(Salon Talks)

Mark Bittman has new cookbook and is no longer cooking everything, he's cooking for everybody

A new book from the indefatigable champion of home cooking offers dinner recipes three ways so everybody eats well


Manny Howard
March 2, 2019 10:30PM (UTC)

Is it 19 cookbooks already? Mark Bittman's Everything franchise has given the world thousands of recipes and, just when you thought there was nothing left to cook, right on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of "How To Cook Everything,"  this nationally renown champion of home cookery gives us "Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made Three Ways."

The six-time James Beard award winner's  first major new work reconsiders classic recipes and presents them in pods of three: one version is easy for a Wednesday nght, one is kinda super fancy and one is vegan (and not necessarily easy, but sometimes). A real challenge when it comes to pork chops you might say, but Bittman pulls it off. Maybe a thick cut eggplant steak is like a rye-stuffed pork chop, you'll tell yourself, especially when seasoned with allspice, cumin and lemon juice and drizzled with pomegranate molasses. Here's the transcript from our full Salon Food Talks.

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In the food publishing world there are cookbooks, and there are cookbooks, and then there are cookbook events, and then Mark Bittman writes a new cookbook, and it's a totally different thing. I'm Manny Howard, this is Salon Talks. This is Mark Bittman.

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Coincidentally.

Yes. And this is the new one. "Dinner for Everyone: 100 Iconic Dishes Made Three Ways."

You've already written a book, How to Cook Everything. You get this all the time, right?

Well, you know, the hypocrisy thing, is what are you gonna do? But titles are titles, and basically these are ... The first How to Cook Everything book is 20 plus years old.

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Is that right?

Things change; tastes change. And books change. So, this really is a dinner book, as opposed to How to Cook Everything, and it really did start with the idea that, well, this is what people want and, to some extent, what they should want, is easy stuff, more plant-based stuff, and really, really great stuff.

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That's the idea here, that it's a high concept with a fast, easy recipe, a vegan recipe, and a blow-it-out, do-it-for-company recipe, each under an umbrella of flavor or an iconic dish or what have you. So, it's a new concept. It's a dinner book, and there's some wacky stuff in there, and some really, really good stuff, so.

I have two of the problems: I cook for my family every night, pretty much, and I usually have them snacking some time around the time everybody else has dinner. Six, seven, they're hitting the Ritz crackers and I'm launching into my project. By 9:15 or so, I'm plating the food for them.

And everybody's totally furious?

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Yeah, furious. Lisa's furious; the kids are full, for the most part.

After eating cheese and crackers for two hours or whatever.

Yeah. And the meal is, I gotta say, I'm pretty good at it. The meal is great and I'm really pleased, all that emotional stuff that you point out in the book, and is true. It's very satisfying to cook for your people. But they don't want their food.

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I really think I discovered that after ... When I started cooking, I was really cooking for myself. And I liked it. And then I discovered, years later, after my first kid was born, this cooking for other people really has something going for it. It's really great. And it still is. And then it's true: Sometimes, they don't really care. They're happy you did it, but they don't care that much about the food.

Right. And you hope when you're feeling small, that when they're away and they're not eating the way they are eating right now, that they're gonna really miss it, and send you postcard. But that's a real thing, is the timing. And you've sort of solved the problem in this book. I haven't gone through all the recipes, but I will have. And there are some in there that even I think I can deliver before eight o' clock.

Right. Well, I come by honestly. I started cooking for my family when my kids were young and I was a stay-at-home dad. But I worked until, whatever, five, five-thirty, and then I'd panic and, for whatever reason, we were used to eating dinner ... I mean, for many reasons, we were used to eating dinner early, and I wasn't as sophisticated as you and your family are. And it was a while ago, so, we just would fly into a panic at five or five-thirty and try to have dinner on the table at six-thirty, and I really became skilled, I think, at cutting corners and doing things fast. Saying, "This'll take an extra 10 or 15 minutes, or an extra step or two, and I just don't have that time right now.

So, the fast thing became the minimalist, really. That has stuck with me. I was never a chef anyway, so I never did complicated things. But then you go back to the very beginning, when me and my friends were using Julia Child cookbooks, and those recipes ...

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Trying to get it perfect.

Yeah. And those recipes took a while, and it's often worth it, if you have the time to take a while. So, yeah.

Another thing that I've also come to late; some things I come to 10 years early and nobody gets it, and then some things I wander into after everybody's left the room. It occurred to me some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas that I was gonna start using the protein, the meat on the plate as the garnish. The meal was gonna be about the vegetables.

