I guess it's time for me to confess my love-hate relationship with the recipes of Mark Bittman. (Perhaps "intrigued-suspicious" would more accurately describe the relationship.)
I know people who have been following Bittman for years through his column "The Minimalist" for the New York Times; his cookbooks, particularly How To Cook Everything; and the iPhone app for that book. But it seems to me I have trouble with his recipes maybe 40% of the time. When he's on, though, he's on.
In the past few years, Bittman has been espousing a way of eating that focuses on more vegetables and more whole grains, ixnay on the highly processed foods. Meat is to be avoided until after 6 p.m. His book Food Matters (2008) outlined the program, with inspiration leavened by practicality, but it contained only 75 recipes.
Eat less meat, more plants, more beans and whole grains, and skip the processed junk --it's appealing to endorse, but, having read and liked Food Matters when it came out, I can attest to the fact that those 75 recipes were not enough. Once you threw out recipes for things you or family members wouldn't like or were never going to eat, there was not enough variety to sustain the program. Now The Food Matters Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, $35) adds "500 revolutionary recipes for better living." And it's most welcome.
The Food Matters Cookbook, like Bittman's other works, is a no-frills affair -- no food-porn color photos; for that matter, no photos. Well, who needs black and white photos of food? No instructional diagrams. The recipes -- as you would expect from a cook who wrote under the rubric of "The Minimalist" -- are straightforward. There's no need for a step-by-step breakdown. Sometimes the recipes are healthed-up versions of familiar foods, like a cheese-nut ball that forgoes the processed cheese in favor of more nuts, and real gorgonzola, or tofu. That's just one, actually kind of weird, example.
Longtime residents of Madison are not going to be perplexed by the grain/nut/legume-heavy dishes here, which bear a resemblance to good old-fashioned hippie food. But if you are trying to please someone who is more used to American processed food standards like the cheese ball, FMC has healthier versions.
But getting back to those grains and legumes. I have spent the last couple of months cooking through the FMC grain recipes, with mixed results.
First, I should back up and say that the first Bittman recipe I ever made, socca, was a big flop. It was actually floppy (rather than crispy).
And there have been disappointments since. There are instances of other crash and burn Bittman recipe experiences posted online, but generally the sentiment echoes that of this commenter: "His recipes have never failed me, and are very tweakable." And this one: "So strange for a Bittman recipe to fail. Normally his stuff is foolproof."
There are others who have experienced Bittman fail, though. Zollipop notes that "On occasion, Bittman's recipes promise something that they don't deliver. Creamy Cauliflower Mac tasted more like cauliflower baby food than like anything creamy...."
I found the creamed corn and millet was very gloppy and heavy; possibly it would have been improved simply by leaving out the cream, which is listed as an option. This was also quite bland, until I oversalted it.
Farro or wheat berries with grapes and rosemary also didn't live up to expectations. I don't know how it would fly with farro, but the wheat berries' marriage with the plentiful called-for amount of cooked onions again resulted in a gloppy mess. On the other hand, chipotle quinoa with corn and black beans, the recipe immediately following, was a solid keeper -- delicious warm or cold, spicy, smoky, and very adaptable.
A riff on quinoa tabbouleh was also great success. Overall, the more of the grain recipes I made, the more I could predict whether they'd turn out to my liking or not, and adjust accordingly.
This book also won me over to making my own vegetable stock for soups and risotto-style grain or pasta dishes. It's not complicated. You can freeze some, too, to use later. Quick vegetable stock really is quick. It's part of the lentil vegetable soup with fragrant broth recipe that was also easy and great.
Bottom line: Lots to cook here, but if the recipe sounds too good to be true, you might want to listen to that internal voice.