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Q & A with Mark Bittman, author of "How to Cook Everything The Basics"

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When it comes to food, Mark Bittman is the best of both worlds: a populist who just wants to teach you how to cook well, and an elitist of sorts (or at least a theoretician) who takes the idea of food very seriously. His latest book How to Cook Everything The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food -- With 1,000 Photos came out on March 13th. Here's a conversation with Mark Bittman, followed by a few recipes. Enjoy!

It’s been ten years since How to Cook Everything came out. How has your approach to thinking about food and writing cookbooks changed since then?
It's actually been almost 14 years since the first edition, which I can hardly believe myself. For me, there's a big difference between how I think about "food" and how I approach writing cookbooks. In fact, the way I write cookbooks has barely changed: I try to write simple, straightforward recipes that encourage people to cook rather than wow or intimidate them. These are cookbooks for people who cook or want to learn how to cook. In terms of thinking about food, see the next question.

This year, you ended your "Minimalist" column for The New York Times and became a regular op-ed writer. Would you say that The Basics reflects this big change in your career, and how you can present your ideas?
It's a huge change but I haven't left much behind; I'm still writing about cooking not only for the Times but for others. The Opinion writing gives me a chance to say what I think not only about cooking but about food, about eating. And what I think is that although cooking goes a long way to helping us eat better, there are many, many issues that cooking can't address, important issues to anyone who eats--which is everyone.

It seems like a lot of cookbooks are more about lifestyle and the latest trends in restaurant food. Do you think that The Basics is almost an anti-trend cookbook?
No. I think that the books about lifestyle and trends in restaurant food are not cookbooks. The Basics, modesty aside, is the epitome of a cookbook: It's a book that teaches how to cook. It'll be trendy for some people and not for others, like everything else.

When you were learning the basics of cooking yourself, what kinds of cookbooks did you use?
The basic books of the '60s and '70s, which were those by Jim Beard; Julia Child; Paula Peck; Craig Claiborne; and a few others. And of course Joy of Cooking.

 

Steamed Fish with Ratatouille
BitRecipe excerpt from How to Cook Everything The Basics.

Browse more recipes from the book:

Brownies

Curried Chickpea Salad

 
Steamed Fish with Ratatouille

Steamed Fish with Ratatouille
The vegetables make a perfect "steamer" and create a built-in side dish.
Time 1 hour
Makes 4 servings

1 large or 2 medium zucchini
1 medium or 2 small eggplants
1 medium red bell pepper, cored
2 medium or 3 small tomatoes, cored
3 tablespoons olive oil, or more as needed
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 large onion, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup Niçoise or kalamata olives, pitted, optional
4 thick fish fillets or steaks (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
1. Trim and cut the eggplant and zucchini into 1-inch chunks. Cut the pepper into strips. Roughly chop the tomatoes, reserving their juice.

2. Put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and immediately add the garlic. When it begins to sizzle, add the onion and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to soften, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Add the eggplant, zucchini, bell pepper, and another sprinkle of salt and pepper. Lower the heat a bit to keep the vegetables from burning and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is fairly soft, another 10 to 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the thyme, and the olives if you’re using them and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to break down, another 5 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

4. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper and lay it on top of the vegetables. Adjust the heat so the mixture simmers. Cover and cook until the fish is opaque throughout and a paring knife inserted into the fish at its thickest point meets little resistance. This will take anywhere from 5 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.

5. Transfer the fish to a platter, then stir the basil into the vegetables. Spoon the vegetables around the fish, drizzle everything with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil (plus a little more if you like), and serve.

Tips

Be careful not to cook swordfish and tuna too long when steaming; other fish won’t dry out as quickly.

Giving slower-cooking foods a head start is a valuable technique you can try with chicken breasts and other quick-cooking cuts of meat.

Variations

Steamed Fish with Leeks: Skip the zucchini, eggplant, pepper, tomatoes, thyme, and olives. Trim and slice 1 ½ pounds leeks (the white and light green parts) and rinse them in a colander to remove all grit. Begin the recipe with Step 2 and cook the leeks in the hot oil, stirring occasionally, until they’re tender and begin to turn golden, 5 to 10 minutes. Add 1/2 cup white wine or water and bring to a gentle bubble. Continue with the recipe from Step 4.

Steamed Fish with Bok Choy: Skip the zucchini, eggplant, pepper, tomatoes, thyme, and olives. In Step 2, add about 1 pound roughly chopped bok choy, 1/4 cup soy sauce, and 1/2 cup water to the skillet. Cook, stirring, until the greens begin to wilt, 3 to 5 minutes. Continue with the recipe from Step 4.

Learn More

Fish Basics (page 346), Chopping (page 19), Preparing Bell Peppers (page 117), preparing tomatoes (page 80)

Brownies Softening the Vegetables
They'll take longer to cook than the fish. Wait until they're tender and lightly browned before adding the tomatoes.

Brownies Adding the Fish
Give the tomatoes a few minutes to break down; it's their juice that will create the steam that cooks the fish. Then keep the mixture bubbling gently when you add the fillets.

Brownies Recognizing Doneness
The knife should slide in and out of the fillet fairly easily, and the interior should be opaque but not dry looking.

Once the fish is ready, remove it from the pan or it will keep cooking.

 

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