`The Minimalist Cooks at Home' is from New York Times culinary columnist, Mark Bittman, who is filling a classic Times role created by the noted French chef, Pierre Franey, who elevated the fast cooking genre over thirty years ago in columns in the very same New York Times and in books compiled from these columns. Since I still see Franey's '60 Minute Gourmet' volumes on the shelves of bookstores, I guess I must keep them on mine at least until I review these two volumes of columns.
While Franey is probably a far better cook than his successor, Bittman may be a much better writer or at least better at homing in on things which are important to people wishing to make good food fast. I have reviewed his `How to Cook Everything' and his `Fish' cookbook and have found both of them excellent material for a modest shelf of cookbooks. In this book and others Bittman has done from his Times column, Bittman is playing the thinking man's Rachael Ray. I say that with no disrespect toward Ms. Rachael, as I have favorably reviewed all her books. Rachael's recipe write-ups are great for people with fair kitchen skills who want very good step by step directions on how to get from groceries to dinner as quickly as possible. Bittman, on the other hand, takes a much broader viewpoint. His `minimalist' notion is not simply a matter of doing things quickly. In his words, `...these recipes require a minimum of technique and/or a minimum number of ingredients; most of them are fast as well. The approach is strictly less-is-more', an attempt to repoduce recipes that are so sophisticated, savvy, and fresh that they will inspire even experienced cooks while making them basic and simple enough to tempt novices'.
Like Jacques Pepin in both his classic `The Short Cut Cook' and his recent `Fast Food My Way', Bittman begins by selecting recipes which are simple to begin with rather than, like Franey and Ray, modifying recipes to shorten normally long cooking approaches. In Franey's case, a recipe in his book such as his chili has sometimes disappointed me. I believe Frenchman Franey never sensed the essence of chili and produced something which simply does not work very well as `chili', which, I suspect, simply does not make it without a long braise. Franey's collections of columns even go so far as to give us the French names of his dishes. A quick browse of Tony Bourdain's `Les Halle' Cookbook' will demonstrate that lots of classic French recipes are actually pretty easy to make, but a focus on French cuisine is a bit limiting in today's American thinking about food.
Bittman improves on Franey by making each recipe a little essay on how to succeed with a very useful and interesting family of dishes. The recipe is simply an exemplar which can serve as a jumping off point for a modest to wide range of variations. Surprisingly, Bittman also improves on Frenchman Franey by providing suggestions for wine pairings. He also covers `Keys to Success', points on ingredients or technique which will improve the quality of the dish.
My overall evaluation of this book may be jaded by having reviewed over 400 cookbooks and find no easy niche into which to stick this work and others based on Bittman's New York Times columns. The thing which best illuminates the value of this book for me is an opinion shared by both Ina Garten and Deborah Madison that the home cook should concentrate on mastering just a few good dishes and variations on those dishes. Madison assures us that cooking will become much more pleasurable when a simple dish can be whipped up largely from memory.
If you agree with this position, and I find it a very attractive position to take if you are not a foodie, but like to cook well at least once a week, then this book and it's siblings are some of the very best you can choose, unless you happen to be a vegetarian, in which case you go for Deborah Madison's new book, `Vegetarian Suppers'.
Madison and Bittman share strong writing skills with excellent choices of recipes in what are really volumes of `personal best' recipes.
If you eat meat, like to cook now and then, and do not have room for a large cookbook collection, you could do a lot worse than by limiting yourself to Mark Bittman cookbooks.