Food is essential. Our bodies burn it to live. Our tongues love it. Everything eats! But what do we eat?
The spectre of processed and ready-made food has reached its apotheosis in Soylent, a “meal-replacement” supplement intended for life on the go. The drink shares its name with the eponymous meal-replacement beverage of the 1976 sci-fi horror film Soylent Green. The twist, which we discover at the end of the film, is that Soylent Green is made of people! Cool name, Soylent…
I believe that instead of supplementing our stream of endless work with fake food, we should slow down, touch our food, real food, prepare it, and eat it with our friends or family whenever we get the chance. Developing a full life does not require that we neglect some things in favor of others, it means that we fill our precious time with fulfilling activity as much as possible.
So here I am, an advocate of cooking. Your first task is simple: cook, cook, and cook.
The hallmark of good, economical, and delicious cooking and eating is beginning with good ingredients. From there, it is important to integrate the collecting, making, and eating food into your days, weeks, and months, an accumulation of habit and routine that will not only save you money, but provide you with a constant stream of delicious possibilities. Buy fresh, buy often, buy local, and be creative.
If you’re absolutely terrified of your kitchen, fear not, there are a plentitude of amazing guides, written in deliciously lucid prose, to get you started. I highly recommend Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, and, of course, the inimitable Alice Waters’ now classic, The Art of Simple Food. Please read these. They will change your life.
Tamar Adler persuasively advocates an essential kind of cooking, one that depends on continuing to use ingredients in a variety of ways throughout your week. She is a collector, a hoarder, and a creative artist, for whom drippings, boiled water, and those usually discarded bits of veggies and meat are absolutely never discarded, but used for some other amazing purpose.
The trick is to think in multiples. Make one thing many things. Think always of leftovers.
The perfect example is boiling a chicken. As she urges, “chicken cooked in a pot of water leaves you with several dinners, lunches, and extra broth, and is an appropriate and honest way to do a lot with a little.”
So get to the farmer’s market and find an amazing, farm-raised chicken. It will cost you slightly more than the unfortunate monsters shrink-wrapped in the grocery store freezer, but it’s better. Every part of it is better.
While you’re at the farmer’s market, allow yourself to become overwhelmed by the collection of colors, the variety of fruits and vegetables, and the kindness and energy of your local farmers (talk to them! Ask them what’s good!), and always make sure to buy at least one something that you never have. At the very least, find your bird, and get onions, garlic, celery, carrots, parsley, and some greens, like kale or swiss chard, and some carrots. This stuff is nearly always available. Supplement it with whatever’s fresh and in season.
Salt your chicken a day ahead by rubbing it with salt! Really, rub it. Allow it to reach room temperature before you boil it the next day. Remove the giblets (these can be used for more broth and paté later).
Add a chopped onion, a stalk of celery, a whole garlic clove, parsley stems, a bay leaf, and some chopped carrots to your pot, and place the chicken on top so that it holds the veggies down throughout the cooking process. Fill the pot up with water three inches over the top of the chicken.
Bring it to boil. Then lower it to just below a simmer. Skim the grey scum that rises to the top of the pot. You’ll have to skim it periodically; this is totally normal. Remove the vegetables as they become cooked, usually after about 30-40 minutes. They should be soft and sort of spongy. A done chicken becomes wiggly in water. If a wing becomes loose when wiggled, you’re probably there. Cut into it if you are afraid, like I usually am. When it’s done, take it out of the water, and strain your broth.
There you have it! A whole chicken, cooked veggies, and a bunch of delicious, extremely useful broth. If you want, now eat some of the chicken in its broth with your vegetables. Sauté some butter, onions, and greens as a side, and have a nice thick piece of buttered toast to go along with it.
This is just the beginning. Boil some rice with the chicken stock you now have, and try this recipe for a delicious rice bowl of my own devising:
1 cup cubed chicken breast
1 cup brown rice, cooked with your homemade chicken stock
½ chopped red bell pepper
½ an avocado, sliced
2 tbsp. coarsely chopped cilantro
½ lime juice, squeezed fresh
1 tsp. salt
healthy scoop of feta cheese
2 kalamata olives
1 tbsp. basil pesto (Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods work, until you start making your own)
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
¼ of a shallot, about 2 tsp. Worth
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
Finely chop your shallot and coarsely chop your cilantro and kalamata olives. Put them in a bowl, leaving a bit of cilantro aside to garnish the final product with. To the bowl, add olive oil, pesto, feta cheese, lime juice, white wine vinegar, salt, a dash of red pepper flakes, and cracked pepper, freshly ground. Whip this together to make a wonderful sauce.
Heat your rice if needed, and place it at the bottom of your bowl. Chop up your bell pepper, slice your avocado, and cube your chicken if you haven’t already done so. Pile these ingredients on top of your rice, arranging them so they are beautiful. Smother this with your pesto sauce. Top this all with fresh cilantro and a few cranks of ground black pepper. Welcome to lunch! Enjoy!
The chicken boiling part of this article is adapted and altered from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.
Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman