Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Mark Bittman: Friend or Foe?

So, how do you all feel about Mark Bittman? He's all over the New York Times, bloggers every where tried his "no knead" bread, he has a tv show, contributes to NPR and has written several cookbooks. The thing is, I feel like I should like him, but I am not sure I do. On one hand, I like anyone who encourages the average person to cook and bake (much in the same way I appreciated Oprah encouraging people to read, despite my misgivings about her and her book choices) but on the other, I find I don't really enjoy his recipes or style.

While I appreciate an opinionated person, some of his opinions (like there aren't any really good Asian cookbooks in America) just don't seem well founded. A quick Amazon search yields over a thousand cookbooks on Japanese, Thai, Chinese, and Korean food alone-surely some are acceptable.

I find it grating that he and his publishers re-released How to Cook Everything in several smaller chunks without adding anything new. They don't exactly hide that it is recycled material, but I bet many people bought some of the newer books (list price per book about $15-20) without realizing that they could get the whole thing in one book for much cheaper (Amazon has it for $23, list price $35). His other book, The Minimalist Cooks Dinner also has parts of HTCE in it.

Frankly I wasn't too impressed with How to Cook Everything to begin with. I realize that it is aimed at non cooks but honestly, I didn't see a single recipe I felt the urge to make. Not because they were too easy but that they seem uninspired. His other book The Best Recipes in the World was marginally better, but even he admits the recipes are not for the most part authentic. His casual style and breezy attitude about cooking are probably a result of being a very successful but untrained chef (who wouldn't be confident if you had been a cab driver and community organizer only to rocket to culinary stardom and NYT columns?) but occasionally do a disservice to the food. He does a bit of blurring of culinary boundaries which struck me as odd as it is supposed to be a book on international foods. He does focus on more of the "every day" cooking of various countries as opposed to just the fancy dishes which I appreciate but again, if even he says the recipes aren't always authentic, and are often extremely simplified, I wonder if one is really getting a true taste of the cuisine.

His penchant for fast and easy some times leads to some misses as well. I also found some cooking times to be off, in more than one recipe he has you cook chicken for only 5 minutes, which leaves them raw and potentially dangerous. He also calls for you to cook things like minced onion and garlic over high heat for 5 or more minutes, which would leave you with cinders, not carmelization. Some of the recipes are a little odd, a method for cooking pasta like risotto to avoid having to wait to bring water to a boil seems a little pointless. It takes something with no hands on time like boiling water and makes it a slightly faster but more tedious task. Another slightly bizzare suggestion is to use a whole chicken to make broth and then to discard the chicken. It just seems like a waste of money and food when a perfectly good stock can be made with a carcass. For someone who calls themselves a "minimalist" this seems a bit over the top.

Despite all this, I do appreciate that he gives many people who are not experienced cooks a place to start. Maybe after reading his books they will move on to other cookbooks that they might not have felt ready for before.

This is a much longer post than I planned on writing but I am really interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences... Mark Bittman- Friend or Foe?