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How Mark Bittman Became the Man Who Cooked Everything

Well. It’s not everything.

That’s the first thing Mark Bittman will tell you when you ask him what “everything”—the “everything” from his landmark 1998 book, How to Cook Everything—is. Of course, it couldn’t be everything. “If it’s everything, you just write one book and that’s the end of it,” he said, but first of all, “There’s no chicken pot pie in it, which is depressing as hell,” and secondly, a series followed the original: There’s How to Cook Everything: The Basics (2003) and How to Cook Everything: Vegetarian (2007) and How to Cook Everything Fast (2014) and, most recently, How to Bake Everything, which comes out October 4th.

And anyway, how did a journalist—utterly untrained in any formal culinary sense—like Mark happen to write one of the most popular cookbooks of the last 20 years, one that folks give to newlyweds and 17-year-olds heading off to college?

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Which to start with? Mark, who describes himself as someone who likes to cook "whenever I'm home, or for lunch, or for dinner," says "How to Cook Everything Fast" is the closest to how he cooks for himself now.
Photo by Alpha Smoot

To know that, you have to start with Fish, his 1992 seafood cookbook (and his first book, period). Fish books are not expected to sell particularly well, Mark told me, and yet Mark’s did. (It was something he was really passionate about—”obsessed,” he told me, to the point where he was hanging around in fish stores.) The book won him both a Julia Child Cookbook Award and esteem in the eyes of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin.

Houghton Mifflin had recently and briefly acquired the rights to Joy of Cooking. As Mark recounts it, “The guy who was in charge said to my editor, What was that big book we had for awhile? And she said, That was Joy of the Cooking, the book that everyone has to have. And he said, We should do something like that.” The person tapped to do it, coming off the success of Fish, was Mark.

Mark worked—alone—on the cookbook for about four years, and the 150 recipes (bundled together under the half-joking working title of “How to Cook,” borrowed from the Julia Child book The Way to Cook) covered many basics, but it also dipped toes into venison and foie gras and boar. “It was an interesting general cookbook,” Mark said, “but it didn’t totally have a soul.”

He and his editor realized that the big book—the book that was supposed to be a modern Joy of Cooking—would be better if it had broader appeal, and so, out went the foie gras and the boar and in their places went popcorn and tuna salad and grilled cheese. “I wish I could find them,” he said of the recipes. “It would be fun to do a How to Cook Everything: The Lost Recipes.”

And so, he also brought on a small team to help him write and develop, and with a team alongside him, Mark had a couple of epiphanies—the moments where he realized that the book wasn’t fully representative of how he cooked or wondered if it wasn’t widely appealing enough. With the help of his editor Jennifer Griffin, he even pushed the book’s publishing date back a year, and then he and Jack Bishop (who would go on to be the editorial director at Cook’s Illustrated) spent six months evaluating each of the 25 chapters, one per week. It was with Jen and Jack that “the book took shape in a way that was compelling,” he said. They developed the in-recipe variations for which Mark is known, and the handy lists: “10 ideas for this or that, 15 ways to blah blah blah—a lot of that happened in those last few months before publication. We built and built and built.”

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Mark Bittman Chooses Quinoa and Mango Salad
by Food52

Ultimately, he organized the book around everything he knew he (someone who has never considered himself a chef, who was never formally trained) wanted to eat. Why pay such close attention to this one writer’s culinary preferences, a book that would become a true classic? Maybe because of how reassuring and accessible it all is: “The idea’s always been to keep things simple, to encourage people to cook, to make it clear that cooking isn’t intimidating but something you just need to get into and practice,” he said, echoing the line from the book’s introduction that became the comforting mantra for every green cook who picked up the tome, which topped out at 2000 recipes: “Anyone can cook.”

And then the time came to give the project a true title, and “the marketing people got together and said, We’re going to call it How to Cook Everythingand I said, Not over my dead body. It’s filled with hubris.” Mark fought against it, but the title stuck. (“I’ve fought against a lot of smart things in my career,” Mark said, “but luckily a lot of them go through.”)

