I first encountered Mark Bittman when he was a NY Times food columnist and his book The Minimalist had just been published. Since then, he has won every food-related award imaginable and has been in the vanguard of exploring plant-based food as a lifestyle since 2015. His more than 30 books include my go-to when I want basic approaches to pretty much anything: How to Cook Everything—Simple Recipes for Great Food. (I grew up with The Joy of Cooking. While it’s hard to let go of, I find even the recent edition feels outdated and not as easy to follow as Bittman.)
As he says in the book’s introduction, “Anyone can cook, and most everyone should.” He emphasizes buying things that are fresh and local, a dictum we now take for granted, as the way to start making good food. But he warns against making yourself crazy doing it. “…You buy the best ingredients you can lay your hands on and combine them in ways that make sense. That’s the thinking behind my recipes.”
His newest nonfiction, no-recipes book, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal lays out the narrative of how we got to this perilous time in our history as consuming humans. His writing is approachable, lively and passionate. I believe it’s one of the important books of our times.
This past year, which we all have our own words to describe, has resulted in Bittman’s latest online endeavor, The Bittman Project, a membership organization that includes recipes, profiles of chefs, and other food-related practitioners, videos and member-generated interactive conversations.
A recently added regular feature shares low-cost recipes that feed a family. If you’ve ever wanted to make seitan—or find out what’s even in it—this is your chance!
My growing appreciation of Bittman and the importance of his work relate to two aspects of his work. First, I like his approach to food. He is not attached to giving recipes that need to be followed to perfection. He has those, of course, although there is always the additional encouragement to play around with ingredients, like substituting different herbs, different sweeteners or oils, different proteins or starches.
For older people who grew up believing there is only one way—a right way—to make certain things, this can be unsettling. Yet, once you know how to think about food with knowledge and curiosity, Bittman can be your guide and friend.
This is also when I remember three essential attributes for successful aging: Adaptability, flexibility and resilience. Playing around with food is a great place to start with that. You might not think resilience comes into play with food, but I assure you it does. Trying new things means we might make mistakes. We might even fail at something we’ve put a lot of effort into. Learning to manage the disappointment without too much apology, blaming, or defensiveness is always worth learning.
Second, Bittman is a true prophet in the land of corporate greed and mono-culture agriculture. He asks, “What would a just food system look like? I believe we can answer that question…because nothing is more important than food.
“You can’t have a serious conversation about food without talking about human rights, climate change and justice. Food not only affects everything, it represents everything.”
I’m sharing one of my favorite Bittman recipes, Instant Preserved Lemons. As it notes, you can use these in dishes where you want something to liven up the mix. Finally, my version of a Fall fruit clafouti, using Bittman’s proportions. Clafouti is essentially a large sweet pancake baked with fruit. Bittman writes, “It is among the best desserts you can make at the last minute. Put it in the oven when you sit down to dinner and you can eat it for dessert.”
Mark Bittman’s ‘Instant’ Preserved Lemons
4 organic lemons or Meyers lemons (wash lemons well)
1–1½ tbsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
Slice lemons in ¼ inch slices and remove all seeds. Dice lemon slices and put in bowl or jar.
Add salt and sugar and mix well.
Leave lemons out for up to three hours and then refrigerate. They can be used right away and keep for several weeks.
They can be used in salads, soups, stews, over fish, or vegetables. Anywhere you want a bright hit of flavor.
You can use fresh fruit, dried fruit, or even a mixture of dried and fresh—think dried cranberries with apples or pears.
- 1 tbsp butter for greasing the baking dish
- ½ cup sugar, plus a bit extra for dusting the greased baking dish
- 4 cups of fruit—pears or apples, peeled and cut in slices, halved Italian plums, or dried apricots, and cherries, etc.
- 3 eggs
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup heavy cream, plain yogurt, or buttermilk
- ¾ cup milk
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/8 tsp almond extract
- Pinch salt
- Confectioners’ sugar
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Buter a gratin dish 9x5x2 inches deep or a 10-inch round deep pie plate or porcelain dish; sprinkle it with sugar (inverting to remove excess).
- Put fruit in one layer in dish.
- Beat the eggs until foamy. Add the ½ cup sugar and beat with whisk, electric mixer, or processor until foamy and somewhat thick.
- Add flour and continue to beat until thick and smooth. Add cream, yogurt, or buttermilk, milk, vanilla, almond extract, and salt. Beat until incorporated.
- Pour batter over fruit.
- Bake for about 30 minutes, or until clafoutis is nicely browned on top and knife inserted into it comes out clean.
- Sift confectioners’ sugar over it and serve it warm or at room temperature.
Of course whipped cream, heavy cream, or ice cream would go well on top!
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Before Rebecca Crichton worked for Boeing, taught leadership development, or became executive director of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging, she was a caterer, recipe developer, and food journalist. She has taught cooking to seniors and others, and can reel off food ideas and recipes for any part of a meal or event. She believes in easily prepared, healthy, and taste-filled food that delights and satisfies.