My Time with Mark Bittman

Tortilla Soup

Tortilla Soup

Lying in bed before I fall asleep, I like to peruse the cookbook collection on my Kindle. I start a mental list of possibilities for the next night’s dinner. Some eggplant from a recent trip to Porto Novo could go in many directions. I have had a hunger for Italian:  the eggplant combined with tomatoes and some basil from our garden would make a lovely pasta sauce. I’ve been on a Middle Eastern kick, though, and have been dreaming of smoky, tahini-doused baba ganoush. Or maybe a Korean style sauté with soy, ginger, garlic and sesame seeds. Or tacos. I’ve never made eggplant tacos but why not? I could grill up planks of eggplant and top them with quick pickled red onions. I fall asleep with visions of eggplants charring over a bed of hot charcoal.

When I wake up the next day, I remember that I have beets as well. Raw beet salad with the pasta? Roasted beets with za’atar alongside the baba ganoush? Steamed beets with rice to go with the Korean style eggplant dish? Pan fried beets with cumin seeds for a second taco filling? With my morning coffee I go back to my cookbooks and hone the list of ideas for dinner.

I have half a dozen cookbooks on my Kindle plus four or five physical cookbooks. But I almost invariably turn to Mark Bittman, in all situations. I first encountered Bittman via his weekly The Minimalist column in the NY Times. I loved the ease and adaptability of his recipes and bought the extensive cookbook How to Cook Everything. I read it. I didn’t go straight through from point A to point B. I meandered through week after week until I realized that I’d read it cover to cover. I’ve since bought How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and have read most of that as well.

How to Cook Everything Photo

I love reading cookbooks in general and recently became enamored with Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi as well as with At Home with Madhur Jaffrey by Madhur Jaffrey, two new purchases for my Kindle. They are both excellent cookbooks – well written and easy to follow with great stories interwoven. They can be challenging for me to use here in Benin, however, because of limited access to ingredients. Preserved lemons? I could make them, but its not cool enough to store them and they would go bad quickly. Fenugreek seeds? On their way in a care package from home but I don’t have them at the moment. Bittman’s books make it easy to swap out ingredients and use what’s available. The directions are simple, concise and clear. And the name really says it all – it provides directions to cook most things that I want to tackle.

Since joining the Peace Corps, I’ve followed the recipes to cook dishes from numerous culinary traditions: tamales, green papaya salad, summer rolls, paella, dal, sushi, ceviche, borscht, potato latkes, beet rösti, fish tacos, falafel, bread salad, salade niçoise, Korean vegetable pancakes, bean burgers, pad thai, turkey with almond mole sauce, jerk chicken, cassoulet, grits, rice salad, bean salad, orzo salad, jook, tortilla soup. I’ve also made the following ingredients and accompaniments, usually available in the US but harder to find here, from scratch: coconut milk, buttermilk, ricotta cheese, farmer’s cheese, yogurt, spaetzle, tagliatelli, gnocchi, mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, peanut sauce, kimchi, Kosher pickles, pickled okra, pickled ginger, pita bread, pizza dough, naan, tortillas.

Curried eggplant with yogurt sauce, pickled okra and pickled tomatoes

Curried eggplant with yogurt sauce, pickled okra and pickled tomatoes

 

Pizza with roasted cabbage, beets, potatoes, onions and fresh ricotta

Pizza with roasted cabbage, beets, potatoes, onions and fresh ricotta

Chicken tamale

Chicken tamale

The plethora of easily modified recipes covering numerous genres and culinary traditions speak to me particularly loudly now that my local culinary tradition is so narrow. My neighbors literally laughed at me when I told them I was cooking beans with leafy greens for dinner last week. They looked at each other, hooted loudly with laughter, and said, “He is going to cook greens with beans!” Then they looked at me, still laughing, and said, “You can’t cook greens with beans!” In Benin, beans are mainly eaten in their cooking broth with dried, pulverized manioc sprinkled on top and a splash of palm oil thrown over. Greens, meanwhile, are cooked into a sauce with ground sesame-like seeds and smoked fish. It’s not even normal to eat the two side-by-side; if you go to a food stand and ask for a plate with both of these items, you’ll encounter hesitancy if not outright refusal.

Benin doesn’t do very much variation. But with the help of Mark Bittman, I do.  Most of the recipes include half a dozen alternatives, making cooking a choose-your-own-adventure situation. Take bean salad for example. After the basic recipe, there are seven last-minute additions that can be added to tweak the flavor: fresh or roasted tomatoes, raw or roasted peppers, grated or cubed cheese, etc. Following that are eight variations on the recipe that take the idea of bean salad and add different beans, flavorings, vinaigrettes and garnishes. One dish and fifteen ways to prepare it depending on your mood and available ingredients. With the limitations on availability in Benin, its an incredible resource. When I want to hone my IndoPak cooking skills I turn to a more nuanced authority on the subject like Madhur Jaffrey. But for general perusal of various cuisines, Bittman provides sufficient depth along with immense breadth.

Plotting a meal, I appreciate the various starting points for generating ideas. Sometimes I look through the index and choose an ingredient to start with. Those eggplants and beets? Dozens of possibilities for each. Other times I start at the table of contents and choose a category such as salads or soups. The e-book has a list of recipes in the order they appear in the book. The names simply say what ingredients are used so I instantly have a good idea whether I can make each one with the ingredients and tools I have here. At the end of the book, there are sample menus that are a treat, too.  The Japanese-Style Supper suggests a salad with miso carrot dressing, cold soba noodles, a simple cucumber salad, miso grilled chicken, poached pears with Asian spices and iced green tea. Of course, recipes are provided for each dish.

Additionally, the How to Cook Everything series has been adapted for the e-reader in a way that most other cookbooks have not. I was excited about Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food and found it to be a solid resource. However, it seems like it was scanned into pdf format to be used for e-readers. There are numerous “aside” boxes that have stories about ingredients or dishes. They appear in microscopic type, and the squinting is surefire way to induce a headache. Yes, I could zoom in on the info. But that is cumbersome and makes it easy to lose my place. A thoughtfully designed Kindle adaptation would have accounted for this. I returned that book.

I can’t watch American sports (the Eagles won the SuperBowl, right??). I can’t regularly read the NY Times, Sports Illustrated, the New Yorker or any of the other publications I love to read in the US. I have internet access at my house but it is so painfully slow that AOL dial-up from 1995 would be an improvement. There are no ultimate frisbee games (except the one I’ve started with a bunch of pre-teens who would rather play soccer). Squash courts and my nemesis Dan A. are far away. Beyond basic conversations with my neighbors, it’s hard to communicate because of cultural and linguistic barriers. I have time. I cook. A lot. I spend a lot of time with Mark Bittman.

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