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Eating Well: Inside Bittman's 'Food Matters'

Lifestyle

Eating Well: Inside Bittman's 'Food Matters'

Mark Bittman, cookbook author, ood columnist for The New York Times and star of the 2005 television series "Bittman Takes on America's Chefs," is a self-taught cook who teaches us how to cook simply and to feed ourselves well in his latest book, "Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating," published by Simon & Schuster.

Before entertaining us with his recipes and variations, Bittman takes a serious tone and asks us to think about where our food comes from, how it is produced, and how the methods of production affect our personal health and Earth's well-being.

Citing Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," Bittman shows that our food selections have a social, ethical and environmental impact. The over-production and consumption of junk food, simple carbohydrates and meats leads to obesity and to global warming, Bittman warns.

Bittman himself overcame a weight problem, sleep apnea, high cholesterol and high blood sugar by following the meal plans and using the recipes he gives us in "Food Matters." Basically, his plan is this: Eat mostly plants, grains and legumes; buy locally grown food; don't eat too much; eat no animal products until 6 p.m., but do have some meat at dinner.

The recipes emphasize simplicity and use only a few ingredients. Bittman wants us to use his recipes as a guide to making our own variations of his dishes.
Here are some recipes from "Food Matters."

Grilled or Broiled Kebabs

Bittman writes, "Kebabs are a fun way to grill different things simultaneously while playing with marinades and spice rubs. Add some oil to one of the rubs to make a marinade or simply add the spices to the salt and pepper to make a rub. ... Just about any vegetable that can be cut into pieces can be skewered; for meat or fish, look for beef tenderloin or sirloin; lamb or pork shoulder; chicken thighs; sturdy chunks of tuna, swordfish, halibut, or monkfish; shrimp or scallops."

If you marinate the vegetables and meat, they will be coated with oil, so you don't need to brush oil on them.

About 2 pounds any vegetable or combination: eggplant, squash, peppers, onions, zucchini, cherry or plum tomatoes, mushrooms, cut into large pieces, about 1 inch thick
1 pound meat, chicken, fish, or shellfish, cut into 1-inch chunks, or whole shrimp
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)

If you're using wooden skewers, soak them in water for at least 10 minutes. Heat a charcoal or gas grill or a broiler and put the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. If you're using charcoal or briquettes, be generous – you want a broad fire (though not the hottest fire possible).

Meanwhile, thread the vegetables and meat alternately on skewers, leaving a little space between pieces. Brush with the olive or grape-seed oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let the kebabs sit while the fire is getting ready.

When the fire is hot, but still not scorching, start cooking the kebabs. Brush them with a little more oil and turn them once or twice as they cook, until they begin to brown and become tender, after 10 or 15 minutes. Put the skewers on a platter, garnish, and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Mediterranean Mix Seasoning Blend for Marinade

Add enough oil to this mixture to make a marinade that will cover your chosen vegetables and meat or fish. Marinate, covered, in the refrigerator for a few hours.

2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried rosemary leaves
1 tablespoon dried sage leaves
1 tablespoon dried thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried parsley or lavender leaves

Easy Whole Grain Flatbread

"The simplest bread is nothing more than flour and water," Bittman writes. Heat some olive oil in a pan (you can add other flavorings, too) and this basic formula becomes a quick flatbread that's ready in the time it takes to cook dinner. The idea, he says, comes from the recipe for socca (also called farinata), the Mediterranean "pizza" made from chickpea flour (see the variation below). Chickpea flour and buckwheat flour are certainly options for the main recipe, too, but whole wheat flour and cornmeal are far more common and equally delicious.

Bittman adds a couple of technical details. The resting time for the batter is optional, but it results in a more complex flavor and a creamier, less gritty texture. If you're in a hurry, though, just let the batter sit while the oven heats. It's still awesome. And though a round pizza pan with a lip is ideal, a 10- or 12-inch skillet also works well; the bread in the smaller pan will need less oil, will be a slightly bit thicker, and will take another 5 or 10 minutes to bake.

You can bake the bread up to several hours in advance; warm it a little if you like - or not.

1 cup whole wheat flour or cornmeal, or chickpea flour (also called besan; sold in Middle Eastern, Indian, and health food stores)
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 large onion, thinly sliced (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves (optional)

Put the flour into a bowl; add salt; then slowly add 1 1/2 cups water, whisking to eliminate lumps. Cover with a towel, and let sit while oven heats, or as long as 12 hours. The batter should be about the consistency of thin pancake batter.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 450 degrees. Put the oil in a 12-inch rimmed pizza pan or skillet (along with the onion and rosemary if you're using them) and put the pan or skillet in the heated oven. Wait a couple of minutes for the oil to get hot, but not smoking; the oil is ready when you just start to smell it. Carefully remove the pan (give the onions a stir); then pour in the batter, and return the skillet to the oven. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until the flatbread is well browned, firm, and crisp around the edges. (It will release easily from the pan when it's done.) Let it rest for a couple of minutes before cutting into wedges or squares.

Easy Soca or Farinata

Crisp on the bottom, custardy on top; chickpea flour is authentic, but whole wheat flour produces lovely results. You'll need a deep 12-inch pan or skillet. Increase the water to 3 cups and add up to another 2 tablespoons of oil if you like. Bake as above, but longer – closer to an hour. To get a crisper top, set under the broiler for a couple of minutes after the bottom is nicely browned. Let cool a bit in the pan, then slide a narrow spatula under the bottom and remove it. Cut into wedges and serve.

Makes 4 to 6 appetizer servings.

Easy Whole Grain Pizza

When the bread is done, top as you would pizza, using a relatively light hand. Smear a thin layer of tomato sauce on first if you like, then add a sprinkling or crumble of cheese and thinly sliced vegetables, cooked meat, olives, onions – whatever you like. Turn on the broiler and put the pan under the heat until the ingredients are hot and bubbly. Let rest as above, then cut and serve.

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