Monday, July 27, 2009

Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express

Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express

Mark Bittman is a genius when it comes to combining a few ingredients to create a great dish. In his Minimalist column in the New York Times, he simplifies recipes down to the bare bones and yet they retain all the appeal of more complicated dishes. I have several of his cookbooks, including the dog-eared How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and have given several of his books as gifts. I eagerly look forward to his columns in the New York Times, his Bitten blog posts, and especially his popular "101 lists."

Here they are in case you missed any:

* Summer Express: 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less

* 101 20-Minute Dishes for Inspired Picnics

* 101 Simple Appetizers in 20 Minutes or Less

* 101 Simple Salads for the Season

The loose format of these recipes works. Sometimes you don't need the typical list of ingredients and measurements, you just need good ideas and Bittman delivers plenty of them. So I was excited to check out Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express which consists of, 404 seasonal recipes that you can make in 20 minutes or less. Similar to the New York Times lists, they are written in paragraph form, though with a bit more detail. The flexibility of the measurements assumes a certain level of knowledge, but makes for a free and easy style of cooking I particularly like. The recipes themselves are intriguing though some more than others. Melon soup with pancetta, simplified sesame shrimp toasts, deconstructed raspberry souffles, and broiled eggplant with miso walnut vinaigrette are all flagged in my book. Other ideas feel too simple and obvious such as steak with gorgonzola or miso soup with tofu.

Unfortunately what works online, on Twitter and in a newspaper article is not the same as what works in a book. I find that hundreds of recipes in paragraph format organized primarily by season, make the book difficult to actually use. The recipes follow a progression from breakfast-oriented dishes to soups, salads, main dishes and desserts, but it's still unwieldy and frankly, many ingredients are not really all that seasonal. Recipes featuring ingredients such as boy choy, bacon, frozen peas, canned beans, eggplant, shrimp, raisins and olives could easily fit in more than one season.

The "More Ways to Navigate" section provides lists of recipes under headings such as Brown Bag Lunches, Desserts You Can Eat Any Time of the Year and Recipes to Toss with Pasta. I would have preferred if the book had been organized using those categories instead of just the seasons or the more typical headings--breakfast, soups, salads, desserts, etc. You can find what you are looking for fairly easily in the index if push comes to shove. Bottom line, if you are a seasoned cook looking for inspiration, this may be a good book for you, but a much more accessible book, in my opinion, is Mark Bittman's Quick and Easy Recipes from the New York Times.

Note: Still curious about Mark Bittman's Kitchen Express? You can browse inside the book here.