“Here’s the summary: Eat less meat, and fewer animal products in general. Eat fewer refined carbohydrates, like white bread, cookies, white rice, and pretzels. Eat way less junk food: soda, chips, snack food, candy, and so on. And eat far more vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains—as much as you can. If you followed these general rules and read no farther, you’d be doing yourself and the earth a favor.”
This is how Mark Bittman boils down the message of his new book, Food Matters, which in turn is a concise summary of the immense amount of information available about what to eat, and how, and why. The what and why aren’t news to anyone familiar with Michael Pollan’s brilliant treatises, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, and the generation of food books that have sprung up around them. We all know that we should “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.
Bittman reviews the basics of what has gone wrong with the American food system, including the detrimental effects of our diet on the environment, the inhumane conditions in factory farms, nutritional and health problems, and obesity. He also emphasizes the inequities between consumption patterns in the rich versus the developing world, a refreshing reminder that many, many members of the human race do not have access to a Whole Foods store. All in all, it’s a message that bears repeating, and Bittman does it well, in a brief, accessible format, interspersed with his own story.
Bittman takes things a step further in the how. He has developed a system of eating that emphasizes making healthy, sustainable food choices most of the time, tempered with a generous dose of moderation. His method is to be a “Vegan until 6:00”, allowing himself more psychic space in the evening for indulgences including dairy, some meat, and more refined carbs. He provides useful suggestions for restaurant dining, food shopping, stocking the pantry, sample meals, and a sizeable selection of recipes.
None of this adds up to amazing new information for the reasonably well-read and competent home cook, but the recipes are simple and tasty looking, and I am looking forward to trying many of them. His recipes include multiple variations and suggestions for substitutions that make them easy to customize based on personal tastes, or the options available in one’s garden, refrigerator, or CSA box.
Where this book will really come into its own is in the hands of a reader who is on the cusp of making some big lifestyle changes, who knows that they need to eat better, but who is busy, alarmed by the amount of dubious information out there (food pyramid, anyone?), overwhelmed at the thought of overhauling their diet, and wary of trading convenience foods for long hours in the kitchen. I was that person a few years ago. When Michael Pollan’s books turned on a light bulb in my brain, I was fortunate enough to already have a weedy garden, some rusty culinary skills, and dusty kitchen equipment to put back into service. I was able to turn Pollan’s what into a how that worked for me, but a friendly guidebook to follow along the way is a useful companion. Bittman’s book is the manual to Pollan’s manifesto.
More-Vegetable-Than-Egg Frittata (Serves 4)
(From Food Matters, by Mark Bittman)
You can start with either cooked or raw vegetables: try ribbons of spinach or chard, chopped fresh or dried tomatoes, potato slices, asparagus, broccoli rabe, sauteed mushrooms, zucchini, or eggplant cubes. Fresh basil is lovely with nearly everything, but other herbs like tarragon or mint are also super. And of course you can toss in some crumbled sausage, bacon, or chopped ham, or even shrimp just before adding the eggs.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, peeled and sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6 cups of any chopped or sliced raw or cooked vegetables, drained of excess moisture if necessary
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, or 1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon or mint leaves (optional)
2 or 3 eggs
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
1. Put the olive oil in a skillet and turn the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook, sprinkling with salt and pepper, until it’s soft, about three minutes. Add the vegetables, raise the heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, anywhere from a couple of minutes for greens to 15 minutes for sliced potatoes. Adjust the heat so the vegetables brown a little without scorching. (If you’re starting with precooked vegetables, add them to the onions and give a couple of good stirs before proceeding).
2. When the vegetables are nearly done, turn the heat to low and add the basil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pan is almost dry, up to another 5 minutes for wetter ingredients like tomatoes or mushrooms.
3. Meanwhile, beat the eggs with some salt and pepper, along with the cheese if you’re using it. Pour over the vegetables, using a spoon if necessary to distribute them evenly. Cook, undisturbed, until the eggs are barely set, 10 minutes or so. (You can set them further by putting the pan in a 350?F oven for a few minutes, or running it under the broiler for a minute or two.) Cut into wedges and serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.