Interview with Quintessential Foodie Mark Bittman

by Charles Platkin, PhD

is a true — he floats through the food world making it look simple. He has been writing “The Minimalist” column for The New York Times for 13 years. His list of best-selling food bibles includes How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Food Matters and The Food Matters Cookbook. He is the host of a PBS-TV series and a regular on the Today show. He even has a fabulous new iPhone application called Mark Bittmans How to Cook Everything, Essentials — the abridged version is free and includes 102 recipes; the full version has 2,000 recipes and costs $4.99. The application is searchable, easy to use, and easily converts recipe ingredients to a shopping list. The following are a few questions Mark answered via e- mail to satisfy your craving for more insight into his food philosophy.

: What inspired your love of food, and how did you learn to cook?

Mark Bittman: I grew up in New York, where we had a variety of ethnic food only now being rivaled by other cities. I liked to eat it, and I wanted to cook it. With the help of cookbooks, I taught myself.

Diet Detective: Do we really need to be so worried about exactly what we’re eating? Have we blown our “unhealthy” eating habits out of proportion?

Mark Bittman: Not at all. In fact, we don’t take them seriously enough.

Diet Detective: Are there food issues we really should be losing sleep over? And, if so, what can we do about them?

Mark Bittman: We need to be addressing the ratio of animal products, processed foods and outright junk we eat compared with plants. It’s pretty simple: Each of us should examine our diet and adjust it accordingly. Ideally, we’d get 90 percent of our calories from plants, and the rest from everything else. Many of us have that ratio completely reversed. It’s just a matter of moving in the right direction.

Diet Detective: You’ve written and talked about the concept of “sane” eating. Can you explain what you mean?

Mark Bittman: That’s the one: Our proportions are out of whack. Sane is conscious. If you’re eating a half pound of meat a day and a pound and a half of other animal products (this is the national average) along with a bunch of processed and junk food, that’s not sane.

Diet Detective: What is the five ingredient rule?

Mark Bittman: I’d just say that it makes no sense to buy anything with more than five ingredients — though that’s an arbitrary number — or with anything you can’t pronounce. Or anything that didn’t exist 100 or even 50 years ago. You want to start with food, mostly, that has one ingredient: itself.

Diet Detective: Is this really a feasible way to eat for the average person?

Mark Bittman: Why not? People cooked this way from the dawn of history until 50 years ago, when “convenience” — the worst word in the history of food — was invented.

Diet Detective: What do you consider healthy cooking?

Mark Bittman: Almost all real cooking is healthy cooking.

Diet Detective: You’re a cook, so it’s easy for you to whip up a quick, healthy meal, but what about all those people who work all day and come home completely stressed to hungry, screaming children? Isn’t it a lot easier for them to just give in and go to McDonald’s?

Mark Bittman: I did cook for my kids after working all day. It’s a question of priorities. Certainly, on an especially stressful day, it’s reasonable to do takeout or fast food or whatever. But if someone is doing that every night, I would question his or her priorities. Cooking and eating well are among the most important things in life. Who would question that?

Diet Detective: Do you think there’s a problem with the meat we have in America?

Diet Detective: Many problems. The people who grow it industrially don’t care about the animals, the environment or the consumers — and all three suffer as a result.

Diet Detective: Do you think meat causes disease?

Mark Bittman: Not directly. But overconsumption of meat certainly isn’t healthy.

Diet Detective: Which is worse: processed carbohydrates or meat?

Mark Bittman: Can’t say. I’d say that most people could stand to eat less of both.

Diet Detective: You’ve lost weight in the last two years. What, if anything, changed — physically and emotionally ­ when you lost weight?

Mark Bittman: I lost two pants sizes! And I felt a tiny bit self–righteous, I will admit. Let’s remember that eating less meat reduces your carbon footprint, too.

Diet Detective: Tell us about your kitchen. I’ve heard that it’s not so wonderful — is that so?

Mark Bittman: It’s 70 square feet, and it has a dishwasher smaller than some people’s toasters.

Diet Detective: What’s the one ingredient you’d suggest people always have on hand if they want to cook healthy meals?

Mark Bittman: There isn’t one. But I’d suggest they stock up on whole grains, beans, vegetables, olive oil, fruits and nuts, and take it from there. The recipes in Food Matters are a good starting place, and there’s a pantry list.

Diet Detective: Your favorite junk food?

Mark Bittman: Potato chips. Or large steaks. Depending on how judgmental I’m feeling.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy recipe?

Mark Bittman: It’s cassoulet with lots of vegetables

Cassoulet with Lots of Vegetables

Makes: 4 to 6 servings

Time: 40 minutes


2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound Italian sausage or bone–in pork chops or confit duck legs or duck breasts, or a combination

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 leeks or onions, trimmed, washed and sliced

2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1–inch lengths

3 celery stalks, cut into 1/2–inch pieces

2 medium zucchinis or 1 small head green cabbage, cut into 1/2–inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 cups chopped tomatoes, with their juice (canned are fine)

1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley leaves

1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme leaves

2 bay leaves

4 cups cooked white beans (canned are OK), drained and liquid reserved in any case

2 cups stock, dry red wine, bean cooking liquid, or water, plus more as needed

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium–high heat, add the meat, and cook, turning as needed, until the meat is deeply browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from the pan and drain off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat.
  2. Turn the heat to medium and add the garlic, leeks or onions, carrots, celery and zucchini or cabbage; sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, their liquid, the reserved meat, and the herbs and bring to a boil. Add the beans; bring to a boil again, stirring occasionally, then reduce the heat so the mixture bubbles gently but continuously. Cook for about 20 minutes, adding the liquid when the mixture gets thick and the vegetbles are melting away.
  3. Fish out the meat and remove the bones and skin as needed. Chop into chunks and return to the pot along with the cayenne. Cook another minute or two to warm through, then taste and adjust seasoning if necessary and serve.
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