Mark no longer regrets the title: There was a moment on a talk show when “a guy said, You taught me how to make grilled cheese, that’s fabulous!” And Mark realized that “Unintentionally, we’d done something really smart. We swapped out precious recipes for simple ones.” And the result was that it was that everything—everything that Mark wanted to cook—was a lot of what everyone else wanted to cook, too. Everything rose to be the #2 bestselling book on Amazon—all books, not just cookbooks.

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Green Beans with Crisp Shallots
by Mark Bittman
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Chicken and Rice
by Mark Bittman

Nearly twenty years later, the thing Mark’s most proud of is the book’s underlying theme, a philosophy Mark adopted from cookbook writers of the ’70s and ’80s: “You don’t need a thousand recipes, you just need to understand the principles behind them.” For Mark, “If you can make one chicken breast recipe, you can make 50, but you don’t need 50—you need one good one and some ideas for variations.” And the same goes for muffins, or loaves of bread, or salad dressings. “I’m really happy to the extent that How to Cook Everything has carried that out. That was not common then. It’s still not common. There’s still too much isolated recipe talk.”

How to Bake Everything, which comes out next week, upholds the philosophy. Mark does bake—he had a loaf of bread in the oven when I called him—but he doesn’t eat much dessert, which was challenging in developing the book. (About a third of the book is devoted to baking’s savory side.) His goal? To take baking, which many people do associate with dessert (and as reserved for special occasions), and demonstrate that “baking is just a form of cooking.” And if anyone can cook—well, anyone can bake.

Do you have How to Cook Everything on your cookbook shelf? Tell us about how you’ve cooked from it in the comments.

Dinner Tonight: Red Quinoa Salad with Spicy Lime Vinaigrette

As much as we love fall food—the cozy butteriness, the warm spices, the excuse (should you need one) to turn anything into a gratin—sometimes it can be a little depressing. We might gain squashes, but we lose the light-brightness of corn, of tomatoes, of berries and stone fruit at every meal and out of hand. It’s easier to let the spring in one’s culinary step fade behind mashes and braises.

Not so with this Red Quinoa Salad with Spicy Lime Vinaigrette, which has, yes, some of fall’s regulars—you’ll notice butternut squash, white beans, nutty little pumpkin seeds roasted with smoky paprika. But it’s all dressed with a vinaigrette that shrugs off cold weather: Jalapeños and lime juice and cilantro nudge the salad awake. Awake! It’s not winter yet:

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Red Quinoa Salad with Spicy Lime Vinaigrette
by Jillian Bernardini

Grocery List
Organized by area of the market

  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 small jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
  • 2 limes (zest half of 1/2 of one, juice of both)
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 1/2 pounds peeled, seeded butternut squash cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 cup red quinoa
  • 15 ounces cooked white beans or 1 can, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

We’re assuming you already have salt, freshly cracked black pepper, 2 tablespoons plus 1/2 teaspoon olive oil, and 3 tablespoons canola oil, but if not, add them to your list too!

The Game Plan

45 minutes before dinner, preheat the oven to 350° F. Season the pumpkin seeds with olive oil and paprika and toast them on a baking sheet for 8 minutes, until golden. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool while you crank the oven to 400° F. Toss the butternut squash in olive oil, salt, and pepper on the sheet pan you’ve just used and roast for 30 to 35 minutes.

While the squash roasts, make the quinoa: Toast it in a saucepan for a couple minutes, add 2 cups water, and salt well before bringing to a boil, reducing to a simmer, covering, and cooking 15 minutes. Mix the vinaigrette by combining the shallot, garlic, jalapeño, lime zest and juice, lemon juice, red pepper, salt, and black pepper. Slowly whisk in the canola and olive oil.

Right before sitting down, build your salad. Fluff the quinoa and combine it with half of the toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted squash, white beans, a handful of cilantro, and good pour of the dressing. Garnish with remaining pumpkin seeds and more cilantro.

See the full recipe here.

What Food Policy Questions Would You Ask During Tonight’s Debate?