Yeah, you're still way ahead of your time, but yeah.

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But really it's a flavor note. When they kids were tiny, I was serving them pork chops they couldn't see over. Like climbing the Matterhorn. And I really expected them to finish it. I cooked it, you should finish it. I think they're traumatized.

So, now you have one pork chop for everybody?

Exactly right.

Well, that is increasingly common. We all know that's the way to treat meat, is as a garnish, or at least as a snack or an accent or whatever. When you think about what we used to eat, meat-wise. I can remember four people finishing a three-pound steak and that kind of stuff. Now, it's always like, or for most people that I know, it's one piece of meat that used to serve one now serves four.

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Right. I was writing about fraudulent fish, replacing cheap fish where expensive fish is being sold. I was talking to Bobby DeMasco at Pierless Fish, and he said ...

I know that guy.

Yeah. He said, "Think about just the way people eat fish. There's no such thing as a fish-house like there's a steakhouse. There's no problem serving a 48 ounce steak to somebody in a steakhouse and fully expecting them to eat all that meat."

Although that's a thing, right?

48's a little thick, yeah.

But that's a thing.

Right, but if you tried to do that with fish to somebody; well, first, the fish oil would probably shoot through you. But there are social expectations about the way we eat protein.

It's true. But, still, people consider half a chicken a serving. You go to a lot of places and they'll give you half a chicken.

Right, and you're paying a lot of money for that chicken.

Anyway, so, the third part of this puzzle, we've talked about the fast stuff and we've talked about the project stuff, a little bit, anyway; but the third part of this puzzle is that people know that they should be eating less meat, and they should be eating more vegetables, and so on. So, a third of this book is outright vegan. And I think the dishes that include meat or animal products are somewhat scaled back from how they used to be. But then there's this third of the book that's vegan.

These are great plant-based recipes. I think I and my team have been doing really good plant-based recipes for 10 years now. In a way, it remains a tough sell. People are looking for it, but then you give it to them, and they're like, "Well, gee, that's a lot of work for vegetarian dish or a vegan dish." I think that's a gradual change that's happening, and it kinda has to happen.

It might be a great set-up that you have a quick meal, a stunt meal, the display meal, project meal, and then in the middle you have the vegan meal. Because, really, the vegan meal, I think people do mistake the vegan or the vegetable as the fast thing. And to differentiate ...

Yeah. Which, it's not.

... It between fast ... There's a great ...

It can be, of course.

Yeah, no, certainly.

I can be back next year with 150 Vegan Recipes Under 30 Minutes. You can do it ...

How to Cook Every Vegetable. Just gotta get Every in the title.

There is an every in this title. Yes! True.

Actually, one of these struck me. I'm gonna call it a couplet. Thick-cut pomegranate glazed eggplant and rye-stuffed pork chops. Now, the book is divided up into three ... It's thematic ...

This is sort of a chop group. It's like thick things.

Yeah, yeah. But what struck me was that these two recipes are related in a sensory way; that you've done a great job, you and the team, of saying, "These live in the same place."

The vegetable cutlet thing is an old-fashioned ... People who grew up in New York know about vegetable cutlets, 'cause there were vegetarian restaurants even when we were kids. But, yeah, it's strong-flavored, thick-cut things; no one's gonna mistake eggplant for pork chops, that's clear. But these groups of three, they're liberally defined, let's say.

I mean, there are great things that look like they would be great together, and then there are things that I think, "Oh, yeah, that actually is a very similar meal." The pomegranate and the eggplant, somehow the rye and the pork, they aren't the same thing. But they felt like you delivering the same thing.

Well, that's good. That's good.

It's one of the great browsing benefits of this recipe book is that it feels like a walking tour. I suppose that's the way. Flavor walking tour.

Well, there was an inc ... I tell you, this book went through a lot of iterations until I think we got it right. But there was a time, and there obviously are books, where you would do, for example, I don't know, veal piccata. And then you would do seitan piccata. Where you'd use a meat imitation or a substitute or a fake meat or whatever you wanna call it to try to make pretty much the same dish that would be, in every way that you could hopefully perceive, identical.

Begging forgiveness for the vegetable, right?

Right. It's why there are fake beef burgers, as opposed to, "Well, you just have a veggie burger. Big deal." Have a bean burger or a grain burger if you wanna put something between a bun that's vaguely like meat, with ketchup and stuff on it. Doesn't have to be cell-raised meat, it could be like some ground up vegetables. It'll be fine.

