Monday, February 14, 2011

Food Matters Cookbook By Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman has finally started to make things up, and he could change your life -- or least your pantry and freezer.

Three of Bittman's cookbooks are stalwards on my cookbook shelf, but it's his new Food Matters Cookbook where he invents dishes from scratch to change the way you eat.

Before we get serious, let's start with a basic pitch:  Buy -- or borrow -- the Food Matters Cookbook because it's delicious.  Straight-forward recipes to jazz up your weeknights.  Easy ideas about using your freezer to turn one afternoon of work into days of great food.  If you value fresh food, then you'll treasure this cookbook.

If nothing else, get Food Matters to break your rut of jarred pasta sauce.  Bittman does 60+ pages of noodles inspired by everything from classics to Mexican flavors, paired with everything from fennel to artichokes, from a basic lasagna to an inspired cabbage-oranges-and-chickpeas.  Flavors, imagination and enough 30-minute ideas that you'll add something to your repertoire.

But the brilliance of Bittman's cookbook is that you'll swallow some of his politics with every meal.  Not "party" politics, but his belief that processed food hurts your health and that anyone can learn to cook.  There aren't slogans inside.  There are recipes.  Cook anything you like; you'll prove Bittman's points by eating this way.  The recipes appear to follow three basic points.
  • Eat More Vegtables
Bittman does four seasons of vegetables.  Like Vegetables Every Day, Food Matters lets you flip the page based on whatever you have in the fridge.  Start with early peas and run through an entire year to squash, turnips and greens.

In earlier books, Bittman cooked variations of classic recipes.  In Food Matters, they're all his ideas  Red cabbage and cherries with broiled chicken.  Parmesan-breaded squash.  Many times, Bittman mentions some ethnic inspiration, but the recipes are untraditional.

The beauty of breaking out is that all the ideas are new.  Cauliflower creamed into macaroni and cheese. Black beans cooked with red onion and beets until they turn purple.  Ma-po tofu served over brown rice noodles or whole wheat spaghetti.  They're fun ideas, and they'll inspire people to try something new.
  • Eat Beans And Whole Grains
Bittman repeats a lot of the ideas you'd get from people like Michael Pollan.  Everyone says "Eat beans and whole grains," but Food Matters shows you how.  An entire section runs through chick peas, black beans, lentils and more.  Bittman preaches the idea of cooking a huge pot and freezing portions for later. I had read that before, but I actually did it because there were a half-dozen recipes that looked delicious.

I spent Sunday afternoon running three pots on the stove -- black bean and rice soup, a smooth carrot-and-chickpea soup, and a white bean mash.  We ate the chickpea with bread and cheese that night.  I refrigerated the black bean soup to eat with Mrs. HowChow's guacamole, and I froze the white beans to  pair with Harris Teeter's spicy chicken sausage.

That's days worth of food -- and they'll take me less time to defrost than I'd spend driving for takeout.
  • Make Meat A Flavor, Not A Centerpiece
There is no "meat" section of Food Matters, but you won't mistake him with the Moosewood collective.  Steamed cauliflower gets sausage.  Pasta pairs with country pork ribs.  Chickpeas go with ground lamb.

But the meat is flavor.  I have read all kinds of recipes about green plantains, but I didn't actually want them until I saw Bittman sport them up with pork shoulder.  They key is that he uses just 12 ounces for four servings.  He braises two pounds of vegetables with four ounces of prosciutto.

This works.  Pasta with peas, proscuitto and scallions had all the "umami" of a meat dish, but the whole pot had less meat than I have eaten in a single meal.  It's a chance to change the way you eat without any of the strict rules that you don't want to adopt.

All this comes in a package that Bittman tries to aim at anyone.  He arranges each section so that the first recipes are basic and inviting to anyone.  Then they get more complex to entice people who already spend some time at the stove.  That's an attention to detail that I could have overlooked, but that makes the whole book feel useful and inviting.

Overall, Mark Bittman is my guru because he writes for my kitchen.  He relies on simple techniques and a common pantry.  When he suggests new ingredients, they're generally cheap.  He gives you a dozen ways to use them so they become valuable, so that they become part of your repertoire and it's worth driving 20 minutes to a special market.

It's an understated brilliance.  It is also the reason that I bought the Food Matters Cookbook while I'm still pouring over a library copy of Super Natural Cooking.  Heidi Swanson's book is another beautiful, inspiring read, but it seems like an invitation to cook in Swanson's kitchen where she already stocks teff, agave nectar, and white whole-wheat flour.  For me, Bittman feels like he cooks in the real world -- by which I mean my world -- and he's flexible, as he wrote in his farewell for the Minimist column.
[C]ooking is compromise, after all. We almost never have the time, the ideal ingredients or equipment, or all of the skills we’d like.
Bittman is right.  So you might as well start with a good book.

Mark Bittman is my master now because of books like How To Cook Everything and How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.  But I first loved him in Simple to Spectacular where he introduces a technique and offers four variations that get gradually more complex.  That's a great gift for someone who likes to cook and would like to learn.