In advance of tonight’s first presidential debate at 9 P.M. EST, the Food52 editorial team jotted down a few food policy-related questions we’d like to see Clinton and Trump address. The list is by no means exhaustive, though. We’re more interested in hearing what you want to know—tell us in the comments!

  • What’s the biggest problem with the U.S. food system—and what’s the first step you would take to change it?
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What Would Happen If the Secretary of Agriculture Became Vice President?
by Caroline Lange
  • Considering strides made in food policy and nutrition labeling made over the course of the Obama presidency, largely due to the work of Michelle Obama, do you have plans to continue building on those advancements?
  • What would you to do curb food waste in the United States?
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Politically-Inspired Food From Earl Grey to Americone Dream
by Samantha Weiss Hills
  • How will you promote the businesses of small farmers? More specifically, how will you make it more profitable for small farmers to grow the things we need most at a reasonable price, such as fresh produce, rather than historically subsidized corn and wheat?
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Hydroponics—The Future of Farming in Detroit?
by Lindsay-Jean Hard
  • Why do people still go hungry in the U.S., and what would you do to reduce hunger? How is solving this problem intertwined with other socio-economic issues you’d like to tackle?
  • What would you say to Fight for $15, the labor group composed of fast-food workers who are demanding a federal living wage as well as union rights? Are their concerns valid to you, and if so, how would you seek to placate them?
  • Specifically for Mr. Trump, regarding his beloved restaurant, McDonald’s—do you have interest in seeing McDonald’s provide more nutritious options? What do you have to say about its role in America’s obesity epidemic?
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It’s Official: G.M.O. Labels Are Slated to Change Nationwide
by Sarah Jampel
  • Whom would you choose as your advisors when it comes to food policy?
  • Are there food policies in place elsewhere in the world that you’d turn to in order to inform your own decisions regarding food policy and safety?

Your turn! Let us know what you’d like to see the candidates answer tonight in the comments.

Contrary to Internet Reports, You Cannot Defrost a Steak in Five Minutes

If you listened to Food Network, Tasting Table, Business Insider, Lifehacker, Delish, or Women’s Health Magazine, you might expect to be able to defrost a steak in five minutes, sans electricity and bacteria spreading.

The hack—originally shown on CTi, a Taiwanese cable TV network, in 2014—sounded like the key to a brighter, shinier life, the deceit needed to impersonate those successful people who remember to move meat from the freezer to the fridge in the morning without calendar, text, and alarm reminders.

The original video of the hack has been deleted, but the method, largely without detail, has been widely written about. It goes like this:

  • Get two aluminum pans.
  • Put one on the counter upside down.
  • Put your frozen steak, still wrapped in parchment or foil or plastic wrap, on top.
  • Put the second pan on top, right side up.
  • Fill the top pan with water.
  • Wait five minutes. Defrosted steak!

The science behind the method makes sense: Aluminum is a great conductor of heat, so it absorbs the heat in the room and transfers it to whatever it’s touching (here: steak). The top, weighted pan pushes down on the steak so the meat has more direct contact with aluminum.

But reports on the hack say the steak can only be maximum one centimeter thick even though screenshots of the video show a steak that might be closer to an inch. It’s unclear what temperature the water should be, or if it matters—or if the steak can have a bone in it. Given such shaky data, I had to test it all. Remember, this hack could change my life.

The Tests

I tried four different steak thicknesses ranging from 1/4 inch (0.6 cm) to an inch. I tried one with a bone. I tried warm and cold water. I couldn’t really change the temperature in my apartment, but know that it was hot (humid, sticky, without relief from air conditioning).

The butcher said the 1/4-inch spider steak was so thin, it would defrost in half an hour out on any counter, so I had high hopes this hack would deliver a defrosted steak in 5 minutes. But sadly, unfortunately, it didn’t—my wee spider steak defrosted in 25 minutes between two aluminum pans (who can I trust?!).

The problem seemed to be that the steak wasn’t perfectly flat, which can happen depending on your cut or how the steak freezes in your freezer, so the parts touching the top pan could defrost while the interior and the lower exterior parts couldn’t.