We decided not to go that route, to not look for fake meats, to not look for things that were going to be ... You know, "We're gonna do veal parmigiana, we're gonna do chicken parmigiana, we're gonna do tofu parmigiana, that's vaguely like the chicken parmigiana." We do eggplant parmigiana, whatever.

So, that was a kinda conscious decision, to make the plant-based dishes ... You know, they're in the same ballpark as the other two dishes in the same grouping, but they're not fake meats. They use the same flavors or they use the similar textures or whatever, but we're not trying to fool anybody here. They're candidly plant-based recipes.

Candidly, right. Unapologetically.

Overtly. Right, unapologetically. 'Cause they're good! That's, you know, they're good.

And that was the ... My vegetable game was getting better and better, and I thought, "I don't know why I feel this compulsion to put meat on the plate." And that's what lead me to the, "Oh, it's just a garnish." And I think the kids buy it; they actually prefer it. There're plenty of times when they've said, "Let's just have the chickpeas again with the rice, and not the thing." So, we all know that the children are better than we are.

We're trying to raise them to be.

That's right.

I wrote How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, was published in 2007, which means I was working on it in the early 2000s. I don't think I convincingly ordered a vegan dish because that's what I really wanted until 10 years after that. I think it was really a process. Now, I'll be like, I look at a menu, or I go to a place, or I cook something; sometimes I forget to put meat in, or I just don't have any, or I just feel like I don't want it. It's not as much of a thing anymore. It feels more natural.

Yeah. I'm not there. I still need ...

Sounds like your kids are.

Yeah, I know, they are. Maybe if I focus on them and their needs a little bit more, then dinner'll be earlier in the evening.

My kids are grown; I don't actually know how they eat. They do cook, though. I know they cook.

Do they check ... I'm not a great role model in the kitchen; I'm pretty bossy and I tend to shush people out, 'cause I'm so focused on delivering the meal. I'm not one of the, "Come and see how this is done."

Right. I never did that either, but one of my kids was just more interested than the other. They're both good cooks. I just don't know exactly what they're doing, [crosstalk 00:14:51] basis.

It's osmotic.

Yeah. Well, that was what I was hoping. Set the model, hope that you transfer your values, don't lecture. One of my kids has said that I didn't lecture enough, which was, I guess, an okay thing.

Well, you're never gonna do it right.

Right!

Are you working on another cookbook? Is there another thing coming?

It's the 20th anniversary of How to Cook Everything, the original How to Cook Everything, so everything now ... It's funny, I fought against photography. I really did, in my early books. I was like, "People don't need to know what it's gonna look like; they can find out what it's gonna look like. It's not gonna encourage them. What's gonna encourage them to cook a recipe is, they can tell that it's a good recipe."

I don't know, things have changed, obviously. It's really hard to do a cookbook now without photography.

You must've driven people crazy in those meetings with the no photography thing.

Well, How to Cook Everything, and a lot of my early books, even not How to Cook Everything, a couple others, were huge, and they were good value. And they were and are basic cookbooks that, like Joy of Cooking, you could own that and almost own nothing else and you'd be okay. And that was the idea.

But everything is a little ... People do expect photography now; it's harder to get ... And, also, those books exist, so, I don't have to redo the original How to Cook Everything. It's a good standalone volume, but we're doing it with fewer recipes and with photography. So, that's coming out, actually, later this year.

How to Cook Almost Everything.

How to Cook Fewer Things. How to Cook Everything, defining everything even more liberally than the first time.

How to Cook Everything That You Wanna Photograph.

Okay. Yeah, that's exactly right. But meanwhile, I'm working on a non-cookbook that's sorta driving me crazy that I think will be really good, and then ... I think cookbooks are gonna be part of my life until I stop writing, whenever that happens. Because there's always ideas, and I think Dinner for Everyone was a good idea, and I think it's well-executed.

So, if people are willing to pay for me and pay for them, and other people are willing to buy them, I like doing it. And they're all different challenges, and they're all, I don't know, they're interesting projects to me.

If I'd had room in my backpack, I was gonna bring you my sauce-splattered How to Cook Everything.

Is the binding broken? It's no good if the binding's not broken.

Binding is totally broken and peeling off. And we have two copies, 'cause they came together. We each had one in our household. So, just this testament to how much it gets used. Chefs have the story, they all talk about the dish ... You know, Tom Valenti can't get away from the lamb shank. Wherever he goes, he has to bring the lamb shank with him. All chefs who've succeeded with a dish that is just theirs moans and groans about it.

