Face Time: Mark Bittman

Cookbook author, TV host, runner

June 4, 2012

It’s nearly impossible to poke around in the culinary blogosphere without running into one of Mark Bittman’s recipes. The food writer for the New York Times (famous for his “Minimalist” column, which featured, among other fuss-free recipes, “no-knead bread”) is also the author of more than a dozen cookbooks, star of his own Cooking Channel program and a regular on the “Today Show.” (Bittman has even blogged for Runnersworld.com, though his writing there is better for witty musings on workouts than recipe prep.) He just released “How to Cook Everything: The Basics” ($35, Wiley).

You’re known for basic recipes, but how did you figure out how to make them yourself?
I learned how to cook from cookbooks, actually, in the ’60s and ’70s.

Any notable ones?
At the time, I thought they were all notable, but some no longer exist. “The Joy of Cooking” of course was one, and the New York Times cookbooks by Craig Claiborne. There were also books that were really, really obscure, books by people like Richard Olney.

In “The Basics,” you talk about how to boil water. Really — people need help with that?
[Laughs] Yes, it’s true that anyone can put water in a pot and turn the heat on. But there are people who don’t know what a simmer looks like, and we have 1,000 photos, so I thought, why not show that? I wanted to err on the side of completeness. But that’s probably the most extreme “basic.”

One of your tips is to trust your intuition while cooking. What if a newbie doesn’t have intuition?
Cooking is all about practice and experience. To expect to be good the minute you start is as unrealistic as to expect to be able to drive the first time behind the wheel of a car or to expect to be good at tennis the first time on the court. It’s something that takes practice and experience. It’s not talent, not genius, it just takes time.

You also stress that it’s OK to serve dishes warm or at room temperature.
I think a lot of what gives people trouble is timing. They fret because they think everything needs to come to the table hot and at the same time. That’s very tricky; it’s not an easy thing to do. I made dinner last night and three of the four dishes I served were at room temperature. It’s hard to cook more than one thing and have them finish at the same time, but it’s much easier if you finish one earlier.

As a runner, what do you make to eat the night before a long run or race?
I tend to do the carb-loading thing. I’m not sure I think it really matters, but it is a fun excuse.

So what’s on your plate then?
Pasta, pasta, pasta.

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