For many, New York Times food writer Mark Bittman is the man to see about recipes. Ever consulted that thick yellow book called “How To Cook Everything”? What about the New York Times columns “The Minimalist” or “Bitten”? You can thank Mr. Bittman for some of the best recipes published today, and he is one of the few big food names that focuses on recipe-driven food writing instead of restaurant coverage.
Did you know that Americans’ diets have become 70 percent animal products and highly processed sources? Bittman’s book helps steer his reader in the opposite direction, simply by offering recipes that change the way we think about meals. In 2008, Bittman released “Food Matters: A Conscious Guide To Eating,” which could be categorized similarly to Michael Pollan’s “In The Defense Of Food.” Both works suggest a style of eating that values an awareness of how our food affects our bodies and also the environment. Although his original “Food Matters” book had a small selection of meal suggestions, his new cookbook is nearly all recipes, looking closer in size to “How To Cook Everything.”
The beginning of the book offers most of the same ideas as his original “Food Matters,” but in a condensed form. Perhaps the most riveting part of this section is titled “Food Policy, Made Personal,” where Bittman admits that the reason he took on this way of life was, in large part, for his own health. He discusses how his doctor suggested he adapt a vegan diet. Bittman reminded him that his job was food-focused, and asked “if he was out of his mind.” This is the lifestyle Bittman came up with. He often lives in a “vegan before 6 p.m.” style, but he doesn’t push anything on the reader in his book. His tone (throughout the introduction and in his recipes) is wise without being preachy, one of Bittman’s best qualities.
The 500 recipes in the book all value the presence of vegetables-not something you often see in food blogs or even most health cookbooks. This is not to say that his recipes are only vegetarian; many of his recipes include eight ounces of fish, chicken or steak to serve four people, like in the miso soup with bok choy, soba and broiled fish or the pasta with cumin-scented squash and lamb. The idea behind this tactic is to use meat as a condiment rather than the main focus of the meal.
Bittman’s cookbook is formatted much in the way of his other publications. Instead of separating it into chapters based on course, they are organized by type: appetizers/snacks, soups, salads/dressings, beans and veggies, etc. There are no pictures, which some might object to, but really it leaves more space for fantastic recipes.
The section that should not be overlooked is the salad chapter. Bittman really flexes his creative muscle by offering up a different kind of salad-ones that stray far from just lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers. His ideas are unique, but never too complicated. The black kale and black olive salad is abundant with flavor, and the roasted sweet potato salad with chili dressing is addicting.
True to Bittman’s writing style, most recipes include several variations that you can adapt to your own kitchen. For example, the crisp-crusted Portobellos with lemon chutney can be adapted to crisp-crusted baby artichokes, or baked Portobellos instead.
One aspect found in his other works that is missed in this one is his long list of recipe suggestions for different events/seasons. In his other books, he has given suggestions for everything from first day of school dinner to a Japanese winter lunch. Unfortunately, “The Food Matters Cookbook” only has three of these lists: fast recipes, make-ahead recipes and recipes for pantry staples. These are all great beginnings, mind you, but Bittman can do better.
This book is really a combination of all Bittman’s best works in one: there’s the informational aspects from “Food Matters,” the staple recipes from “How To Cook Everything,” and the seasonal enthusiasm you get from his column “Kitchen Express.”
Mark Bittman will be promoting this book at Powell’s City of Books on Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m. ■