When this book first came out in 1998 I was not cooking as much as I do now. That is not to say that I did not cook at all, or that I did not have a hefty shelf full of cookbooks. But I was in a different place in my life where preparing food did not give me the same pleasure it does now. I do not think I had a copy of the original when it came out. Not entirely sure when this “..more hip Joy of Cooking.”* came into my life, probably around 2001-2. When it arrived it did so with a vengeance, I believe that I owned two copies for a couple of years.
I certainly knew who Mark Bittman was from his New York Times columns. I still have a folder with NYT clippings of recipes that I cherish. There was one for fish with peas, lettuce, mint and bacon that is a time-worn favorite but I have never found in any of his books, so I keep that clipping, faded though it is. However I was at that moment still unaware of what a resource I had sitting on my shelf. I think I had looked through the book cursorily a few times and been over whelmed by the breadth of it. How can anything be very good when there are so many. I do remember that there were recipes that I was not fond of. Tried his brownie recipe and found it seriously lacking: not rich or chocolatey enough. A spiced nuts recipe as written had you roast the nuts to a burnt mess. So for a few years I used it only as a reference, a task which it rose to admirably. Exact timing for a soft boiled egg? Basic rice pilaf formula? Braised Chicken variations? Then one day I went to look for the timing and temperature for pork chops and noticed a roast pork recipe that sounded enticing. This recipe has since gone into my repertoire and stayed there. (In fact it was served on New Year’s Day to some close friends.) So although I did not think of it as inspiring, I was pleased with the book and happy to recommend it to others. Sure that I gave it to some neophyte cooks over the years.
This Fall when our John Wiley rep told me that there was going to be a new tenth Anniversary edition of How to Cook Everything I was mildly curious. Were they actually going to change this book with new recipes, different format or a change to the layout? Would it really be ‘completely revised’ as it said on the dust jacket? I was sceptical, I mean Bittman churns out material for the Times, how would he have time to update the old tract, wouldn’t they just re-arrange some chapters and call it new? And could it be improved, since I found the first edition so passable? Don’t get me wrong, I have been recommending this book for years and stand by it. I do agree with the Washington Post* that it is a modern Joy of Cooking. When a customer asks me for a good basic general cookbook this is often at the top of my list. (others will come soon in other posts) But with this new edition I feel it truly belongs there. Over the past ten years, through all those columns he has been writing, and the companion book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman has sharpened his tools. He has expanded his universe, he has stretched his envelope. While I still consider Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (see an earlier post) to be my favorite, I now must place How to Cook Everything (10th Ed) in the same category, just with meat.
What distinguishes the 10th Anniversary edition? Well, let’s start from the top. The kitchen basics chapter has gone from 14 to 20 pages and now includes illustrations for some foundational techniques that, if mastered, can help anyone cook more efficiently and with more ease and confidence. As Bittman says in his introduction more people are cooking at home these days (this book went to press way before our economy took it’s Fall nosedive) and this rise has coincided with an increased awareness of cuisine and appreciation for good food. We are also moving faster than ever and have grown to rely on convenience foods. Bittman strives to educate his readers to the ease and simplicity with which really good food can be prepared. You don’t have to default to take out when you have had a long day, and he shows you how. So spend a little time with those first 20 pages and anyone will have the rudimentary skills to cook anything in this whole 1044 page book.
After the introduction he walks you through all the myriad numbers of recipes that one might expect from a general interest cookbook. There are chapters on: sauces; appetizers; soups; sandwiches; salads; vegetables & fruit; beans; grains; pasta; fish & shellfish; poultry; meat; eggs; bread and lastly dessert. Each chapter begins with what he labels his essential recipes. In the Cook’s Illustrated fashion he gives you the formula, with explanations, for how to prepare the subject. Then he branches out and offers up all sorts of variations and alternatives to take you beyond where you started. In the back of the book he has an addendum that includes a two page spread of his “102 Essential Recipes”. If one wanted to cut to the chase this would be one way to start working your way through this tome. This is a handy feature for someone new to cooking. You could fashion your very own cooking school by mastering these 102 essentials. Recipes in this category encompass the simplest yogurt sauce, a simple green salad, roasted vegetables, baked beans, spagetti with garlic and oil, Pad Thai, simple roast chicken six ways, beef stew eight ways, corn bread, brownies (and yes, the recipe is better, more chocolatey, still not quite there for me, but better) and a free-form fruit tart. I am guessing they will break these recipes out into their own book, which would be a useful thing.
To my mind the biggest improvement in this edition is the depth to which he has expanded the scope of these recipes. In the earlier edition he skimmed the surface (ably) but did not give much flourish to most treatments. This time there are a dazzling array of alternatives to the basic approach with offerings from such cuisines as French, Italian, Thai, Indian, Mexican, to name a few. You could cook many different cuisines with just this book if you had no space in your home for any other. He has also added all sorts of sidebars which provide useful tips on say, making a quick poultry stock or bean, green and pasta combos or 14 seafood, meat and poultry dishes that work as pasta sauces, or adding grains to soups. He has charts that list different type of beans or chiles or grains, what their uses are and what substitutions one might make. There are tips for extending meals, and in that back addendum there is a spread for his “Top 100 make-ahead recipes” as well as his “Top 100 fast recipes”. Both groupings belie the notion that good food cannot be fast and accesible for those who squawk about being too tired to cook. (sigh) Bittman has published some very well recieved articles in the New York Times within the past year that streamline meals down into manegable components without compromising flavor or nutrition. This is obviously a theme for him, eating healthy but without sacrificing taste. His focus on whole grains and eating less meat (if one so chooses) are given ample time here. While we have access to healthy, sustainably and ethically raised meats and poultry here in Maine, others are not so lucky. Bittman offers up other ways of eating that cut down on the flesh without depriving the soul. His last spread in the addendum is the “Top 100 vegetarian recipes”. We are certainly no vegetarian, however we believe the industrial meat production in this country is untenable. If more Americans ate less meat maybe those agribusiness idiots would get the message and change their ways. Just a thought…
So to sum up, after a rather long post. The new 10th Anniversary edition of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman is a worthy addition to anyone’s library. If you have the first edition and like it you will be blown away by this update. If you have the first edition and were ambivalent, you should give this one a look, you will be pleasantly surprised. If you never liked the first edition, you might want to give this version a chance, it just might make you understand what all the fuss is about. It is a great gift for a new cook, a stalwart addition to a curious cooks arsenal, and icing on the cake for those of us who are serious collectors of cookbooks.
And my favorite pork recipe is still in there.