An avid home cook since the late 1960s, Mark Bittman has authored more than 10 best-selling cookbooks, including his “How to Cook Everything” series and 2008’s “Food Matters,” a no-nonsense volume promoting agricultural sustainability and slow food. But he’s probably just as well known for his weekly dispatches for “The Minimalist,” the New York Times food column focused on simple, seasonal home cooking.
He also regularly rubs shoulders with celebs, appearing with Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali on the PBS series “Spain … On the Road Again,” and does regular cooking demonstrations on NBC’s Today show.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bittman brings his star power to Habitat in the Fairmont Pittsburgh, where he and executive chef Andrew Morrison — a longtime friend who cooked with him at his wedding — will prepare a tasting menu for a sold-out crowd based on his latest book, “The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living” (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2010, $35).
The evening also will include a discussion of how to choose and cook ingredients, as well as the two cooks’ philosophies for better living.
In a phone interview from his apartment in New York’s Upper West Side, Mr. Bittman gave a taste of his thoughts on responsible eating. They essentially boil down to this: Eat more fruits and veggies and whole grains, and fewer animal products and processed foods. He’s also a big believer in buying locally raised foods whenever possible and reading labels.
Q: The latest report from the USDA shows Americans still aren’t eating as healthily as they could, with more than 67 percent of adults eating fewer than two servings of fruit and three vegetables daily. Seems like a good time for this book.
A: Just about every study and survey show that people want to eat more fruits and vegetables and are aware of the benefits of eating less meat. They just don’t know how to do it. But it’s very clear that the answer is less animal product and processed food, and much, much less junk food.
A conservative estimate is that 80 percent of what we eat should come from unprocessed plants, which is such a big turnaround that we won’t be able to achieve it in our lifetimes. To say everyone needs to be a vegan is a nice idea, but that’s kind of like saying everyone should ride a bicycle. It’s simply not going to happen. The challenge then is, how do we move in that direction of eating less of A and more of B?
Q: How do you suggest getting started?
A: You can try going “vegan before 6” like I do, which means avoiding all animal and processed foods until dinner time, and then eat whatever you want in moderation. I have another friend who only eats meat five times a month, and another one who has sworn off processed food but not meat. Or just eat a salad instead of a hamburger every once in a while. The point is making small, gradual changes that you’ll stick to. If people changed just 10 to 20 percent of what they’re eating — that’s two meals a week — that would be amazing movement for the country.
“The Food Matters Cookbook” is another good step. I actually think in five years it will seem primitive, but today it’s a radical departure from what cuisine has looked like over the last 100 years. It doesn’t leave anything out — there are still meat and poultry, and traditional methods of cooking — but by emphasizing fruits and plants and de-emphasizing animal products, it turns things around. For example, there is a reinvented beef stew recipe that turns its profile on its head by using mushrooms as the main ingredient.
The cookbook has 500 recipes like that: legitimate, unusual and really, really good.
Q: How tough was it to make the changes in your own life?
A: I saw the handwriting on the wall in the early 2000s, though it wasn’t until I wrote “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”  and I became familiar with that world that I made the change. That’s roughly the same time I hit my 57th birthday, and all my health indicators started going in the wrong direction. I had high cholesterol and high blood sugar, and was 30 pounds overweight. I basically decided it was time to eat differently.
Also, after writing “Food Matters” in 2009, it became clear that “less meat, more plants” was a different style of eating that needed a cookbook. Because you’re no longer centering your meals around meat, you need to think about proportions differently.
Q: Are the recipes difficult?
A: I am incapable of producing complicated food because I don’t know how to cook it. So, no. They’re not fussy.
Q: Why is it so difficult for Americans to change their diets, with everything they could possibly want in the grocery store?
A: It has to do with the industry, not with how people want to eat. It’s more ‘How are we going to get this food to the rest of the country and make it convenient?’ than ‘What’s the best food and the best way to cook it?’ It’s a notorious word, convenient.
Also, even though the media is addressing the issue, that’s nothing against the billions spent marketing crap each year. Every time a study says we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, big food companies are going to say, ‘Here’s soda with fruits and vegetables in it.’ Well, not quite, but almost.
