AUSTIN, Texas — Don’t tell Mark Bittman you don’t have time to cook.
The New York Times columnist and cookbook author has been debunking that myth, perpetrated for the most part by marketing from companies that want to sell you ready-to-eat meals, for more than 15 years, first in his “Minimalist” column that ran in the Times until a few years ago and in his landmark cookbook “How to Cook Everything” in 1998.
Since he stopped writing that cooking column to become a contributor to the Times’ op-ed pages, Bittman has been working on his latest spin on “Everything,” one that might very well revolutionize how we write recipes and think about how painless it can be to prepare something decent to eat for yourself.
Bittman recently sat down over breakfast to talk about his evolution from a recipe developer and culinary writer into one of the leading voices in food politics and culture.
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The 64-year-old New York native says that as a food writer in the 1980s, he had a hard time selling articles on basic home cooking.
Newspapers “wanted chefy stuff, and I couldn’t do chefy stuff,” he says. “I was a writer, and I was not trained, so it was no choice but to do simple home cooking. I didn’t know how to do anything else.”
But he got really good at breaking down a recipe and building it back together in creative new ways. He became the editor of Cook’s magazine, which Christopher Kimball sold before starting Cook’s Illustrated, where Bittman then took the reins as the first executive editor.
Bittman’s first cookbook, “Fish,” in 1994, did better than fish books are supposed to do in the cookbook industry, and that led to the “Everything” contract, he says.
By that time, the home cooking tide had shifted toward less-stuffy cooking, and the Times needed a column to reflect that. In 1997, he filed an homage to roasted red peppers as his first “Minimalist” column, and “How to Cook Everything” came out the next year.
In the years since, he’s published one of the first fully functioning cookbook apps and several more titles under the same comprehensive umbrella.
Like the original, the new book, “How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food,” boasts thousands of recipes when you include all the variations that Bittman is so known for, but not a single photo. Bittman says it’s a matter of economy. Photos would have added $10-$20 to the price of the book and taken up space that he can now dedicate to even more recipes.
“We set out to reinvent the recipe,” he says of what’s different about this newest incarnation. “We looked at how real cooks cook, as opposed to how chefs cook, and most recipes are written as if you’re doing a photo shoot or you’re running a kitchen,” with ingredients listed as if they are already chopped, peeled, sliced, etc.
However, experienced home cooks are great multitaskers. They put a pot of water on the stove to boil or drizzle a little oil in a pan and turn on the burner, and while water or oil heats, they prepare the ingredients, starting with the first one that goes in the pan. Once that ingredient starts cooking, they get to work on prepping the next ingredient, making the most of those precious two to five minutes between steps.
To solve this problem, the recipe instructions are printed in two colors: black for the cooking directions, blue for the ingredient preparation.
“There are two things you’re doing during cooking: You’re preparing and you’re applying heat. You’re doing something on the counter and something at the stove,” he says.
The dishes shine in their simplicity, but for every buttered pasta or scrambled eggs recipe, Bittman has included chicken adobo or homemade curry powder to tap into the foodie in all of us.
After all, we are a nation so interested in cuisine that we can support 24-hour-a-day food programming and countless blogs, websites and magazines dedicated to food.
This fervent interest has helped make consumers more aware of the problems facing the food system, and it has also inspired some of them to take on cooking as a hobby. They are the kinds of cooks who’ll spend two days preparing a few dishes from “Noma” by Rene Redzepi.
“There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m not interested in it,” he says. “People build model airplanes, but that’s got nothing to do with getting from New York to Austin.”
“Team of little geniuses”
Writing 2,000 recipes for everyday eaters with a “team of little geniuses” for this new book took four years, which is nearly as long as he’s been penning editorials for the Times examining just such issues.
“It’s the hardest, most challenging, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Bittman says. “There hasn’t been anyone with a platform like the Times to say the things that many of us within the food movement have been saying for a long time.”
