TA: Olive oil is a really big one; it makes such a big difference. My whole way of cooking suffers when I'm in somebody's house who has bad, or even more often bad and rancid, oil. You really taste the difference if you get a really good piece of pancetta or a really good piece of salami that doesn't taste chemical and strange. You need actual parmesan. You don't need a lot. Good pasta matters. And if you're getting dried beans, it's worth spending more. A lot of them have been sitting on shelves forever and crack and fall apart as soon as they cook. And bread. The Tartine loaf is $7, but you don't really need to buy anything else. Good bread, some good olive oil, and good eggs (another one that really matters).
MJ: Which ingredients do you think people typically overpay for?
TA: People are always asking about different kinds of salt. Just buy kosher salt. There are a lot of high end value-added products that I think don't really need to get bought. You don't really need that beautiful artichoke dip or olive paste or the really fancy butter. I'm not saying those aren't lovely things, but you can get really good organic unsalted butter, and the difference between good plain butter and amazing $16-a-piece butter is much smaller than the difference between bad olive oil and great olive oil. Precleaned lettuce is too expensive. Anything precut is too expensive—you get like half of it!
Another thing that we spend too much money on is variety. What I bring into my house starts as so few things, but then if you open my refrigerator, it's like a wonderland in there. This has been pickled, and that's been sautéed, and what was sautéed was turned into a frittata. But it started out being five things. The great thing about knowing how to cook is you get more variety for free.
When people are coming over, I'm always telling them, "I'm totally going to not just make some assembly of what's in my refrigerator." But that's never true.
MJ: Do you have any advice on curing my habit of going out for dinner? I get home from work and I'm tired, and I usually want to hang out with a friend or two, and going out for dinner seems like a great convenient way to do that.
TA: You know, I'm almost always feeding somebody. There's almost always somebody else at dinner. So I'm going to answer the question backwards. Part two is, as long as you're comfortable feeding well-loved but incredibly humble things to your guests, you can always have someone over. People love it! When people are coming over, I'm always telling them, "I'm totally going to not just make some assembly of what's in my refrigerator." But that's never true. I always spend too long reading, and suddenly it's 5:30, and then I'm like okay—frittatas again. But it doesn't ever look or taste to me or anybody else like some weird impoverished experience. Eating just has to be ordinary. Cooking has to be ordinary. We're wrong when we think that as soon as we invite people over, we have to do something out of the ordinary.
MJ: Another problem, I'm embarrassed to say, is laziness. I like cooking, but I don't have the energy after work. Any advice?
TA: At lunchtime today I had purple sautéed escarole with lentils, which I warmed together and then put chilis on top. And it took me like less than two seconds to make. Because I'd already washed and dried the escarole and put in a great container. And the garlic is always sitting in a bowl on my counter. And I cooked lentils like four days ago, but I cooked them alone and I cooked a lot of them. You come home and you can assemble your meal the way I did, or you can just warm the lentils with a few tomatoes and poach an egg in it, or you can make rice and add Indian spices to the lentils. I pretty much never cook from the beginning.
MJ: It seems like wringing the last bit of use from leftovers requires shedding popular ideas about expiration dates. How can I get over my squeamishness?
TA: We're the only culture that relies on refrigeration so heavily. Refrigeration has ruined everything. It's made our food worse, and it makes us throw out things we need to make good food. In England, eggs aren't ever refrigerated. Same in a lot of places in France—meat is stored at room temperature if it's stored under fat. Pickles will be stored in vinegar for months and months. We used to keep pies for weeks and weeks in our pie boxes. People also died of food-borne bacterial illness more then, but somewhere in between weeks and weeks and this one-day thing. Really look at other cultures, and if it takes imagining yourself as a Burgundian housewife, do it.