Q: Isn’t it expensive to eat a healthier diet?
A: I would argue that it costs more to eat bad food because of the health concerns and negative effect on the environment. And fast food isn’t really faster, so I don’t buy that argument.
Q: So do you ever indulge?
A: Of course. I eat pizza, stop at McDonald’s a few times a year, and drink Diet Coke with regularity. I think the better question is: how bad do you feel about those things? You know, just because you skip a day of exercise doesn’t mean you’re not exercising. So you can eat junk food on occasion and not be a junk food junkie.
Mushroom Stew with Beef Chunks
- 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
- 3 cups boiling water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 ounces beef chunk or round, trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 pound fresh shiitake, cremini, portobello, or button mushroooms, stemmed if necessary and roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 2 leeks, trimmed, well rinsed and chopped
- 3 carrots or parsnips, chopped
- Salt and black pepper
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 3 cups mushroom or beef stock or water
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary, or a pinch of each dried
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 small celery root, peeled, or 2 celery stalks, chopped
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley or chives, for garnish
Put the dried porcinis in a bowl and cover with the boiling water. Soak until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, put oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the beef and brown it on one side before stirring it. Cook until deeply browned on all sides, 5 to 10 minutes total, removing pieces as they are done.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from pan. Porcinis should be soft. Lift mushrooms out of the water, leaving behind the soaking liquid and sediment. Roughly chop the porcinis and reserve liquid. Add chopped porcinis to pan along with fresh mushrooms, garlic, leeks and carrots. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables begin to brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Add red wine and cook, stirring to loosen the bits of vegetable that have stuck to the bottom of the pan, for about a minute.
Add stock, reserved porcini soaking liquid, and beef along with the herb and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so that soup bubbles gently. Cover and cook undisturbed for 30 minutes. Stir in the celery root, cover and continue cooking until the meat and vegetables are tender, another 20 to 30 minutes. Add more liquid if mixture seems too dry. (Mine was more like a soup than a stew.)
Remove herb sprigs and bay leaf, taste and adjust seasoning. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately (or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days).
— “The Food Matters Cookbook” by Mark Bittman
(Simon & Schuster, 2010, $35)
Whole Wheat Carrot Gnocchi
Bugs Bunny isn’t the only one who will love this flavorful pasta dish. Used to veggies being served as a side, my 14-year-old daughters initially balked at eating an entree made primarily from carrots. But one taste, and they were sold. Said a Olivia, “Hey, this is actually good!”
- 1 pound carrots, cut into large chunks
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for shaping
- Black pepper
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley or several fresh sage leaves
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
Put the carrots in a pot with water to cover and a pinch of salt. Bring the water to a gentle bubble and cook until the carrots are quite tender, about 45 minutes. Drain well. Return the carrots to the dry pan, cover and dry them over the lowest possible heat, for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the flours in a small bowl. Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil (for testing the dough) and salt it.
Use a fork, potato masher, ricer or food mill to puree the carrots until smooth; sprinkle with salt and pepper and the nutmeg and stir. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes. Sprinkle the carrots with 3/4 cup of the flour mixture and stir gently until it is just incorporated. Pinch off a piece of the dough and boil it to make sure it will hold its shape. If it does not, knead in a bit more flour and try again; repeat as necessary. (The idea is to make the dough with as little additional flour and kneading as possible.)
When enough flour has been added, sprinkle a little all-purpose flour on a clean, smooth work surface and roll a piece of the dough into a rope about 1/2-inch thick, then cut rope into 1-inch lengths. Score lightly with the tines of a fork. Put each on a baking sheet lined with parchment or wax paper; do not allow to touch. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours. (You can freeze for up to 3 months in an airtight container or bag).
Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt it. Put oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat. (If using sage instead of parsley, add it now and cook until they sizzle.) A few at a time, add gnocchi to boiling water and gently stir. A minute after they rise to the surface, the gnocchi are done; remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to skillet. When all are done, sprinkle with the parsley, more salt and pepper and some gnocchi cooking water if the mixture seems too dry. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve, passing cheese at the table.
— Adapted from “The Food Matters Cookbook” by Mark Bittman (Simon & Schuster, 2010, $35)