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Mark Bittman on the virtues of smart eating, efficient cooking


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.

The 64-year-old New York native, who also appeared alongside Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow in the PBS series “Spain … On the Road Again,” 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.”

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.



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