The Minimalist Cooks at Home
by Mark Bittman
Published by Broadway Books
248 pages, 2000
Buy it on Amazon
Reviewed by Aaron Blanton
A trip abroad and my favorite lady and I were out for what we hoped would be a wonderful dinner. Not our anniversary, but a night so special I was dreaming of anniversarial reverberations. The waiters looked appropriately snooty, but that was OK as I'd been encouraged to leave my favorite and fading jeans at home and don duds appropriate to a night's entertainment that included paying as much for dinner as it costs to hire a car for three days. A large car. Mileage included.
Before the menu arrived, I was optimistic. I had relinquished my ride to the valet without warning him to watch the curb and the corners. I'd managed to restrain myself from jumping up when the waiter covered my lap with my linen napkin and to stop myself from saying, "Where's your ponytail? All truly excellent waiters have ponytails." My good lady had discouraged that particular line on our last evening out. The arrival of the menu, however, dashed my good behavior. I can't imagine anyone in their right mind ordering something like "Halibut with Yam and Scallop Crust served with phyllo-wrapped Truffled Lentils in Lobster Bisque." I'm not making this up. I'm a writer: I took notes. Another option: "Lobster and Smoked Scallops with Leek Risotto and Pear Chips in Vanilla Calvados Beurre Blanc."
Now, a lot of those things sound very good -- wonderful, in fact -- in certain artful arrangements. But together? And all at once? What was the chef thinking? I found myself scanning the menu for a simple consommé. Or maybe -- dared I hope? -- some innocent slab of meat, cooked simply and -- could I be allowed to even think it? -- served with some sort of starch. The closest I got was "Tenderloin of Beef crusted with Farmhouse Stilton and Leeks with grilled Peppers." Never mind the cheese/beef combination, where was my potato? Obviously, not at this au jus joint.
The evening left its mark on me. Indelible. I found myself searching for a better way. A simpler way. It was as though that final "Yam and Scallop Crust" had just pushed me over the edge. Shades of Network: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" And -- really -- the current trend for purveyors of quasi haute cuisine to combine things that should never be combined (except for -- perhaps -- in your stomach and over many courses) is sort of... well... nauseating.
I think all of this explains the immense and immediate popularity of the New York Times' Mark Bittman and his column "The Minimalist." It's difficult to believe that Bittman has only been writing that column since the mid-1990s. Bittman has become such an institution: such a touchstone of hope for sanity in a world gone mad to combine foods that don't go.
In his new book, The Minimalist Cooks at Home, Bittman writes that:
A disproportionate amount of space and time in food magazines, newspapers, cookbooks, and television shows is devoted to needlessly and sometimes outrageously complex recipes. But all except the most basic recipes are moments frozen in time, experiences based on a near-random occurrence of available ingredients and cookware, the time of day, season, cook's mood, and so on.
Of course, Bittman does more than talk the talk. The Minimalist Cooks at Home includes 100 recipes in the author's trademark style of cheery discussion of the food in question followed by a concise list of ingredients and instructions. The recipes themselves are followed by the "With Minimal Effort" section which offers options or alternatives if the ingredients called for are not to your liking, requirements or simply aren't available. As Bittman says, "... aside from the obvious point that you cannot roast a chicken without a chicken," most recipes can be easily transformed by the substitution of one ingredient for another.
After being baited with one too many crusted-in-something halibut steaks, The Minimalist Cooks at Home is a delight. Beautiful food prepared in a straightforward manner and explained in a way that even someone who resists having his napkin smoothed can follow and understand. | July 2000
Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living in Scotland. He refuses to eat haggis.