Next I tried a 1/3-inch top round, which really would be my dinner that night (so it needed to defrost in 5 minutes). Two hours later, I could cook the steak (so you can imagine how the two thicker steaks went). The flatness of the steak didn’t seem to be a problem here. Instead, I think it might’ve been that the aluminum pans got really cold from the steak. I’m not sure how much heat it was absorbing.

That said, I defrosted a steak in two hours. It’s great to know I can do that now. If I wasn’t expecting it to happen in 5 minutes, I would’ve been pretty happy with the situation. So while this hack doesn’t deliver on its unreasonably optimistic promise, I would still do it! Beef can be for dinner in 2 hours, which certainly beats forgetting, again, to set out the frozen steak before work.

Tell us: What’s your go-to method for defrosting meat?

The Whole Grain, Hearty Galette Dough That Will Feed You All Week

Big Sunday dinners anchor the upcoming week, especially if you make a little extra. We partnered with Tillamook to join the #RealFoodSunday movement, encouraging families to cook and eat Real Food together once a week, but especially on Sundays.

Galettes are the kind of food made for a laid back weekend dinner or dessert—they’re less fussy than pie dough, they sway sweet or savory, they’re easily eaten with hands (a plus!). I love them both ways, but if I’m being honest, often prefer them as the latter: Filled with cheese and ready to be sliced into buttery triangles.

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Photo by James Ransom

Maybe, though, you’ve stopped there in the past—and I’m saying you shouldn’t: Galette dough makes more than free form pies. You can use it to make quiches and even empanadas, so on Sunday, make a bunch of dough (and make a galette for dinner, but more on that later) by simple scaling up the recipe, making it in batches if need be.

This buckwheat galette recipe makes 1 crust, so if you want to make 4, multiply the ingredients by four. If you want to make 5, multiply the ingredients by five—and so on. To store the dough, refrigerate it, all wrapped up, for up to 24 hours or freeze it and allow a portion to thaw in the fridge the day you want to use it. All-butter dough has a tendency to oxidize if left in the fridge for too long, developing dark spots and altering the flavor (hence freezer storage). But, once it’s thawed, you’re halfway to dinner—or lunch, or even just a snack.

Now, here’s how to use galette dough 6 different ways, 6 different days of the week:

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Buckwheat Galette with Apples, Cheddar, and Sage
by Food52

1.) Sweet and savory, this buckwheat galette‘s adaptable. We used apples, red onion, sage, and a cheddar crumble—however, you can also think of the crust as a base ready for your personalization. You could use roasted broccoli and bacon (or bacon jam), kale and pancetta, or tomato jam and cheddar.

2.) Use that crust to make Leek, Lemon, and Feta Quiche. In place of the recipe’s puff pastry, substitute thinly rolled out galette dough. You can make individual quiches or one big one—remembering you’ll need to alter the baking time depending on whichever you choose. Serve with a simple green salad.

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Empanadas are Little Pockets for All Your Leftovers
by Erin McDowell

3.) While it may not be traditional, empanadas happily accept any and all dough and are a great way to use up leftover beans, vegetables, meat, and even eggs. Here’s how to make them without a recipe.

4.) Cut the dough into squares, fill with cream cheese and sliced tomato, fold in half, crimp and bake to make savory breakfast turnovers.

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Mini Chicken Pot Pies
by molly yeh

5.) Make chicken pot pie(s), like these adorable mini ones filled with peas, carrots, and, of course, bite-size pieces of chicken. Although you can use a mini cake pan, a muffin tin also makes a fine mini pot pie pan.

6.) Roll the crust super thin, sprinkle with za’atar, olive oil, and sea salt, and cut into shapes for easy, homemade crackers. They make the perfect vehicle for hummus.

What’s in your favorite galette? Tell us in the comments below!

Tillamook invites you to join the #RealFoodSunday movement, which encourages cooking, eating, and sharing food together. Share your meals by tagging them #RealFoodSunday, get more tips and inspiration for your Sunday dinners, and find Tillamook cheese here.