Bittman, back to basics

A colleague of mine recently pointed me to Mark Bittman’s speech at the TED conference, which definitely shares an interesting perspective on trends in American eating and the impact of the livestock industry on the environment.

He also was kind enough to send me two Bittman cookbooks, including How to Cook Everything. I really like what I have read so far — it is unpretentious and back-to-basics. I don’t think that anybody, in any profession, is ever so far advanced that they cannot benefit from a return to the basics, let alone someone like me who still a relative beginner in this realm. Bittman, for example, has a whole section on beans — not just bean recipes, but an explanation of different kinds, dried versus canned, and the theory behind different approaches to cooking beans. That kind of information is surprisingly hard to find.

One can copy a complex Boulud recipe and certainly learn a lot by doing so, but to truly treat food like an art medium (which is why I love it), you need to understand the root theory and the building blocks. Painting is no different — prior to the 20th century’s foray into abstraction, artists were trained by drawing simple building blocks. Cezanne once wrote, “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth … lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth.

Still, there are basics and then there is the scientific foundation (how far people go usually depends on their artistic versus engineering bent). You don’t need to know what a monosaccharide is to cook, but there is an interesting blend of chef/chemist/innovator emerging these days (or maybe it’s always been here and I’m just clueing in now). Ideas in Food is an interesting blog that balances exploration without the reader needing a chemistry PhD.

Speaking of basics, I haven’t been writing here about the very simple dishes I do (last night’s speed meal was grilled lamb with a fennel seed, lemon & yogurt dressing, and steamed broccoli) because I figure they are boring. Still, in food as in life, the basics are important and I look forward to doing some more hands-on exploration of Bittman’s cookbooks.

P.S. I have no segue into this, but check out this very funny New Yorker bit on Fourteen Passive-Aggressive Appetizers