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Cookbook Review: Mark Bittman's Food Matters Cookbook -- Because It Does Matter

That Mark Bittman has cooked pretty much everything during his career is what has made him a household name (at least among New York Times subscribers). When he proclaimed that Food Matters, the Michael Pollan-esque manifesto on thoughtful -- sustainable, simple, and thus healthy -- eating, everyone else listened. Or they should have.

His latest book, The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living, is a practical combination of The Minimalists' first love (simple, no-fuss cooking) with a mature thoughtfulness (too much bacon does eventually catch up to you). Yet that eye towards conscientious eating, both in terms of sustainable living and a stimulated palate, isn't preachy. Bittman takes a more forgiving approach as he, too, admits that depriving oneself of that chocolate chip cookie is no fun (and unnecessary).

And so in The Food Matters Cookbook, Bittman offers simple tweaks to make that quinoa salad feel more like Saturday night fare on yet-another Wednesday by adding smokey chipotle peppers, fresh corn (but frozen is fine) and black beans to make an easy "make ahead" (one of his three rather useful recipe categories) side dish.

Quinoa Salad Isn't For Everyone
Quinoa Salad Isn't For Everyone
Flickr user MikeLicht

In the "fast" category, you'll find dishes like mashed fava beans with tomatoes and feta. "Pantry staples" include Boston baked beans that he proclaims better than the standard sticky-sweet version in both taste and refined sugar (we tested them, and they are pretty darn good). Those three categories -- make ahead, fast, and pantry staple -- are what makes this book so manageable in its 600+ pages of recipes. That Bittman manages to take the Holy Trinity of modern jiffy cooking and make them come across as useful rather than a gimmicky Food Network sales tactic is why this book is such a great cookbook library reference.

He does it by organizing the book into the standard appetizers, grains, desserts, etc. sections, but adds an index in the back for those make-ahead/fast/pantry staple categories. They're quite a handy reference for those nights when you really do only have pantry staples on hand, but neither the time or patience to flip through ten cookbooks to find a leftover basmati rice inspiration (p. 24, crispy rice cakes with stir fried vegetables and chicken). As we've come to expect from Bittman, the recipes are written in that straight-to-the-point style and largely fuss free.

And yes, despite the healthier slant, there are a handful of beef recipes, too. Only here, it's served up Italian-style, meaning meat tends to be thought of as yet another ingredient, not the featured course. Like, say, in that spaghetti with seared radicchio, steak (skirt, sirloin, or whatever you have on hand) and balsamic sauce. Or the "cassoulet with lots of vegetables" (exactly what it sounds like). Desserts lean on whole wheat pastry flour, but there are also plenty of chocolate-laced tarts and hearty rice puddings (with brown rice and coconut milk subbed for cream).

Ultimately, what Bittman reminds is that healthy eating, like everything in life, does not exist in a prescribed diet bubble of restrictions and have-nots. Because eating, healthy healthier or otherwise, always has a context. You can't take the fried food out of the State Fair, and why would anyone in their right mind want to? But that doesn't mean that you need to deep-fry candy bars every Friday night. Every other weekend should suffice, particularly if you vow to fry something more sustainable and corn-syrup free. Homemade pie, perhaps?