usually want everything to be done cooking at the same time so I can serve it up to the fam at mealtime.
But I do get what she is talking about and here is where I have started to actually stride ahead: I am slowly but surely gaining a better working relationship with the veggies. I lately started a prep pattern that involves having a separate little session with them that is not around mealtime. It means that I put a little time in – usually on a weekend afternoon – once I have come back from the produce market or farmer’s market with the bulk of vegetables I’ll need for the week. Now that it’s become somewhat regular for me, it’s a pleasant chore too.
I love fennel and I am the only one in my house who loves fennel. I almost always buy a bulb when I’m at the produce market and I more often than not wound up throwing it out uneaten because I didn’t get to it. The ignored bulb would just smite me with guilt when I saw it in the crisper getting wrinkly. I corrected that in my veggie prep sessions – part of my process of unpacking fennel when it comes home is to cut it up and either roasting it or marinating it in lemon and olive oil. It no longer hits the fridge til it’s ready to be my snack or something to add to the dinner table later. It’s kind of like I’ve adapted that management adage of ‘only touch it once.’
I do this more and more for cauliflower and broccoli too – that is prep a few vegetables at once, more than I will need for immediate use – perhaps roasting them so that they can be a filling or a topping or something I can snack on. I am wasting fewer veggies and eating less in the way of fatty snax, so this is an evolution of a sort, I know. And for another item in the plus column, this steady stream of roasting vegetables has rubbed off nicely on the people I cook for, particularly my daughter, who said at dinner recently “I don’t know why I didn’t used to like cauliflower,” as she took a second serving, and on another night when she dug into a new discovery – string beans roasted with garlic – and asked if she could finish off what was on the platter with the same competitive edge and interest in the answer that usually goes with taking the last piece of bacon. Gratifying for sure.
In one of my earlier posts, The Vegetable Fairy, I also talk about the joy of roasted vegetables and I make them even more often now than I did then. The method for roasting vegetables is very simple – prep your veggies, cutting them into uniformly sized pieces so that they will cook and be ready at relatively the same time – toss them in olive oil and kosher salt. You can do this on a baking sheet or in a bowl, just transfer them to a baking sheet and cook at 375 or 400 degrees. In the case of the green beans, it only took about as long as it took to cook the pasta. 14 minutes if the oven is already hot, and with green beans I add sliced garlic and roast it alongside. You can also add slivered almonds instead. Broccoli and cauliflower might take 20-5 minutes. Fennel too. You just keep an eye on them and do as Tamar Adler suggests, taste them when they start looking tender, browned and delicious.
Eating more vegetables has been my New Year’s resolution, or one of them, for probably the last decade and it will continue to make the short list. Sometimes this whole resolution at evolution is a one step forward two steps back kind of process but I am pretty satisfied by our general efforts. (Did I mention that we bought a deep fryer? We also haven’t broken it out yet. But I expect we will. Another new year’s resolution!) So do I think I am ready to move on to the next chapter of Adler’s book? Sure, but before I do I really want to go back to chapter two: ‘How to Teach an Egg to Fly’ and follow her suggestion to make mayonnaise from scratch. ‘Monday Mayo Madness’ is a blog post I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while and it’s about time I just do it, and I bet fresh mayonnaise will go so well with all the good vegetables I expect we will have on hand.