His background as a food writer gives him a lens to examine so much more than how to prepare the world’s best pasta salad.
“The way we eat is a public-health issue. We’re killing ourselves, so anything that’s related to that is really important,” he says. “So it goes from how we raise food, how we market food, what we eat, what gets sold, what gets supported by the government, but, of course, it’s more than public health because there’s labor issues, land issues, environmental issues. It ties into everything.”
In recent months, he’s tackled climate change, the successful debut of Mexico’s nationwide soda tax (consumption is down 5 percent in eight months), the economic and civic impact of farmers markets and the lack of oversight on how we market food to children and why the standard American diet is the root of so many avoidable (not to mention costly and fatal) health problems.
Some of the changes that he’d like to see made, like reducing the use of antibiotics in meat production, raising the minimum wage or persuading food manufacturers to stop marketing junk food to children, can be “fundamental and really, really challenging,” but others, like reducing meat consumption by a mere 5 or 10 percent, can be incremental and relatively painless.
Eating better at home starts with shopping better.
“If you have potato chips, cookies and ice cream in your house, you are going to eat it,” he says. “So the first thing is, don’t buy that stuff.”
Keep a pantry full of dried pastas, grains, beans and other goods, including canned items, that store for a long time. Stock up on condiments you really enjoy, and pop into the grocery store or farmers market, if you can, for the fresh, seasonal produce and meat — maybe slightly less than you usually buy but better quality — that you need to pull together those always-on-hand ingredients.
His practical approach to cooking and pragmatic philosophy of eating mean that he is less of a food elite than some have categorized him.
“Look, I’m a huge fan of farmers markets, but I do recipes with frozen vegetables,” he says, anything to get you one more step away from the microwaved pizza.
In his career, he’s written about 17,000 recipes trying to help you move along that spectrum toward a plant-heavy, home-cooked diet, which is “16,950 more than you need,” he says.
“You need 20 recipes, and if you learn how to do variations on those recipes,” you can eat well for a lifetime.
FASTEST CHICKEN (OR EGGPLANT) PARM
This recipe for chicken Parmesan is a great example of how flexible Bittman’s recipes are. With just a few tweaks, you could use it as a guide for making eggplant Parmesan or, as the variations in the book explain, Cuban chicken or a chicken melt.
Bittman: “This take on the classic couldn’t be easier. Instead of dredging and pan-frying, just stack the ingredients in two stages on a baking sheet and broil. Done this way, the tomatoes get lightly roasted and the breadcrumbs stay nice and crunchy.”
For eggplant Parmesan, slice about 2 pounds large eggplant crosswise 1-inch thick. After the pan heats, spread out the eggplant slices — but not the tomatoes — and turn to coat them in some oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil until softened and browned in places, about three to five minutes. Flip the eggplant, then top with the tomatoes and proceed with the recipe.
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 medium ripe tomatoes
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 pounds)
Salt and pepper
8 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese
2 oz. Parmesan cheese (½ cup grated)
1 bunch fresh basil
1 cup breadcrumbs
1. Turn the broiler to high; put the rack 6 inches from the heat. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet and spread it around; put the baking sheet in the broiler. While the pan is heating, core and slice the tomatoes. On another cutting board, cut the chicken breasts in half horizontally to make two thin cutlets for each breast. Press down on each with the heel of your hand to flatten.
2. Carefully remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Put the chicken cutlets on the sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Top with the tomatoes, and broil on one side only until the chicken is no longer pink in the center, rotating the pan if necessary for even cooking, five to 10 minutes.
3. While the chicken is cooking, prep the other ingredients: Grate the mozzarella and Parmesan. Strip 16 to 20 basil leaves from the stems. Combine the breadcrumbs, mozzarella and Parmesan in a small bowl.
4. When the chicken is cooked through, remove the baking sheet from the broiler. Lay the basil leaves on top of the tomatoes, sprinkle with the bread crumb and cheese mixture, and drizzle with 3 tablespoons olive oil.
