With nearly 40 percent of the food bought in the U.S. getting tossed, Tamar Adler finds delicious destinies for leftovers in her book “The Everlasting Meal Cookbook.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: I get a sense that you really enjoy the process of transformation, turning something into something else.
Tamar Adler: I think that's true. I far prefer that to starting from square one. But I think it's actually an impulse that a lot of us share, because I even think about how hard it is, when you're looking at a blank sheet of paper, how much harder that is, then when you have something to edit, the hardest thing is starting. And once you're going, momentum is so helpful. And also you can see where you want to make changes. And so I know that about myself as a writer, like I just have to get something on screen or on the page.I feel it as a cook too. I do. It's so much more pleasurable and honestly easier to start with. “Okay, I have this. I have this batch of leftover rice. I see I have those herbs. I have a few peanuts left in here.” Constraints breed creativity, I think
Are there some basic staples that it's always good to have on hand if we start to cook in this style of transformation, rather than starting from scratch?
Yes, definitely. But even within what I think is really important to have, there's so much room for variation. I am an olive oil devotee. So I always, if I'm going to have one oil, it's olive oil and having one good. Flavored finishing oil is really important because it literally can transform, you know, yesterday's leftover vegetables, or a God even a piece of you know, toast, which is just stale bread into something that really makes you stop. And notice, you need acid. So that can be anything that can be red wine vinegar, or lemon, which in California, it can definitely be in New York, I often find myself citrus-less.
It could also be just plain distilled white vinegar, just anything that lends acidity to food. You know how it wakes you up, when you have something acidic? I feel like it does the same to the food. It's like a little clap telling you to wake up. And salt is essential. And then I think texture is really important. But again, there's a really wide range. Arabs are wonderful, really basic herbs like parsley, cilantro, mint, dill, but if you don't, if you don't have herbs that could be chopped toasted nuts, or it could just be bread crumbs, it's just something to kind of like add a dimension to a food that wasn't there before. And I think spice works similarly to both texture and acid and like in the kind of wake up capacity. So I really love all of the world's various chili oils and spicy pickles and stuff like that.
I'm just going to call out some leftover bits for which you have a solution. Often I find that I have a head of cauliflower that's gotten a bit old.
First of all, I just want to say when some things get old, cook it. You know which direction it's headed, right? It's headed south. Pare off anything that's scary looking. Cut it up and roast. I say roast instead of boil not because it's better but because when you roast something gets caramelized and then you won't see any slightly tannish bits but take off anything that's liquefied and immediately cook it. So that's a great sort of step one.
So after you roast it, then what would you do?
Well, after you roast it, you could certainly eat it just like that. Another thing I love to do with anything that's getting old and faded is add a lot of good fat to it because it kind of needs it. I think brand new beautiful cauliflower doesn't necessarily need a rich cheesy sauce, although it could certainly have one. But, cauliflower that's kind of in need of assistance is a great place to make a combination of cream and cheese. You could add a little flour if you want and then bake into a gratin. Or, you could make it just to toss with vinaigrette and some parsley or another herb. Essentially, just give it what it's lacking, intrinsically, richness and life.
All of us have the experience of having greens wilt before we get to them. So often that green is arugula. What can we do with wilted arugula?
I really, really like arugula pesto. And once it's pesto-fied, you don't know that it's been wilted. You can use a basil pesto recipe and substitute arugula or you can do a combination of arugula and basil. Another really great thing to do is just start thinking of it as an herb once you cut something across its grain. Across the fibers that go up and down, it stops being quite so well wilty. Then immediately use it as an herb. So if you're making a pasta sauce, put it in, if you're making a frittata, put it in if you're making scrambled eggs, put it in as soon as you notice that it doesn't look the way you had planned for it to look. Use it, prioritize it, don't like shove it off to the back.
Let's talk about avocado. Sometimes we'll get an avocado where we have great hopes for it, but we open it up and it just is not good or overripe.
I was worried about this one because until I was working on this book, I had not found anything that I could make with those gross, brown, overripe avocados. And then I remembered that when I was traveling in Vietnam, like 20 years ago, there was a breakfast shake that I used to get in Hanoi that was sweetened condensed milk, avocado, and just ice. Maybe they also put in milk. So I tried making that with overripe avocado, and it totally works. You put it in a blender, so that weird fiber-ish-ness disappears, and you put the avocado in the bottom, and then it's quite sweetened condensed milk, which makes everything delicious and ice. And it completely makes the most or the second most delicious breakfast shake. I think the most delicious one is in Hanoi, but I loved that I found this use and now I get to have this amazing shake whenever I have an overripe avocado.
Let's talk a bit about takeaway things that we get and we bring home and maybe we don't finish, like french fries. It seems weird that you wouldn't finish fries, but that does happen.
Oh my god, it really is so sad, like the difference between a fresh french fry and an overnight refrigerated french fry. It's such a huge distance to fall. And I have found two things to do with these. They usually exist in my house because my son doesn't finish his French fries. And I've eaten mine and what I wanted of his but then I can't. I won't let them get thrown out. So I brought them home. And Cal Peternell has a really great french fry frittata in his most recent book. But mashing them with a lot of cream, and cooked garlic, produces a super delicious, creamy mash. I was able to actually get rid of that weird refrigerator smell, which I think is like, I mean, it's what the smell and the texture that's so awful about leftover french fries is, but I was paying very close attention to see if any whiff of that was left and it completely disappears.
When I was traveling in Italy, a couple years ago, I had this amazing onion parmigiana. When I came home, I got a takeaway hamburger and some onion rings, and I had so many rings that I couldn't finish them. I ended up using them for a parmigiana. How do you use yours?
They do reheat to crisp, and they don't get weird. They're not like potatoes, and they don’t get weird smells. You can just reheat them. And they'll, they'll end up pretty crisp. But I love them in miso soup.
Do not be discouraged by the refrigerator smell of leftover fries. Try:
MOST BUTTERY ROAST-Y SMASH (10—15 min)
- 3 cups French fries
- 1 clove garlic (peeled)
- 1/3 cup heavy cream
- In a small pot, combine the fries, 1 cup water, and the garlic, and cook over medium heat, at a simmer, until the water is evaporated and absorbed and the fries are very soft and smashable. Smash well, including the garlic if it’s soft enough, then add the cream over low heat, continuing to smash. Smash and smash until the cream is absorbed and the potatoes are hot and beginning to balloon up. Taste for salt and eat, in astonishment.
- This is very good with a tadka (see p. 208) spooned over the top, too.
CAL’S FRENCH FRY FRITTATA (15—20 min)
- 6 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1-2 cups French fries
- 4 scallions (thinly sliced)
- Heat the oven to 375°F. In a bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, and 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in an ovenproof pan over medium, then add the fries to crisp slightly, then the scallions. Cook until it all starts to crisp and sizzle, 2-3 min. Add the eggs, moving and smoothing them a few times, then cook over medium-low heat until the bottom is set, another 1-2 min. Place the pan in the oven and cook until the eggs are just set, 8-12 min. Let cool and eat. (Adapted from Burnt Toast and Other Disasters by Cal Peternell)