One of my favorite stops at the New York Times online is Mark Bittman’s “The Minimalist” column, a series of 5-minute videos in which he demonstrates simple but pretty good cooking with clear and manageable directions and an easy close-up view of the pots and pans in action.
I’d say he takes a no-nonsense approach to cooking, but that would be misleading. He takes a full-nonsense, marble rye approach to the patter while doing some very basic common sense things like cutting up, mixing, and sauteing. And he features vegetables prominently.
Bittman, recently seen schmoozing around Spain in a top-down convertible,on PBS yet, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Stipe and occasionally Mario Batali and trying to look interested in the food (which somehow got upstaged, can’t imagine how), is the author of several big yellow cookbooks, notably How to Cook Everything in both meat-eater and vegetarian editions.
This year he’s come out with a new, slimmer volume called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating* (and the asterisk leads to: *With More than 75 Recipes).
Unfortunately, we have to disregard the fact that Bittman’s title manages to evoke both Phil McGraw’s Self Matters and David Reuben, M.D.’s 1970s classic romp, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* … *But Were Afraid to Ask (or, more happily, Woody Allen’s movie send-up of same). This is a Serious Book. And like many Serious Books today (and anything at all with a “go green” theme), it’s a hybrid vehicle.
Between the asterisks on the cover sits a Granny Smith apple photoshopped with a map of the world and a red label, “Lose Weight, Heal the Planet.” The back blurb reads, “…the same lifestyle choice could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money, and help stop global warming…”
Food Matters is Bittman’s argument for getting the lard out and the greens in, for the sake of health, looks, and planet (quick, look holistic and place your hands reverently over your heart, if you can find it). The first half of the book is a set of essays reporting on the state of Big Food in the U.S., the state of obesity, the state of greenhouse gases and the global cost of raising a serving of beef as opposed to a serving of broccoli or tomatoes or whole grains.
Following Michael Pollan’s now-famous dictum “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” and citing him heavily, Bittman sets out to encourage readers to replace at least some of the earth-taxing meat and dairy in their daily eating with…plants. Which makes sense, of course.
The second half is a primer, with recipes, on how to eat more vegetation. Given that his pitch is geared at least partly to a male audience (he also writes a food column for Men’s Health, and the tone here is similar), you’d think his advice on the quickest route to getting vegetables into one’s diet would involve the least fuss: just wash and nosh. But no.
Bittman used to edit Cook’s magazine and the cookbooks he writes today do tend to feature recipes. It’s a common downfall, but what can you do?
Salads, frittatas, gazpachos, stir-frys, roasted glazed balsamic whatevers. They’re not bad recipes, either. Like most of his food, they’re pretty decent and not too complicated, and he delivers them in what has got to be the perfect guy-oriented tone without actually including duct tape or putting women off completely.
Even his “essential pantry” list makes sense enough–grains, dried beans, canned tomatoes, olive oil, frozen and fresh vegetables, eggs, lemons, spices. And he gives six slightly exotic but versatile spice blends to bring things up a notch without a lot of hunting and pecking in the cabinet.
In fact, Food Matters is pretty good, pretty believable, and even pretty interesting–not an easy task, with all the gloomy statistics–right up to the midpoint. It’s the sample month of meals in mid-book that suddenly signals a guy-think kind of problem with his “Food Matters Diet”: he’s laid out a full four weeks of meals, plus snacks and desserts. It should be helpful, but with the exception of one dessert, orange wedges, every single item requires a recipe.
So breakfast is never just cereal or a banana or a yogurt or toast–you know, grab it, swig some coffee, swear as you spill it or try to find your other shoe to get out the door… Breakfast is at least a blueberry or peach smoothie, which requires relatively expensive fruits and a blender that has to be taken apart and washed afterward. Every day. Each stand-alone vegetable has its own dip so they become “vegetables you’ll actually want to eat”.
Follow Bittman’s month with any degree of literalism and you’ll be cooking something new from scratch every few hours for weeks without a break. And washing a lot of dishes.
The shopping required to follow his plan is no easy matter either. The full list for each week, which he doesn’t really work out on paper, is very long and includes some fairly high-ticket ingredients that undermine what he’s been working up to in the first half of the book. Luxury extras like hazelnuts and dried cherries figure more prominently in the menu titles than broccoli or carrots or zucchini or apples. Scallops, shrimp, halibut, salmon, and steak often appear at lunch (on top of mesclun salads) on days when there’s already chicken or a bean or lentil stew, or both together, scheduled for dinner. And weren’t the bean dishes supposed to stand in for some of the meat meals?
The fact that there are just about no repeats, no clear ingredient reuses, and no leftovers or reheats within any given week (what actually happened to that pot of beans on Day One or the quick bread that serves six on Day Three? Never to be seen again…) tells you Bittman isn’t shopping on a budget or cooking on a schedule. He’s not cooking like a mom; he’s cooking like a trendy guy with a weekend hobby and no young kids, multiplied out to five extra days a week.
Most likely Bittman isn’t really cooking like this every day, or even most days. I really, really hope these menu lists are intended to show a tempting variety rather than representing a realistic week of home cooking. It’s a lot more time and work–and money–than you really need just to get some vegetables into your diet.
If I could make one change to Food Matters to make it easier for the audience he’s trying to convince, which I guess is most of us, it would be this advice: stop cooking so much.
It’s ok to pick a dinner recipe (and most of his look fine), but make enough to reheat the next day so you can do something else once in a while and still eat well. It’s ok to save the fancy meals for the weekend. It’s even ok to be boring and skip the hazelnuts and dried cranberries and so on. Unless you’re a caterer, you don’t have to cook for a party every night. And certainly not at breakfast.
And not everything needs a recipe. It’s ok to eat many vegetables and fruits as-is, raw and without a dip. They actually taste just fine once you stop expecting them to taste like nachos.
For his own sake, I hope Bittman’s skiving off most of the time and that instead of whichever bag of specially prepared spiced popcorn is the featured snack of the day in his month of menus, he’s really just grabbing half a red pepper or a handful of raw carrots or cabbage or just an apple to munch on as he heads for the laptop or the gym or The Minimalist tv studio.
If you want to eat more vegetables, eat more vegetables. Don’t fuss. Just wash and nosh. It’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s really Minimalist, and it doesn’t use heat or extra ingredients, so it’s greener for the planet. It’s the right thing to do.
Filed under: Beans and legumes, books, cooking, Dips, Food Blogs, Food Politics, fruits, Grains, shopping, Vegetabalia | Tagged: cookbooks, cooking green, Food Blogs, Food Matters, global warming, greenhouse gases, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, nutrition, obesity, overweight, plant-based diet, The Minimalist, vegetables |