This interview was originally broadcast on Jan. 10, 2008.
Mark Bittman is the king of tweaking recipes. His long-running "Minimalist" column in The New York Times explained to people how to adjust simple recipes to their liking — with minimal time, effort and ingredients. His best-selling cookbooks How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian demonstrate how a few simple rules can be applied to most ingredients you have in the pantry.
Aside from preheating pans, Bittman says he doesn't have any golden secrets that he uses on his own dishes. "I think the tricks that I have are not secrets at all," he tells Fresh Air's David Bianculli. "I think they're things that just come from really a life of cooking and become sort of second nature."
Mark Bittman is the author of 10 books on cooking, including The Minimalist Cooks at Home, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner and Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef. He also hosts the public television series Bittman Takes On America's Chefs. He has received four James Beard Awards for his work.
On restricting himself to vegetarian recipes for his cookbook How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian
"I thought immediately of this Japanese woman I met a couple years ago who was a brilliant chef who only did super vegan — you know, really, really limited stuff. And I asked her why, because she ate meat and she obviously enjoyed it. ... And she said, 'Well, you know, you limit things so that you can explore the universe of them more thoroughly.' ...
"I think that I'm not interested in proselytizing for people to be vegetarians, but I am interested in proselytizing for people to eat fewer animal products. We raise animals now in what can only be called an industrial fashion. And I think the more people know about that, the more turned off they're going to be by that."
"Once you've cooked something, it will stay in the refrigerator for quite a while. Now, it'll decline in flavor perhaps, and freshness, but it's not going to decline that quickly, and it's not going to decline in quality or become dangerous — that is, rot — for a while. That's why refrigerators are so terrific.
"So it's just as easy to cook a pound of dried beans as a half a pound, and it's just as easy to cook two cups of rice or barley or whatever as one cup. When you start thinking that way — it's just as easy to wash a head of lettuce as half a head of lettuce — all of these things will then stay, once they're cooked or prepared, in the refrigerator for days. And once you start thinking that way, you have the makings of different meals at your fingertips."
On whole grains
"I will say that what really freaked me out when I was working on this book was how many different things we were able to do with whole grains. And we came up with a method for cooking whole grains that's faster and easier than anything I've ever seen. And we came up with a bunch of kind of casseroles and sauce dishes with whole grains that I was really, really excited about. So it's more of a category than an individual dish, but that's the case."
On his reader feedback
"What's changed in the last 10 years is that I get stopped now by equal amounts of men and women, and men are much more aggressive e-mailers, I think. They're not necessarily more frequent emailers, but they'll email me and challenge things or suggest new ideas. Women tend to email and say, 'I really liked what you're doing.' Men say either, 'I think you're an idiot,' or, 'I like what you're doing but you could do it better.' Or, 'I like what you're doing and here's another idea for you.' "
On his favorite cookbook
"There were a few, but I'd have to say that it was Paula Peck's Art of Good Cooking. Paula Peck was this woman in New York who was friends with, well, what passed for foodies in those days, but was really kind of out of the loop, and was, from all accounts — I never met her — from all accounts a kind of unhappy housewife who decided she was going to take cooking a little more seriously.
"She experimented quite a bit. She had a very good voice. She wrote very, very clear recipes. And when something in the culinary canon was nonsense, she said so. Hers was the first book that I kind of cooked through cover to cover, and she did such radical things as announcing that boneless chicken breasts were a terrific substitute for veal scallopini. ... And she further announced that they cooked through in six minutes. And when you told people you could cook chicken in six minutes, you were telling them something that nobody knew. ...
"You can still find Paula's books remaindered or in used book shops, because she also has The Art of Fine Baking, in which you will find the single best croissant recipe ever printed, I believe. So if you want to know how to make croissants, it's worth getting that book."
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our TV critic David Bianculli has had many food adventures, tasting strange and exotic - some might say scary - meats. He's grilled kangaroo, alligator - he says it tastes like chicken - and crocodile, which doesn't. He told us yak is delicious, but that bear was too disgusting even for him, which is saying a lot. So we thought it would be fun for David to interview Mark Bittman. He wrote The New York Times column "The Minimalist" for 13 years. Now Bittman writes an opinion column on food-related matters and is a food columnist for The Times' Sunday Magazine.
David interviewed Bittman in 2008 after the publication of his book "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Mark Bittman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK BITTMAN (Food Columnist, The New York Times): It's great to be here, Dave.
BIANCULLI: Your new book, "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," has an obvious limitation: no meat. But was that restriction freeing, as well?
