My favorite cookbook in the world

If you’ve ever visited me in a bookstore in person and asked for a cookbook recommendation, I undoubtedly started with How To Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. This is because it is the best cookbook I know of. However, often when I recommend it, people have looked at me like I am crazy. