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Can Cookbooks Teach Us to Waste Less Food?

Can Cookbooks Teach Us to Waste Less Food?

Here’s a concept I’d never considered: refrigerator cooking. This, for the author and cook Tamar Adler, refers to the act of storing the ends of one ingredient with another ingredient, such as saving the leftover half of a boiled egg in a container of soup. “When you remove the container to transform it, a bit of your transformation will already have been done for you,” Adler writes in The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, released last month. The egg adds flavor and body to the soup, which was already destined to improve after a night in the fridge. Together, egg and soup are made new, and neither is wasted.

Adler’s new cookbooks is a follow up to An Everlasting Meal, her 2011 meditation on cooking. The original meal isn’t a cookbook, though its essays have the effect of teaching you Adler’s theory of cooking. In it, she muses on ways to maximize the payoff of minimal efforts: Boiling is so useful because in one pot you can boil cabbage and then potatoes, which can feed you for several meals with little modification, and then use that water as broth for soup. “My first book was really written to help unshackle people from the recipe,” Adler says.

With her emphasis on cooking “with economy and grace,” Adler takes advantage of time, energy, and food that might otherwise go to waste. It’s an approach that has been commended for its “sense of inevitability.” Naturally, the same perspective motivates The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, but this time, Adler isn’t trying to fight the recipe, but bend the form toward her goal of helping people be more autonomous cooks. It is a nontraditional outlier of a cookbook that tasks itself with guiding readers to see halves and ends as beginnings, just as naturally as Adler seems to.

Adler’s perspective runs counter to another, far more common inevitability: that you can always go to the store, and that food waste, while unpleasant, is unavoidable. It is the sense that a bag of spinach in the crisper drawer will go slimy and that replacing it with another one is just the cycle of life, and that things like broccoli stems, kale ribs, and wilting lettuce aren’t for eating. but avoiding, The flawed system of expiration dates teaches us to toss rather than think, adhering to too-strict structures.

Of course, our collective tendency toward waste carries its own growing tensions. Grocery costs are high, the economic forecast is precarious, and the world has too much trash. Many of us are trying to do more with less, but can cookbooks help us unlearn waste and embrace efficiency? It comes down to how they teach us about intuition, which helps us understand what parts of a recipe actually matter, and what can be molded to fit what we have.

With The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, Adler offers “over 1,500 recipes.” This sounds daunting until you actually read the book. Although there is no shortage of straightforward recipes, many of the entries are more like ideas for thrifty, resourceful ways of repurposing what’s in your kitchen. The book is organized into categories (fruits and nuts, for example) and then into ingredients that might linger (“smoothie, any”). For each item, Adler offers suggestions: “Any smoothie that isn’t being drunk should be frozen into ice pops,” she writes. Some of these ingredient entries, like leftover eggs Benedict, have a touch of fantasy, but most — “chicory, wilted,” “shallots, too many” — are deeply real.

Following a similar school of thought is Margaret and Irene Li’s zero-waste-centered Perfectly Good Food, due out in June. No doubt informed by its authors’ experiences as restaurant owners (one of the book’s early tips is FIFO: first in, first out), its goal is to provide an approachable way to reduce food waste at home. If the source of waste is not having enough good ideas for what to do with tomatoes, for example, there are many straightforward and delicious recipes to solve that problem. as with Everlasting Mealit is a cookbook that I imagine will be most useful when turned to idiosyncratically—at the moment, say, when I realize a bunch of greens is swiftly wilting.