What's the equivalent for you? What's the thing you wish you hadn't done?

I'm gonna tell you.

It's so dumb, and it gets into the How to Cook Everything story. But, honestly, it's pancakes. The most comments I've had on recipes in my whole life have been like, "I make your pancakes. And they're so great, and my kids love them, and they always work." And the funny thing is, they are absolutely standard, run of the mill, it's how you make ... Like, if you're making basic, don't forget whipping the egg whites or melting butter into the amber, adding ricotta or sour cream. All these cool things you can do with pancakes. If you're gonna make pancakes, egg, milk, flour, baking powder, it's a standard recipe. If you make it otherwise, they're not really standard pancakes. So, it's a recipe that's like, a cup of flour, a cup of milk, a tablespoon of baking powder, a little salt, a little sugar, and egg. It's a pancake recipe!

But that's the lucky moment of my life, when I decided that I wasn't gonna be someone who did things fancy. I wasn't gonna do foie gras recipes, I wasn't gonna do [boar 00:19:44] recipes, I don't know. I was gonna do, at some point ...

How to Cook Everything has a popcorn recipe, because in 1996, or whenever we were finishing the book, '97, we were like, "Well, actually, people don't know how to make popcorn, 'cause they all" ...

Right, Jiffy Pop.

No, they have microwaves! So, they certainly didn't know how to make pancakes. And people would stop me, literally on the street, and say, "You taught me how to make grilled cheese." And I felt like saying, "I'm sorry that your upbringing didn't include making a grilled cheese, but, hey, I'm glad to have taught it to you."

Raised in a Skinner box.

But, so many people don't, and that's why I think ... This is a little more ambitious, but I really have made a living on teaching people things that, in a way, even we, men, but not being consciously taught how to do things, grew up kinda learning how to do 'cause we saw cooking all the time. People who grew up in the '70s and '80s didn't see cooking as much.

I started cooking, I was interested in cooking 'cause my dad had a party twice a year, once a year, where he cooked the curry that he learned to make when he was post-doc from his roommate's mom in Uganda. He would have all his friends over and he would have a big party and make this curry. It looked like so much fun that I started doing it in college. Took the recipe with me and then, from there ...

I'd like to see that recipe.

Yeah, I've got it, actually.

The 50-year-old Ugandan curry.

Yeah, it was transferred over a phone booth in England, pushing in the 50 pence. It was probably 10 pence back then ... Piece coins, so that they could keep ...

It was shillings back then.

Yeah, right.

Interesting.

I think that's right.

I wish I were known for something that exotic, but instead I have the pancake story.

It's a good curry. I'll share it with you. But I think that's right, I think that men who cook, not chefs, 'cause it's a totally different thing.

Right, well, they often have, "I do this one thing that's." Yeah, I do hear that from men a lot.

I mean, you said earlier that you're not a chef. You cook. But I feel the same way. I cook a lot; I'm often very ambitious, but that's a different discipline. And that the cooking thing was largely, I took it on myself to figure out how to do it. I didn't have somebody telling me, "You should cook for your family."

Yeah, fewer and fewer. I think people should cook for their family, it'd just be better if it didn't break down along gender lines.

Right. That's right. So, I think that when the octopuses take the planet back from, 'cause they had it first, and now when they take it back, some octopus archeologist will be going through cookbooks in the future and they will say, "What is this bitumen cake that everybody has?" And you will finally have gotten the credit that you deserve for this one dish.

The octopus recipe.

I saw the octopus recipe in here, and it's a great one, but I've sworn off octopus. I won't eat them.

Because they're too smart?

They're too smart.

I don't think they're smarter than pigs, you know. You have to be careful with that.

I never saw a pig rolling down ... No, I get ... I think that's a common and probably correct and true observation. But I've never seen a pig rolling down a hill inside of coconut shells. There's a video on YouTube.

Of octopuses doing that?

Gets inside the shell, rolls down the hill, gets out of the shell and carries it back up the hill like a sled, and does it again.

That's kind of fun.

Yeah. That's a smart critter.

But there's many fun, you can have fun with chickens, you can have fun with pigs. Once you start having fun with them, you're not gonna want to eat them.

Yeah, I've done it.

Be careful with that stuff.

That's right. Mark, thank you so much for coming in and thank you for another fantastic book.

Thanks for having me, Manny. It's always fun to talk

 


Manny Howard

Manny Howard is executive producer of Salon, and the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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