Tamar Adler Talks Butter vs. Olive Oil, Fish Faux Pas & the Very Best Lamb

April 13, 2018

I am reading Something Old, Something New—Tamar Adler’s just-released book—on the subway. The car is packed like sardines, heading downtown. The book is dog-eared and sticky-noted—an anomaly among the little screens and oversized headphones. Which feels fitting. Something Old, Something New is all about the past.

Recipes of the past, like shrimp pâté and braised lettuce, cheese soufflé and alligator pear salad. Who knew that alligator pear is just avocado by another name? Adler did. Author of An Everlasting Meal, you’ll find her words everywhere from Vogue to the New York Times Magazine, earning a James Beard Award and IACP Award along the way. Which is to say, her writing is lyrical and lovely—and thorough and authoritative—enough to prove that you (yes, you!) do, indeed, need tomato aspic in your life. I mean, I do. Who knew? Adler did.

I reached out to her about researching old recipes and reviving them for modern day. Here are barely edited answers, buttery bread crumbs included.

EMMA LAPERRUQUE: In the introduction, you describe discovering dishes and recipes in old cookbooks and menus, then reflexively collecting them. What led you to those old cookbooks and menus in the first place?

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TAMAR ADLER: For as long as I've really liked cooking, I've been drawn to old cooking texts. In my 20s, I lived a block from the old Bonnie Slotnick's—on West 10th Street—and I haunted it like a hungry ghost. But that doesn't answer your question at all, other than by "instinct," which is boring. I think maybe people's aesthetics and sensibilities draw them in a particular direction when they find themselves interested in a subject. Some people become interested and are drawn to what's new—the newest cooking technology, gadget, restaurant, trend: the future. Some become immersed in the world as it is—going to cooking conferences, reading cookbooks and magazines, having favorite food writers, etc. And I suppose some become most interested in the past. I used to only buy used clothing—and still very often do. I like used cars, used furniture. I save plastic bags. None of that is out of moral obligation, but instinctual. I think it's simply where my own interest is most awakened, and drawn.

EL: Do you remember some of those initial recipes that caught your attention?

TA: Definitely M.F.K. Fisher's Petit Pois à la Française, which is in the book, and her shrimp pâté and chicken cooked with mushrooms and cream. The Vicomte de Mauduit's Stuffed Pigeons Shirley, almost everything in The Epicurean.

EL: And at that, what catches your attention? Certain techniques? Or ingredients? Or ingredient combinations?

TA: It is often the beauty of a dish's name. And it is also often the list of ingredients being ones I love. For the Vicomte's pigeons: 6 pigeons, 1/2 pound chicken liver, 1 yolk of egg, 1 tablespoon bread crumbs. I am certain more ingredients are needed—"a little sliced truffle" shows up in the recipe, as does butter, but I'd still want more. But I love what he's getting at. I am perversely drawn to really long, unfollowable recipes, where you can barely tell where your main ingredient is for half the time—is it still in the pot of boiling water? In a saucepan? In a "low oven"? I love deciphering those. It's probably the only sort of deciphering I'm good at, and I enjoy it immensely.

EL: This book is all about "classic recipes revised." You summarize your revision mantra as: "less butter, less wine, less time, less cost!" Why those themes? Are there any other big ones?

TA: Well, "less time" also really refers to ingredients cooking less. A lot of recipes from the 19th and early 20th centuries directed cooking things until they must have been tough as rubber, or in the case of vegetables, white and mushy. "Less butter" also means "more olive oil," which I use with abandon—though less in this book than in life, because I wanted to keep the fine butteriness of a lot of these things.

EL: Were there any recipes that resisted revision? Any that you were happy to leave in the past?

TA: Yesyesyes! Oh, God, the number of times we served guests leftovers and toast because my attempts at making fish farces—sort of slightly emulsified fillings to stuff into other fish or seafood—and various seafood pâtés...well, it definitely requires two hands. I wanted to do some sort of stuffed fish, and I've definitely liked baked stuffed haddock in New England, but I didn't want to just put herby, buttery bread crumbs in fish, because herby, buttery bread crumbs a) are good in everything and b) weren't any sort of revision, but just something that was good and is good, if overused, certainly in the past. I kept trying to go back further and make very French scallop and white fish or scallop and shrimp purées and wrap fillets around them and poach them in creative liquids or in olive oil, sometimes adding spinach, or herbs. They were awful. I tried various very creamy fricassees, including a stroganoff, and honestly, they're fine as they are—they're creamy and filling and great after shoveling your driveway in the winter. It was useless to mess around with them.

EL: What's a contemporary culinary invention that you think will stand the test of time?

TA: It's only contemporary in that rustic cooking is in, but cooking vegetables so that they caramelize or char—roasting or grilling or frying, rather than boiling—will, I hope, survive. Vegetables really like that sort of high, direct heat sometimes, and certainly in the 1950s to 1970s or so didn't get it like they do now.

EL: And what's one that you think won't last?

TA: I remember when I was working at Blue Hill at Stone Barns a billion years ago, and Dan first started using an immersion circulator—now commonly known as sous vide—so that he could preserve vegetables recently harvested, or cuts of meat or fish, I thought—okay, that's a lot of plastic, but the payoff is high. I get weirded out seeing all the plastic bags that sous vide machines demand in home and restaurant kitchens, and knowing my food has been cooked in plastic. So that's one. Also, I really don't like raw kale. I'm okay if you want to massage it with lemon, etc., and I will always gratefully eat anything anyone serves me, but if there were a few fewer kale salads, and a few more salads of cooked vegetables, or really good lettuce, I'd be happier.

EL: Something old, something new, something borrowed: What's one culinary item (be it a tool or appliance, dish or a recipe) that you've borrowed from someone? Or someone's borrowed from you?

TA: My brother loaned me a recipe for cooking lamb leg when we cooked the Passover seder at my mom's house last year, and it's now how I cook all lamb legs. Essentially, you don't worry about salting in advance, and just season butterflied lamb legs with a lot of salt, za’atar, cumin, coriander, and chile, then grill for a surprisingly brief time. It's very easy, and it is heaven. The full recipe, which he created, is in the Blue Apron cookbook. All the recipes in there are stellar.

EL: And something blue: Favorite blue food? Least favorite?

TA: I'm having a hard time picturing blue foods. I love looking at blue eggs, but I've never noticed that they taste any different. I used to be a bartender, and took a bartending class where I learned to make layered shots—where you pour liquors into a shot glass according to viscosity so they don't mix. I could do a killer red, white, and blue one...

What's your favorite old cookbook or recipe? Tell us in the comments!

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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.