Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How to Cook Everything

Okay, I can't help you there. But Mark Bittman can-- and he will. If you're involved in food online at all, you probably already know about the dude. He has a column in the New York Times, and he's a bit of an activist, both about cooking itself and food politics in general. If you're interested in that sort of thing, he talks about his politics a fair amount on his personal blog, in between delicious recipes.

Me, I'm often surprised by how much I disagree with Bittman when it comes to food politics. I do strongly believe that veggie-as-main-dish, meat-as-side-dish is the best way to eat, for health and sanity reasons as much as anything else, and I'm as anti-farm subsidy as you can get. But I don't think that food advertising is magical brainwashing, I'm not convinced that local food is the be-all and end-all of responsible eating, (though I do believe that it, and its partner seasonality, is the beginning of fun and delicious eating), I'm not exactly a global warming evangelist, and I don't think that there's a strong justification for tax-based social engineering aimed at modifying our diets. (For one thing, no, junk food isn't cheaper. Note the byline, and be amused.)

None of that stops me for having tremendous respect in, and appreciation for, the man's food philosophy. Because he and How to Cook Everything very much have one, and I admire that in a cookbook.

How to Cook Everything is part reference book, and part sermon on the fundamentals of cooking. Its focus is on simple ingredients, simple techniques, and improvisational cooking, and on mastery of certain core recipes that form the foundations of a varied repertoire. When I want to cook an ingredient I've never used before, and need to know how to store it, how long it'll keep, and what the best way to prepare it is, this is where I go.

It fits my cooking style, and my cooking needs. I've done a lot of cooking in the past year and a half, since coming into possession of a food budget for the first time my senior year of college, and into the responsibility of running a single-person household now that I'm out of it, but I'm constantly struck by how little I still know about cooking. I know far more than my generational peers, sure, but I've still never baked a pie, roasted a turkey, or cooked broccoli. My repertoire of dependable, look-ma-no-hands staple recipes has only recently required more than two hands of fingers to count.

Building that repertoire is really what I'm focused on right now, and How to Cook Everything is an excellent tool. It's organized around the basic, fast, easy recipes that Mark Bittman believes should form the foundation of everyday cooking (and, for the most part, I agree with him), and since it's so focused on building blocks and variation (many recipes include several similar but alternative preparations, and the discussion of every ingredient notes acceptable substitutes), every new recipe I learn from the book expands the true number of dishes I can prepare several fold.


  1. "Junk food is cheaper than healthy food: A bag of Lays is cheaper than a bunch of organic asparagus!"


    Cheap food is starchy peasant food: potatoes, cornmeal, rice and bread. Vitamins, a little fruit, and some cheap meat like liver, and you're good to go. Except for the fact that it would be really boring, and Doritos and Mountain Dew are convenient, and people who read articles about the price of junk food aren't poor...

  2. I feel your pain. Comparing Lays to asparagus is demented if you actually, you know, know anything about food. Highly seasonal vegetable vs. one of the least seasonal, least perishable, easiest to grow foods around. Duh.

    "Why do people eat crap?" is kind of a recurring interest of mine. I'm not sure I've worked out all the answers, but "it's less expensive!" definitely ain't it. It would be much more expensive for me to eat all junk food than what I eat now.