Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Minimalist Kudos

I was all set to write about movies this morning until I clicked on The New York Times. I scanned the headlines, read the editorial on President Obama's State of the Union speech last night, and the brief analysis of the bizarre Michele Bachmann Overdrive exhibition. Then I saw this: "The Minimalist Makes His Exit".

My heart nearly stopped. No! Mark Bittman can't be leaving! He must have anticipated such panic in his fans, because he reassures us in the first paragraph that is not quitting the Times; he is only ending regular publication of his weekly column. At the end of this farewell column, he tells us that he will be joining the Times' Opinion page. I'll save my opinion on that for the end of this blog post!

One of the many reasons I love The New York Times is the superb food writing. I'm not old enough to know what the food pages were like before the reign of the renowned Craig Claiborne, but I know that the standard of excellence present at his retirement in the late 1980s has continued. More than any other source, I credit the NYT food pages with expanding my culinary horizons, be it an in-depth report on a food previously unknown to me or a story about coffee geeks in search of a perfect brew.

Mark Bittman's focus has been to demystify cooking and make it accessible to those who may be daunted by their lack of training, space or time. But a food guru for the masses he's not. Balding, middle-aged and low-key, Mark Bittman is to Rachael Ray what Umberto Eco is to Dan Brown; I can't imagine him on the Food Network any more than I can imagine an Eco paperback at an airport kiosk. Despite his sincere admonishments against food snobbery, his recipes are not likely to appeal to those whose comfort zone is the middle aisles of Safeway or the Taco Bell drive-up window. Yet I would recommend his cookbooks and columns to a beginning or moderately-experienced cook who isn't freaked out by seeing something like tofu or quinoa on an ingredient list. And even an experienced cook who likes to spend all weekend in the kitchen may appreciate his no-fuss recipes on a weeknight.

One of my favorite Bittman columns was his advice on cheaply outfitting a kitchen. There may be many excuses for not cooking (some people simply don't want to, and that's fine), but an inadequate kitchen shouldn't be one of them. To cook, all you really need is a heat source and something to hold the food so that your hands don't get burned. Think campfire cooking. I once saw Alton Brown cook kebabs by digging a small trench in the ground, building a fire in the middle and laying skewers of meat across the top. He made it way more complicated than it had to be (examining all available skewers at a kitchen store till he found the best), but it still serves as excellent evidence that a Viking range is not a necessity for home cooking.

I only have one of Bittman's cookbooks in my overcrowded library (his The Best Recipes in the World) and often I forget it's there. But sometimes, when I look in my fridge and find an assortment of seemingly incongruous items, am too lazy to go to the grocery and don't want to be in the kitchen all afternoon anyway, I pick up his book and find inspiration for something new (a head of cabbage, a pound of sausage and a few seasonings make a tasty Italian dish).

Most of the Bittman recipes I've tried have come from his Minimalist column, so I will be sorry to see it go. However, I'm thrilled that he will be advocating for real food on the op-ed pages. I can't wait to see his first column!

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