Beans And Toast

Mark Bittman’s latest cookbook is really good because it cares more about helping you cook your own food than it does about showing off the author’s technical arsenal. The book is not meant for food critics or chefs, and it deliberately thumbs its nose at tenets of gastronomical gospel like mise en place. Here’s how one reviewer describes that move:

Bittman argues that mise en place, the time-honored approach of prepping ingredients ahead of time, is an obsolete concept in the contemporary, time-depleted kitchen. He believes those idle minutes waiting for water to boil, ovens to heat or vegetables to cook can better be spent chopping onions, grating cheese or mincing garlic. As such, “Fast” features recipes that ask people to prep as they cook, providing tight windows to complete the tasks. Aside from certain master recipes, such as those for stocks and beans, every dish here is engineered to take 45 minutes or less.

I love this book. It has prompted a couple of thoughts:

1. Before you can do something fast, you have to do it well. This is the fifth version of How To Cook Everything, and the first to focus on speed. There’s a bunch of basic teaching stuff at the beginning that aims to share the fundamentals of knife work and the like with the beginner. But beginners will still struggle, because if you don’t know how to chop an onion slowly, there’s no shortcut to doing it quickly (this is another version of the Godly Play idiom, “Know the rules well enough to break them effectively”).

2. Focus on outputs. Bittman has become concerned in his columns about the connection between obesity in America and the declining rates at which people cook their own food. So he’s trying to help more people cook at home. You don’t need sexy food pics to do that, so there aren’t any. You also don’t need a lot of “shoulds,” since the should he cares most about is already accomplished when you fire up the burner. Instead, the instructions are an innovative layering of cooking and food prep that is finished before you know it.

One more thing: I’ve had beans and toast from this book for lunch two days in a row. My mouth is happy.