How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman is my new favorite cookbook. It was a Christmas present last year, so I’ve had a few months to break it in. It reminds me a lot of the book I learned from while cooking in college, The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, 11th Edition (1965). This was the last edition before Marion Cunningham’s rewrite. The modern Fanny Farmer is fine, but Bittman reminds me of some things I especially liked the 11th edition.
Building blocks: I think of them as subroutines, but I’m a programmer. Instead of explaining a white sauce once again or re-explaining how to roast winter squash, both Bittman and Farmer refer to the main recipe. This means more page-flipping, but you learn the building blocks of recipes. Now that I know how to add roasted squash to lentils, I can add them to quinoa.
Variations: Almost every recipe has one or more variants. The Fanny Farmer was great about this, and Bittman does it even better. I chose a variant on the basic lentil recipe because we had winter squash. Some recipes have so many variants that they are clearly showing a basic technique, and inviting other combinations, like the eleven versions of grilled or broiled chicken breasts. This complements the simplification from the building blocks with an explosion of variants.
Information about ingredients: This is where Marion Cunningham’s Fanny Farmer shines, with “all about beets” or whatever, but Bittman is at least as good. Look up a food item and you’ll get information about choosing it at the market, substitutes, and recommended cooking techniques. Bittman is especially good for substitutes.
I cooked both Saturday and Sunday last weekend, with a more ambitious menu on Sunday. All but two of the items were from Bittman. I was using up our weekly vegetables from Two Small Farms, so I targeted rugosa squash (like butternut, but uglier), two bunches of chard, and a big bag of Hungarian peppers. I was going to roast the cipollini onions, but decided to leave that for a mid-week kicker.
Saturday, I had plenty of time, enough time to cook chickpeas from scratch instead of using canned.
- Chicken and chickpeas, Bittman, p 650, variant
- Chard gratin, Bittman, p248, one variant of the general-purpose vegetable gratin recipe
- Toasted rolls, we had some nice sandwich rolls on the verge of getting stale, so I split two of them and toasted them—heat will temporarily reverse staling (trick from On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee)
Sunday was tight on time with an afternoon soccer game. I peeled and cubed the squash before the game, we got home at 5pm, and dinner was on the table at 6:40. Not bad, especially when I had to clear the squash out of the oven in order to use the broiler and had to wash a pot in order to cook the carrots.
- North African variant of broiled boneless chicken breasts, Bittman, p 641-3
- Lentils with winter squash, Bittman, p 431-2, variant
- Hot lemon cashew rice, The Whole Chile Pepper Book, Dewitt and Gerlach, p 221 (has chiles, ginger, and mustard seeds, yum, original calls for ghee, I used olive oil)
- Baby carrots with cumin butter, Cuisine Rapide, Pierre Franey, p 302 (this is super simple and really tasty)
Hmm, I think I managed kosher menus, though I just noticed that.
Using the Hungarian peppers in the rice was a gamble. I’d been trying to use them up, but every time I tasted one, they were beastly hot, so I’d use half and compost the rest. I always taste a sliver of every pepper before using it. For the rice, I got three duds and one hot one, just right. The red peppers were much prettier than the wax peppers it calls for. With the bright green cilantro, the dish was striking.
Next time I make a chard gratin, though, I’m steering closer to that Cajun classic, Spinach Madeline. The original is from River Roads Recipes (1959), but you might want to start with the slightly updated version in Cooking Up A Storm, the collection of recipe reprints requested after Katrina. Just be sure to update the cheese from 1950’s original Kraft to something better, like gruyere or fontina.
Sunday was the most complicated menu I can remember tackling solo, and it was put together casually and made it to the table in a timely fashion. The vegetable box is making me think more, but my cooking is really improving. With a little help from Bittman.