“Food Matters” by Mark Bittman

I’ve written before about Mark Bittman’s book Food Matters, and have been cooking from it and using its ideas since I got it last year. I finally sat down and read it cover to cover. Bittman writes on many of the same aspects of food that Michael Pollan has in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food: the problems with industrial farming, the epidemics of obesity and diabetes in the US, and the prevalance of fast and processed food products. From the introduction:

If I told you that a simple lifestyle choice could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money, and help stop global warming, I imagine you’d be intrigued. If I also told you that this change would be easier and more pleasant that any diet you’ve ever tried, would take less time and effort than your exercise routine, and would require no sacrifice, I would think you’d want to read more.

After a weight gain and health caution from his physician, Bittman developed what he calls simply “sane eating,” or the Food Matters approach. He chose a mostly vegan diet for breakfast, lunch and snacks, and a looser approach for dinner so he didn’t feel deprived. He stresses many times that this has worked for him, but to take your own life, habits and preferences into account. The approach he advocates is simple, and eminently adaptable. This is not a strict regime, or a punishment. Instead it’s an adjustment of your approach to cooking and eating that focuses almost entirely on what you can and should eat (lots of fruit and veggies, whole grains), what you should eat in moderation (dairy products and meat) and what you should avoid (overly processed artificial foods and industrially produced meat.)

While Pollan wrote “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” from In Defense of Food, Bittman not only takes you through why it’s important, but also puts it into practice with 77 easy-to-read and good-to-eat recipes. As Laura Miller at Salon noted when it came out, Food Matters is applied Pollan. Bittman is an experienced cook and recipe writer; he’s the author of the New York Times’ Minimalist column. The recipes are easy to follow, and he offers myriad variations and ideas. Throughout he has an upbeat, encouraging tone that urges new and experienced cooks to experiment and have fun. Here are two salad recipes that can be eaten for lunch or dinner, and have many variations.

Hummus with Pita and Greens

Hummus with Pita and Greens

Makes 4 servings. Time: About 24 minutes with cooked chickpeas.

This is more salad than sandwich. I make this open-faced, with the crunchy pita and spread nestled under a pile of greens. But you can easily deconstruct the dish and serve the pita (toasted or not) alonside for scooping up the hummus. Or if you have pocket pitas, smear the insides with the hummus and fill with the stuffed greens for a more portable lunch.

4 whole wheat pitas
2 cups drained cooked or canned chickpeas,some cooking liquid reserved (use water if canned)
1/2 cup tahini (with some of its oil) or more to taste.
2 cloves garlic, peeled or to taste
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cumin or smoked paprika more or less, plus a sprinkling for garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of one lemon, plus more as needed
6 cups lettuce or assorted salad greens, torn into pieces
Cucumber slices, tomato wedges, thinly sliced red onion, and/or black olives, for garnish
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley leaves, for garnish

1. To toast the pitas if you like, heat the oven to 450F. Put them on a baking sheet and cook until just barely crunchy on both sides, about 15 minutes total.

2. Meanwhile make the hummus: Combine the chickpeas, tahini, garlic and 1/4 cup of the oil in a food processor with the spice and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Use the reserved bean liquid (or water) as necessary to get machine going. Puree, then add about half of the lemon juice, along with more tahini or salt if desired.

3. When the pita has cooled smear a layer of hummus on each and put on plates. (You’ll probably have some left over; the hummus will keep, refrigerated, for about a week. Eat it with raw begetables or on bread.) Put the lettuce in a bowl, sprinkle with some salt, pepper, and a pinch of the spice you used and drizzle with the remaining olive oil and lemon juice. Toss well then pile on top of the pitas. Garnish and serve.

I further garnished the hummus salad with grated carrot and peeled, sliced orange with good results. Here, Bittman advises to use a little bit of bacon for flavoring, but the bulk of the meal is a filling, satisfying salad:

Spinach and Sweet Potato Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

spinach and sweet potato salad with warm bacon dressing

Makes 4 servings. Time: about 45 minutes.

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 thick slices of bacon
1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Juice from one orange
1 pound fresh spinach leaves

1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Put the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Roast, turning occasionally, until crisp and brown outside and just tender inside, about 30 minutes. Remove and keep them on the pan until ready to use.

2. While the potatoes cook, put the bacon in a nonreactive skillet and turn the heat to medium. Cook, turning once or twice, until crisp. Drain on paper towels and pour off the fat, leaving any darkened bits behind in the pan. Put back on medium heat, and add the remaining oil to the pan. When it’s hot, add the bell pepper, onion, and ginger to the pan. Cook, stirring once or twice, until no longer raw, then stir in the cumin and the reserved bacon. Stir in the orange juice and turn off the heat. (The recipe can be made up to an hour or so ahead to this point. Gently warm the dressing again before proceeding.)

3. Put the spinach in a bowl large enough to comfortably toss the salad quickly. Add the sweet potatoes and the warm dressing and toss to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning, and serve.

3 Responses to ““Food Matters” by Mark Bittman”

  1. Petunia Says:

    This does sound great and I am trying to go for a more whole foods approach to food but I don’t know if I could go mostly vegan. I mean, I could totally go vege but I love my dairy way too much to give it up. But I will look into this book for some new ideas. Thanks for the thorough review.

  2. Maggi Says:

    I love my dairy too. It would be hard to give up dairy and meat, but if I had it at night, that would be OK. It all sounds delicious, but also like way too much work. I am a leftover-for-lunch eater.

  3. girldetective Says:

    Important clarification: he doesn’t practice or advocate a vegan diet, just more plant food, less junk food, and less meat/animal products, and only good quality ones. It’s mostly turning a typical Western diet on its head, or cleaning it up. Carbs are OK, as long as they’re whole grains and in moderation. Use meat as flavor and in small quantities. Use more veggies than egg in frittata, more sauce than pasta in pasta dishes.