The title of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything is audacious; the subtitle, “Simple Recipes for Great Food,” is ludicrous. We’re supposed to believe that we can just buy one big ol’ cookbook that will tell us everything we need to know to cook, and that the cooking will be easy yet produce great results? Riiiight.
Still, I’m a sucker for audacity, and “easy yet delicious” strike me as desiderata to strive for; plus, the book jacket and Amazon reviews were glowing — so, I figured I’d give it a whirl. Now, last time I reviewed a cookbook, I did so after reading straight through it and making a single recipe out of it. While that was fine for that tutorial-style book, it didn’t seem appropriate for a cookbook that purports (as How to Cook Everything does) to be useful for everyday cooking. A more extended evaluation seemed in order before I wrote anything up.
So, every night for the last month or so, we’ve cooked dinner from a recipe (or two) out of the book. From that sentence alone, you might guess that either I’m an incredibly dedicated book reviewer, or that Bittman’s book fulfills its audacious claims. As it happens, I’m not, and it does.
This book was revolutionary and life changing for me, nearly as much so as The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need. I’ve been a life-long eater of pre-prepared, processed, frozen or boxed foods, but Bittman has converted me to eating meals made from actual ingredients and fresh foods. Because, and here’s the amazing thing, the recipes in the book are almost all easily made and have (so far) been universally excellent. As Bittman notes in the foreword, why bother making Kraft macaroni and cheese when you can make sage-parmesan pasta with no more time or effort?
I actually feel like I’ve been betrayed by society. All my life, I’ve learned that cooking can either be easy or good, but not both. Cookbooks have fallen into one of two categories: 1) Ones with food that looks great in the full-color glossy pictures, but requires ingredients you can’t buy and hours of elaborate preparation you have no time for; or 2) Midwestern cooking, featuring lots of ground beef and cream of mushroom soup, where “salt and pepper” are considered exotic spices. Since neither of those extremes are very appealing on a daily basis, pre-made food looks like a great middle ground — not as good as the fancy food, but better than the easy food, and easier than them both.
What Bittman so successfully demonstrates with his recipes is that you can take simple, straightforward ingredients, use a few basic techniques, and turn them into great tasting meals. Why did nobody tell me this before? What conspiracy has prevented this knowledge from coming into wide circulation? I can’t help but suspect that the huge agribusiness industry has played a role in this; much like Nike and Levi-Strauss have helped society’s other great lie, that casual clothes are more comfortable than dressier ones.
At any rate, Bittman gives you the basic techniques you’ll want to learn, a huge pile of excellent recipes, lucid writing, and enough information that you’re not engaging in cargo-cult, brainless recipe-following. The upshot here is that you can go from being unable to cook anything more complicated than frozen pizza, to being a person who casually makes real food from raw ingredients on a daily basis under the tutelage of this book. And once you do, you’re going to be pissed that the purveyors of branded food pulled the wool over your eyes for so long, because this stuff is good. If you have a kitchen, buy this book today.