I mentioned that Mark Bittman would be at Habitat on September 28 for a special dinner in honor of his new book, The Food Matters Cookbook. Since it’s due time I post an “Out of the Kitchen” interview, I thought, who better than Mark Bittman himself? So I stepped out of the kitchen and into a conversation with Mark about his cooking philosophy, his new book and much more.
Photo from markbittman.com
AM: You’re very adamant about not being a “chef.” What is your culinary background and how did you become such a big part of the culinary world without any formal training?
MB: I’m a home cook; chefs run restaurants or other institutions. I’m also mostly self-taught though, after 30 years of doing this work I’ve learned plenty from real chefs and other professionals. I began reviewing restaurants and writing for newspapers, then moved to magazines and cookbooks. The Minimalist began running in the Times in 1997, a year before How to Cook Everything appeared. To the extent that I’ve been successful it’s because my writing and recipes respond to the needs of people who want cooking to be easy, enjoyable, and healthy. The Food Matters Cookbook continues in that tradition.
AM: What is your cooking philosophy?
MB: Cooking should not be intimidating or difficult–if it is, something’s wrong. Anyone can cook, anyone can cook well, and anyone can cook well without much time, skill, or money. Anyone can also cook good food that is supportive of health, rather than disease-causing. And all it takes is knowledge of a few simple techniques, good ingredients, and a little flexibility. Once you’ve got those, all it takes to cook with less meat and more plants–which everyone needs to do–is a little creativity.
AM: Your weekly New York Times column (The Minimalist) offers you a medium with which to reach millions of people. What do you think about when writing and developing recipes for it?
MB: The Minimalist has been running for more than 13 years now – incredible. Obviously, when I come up with recipes for it, I want them to be simple–that’s the whole idea of the column–and I want them to be something I haven’t done before. I get my ideas from restaurants, friends, and my own cooking: Often I walk into my kitchen in the evening, look at what’s in the fridge and pantry, and build a meal around that. Sometimes it turns out just okay; sometimes it turns out great and becomes a Mini. Since I started eating less-meatarian-style a few years ago, I’ve discovered all sorts of new ways of approaching familiar dishes, and the challenge of cooking with less meat, dairy, and eggs has given me fantastic column fodder – fortunately, my editors think so too.
AM: What is a common misconception about healthy eating and living?
MB: That it’s an all-or-nothing deal. No one eats healthy all the time, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t healthy eaters. If you eat three meals at McDonald’s or the like one day–or even one week!–it doesn’t matter much in the long run. It’s like exercise: If you’re a runner, and you skip a day of running, that doesn’t mean you’re not a runner anymore; the long run is what matters. Have a good plan, eat well overall, your health will benefit. Many people approach food, diet, and lifestyle with a dogma that just isn’t very helpful.
AM: Tell us about your new cookbook and what makes these recipes “revolutionary.”
MB: I’m as excited about The Food Matters Cookbook as I’ve been about any of my other cookbooks, and I don’t think “revolutionary” is an exaggeration. For one thing, even though fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy appear throughout the book, there are no chapters focusing on them–that’s because I’m trying to relegate animal products to their rightful role as a garnish or side, not as a centerpiece. The recipes that contain meat usually contain no more than half a pound of it in dishes serving four people. The amazing thing is that such a small amount of meat really can flavor an entire dish, so long as you treat it right and combine it with other flavorful ingredients. We’re trying to create a new American cuisine: one that’s simple, healthy, and good for the planet–and, of course, delicious.
AM: I’m new to this food blogging thing. Tell me about your experiences with Bitten, your New York Times blog.
MB: Well, Bitten is now defunct, or at least partially defunct: It’s been folded into Diner’s Journal, the other New York Times food blog. I still contribute once or twice a week, but I’ve recently been focusing my efforts on markbittman.com, which I relaunched this spring as a blog. It’s been great to have a place where I can share my opinions, not only about cooking (though of course I have plenty of opinions about that), but also about eating, the politics of food, health, and the environment, all of which I feel passionately about. The food system in this country isn’t going to change without a lot of people pushing corporations and the government, and I want to be a part of that.
AM: In all of your travels, do you have a favorite dish (or at least a few that really stand out)?
MB: It’s impossible for me to name a favorite dish, but I will say that when I travel, I try to eat traditional food: the kind of food grandmothers make at home, not the kind of food you pay hundred of dollars for in fancy restaurants. And I’ve been impressed by how rich and varied the cuisines of the rest of the world are, and also by how much traditional cuisines have done using relatively little meat and animal products. For most of history, in most of the world, meat was a luxury ingredient that people cooked rarely and in small quantities, but that didn’t stop them from creating wide-ranging, lavish cooking traditions. I drew a great deal on my travels when writing The Food Matters Cookbook, and you’ll find lots of recipes inspired by dishes from around the world in the book.
AM: What can guests attending the tasting dinner on the 28th expect to see, eat, hear?
MB: Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the menu consists of eight of my favorite recipes from The Food Matters Cookbook, based on fall produce. I know that many of the ingredients will be locally sourced, and I’m looking forward to tasting what Pittsburgh’s farmers and producers have to offer. I’ll talk a little bit about how I got here–that is, how and why I came to eat less meat–and about how anyone can start cooking and eating this way. But I think the food will speak for itself, and I know you will do amazing things with it.
Thanks, Mark! I’m truly looking forward to the 28th and know it will be a great evening for all.