Tag Archives: books

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.


Time and Books

I have a lot of free time on my hands these days. Peace Corps Volunteer jobs in my program—Community Economic Development—are part-time in Benin. This gives volunteers the freedom to get involved in community life and pursue secondary projects. Since I’m still getting acquainted with my job and laying the groundwork for secondary projects, I have relatively few demands on my time right now.

I also have limited ways to spend this time, compared to my life in the States. My craft supplies are buried 4,000 miles away amidst the skyscrapers of boxes stored in my Mom’s attic. There aren’t many cultural institutions or events in our town, never mind movie theaters or bars showing American sports. The thrift shopping possibilities are limited to two women who sell salvaged plastic containers at the market. Besides, shopping here is exhausting and aggressive–the Benin market experience has completely redefined my notion of ‘sensory overload.’ Moving through the market, I get jostled constantly by women (there are few men at the market) pushing through the narrow aisles, whose centers double as gutters and toilets for small children. The aisles aren’t only for pedestrians: motos zip through carrying passengers and precarious loads of cargo. Sellers call out to me from every angle: “Yooooovooooo! What do you want to buy?” “Yovo, come buy this.” “YOVO! Oranges! Oranges! Oranges!” “Yovo! Look at this!” If I let my gaze linger too long on a table full of goods, I may get physically dragged over and pulled into a discussion about why I should buy something. When I come home, I might go hang out at Walmart just for the thrill of being ignored by salespeople. But I digress.

Just a hint of the zaniness to be found at the market.

Our local market, which is a little one.

I’d be crazy to complain about free time, of course, and I’m making the most of it. Adam and I have been exploring town and going for a lot of long bike rides. But you can only do these things for so long before the sun, the rutted roads, or the yovo song burns you out. (The yovo song is really a chant. It goes: “Yovo, yovo. Bonsoir. Ça va bien? Merci.” Kids sing it at white people. It’s friendly, but tiresome. Actually, everyone, of any age, calls white people yovo. They call light-skinned Beninese people yovo, too; my office mate is nicknamed yovo. I wonder if placing my desk in that room was an inside joke? The whole phenomenon is definitely worth its own post… stay tuned.)

After a bike ride. The top tan, er… sunburn, line is from my shirt. The bottom line is from the hankie that I tied to my wrist and used to mop sweat off my face.

There are several Volunteers living in our area, and we hang out with them from time to time. And there are also home improvement projects (most recently we built a raised garden bed on the front edge of our patio), learning to bake in a dutch oven, and half-marathon training.

This yellow cake recipe ended up with the consistency of cookie dough, which was fine because I was planning on adding chips anyway. I just called it cookie cake. I made it for a fellow volunteer’s mom’s 70th birthday, which she celebrated while visiting him here.

I classed up our snapshots with phony photo frames made from watercolor paper and electrical tape, both collected from ex-volunteer’s discarded belongings at the Peace Corps office.

On the work front, I’ve been keeping busy by researching potential projects. I work at the local arm of the agricultural extension service, helping collectives of market gardeners and food processors improve their business practices. There are several new employees at my workplace, so in this first month I’ve been tagging along as my colleagues visit the collectives we regularly work with and establish points of contact. The visits have got me thinking about solar-powered drip irrigation and potential markets for manioc products (exciting!). I’ve also started the ball rolling to provide a scholarship to a high school girl in our town (through a nationwide Peace Corps program established several years ago in Benin).

Still, after the dust settled from moving in and I developed something of a routine here at site, I realized that I have time to read like crazy. I started keeping a record of books read and realized I’m averaging less than a week per book. This reminded me of my friend Drew’s project to read 52 books per year, and I officially decided to do the same during my second year of Peace Corps service. My book year began September 14th—Benin Swearing-In Day—and I’ll be documenting it here as I go.