5. Return to the broiler, and cook until the breadcrumbs and cheese are browned and bubbly, two to four minutes. Serve immediately.
— Adapted from “How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food,” by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35).
BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH CHORIZO
Bacon, chorizo or sausage are the three variations that Bittman suggests for this recipe, but after I posted a photo of this dish made with chorizo last week, several readers chimed in that they love cooking sprouts with Soyrizo, a vegan meat substitute. Adding a little water lets you cook Brussels sprouts whole and keeps them vibrant green, but I’ve found that I prefer them halved, which increases the surface area and improves the texture. You won’t have to cook them as long, though.
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 oz. fresh Mexican chorizo (or hot or sweet Italian sausage or 6 slices bacon)
1½ pounds Brussels sprouts
Salt and pepper
1. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chorizo (or, if using bacon or sausage, chop the meat and then add to the pan). Meanwhile, trim the Brussels sprouts, cutting the largest ones in half.
2. Cook the meat, stirring occasionally, until it releases some fat, three to five minutes.
3. Add the Brussels sprouts to the partially cooked meat, along with a sprinkle of salt and pepper and ½ cup water.
4. Cover and cook, checking once or twice and adding small amounts of water as needed, until the Brussels sprouts are a little shy of tender, six to 10 minutes, depending on their size.
5. Remove the cover and raise the heat to high. Cook, resisting the urge to stir too much, until the liquid evaporates and the Brussels sprouts become brown and crisp in places. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve hot or warm.
— Adapted from “How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food,” by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35).
Nearly eight years ago, Mark Bittman set out on a quest to lose about 30 pounds that had been plaguing him, and the only “diet” that really worked for him was eating less meat and dairy and no processed foods. He framed it as “vegan before 6,” and the concept took off, inspiring two books, including a cookbook that came out earlier this year.
Mushrooms, packed with B vitamins, including niacin and riboflavin, as well as minerals such as potassium, are underappreciated for their nutritional value, and when you throw protein-dense nuts into the mix, they make a lovely vegetarian patty that you can serve with or without a bun.
1 cup rolled oats (not quick-cooking or instant)
2 (or more) garlic cloves
1 pound mushrooms (like cremini or button), trimmed and halved
½ cup pecans (or any other nut you like)
2 teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
8 cups torn lettuce or other salad greens
2 tomatoes, cut into wedges
½ large red onion, sliced into thin rings
1. Put the oats in a food processor and let the machine run until they’re ground to a coarse meal, about one minute. Transfer them to a large bowl.
2. Pulse the garlic in the food processor (no need to wash it first) until the cloves are broken up a bit, then add the mushrooms. Pulse until the mixture is finely chopped but not puréed. Add the mushrooms and garlic to the bowl with the oats. Put the nuts in the food processor (again, no need to wash it) and let the machine run until they’re ground to a thick paste, adding water a teaspoon at a time if necessary just to let the machine do its job; be careful not to make the mixture too wet. Scrape the nut butter into the bowl with a rubber spatula.
3. Add the chili powder, salt and pepper and stir with the spatula, pressing and folding as you work until the ingredients are distributed evenly. Refrigerate the mixture for 10 minutes, then make four patties.
4. Put the oil in a large skillet (preferably nonstick or cast-iron) over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the burgers and cook, undisturbed, until they’re browned on the bottom and release evenly from the pan, three to five minutes. Turn the burgers, lower the heat a bit, and cook on the other side until firm and browned, three to five minutes more.
5. Remove the burgers and return the pan to the heat with the lemon juice and ½ cup water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid thickens a bit. Serve the burgers on a bed of lettuce, drizzled with the pan sauce and topped with the tomatoes and onions.
— From “The VB6 Cookbook: More than 350 Recipes for Healthy Vegan Meals All Day and Delicious Flexitarian Dinners at Night,” by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, $29.95).