If you pick up the Food Matters Cookbook, check out the local organic markets because they sell bulk grains and beans.  They'll offer up good vegetables, although I go for meat at places like Treuth's in Oella or Laurel Meat Market.  (Update: And read the comments below about other places to find vegetables, etc.)

Dal With Lots of Vegetables
Four servings, 40 minutes, largely unattended.
This is not an authentic dal.  I'm currently exploring another cookbook with recipes lifted from India, but I loved Bittman's recipe because it had the heft of stew.  No need to make dal and a vegetable.  Bittman puts them in one pot where the vegetables melt into a thick sauce.
This is authentic Bittman.  He suggests some vegetables, but he encourages you to use what you have on hand -- leafy greens, root vegetables, squash, tomatoes, etc.
 1 Tbl. vegetable oil
1 Tbl butter
1 c. chopped onions
2 Tbl minced ginger
1 Tbl minced garlic
2 c. bite-sized pieces of cauliflower
1 c. cubed eggplant
1 c. cubed zucchini
4 cardamon pods
1 Tbl mustard seeds
2 cloves
black pepper
1 dried mild chile (like ancho) optional
1 c. dried brown or red lentils, washed and picked over to look for small rocks
1/2 c. chopped fresh cilantro

1) Put oil and butter in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat.  When butter has softened, add onion, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes; remove from pot.
2) Turn heat up to medium-high, add cauliflower or other firm vegetables like diced root vegetables.  Cook, stirring, until browned, 5 to 10 minutes.  Remove and add a little more oil.  Add the eggplant, zucchini or other softer vegetable like greens or tomatoes.  Cook, stirring, until browned, another 5 to 10 minutes.  Add all the spices and stir until they're fragrant.
3) Return the onion mixture and the firm vegetables to the pot along with the lentil and water to cover everything by about one inch.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so that the mixture bubbles gently.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally and adding water if necessary to stay saucy but not soupy.  Taste the lentils after 10 minutes.  Then keep tasting until they're as tender as you want.  Remove cardamon, cloves and chile.  (You can refrigerate ot freeze at this point.)
4) Taste again.  Sprinkle with salt until it tastes right to you.  Serve warm and garnish with cilantro.


Tom Coale (HCR) said...

Great post. Book purchased.

RDAdoc said...

Can't wait to try those soups. YUM!!!

HowICook said...

I’m a huge consumer of Mark Bittman products. I have several of his books and got my gourmet inspiration from “Simple to Spectacular”. His iPhone app for the latest version of “How to Cook Everything” is simply the best cooking app around. The linked features and the search engine make it so. I use it almost every day as a quick reference, inspiration or for an entire recipe.

I bought the “Food Matters” book when it first came out last year. I’ve been gravitating toward more veggies, bean and grains in my family’s home meals. This is a good cookbook if you ignore the sermon. His politics is not the way to sell eating right recipes to the American masses. Before you say I’m overreacting, read his Feb. 1 editorial and some of the comments in the NY Times. All this said, I’m going to start reading Bittman’s blog at There are links to his first two editorials along with discussion. Even though I have issues with the editorials I get a more even handed discussion of the issues in his blog.

For putting healthy principles into local use, I suggest the 3 nearby Korean markets, Lotte, HMart and Super Grand. The variety and prices of fruit/veggies is usually incredible. Just look into the average cart there and see the ratio of fruit/veggies to meat/processed food. You’ll realize that there are people nearby that already eat right without any overpowering pressure. I find the organic markets around here to be over-priced and preachy.

HowChow said...

@HowICook -- I completely agree with you that the Asian markets are the best way to get into eating vegetables. Great prices and variety mean that people can experiment without spending a fortune. I hit up the organic markets for lentils and dried beans, but you're right the Asian markets (and the Indian ones) do that too.

I'm amused that you think Bittman's book is preachy. Maybe I just read really bad cookbooks because Bittman seemed relaxed and reasonable to me. But I haven't read his op-ed pieces. Honestly, I'm not that interested in op-ed pages because I find most are just insiders talking to each other. I love the cookbook because it's speaking a practical language to people outside the world of the NYT, universities, and high-end foundations. (Like me.)

Mo said...

This looks great!! Excellent review.

P90 Noir said...

Bittman is awesome. I received How to Cook Everything as a gift many years ago (when I was in college). It's been my go-to cookbook ever since. And I agree, the iPhone app is outstanding.

I like the ideas behind this book - I look forward to checking it out.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely love Mark Bittman's newest Food Matters cookbook - I cooked over a dozen of the recipes, and while not everything turned out perfectly (in fact the Cauliflower Mac and Cheese was revolting), all in all this book was full of great ideas for healthy eating. I review it in greater detail on my blog, at

Also, his Dal with Lots of Vegetables, which you mention here, forms the basis for my favorite Dal recipe.

Happy Eats,

Visit us Hail Damage Claims said...

What I love about this book are the great little tips and tricks hidden every few pages. It's got great ideas for making beans in an hour vs 2-3 days, a chart for how to substitute for seasonal vegetables, etc! The author writes nicely too - recipes are easy to understand.