Cookbooks: Mark Bittman

I love books. Novels, poetry, knitting, cooking... Love love love love love.

When I find an author I like I buy everything they write. Eventually. Sometimes all at once. I was looking at my bookshelf and noticed some of my favorites.

This was going to be a single post about my various categories, but it's getting long and I'm just on Mark Bittman. Eventually I plan to expand this to talk about my cookbooks by Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson; my knitting books by Kaffe Fassett, Nancy Bush, and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee; and my novels by Barbara Kingsolver, Dave Eggers, and Jane Austen.

Cookbooks: Mark Bittman

I love Mark Bittman. He's a columnist for the New York Times, writing as "The Minimalist." His whole approach to cooking is based on the premise that good recipes have two of the following: (i) a short ingredient list, (ii) a short instruction list, or (iii) a short cooking time. I took a cooking class with him when I lived in Austin, and I love him! So very New York- dry, no-nonsense, sophisticated and very casual/laid back all at the same time. I have most of his cookbooks. I don't own but would love to have his Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking and his Leafy Greens: An A-To-Z Guide to 30 Types of Greens Plus 200 Delicious Recipes.

I love the minimalist idea- very focused on letting good ingredients speak for themselves while keeping food very accessible to every day cooks. I LOVE his books because they provide a basic recipe- grilled chicken breasts, for example, then provide several variations, such as Mexican or Asian flavorings or how to dress the dish up for a special occasion. This is a fabulous way to learn how to really cook- master the basics, then get fancy.

If you only buy one Bittman book, it should be How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food. The slightly tongue in cheek title is not that far off- any time I need a random recipe I turn to this book first. It's like the Joy of Cooking or Better Homes and Gardens cookbook for our generation. I count on this book for fresh, fast, easy suggestions with plenty of room (and suggestions) for variations. The book introduces each chapter with an intro to the type of food (salads, for example) or main ingredient (beef- cuts, how to cook, how to chose, etc.) I can't tell you how much I've learned from this book!

The Best Recipes in the World is a similar book- huge, encyclopedic. Bittman focuses more on lesser-known cuisines, eschewing French and Italian for African/Asian/Latin American dishses that don't get much play in other international cookbooks. Again, Bittman pares the recipes down to their elements, and makes ingredients really accessible. Another great book.

Bittman has written a series of Minimalist cookbooks, all of which are fab. The Minimalist Cooks at Home: Recipes That Give You More Flavor from Fewer Ingredients in Less Time is the most basic- first in the series- and explains the basics of his approach, including excellent simple recipes. The Minimalist Cooks Dinner takes it a step further, with main dishes, salads, soups, sides, desserts... and The Minimalist Entertains contains seasonal menus based on a simple theme. These books are great because you can count on them for grouping ideas, variations, and simple but delicious food.

One of my favorite Bittman works is Simple to Spectacular: How to Take One Basic Recipe to Four Levels of Sophistication, co-written with Jean Georges Vongerichten (uber chef). Talk about a teaching aid! This book takes a basic recipe- scrambled eggs, for example- and then elevates the recipe to four additional levels of formality/dressiness. The scrambled egg section starts off with basic scrambled eggs- eggs, butter, salt, pepper. The next recipe adds tomato and basil to develop the flavor. The next recipe starts with basic scrambled eggs, but incorporates cream cheese, smoked salmon, and sorrel. Next is scrambled eggs with crispy potatoes and prosciutto. The section ends with Oefs au caviar- a formal dish of scrambled eggs cooked with lemon juice and vodka, served in their own shells and topped with caviar. The book really explains how chefs start with a simple idea, then ratchet up the presentation/ingredient list until they have something worthy of a Michelin star or two. And the book is so accessible- I can make this stuff. It's great.

Anyway, I'm a BIG Mark Bittman fan, in case you have't noticed. His writing is clear and easy to read, he brings a very realistic approach to tacking dinner, but retains some of the creativity that makes cooking fun.


beverly said...

I often give "How to Cook Everything" for a shower gift, but oddly don't have my own copy! I'll have to pick one up.

Couldn't you see dedicating an entire blog to Jane Austen?!

Nichole R. said...

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorites as well. It is so easy to get lost in her books.