Speed is the new sex.
The 1960s launched the trend, but over the past decade, speed — as in swiftness, not stimulant drugs — has been used to sell almost everything in the nervous, second-hand sweep of modern life: wireless networks, ovens, microprocessors, office couriers, you name it. It’s no coincidence that fast-casual restaurants are on the rise; we don’t even have time to eat anymore.
Nor, it seems, does anyone have time to cook. The publishing world has created a whole genre of cookbooks designed to help the harried put food on the table during a workday that seems to end only when head hits pillow.
Now one of the most influential and prolific voices in food has joined a crowded field of meals-in-minutes celebrities: New York Times columnist and author Mark Bittman has just released “ How to Cook Everything Fast: A Better Way to Cook Great Food ” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35), the fifth in his series of dense, recipe-rich tomes that place an emphasis on food preparation, not food-porn photos. “Fast” spans more than 1,050 pages, most packed with recipes (approximately 2,000 of them, including variations), techniques and tips for working smarter in the kitchen.
In many ways, the cookbook is not designed for people like me, childless gastronomes who, when not dining on the town, want to spend more time in the kitchen, not less. I’m not typically seeking out recipes to make Fast Pho or Cheat-a-Little Pizza with store-bought dough or — avert your eyes, barbecue friends — a chopped pork sandwich in 45 minutes. I’m the guy who makes his own guanciale and obsesses over the fire in my offset smoker, staying up all night to maintain the proper temperature to slow-cook a Texas brisket.
Bittman argues that mise en place, the time-honored approach of prepping ingredients ahead of time, is an obsolete concept in the contemporary, time-depleted kitchen. He believes those idle minutes waiting for water to boil, ovens to heat or vegetables to cook can better be spent chopping onions, grating cheese or mincing garlic. As such, “Fast” features recipes that ask people to prep as they cook, providing tight windows to complete the tasks. Aside from certain master recipes, such as those for stocks and beans, every dish here is engineered to take 45 minutes or less.
For amateur cooks, his approach could have been a dark ride down a dead-end tunnel had Bittman not provided strategies on how to work faster and techniques on how to prep fruits and vegetables efficiently. Beginners would benefit by giving the front of the book a close read before approaching more prep-heavy dishes, like the Shrimp over Grits; otherwise, they might find themselves cursing the clock — and the very recipe designed to make their lives easier.
Because the book is built for speed, the volume comes burdened with a kind of pressure: the pressure to maintain a proper pace, which can create its own stress after a day in the office trenches. Bittman reminds readers that they can turn down the heat on a pan should they fall behind on prep. Good advice to keep in mind as you navigate “Fast.”
But that safety net will not catch all falls. I got hopelessly behind on the Caramel-Cooked Cod when I couldn’t get the sugar to melt and darken on its own while I prepped the shallots and limes. On my second attempt, I was forced to turn down my electric burner to medium-low and stir the sugar continuously before it began to caramelize. Like cooks, all stoves are not created equal, and some ingredients demand more attention than others. But even with my first stumble, I still finished the dish in 45 minutes, only about 15 minutes behind schedule.
Other dishes come together with less hassle, even if some recipes are so streamlined they’re open-ended in terms of seasonings and/or ingredients. Is that supposed to be fresh or processed mozzarella on the Eggplant Parmesan Sub? There is, I’d argue, no wrong answer to that question, and even with processed mozz, the sandwich became an instant vegetarian hit in our household.
So here’s my quick takeaway from “Fast”: No matter how bumpy the ride may be, Bittman gets you there in the end. That caramelized cod? Tart, sweet and delicious. The Classic Breakfast Burritos that I spent 45 minutes preparing one early afternoon? Allow my food taster to answer: “I don’t even like breakfast burritos,” she told me, “and I love that.”
Bittman discusses the book with Food editor Joe Yonan on Oct. 11 at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium and signs books at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market the next day; see this week’s Food calendar for details.