Cookbook author and food activist Mark Bittman is known for tackling big topics. His 1998 “How to Cook Everything,” revised for a 10th anniversary edition in 2008, is an award-winning encyclopedia of 2,000 recipes. It’s considered a “Joy of Cooking” for a new generation, a hefty, one-stop reference with a style that’s relaxed, thorough and flexible.
Since then, he’s written 15 other cookbooks, including “How to Cook Vegetarian,” “How to Bake Everything” and last year’s “How to Grill Everything.”
His new cookbook takes on the challenge of getting dinner on the table. “Dinner for Everyone” is organized by 100 iconic dishes — Bittman prefers to call them “concepts” — that are done three ways: easy, vegan and “all out.”
For paella, there’s Shrimp Paella Under the Broiler (the easy dish), Vegetable Paella with ripe tomatoes, green beans and eggplant, and the more complex Mixed Paella With Mussels. The Korean barbecue concept has an easy Roasted BBQ Brisket, Seared Rice Cakes as the vegan dish, and a 10-hour project, Korean BBQ at Home.
In a recent phone interview, I asked him how he arrived at dinner as his next topic.
“The meal that people are going to cook most often is dinner,” he said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. As we got deeper and deeper into it, we had this idea for a kind of umbrella with three things underneath it. It started as good, better, best, or something like that. We ultimately decided that instead of going from good to better to best, we would do these three different things.
“I think there are the three things that people want: They want fast and easy because everybody claims they don’t have enough time, and a lot of people don’t know how to cook, and obviously learning how to cook fast and easy is the way to start.
“People know they need to be eating more plant food, so they want to know how to eat more plant food.
“And then there’s cooking for friends and family, relaxing and cooking over time and doing things the right way, in a leisurely and sometimes more luxurious fashion. It’s a show of nurturing, a show of love. Not that cooking fast isn’t. But you know, it’s a social occasion with really good food that you have spent some time on. It’s something to celebrate. I haven’t done recipes like that in a while and I wanted the opportunity to do those.”
Asked if it was difficult to come up with all the vegan versions of the 100 concepts, Bittman said, “It wasn’t easy. A lot of work went into this, for sure.”
But those are the recipes he’s proudest of.
“You know, I think the vegan recipes are the most exciting part of this book, frankly,” he said. “They are the best vegan recipes you’ll find. I think they are really good.”
Leaning toward vegetables
Bittman’s philosophy about food is largely flexitarian, a diet that is high in plant foods but includes some meat and fish. He said he doubts he’ll ever be a vegetarian, but he advocates adding more plant food to our diets, for both health and environmental reasons.
His distinguished career has included many years as a food writer and columnist at the New York Times. His “Minimalist” recipe column ran in the Times’ Dining section for 13 years and he also was lead food writer for the New York Times Magazine. Then, in 2011, he became a columnist for that paper’s op-ed page. It was said to be the first “food-focused” opinion column at a major newspaper.
In those columns and two essay-style books, “Food Matters” in 2009 and “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00” in 2013, Bittman explored difficult topics about food politics, such as the deterioration of the American diet with the rise of convenience and nutrient-poor foods, and how global livestock production is hastening climate change.
“I think around 2000, even in the late ’90s, I could see that food was going in a less-than-wonderful direction,” he said. “Right after I wrote ‘How to Cook Everything,’ I started to think about ‘How to Cook Vegetarian.’ That was really an important moment. I thought the writing was on the wall and we were going to be eating more plant foods, and that it was important to be able to cook them. It was kind of a 10-year journey. And it hasn’t let up, really.”
A decade after the publication of “Food Matters,” he said he feels people are getting the message. Watching the Super Bowl, he noticed commercials promoting sustainability and denouncing junk food.
“This is ridiculous to say — it sounds self-congratulatory — but I think ‘Food Matters’ and even to some extent ‘VB6’ were before their time,” he said. “But they weren’t wrong. There’s a lot being said about this stuff now. To the extent that they were influential, great. I think that now is the time.
“I think that the awareness level is really, really high. I’m more hopeful and optimistic than I’ve been for a long time.”
He said he believes the “eat local” movement — eating food that’s grown or produced close to where you live — should be considered “more of a direction than a religion,” but added: “I think it’s important to look for and support local food.” And he agreed that it’s easier to do in San Diego than in most other parts of the country.
“Southern Californians in general have a leg up on the rest of us,” he said. “Nobody eats perfectly local; you know, coffee is not from California. But certainly the better your climate, the easier it is to eat local.”
No longer writing for the New York Times, Bittman is a member of the faculty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. He’s currently living in a small town 60 miles north of New York City. Though he said he’s not able to cook every day, he cooks when he’s at home.
“I was home all weekend so I cooked all weekend,” he said.