Mr. BITTMAN: Interesting question, because when you started asking it, I thought immediately of this Japanese woman I met a couple of years ago who was a brilliant chef who only did super-vegan, you know, really, really limited stuff. And I asked her why, because she ate meat and she obviously enjoyed it, but she only cooked very, very limited. And she said, it's like pen and ink. And I said, what do you mean? She said well, you know, you limit things so that you can explore the universe of them more thoroughly, which seemed like a very Japanese thing to say.
BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Sounds great, though.
Mr. BITTMAN: But I - you know what? I think that I'm not interested in proselytizing for people to be vegetarians, but I am interested in proselytizing for people to eat fewer animal products. We raise animals now in what can only be called an industrial fashion. And I think the more people know about that, the more turned off they're going to be by that.
BIANCULLI: All right, here's my big question, in theory. What I wanted to do for the interview was pick out a recipe of yours that I was very skeptical about in advance. That...
Mr. BITTMAN: I am already amazed that you found one you could be skeptical about. But go ahead.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. No, I did.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: And I couldn't find it in the vegetarian cookbook. I had to go on "The Minimalist" and go back. And it was - we're in firm agreement as meat eaters that - you know, we're talking about rib eyes as the best part of the steak and...
Mr. BITTMAN: No question.
BIANCULLI: ...and that, you know, simplicity is wonderful here. And you have a recipe which says instead of just doing it the normal way, just put it uncovered, you know, over a little wire thing in the refrigerator for like two or three or four days and flip it once a day and don't cover it. And then this gives it this crust that you can then cook with. So...
Mr. BITTMAN: It dries it out a little bit.
BIANCULLI: A little bit. Well, let me tell you, I did an A/B test. I got two rib eyes. I have a real good butcher...
Mr. BITTMAN: You know, I'm very glad you did this. I can't wait to hear what you say.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. So what happened was - so I kept one wrapped up and did it the way I normally would do. I did the other one. I did a rub on the -equal rub on both. But the one that was dried in the refrigerator, after a couple of days, it started looking like rib eye jerky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: You know, and the last time meat looked like that in my refrigerator, honestly, I threw it away. But I thought...
Mr. BITTMAN: Right.
BIANCULLI: Okay, I can sue you if it doesn't work. I can talk to you about this or get some sort of...
Mr. BITTMAN: You didn't throw it out, though. You cooked it.
BIANCULLI: I did not throw it out. I cooked it. And eating them side-by-side, it was remarkably better.
Mr. BITTMAN: Well, how is this a scary question?
BIANCULLI: Well, yeah. Well, yeah.
Mr. BITTMAN: You got me all nervous. But now you're telling me that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: Because it looked horrible. It looks horrible.
Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah. Yeah, it does dry out.
BIANCULLI: And you didn't warn me in the recipe that it was going to look, you know, inedible before you cooked it. But it was so much crustier and crispier and better. So how did you figure that out?
Mr. BITTMAN: You know, refrigerators are a pretty drying environment. And that's why people hang meat in cool places, because you want to - if you think about all the different meat preparations, the traditional ones of aging and drying meat, they're things that people love. And a prosciutto, which is essentially a dried ham, it's hung for 18 months, and almost all the moisture is leaving that. And if you think of dry, aged beef, that's exactly what it is: dry, aged beef. But my thinking in the refrigerator thing was not really to age the meat, although that's something I want to try to play with at some point, or I've been threatening to play with at some point.
My thinking was really when you are trying to brown a steak, especially in a home environment where you often don't have the kind of high heat they have been restaurants, your biggest enemy is moisture. And if you put a piece of meat on a rack in a refrigerator, I figured it would dry out. And the whole thing's not going to dry out. What's going to dry out is the outside.
Mr. BITTMAN: And then it's going to take a crust really, really well. So it wasn't that hard to think about this. It wasn't that hard to figure it out, and I was pretty sure I was right, which is why I was actually was getting nervous when you were - with your big buildup, making me feel like you were going to tell me I was wrong.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor David Bianculli spoke with Mark Bittman in 2008 after the publication of his book "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."
And so we conclude our All You Can Eat series with another recipe that I will never, ever try - never.
Here's Dave Frishberg.
(Soundbite of song, "Let's Eat Home")
Mr. DAVID FRISHBERG (Musician): (Singing) I like to stroll on the Costa Del Sol at sunrise. And to me, Waikiki is the place to be, speaking fun-wise. I like to dine in a Florentine palazzo. You can laugh and call me fatso. That's okay by me.
I like to stick with the first-class ticket buyers, setting trends with my trend-setting friends, the frequent fliers. I like to shop on the Champs Elysees, eat curry in old Bombay and spend New Years Eve in either Tel Aviv or Rome.
But if it's all the same to you, let's eat home.
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.