Perfectly Good Food tasks itself with a lot of teaching: how to shop for and store produce, how to save ingredients for later, how to extend a single ingredient into many meals. A section about alliums is primarily made up of multipurpose “use-it-up” ideas like sofrito and balsamic-bacon caramelized onions, followed by just two recipes for proper dishes (garlicky red-cooked beef, and sauteed leek-top pasta). But the book really excels where it’s the most open-ended, a quality I think is crucial for any book that really seeks to address waste and inefficiency in the kitchen.

grounding Perfectly Good Food‘s fruit and vegetable sections, which make up the bulk of the book, are “Hero Recipes” that are “designed to help you rescue food and get dinner on the table with minimal drama and no extra trips to the grocery store,” the Lis write. These are recipes like “anything-you-like galette” and “save-the-fruit shrub,” rough skeletons onto which a range of ingredients can be grafted. This is also what stands out to me in Adler’s book: I think its most instructive entries are those like her “any vegetable vegetable.”

Recipes, as they are most often written now, encourage a particular way of looking at ingredients, Adler explains; hence her perspective with her first book. They call for a quarter cup of cilantro, though Adler — and most experienced cooks — know that a quarter cup of “anything bright and hopefully green, and that would be used in a hot-weather cuisine” will generally do, she says. But over the past 10 years, as a result of having a child and enduring a global pandemic and rocky economy, Adler has increasingly found merit in the recipe. “A recipe is really useful when you just need someone to tell you what you can do with the rest of the cilantro,” she says. And so The Everlasting Meal Cookbook was born out of the idea that Adler could use the format she tried to defy in her first book to still help people toward the same end.

That adaptability reflects how people have historically cooked, freer from the strictures of the recipe, Adler explains: Every vegetable exists because a cook had a vegetable at a given moment, and then used the recipe to recall what they had done with it. The recipe is descriptive rather than prescriptive. The descriptive recipe guides readers toward the knowledge that it is the spices and the order in which ingredients are added that matter, not the specifics of the vegetable. A prescriptive recipe comes with a stricter sense of requirement.

Perhaps for a cookbook to teach intuition, it benefits from this kind of breaking form, as both The Everlasting Meal Cookbook and Perfectly Good Food do. Often, there is an inverse relationship between the perceived rigidity of a recipe and the degree to which a cook feels capable of improvising. A cook whose introduction to the skill is observing a frugal caretaker might understand intuitively that the odds and ends can always come together into fried rice, no matter their quantity, but one who learns from recipes alone can grow too reliant on their strictures, which are Dictated down to the teaspoon.

Any cook can learn to look at any cookbook this way, to see that with most measurements and ingredients in savory recipes, there is room for more, less, or something else. But not every cookbook takes care to explain its thought processes, nor does it see that kind of holistic teaching as its goal. As Cammie Kim Lin writes in Stained Page News, emphasis hers, “All Recipes instructedbut not all teaching, Adler’s perspective is a reassuring one: If the cooking water from boiling broccoli becomes too salty, just “add water until it tastes good again,” she writes. This approach to cooking certainly isn’t new—it’s the oldest, most natural way of cooking—but it’s one we’ve become disconnected from.

By de-emphasizing the rigidity of the recipe and making the experience of cooking more subjective — more welcoming of the variation that can exist in any given fridge and the agency of every cook — these cookbooks are forced to teach, and in the process to take on that role of the frugal caretaker. They are guides to developing instinct, and with instinct comes the ability to see a use for even the most idiosyncratic ingredients. There is no point in wasting, because something good can come out of everything.

Adler, however, is not just cautious but cynical about the specific low- and “zero-waste” moment we’re currently in. (Three’s a trend: This week sees the release of the food waste-focused You Can Cook This!, from TikTok chef Max La Manna.) To her, it’s not about tossing out one doctrine for another, but about making slow, steady lifestyle shifts. “Let’s just cook what we have, build in efficiencies, learn all of the wonderful things that we can create from what’s already in our houses, and look at cooking this way because it’s cheaper and more delicious and saves time,” Adler says.

If it’s to be successful, the food waste cookbook cannot be about teaching any one recipe, but teaching this lifestyle shift in which recipes are as flexible as what you have. As with Adler’s egg in soup, it’s guiding readers toward ways for everything in the kitchen to work more seamlessly together.


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