Mark Bittman’s Minimalist Recipes

Mark Bittman, one of the New York Times‘ food writers, said his farewell to the times about a month ago now after a good solid 13 year run of teaching his readers to eat well, eat intelligently, be in touch with their food, and not to be afraid of it – to cook their own means. In his honor and to celebrate his departure, he put together a list of his favorite minimalist recipes from the past 13 years of columns, and the results are an incredible list of “minimalist” dishes and recipes that are easy enough to prepare on your own with a little forethought, and tasty and healthy enough that you won’t regret making them on a work night or for guests on the weekends. Some of them are snacks and simple dips, some of them are flavorful and delicious entrees and main dishes that will be the talk of any meal.

I’m a huge fan of making sure to make your own food if at all possible, and especially in most normal everyday circumstances. There’s plenty of room to go out to eat, enjoy your favorite dishes when you’re out and about, and spend time at your favorite eateries, but when it comes to the every day and all of the other meals you have every day, it’s clearly healthier for you to make your own meals. Add to it all the fact that you have the utmost control over what you eat and drink when you prepare it yourself, and you have a great reason to make your own.

Bittman has an excellent take on this, and he has a great list of dishes. Click the jump to read a few of my favorites, and find out what Bittman means when he says “minimalist.” It may not be what you think it means.

First of all, Mark Bittman – or The Minimalist as a number of readers of The New York Times Dining Section know him – has a very special definition of what “minimalist food” means. It’s not necessarily some hoity-toity gourmet concept that involves only a few special ingredients, or only organics, or only local food, although all of those things can be good for you, for your food, and for its flavor. Here’s how he described it in his farewell column:

The Minimalist first appeared on Sept. 17, 1997. It was the brainchild of Rick Flaste, who created the Dining In/Dining Out section (now the Dining section); Trish Hall, my on-and-off editor; and me. It was conceived as a successor to Pierre Franey’s classic 60-Minute Gourmet column, but with a less French, more modern, less chef-y sensibility. In addition, Rick wanted the recipes to be “smart,” and although I couldn’t quite figure out what that meant, I tried to please him.

As every columnist will tell you, it takes time for a column to find its true identity, and The Minimalist was no different. A year later, the column was at least adolescent, and I described its typical recipes as I do today: nearly all of them use minimal technique, minimal time or minimal ingredients; many recipes meet two of those standards, and quite a few all three.

I could say it more succinctly: The column’s goal, my job, has been to help make home cooking more accessible.

Bittman’s been writing The Minimalist for longer than these ideals of home-made, conscientious cooking with real ingredients and an attention to both health and flavor have been fashionable. Longer than there’s been a Food Network, longer than cookbooks were in style, and longer than chefs were celebrities (with the exception of some of the most highly renown chefs on public television, of course.)

It makes sense that he’d retire it now after it’s been so good and long. Still, it’s a shame that his column was one of those things that’s helped bring this style of cooking and eating to the forefront and now that it’s popular it’s time to go. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his experiences and follow some of the delicious recipes that he’s left behind for us. For example, his first column was a simple Red Pepper Puree, but one of my favorites is Scrambled Eggs with Shrimp:

OF all the dishes I ate for the first time in 2006, this one stands out. It’s amazing how good it is, how simple it is, how easy and fast it is. It’s also amazing how puzzled you must be hearing me say these things about scrambled eggs with shrimp. Have faith.

If you want this dish at its best, stop cooking when the eggs are creamy and even a little bit of liquid remains. (If you like your eggs dry, cook them as you usually do.)

Eat this immediately, really hot. I made a batch as an appetizer for a party, using 24 eggs and about two pounds of shrimp. It was gone in a minute, and my feeling is that it was the high point of the meal.

Bittman even goes on to share the perfect way to scramble eggs, in a very short but very succinct piece that’s enough to inspire anyone to try it themselves at home with a little cooked shrimp and some scrambled eggs. Another one of my favorites is the Spaghetti with Fried Eggs, which hits a spot that I think my parents tried to hit when we were growing up – some nights my parents just didn’t feel like cooking so we did spaghetti with boiled eggs: changing it up to fried eggs and adding some delicious garlic and a great olive oil to the mix and you have a really modern but simple take on a classic dish — from my childhood, anyway:

These recipes, however, take things one or two easy steps further. In the first dish, sometimes known as ”poor man’s spaghetti,” you fry a couple of eggs in the olive oil after removing the garlic; tossed with the pasta, the eggs and oil create a creamy, delicious sauce.

The recipe is included with this one – along with a couple of other delicious pasta treats, so make sure you bookmark this one, okay? It’s easy enough to cook one night on your way home from the office when you’re too tired to make a big fussy meal, but it’s classy enough to make for a guest if you’re trying to impress someone with your pasta cooking skills on a quiet night in with a date, or if you’re planning to entertain a few friends for a refreshing but hearty dinner in the summertime.

Go forth, my fellow geeks – don’t be afraid to play in the kitchen, and apply some of the same principles and ideas that you put to solving puzzles in video games or assembling your next computer to work in the kitchen. Thankfully Bittman left us with some great recipes to help get you started. Give them a shot, and then think about ways you can tweak the recipes to your own tastes and palate.

images in this post courtesy of New York Times Photographer Evan Sung: Fennel and Celery Make a Striking Pair , and Let the Oven Do All the Work.

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Alan Henry

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