Enjoying global bites with Bittman

BOOKMARK

October 26, 2005|By KATE SHATZKIN | KATE SHATZKIN,SUN REPORTER

The Best Recipes in the World

Mark Bittman

Broadway Books / 2005 / $29.95

For a writer who calls his New York Times column "The Minimalist," Mark Bittman is fond of superlatives. His first major cookbook announced its ambitions with the title How to Cook Everything, and lived up to them by becoming a best-seller that spawned spinoff cookbooks and a TV show.

So it's not surprising that when Bittman decided to take on cooking around the globe, he called his 757-page effort The Best Recipes in the World.

It's a project that took some 30 years of travel and tasting to produce, Bittman writes, yet it hews to the principle he's known for: Basic cooking can make great food.

The writer sought out home cooks who, he was told, made mostly dishes local people took for granted. "To me," he writes, "this was a dead giveaway that I'd found the right person."

With more than 1,000 recipes and primers on lamb cuts, vinegars, chiles and more, this is an exhaustive volume, but not exhausting. Most recipes are mercifully short; a good number can be made in 30 minutes or less.

Lest you fear not being able to find ingredients like Szechuan peppercorns or urad dal, there's a selection of Internet sources. And Bittman offers menus by country, season and occasion.

Bittman has a singular ability to marry exact instructions with flexible options. Times are attached to nearly every step in a recipe, from processing to sauteing to baking. But there's always some wiggle room to account for the vagaries of home equipment and individual taste. You feel in the hands of a knowledgeable but relaxed guide who actually seems to trust your less-experienced judgment.

Imbued with this confidence, I took on Hunkar Begendi, a Turkish dish of braised lamb and pureed eggplant that required more work than most of the recipes. As Bittman writes, it was worth the trouble. I wasn't sure the called-for tomatoes and eggplant would get along, but the pecorino Romano cheese I used brought the velvety sauce together nicely with tender chunks of lamb.

Bittman's version of Saag Paneer, creamed spinach with hunks of cheese, was easy to make with tofu, his suggested substitution for the harder-to-find paneer. It tasted different from the smoother version at my local Indian restaurant, but no less addictive.

Dried chiles and store-bought yellow curry powder (Bittman prefers you make your own, but gives you permission not to) suffused the dish with a subtle yet persistent heat.

An Austrian Linzer Torte -- an almond-based crust topped with raspberry jam and lattice strips of baked dough -- tasted as good as it looked. One quibble: In a dinner-party menu, Bittman suggests making the Linzer Torte two days in advance, but doesn't say how to store it in the meantime. Mine, kept at room temperature, seemed to dry out quickly over several days.

kate.shatzkin@baltsun.com

Other books by Mark Bittman

How to Cook Everything: Bittman Takes on America's Chefs (John Wiley & Sons, 2005, $24.95)

The Minimalist Cooks Dinner (Broadway Books, 2001, $26)

Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking (John Wiley & Sons, 1999, $19.95)

How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food (John Wiley & Sons, 1998, $35)

Saag Paneer

Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds fresh spinach

3/4 pound paneer or firm or extra-firm tofu

2 tablespoons butter or oil

1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

3 small dried chiles

2 tablespoons curry powder, preferably homemade (If store-bought, try to avoid mixes labeled "hot")

salt to taste

1/2 cup yogurt

1 1/2 cups light cream or half-and-half (divided use)

Trim the spinach of its tough, thick stems and wash it to remove all traces of sand; do not dry it. Chop it into pieces no more than an inch or so along any dimension. Cut the block of tofu in half horizontally and wrap it in several layers of paper towels. Put it under a couple of plates; you want some weight on it, but not a lot.

Put the butter in a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat. A minute later, add the ginger, garlic and chiles and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the garlic begins to color, a minute or two. Stir in the curry powder and a large pinch of salt and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add the spinach all at once. Cook, stirring, until the spinach wilts, then add the yogurt and a cup of the cream. Fish out the chiles and discard.

Let the mixture boil fairly rapidly, over medium to medium-high heat. At first, the spinach will give up its water and the amount of liquid in the pan will increase. Then it will begin to evaporate, and the mixture will become drier and drier. When it is nearly dry but still creamy, cut the tofu into 1/2 -inch pieces and incorporate. When the tofu is hot, add the remaining cream to make the mixture a bit saucier. Taste and adjust the seasoning, stir and serve.

Per serving: 456 calories; 24 grams protein; 33 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 24 grams carbohydrate; 7 grams fiber; 76 milligrams cholesterol; 252 milligrams sodium

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