Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mark Bittman-- feh

I am now the owner of the complete cookbook collection by Mark Bittman. I have How to Cook Everything (HTCE), which is where I started, and to which I added How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Given my new interest in healthy eating and gardening, I just acquired The Food Matters Cookbook, his contribution to the "eat real food" movement (and a response to his heart attack years back).

Now let me start by saying that some of the best food ideas I've ever received has come from Mark Bittman's work in the New York Times. He had an article about five years ago that listed 101 easy summer dinners. It was truly inspired, and I still turn to my printed out copy for an injection of some ideas of things to make fast in the summer. None of them require a recipe. They are just things to do with food. Also, Mark Bittman's column once featured a meatball recipe that is to die for. It is still the only way I make meatballs.

But when it comes to these cookbooks, which occupy an enormous amount of shelf space-- like eight inches or more combined-- I'm not impressed. I expected more. Or different. I think what I wanted was my favorite cookbook, Moosewood Cooks at Home but lots more of it, and especially with meat. I wanted 15 ways to make chicken breasts palatable, each with variations.

What I want from a vegetable cookbook and have yet to find, is a cookbook with recipes for the vegetables I actually grow in my garden. That means, ten recipes for green beans, not ten recipes for asparagus that also require leeks (which are harvested at a totally different time of year) and escarole and artichoke hearts and Brussels sprouts and broccoli. (I wish I could grow broccoli, but I really have not had any luck at all in that area. Brussels sprouts are also hard to grow and suck up a lot of nutrients from the soil.) What I really need is a big book of salads and spinach and peas and beans and zucchini and carrots.

I was first put off by the new cookbook when I realized his main purpose is to make people eat brown rice and whole wheat pasta. Hmmm. Then the very large appetizer section that included at least five kinds of tea sandwiches. (There was a radish idea or two in there, I admit, but I think they paired the radishes with three kinds of produce I'd have to buy.)

The good news is that there are lots of recipes that use tomatoes, both ripe and canned. The other surprising thing is that there seem to be a lot of recipes for meat dishes, more than HTCE, that also make use of vegetables. The bad news is, there are a LOT of recipes that use leeks, though I think sometimes onions can be substituted (I know, it's not the same). The other good news is that there are scattered throughout the book recipes that say "and vegetables" or "lots of vegetables." But again, these more or less just give you permission to use vegetables with common dishes, like a frittata, or a stir fry, or a stew. Perhaps the best thing is his advice on how to make chips of all kinds (beets, sweet potatoes, turnips, etc.) in the oven. Again, it's more "how to" than recipe.

Which is where I come down on the Mark Bittman issue. He is fantastic at just pointing you forward, giving you ideas, like 101 easy summer dinners. He helps you remember to do things with food. But then, really, you can just go ahead and do it without the recipe.


Anne Lloyd said...

I loved reading about Mark Bittman. I still have my tattered paper copy of 101 summer dinners. Regular inspiration. This is how I learned to cook: reading cookbooks at bedtime, leaving them on the floor and going it alone with ingredient ideas in my head and a vague idea of technique. For about a year in college, I was a really bad cook! Still working on it..... Doesn't Mark Bittman have a special easy bread technique? That might be too much for me - I'd have to follow a recipe.

In NYC I've been staying at the Andaz downtown. (Amazing modern rooms with black marble showers the size of my whole bathroom.) The restaurant, Water & Wall, has a salad that I crave constantly but can't seem to re-create: "crisp raw fall vegetables herb salad, aged parmesan, balsamic vinegar." The root vegetables are shaved colorful rounds, maybe blanched for half a second to get the starch off. They're kind of fluted which makes them so exciting in your mouth.

Susan Sink said...

Thanks, Anne. I'm glad you get what I mean. When it comes to someone like Deborah Madison, I follow the recipe-- and I love good recipes. But he is definitely an advice guy, which is probably why he works well in the newspaper.

I definitely envy you your fancy NY hotel rooms and the great eats!! That should be an easy salad to make... wonder what the secret is!

I have trouble believing you were ever a bad cook :-)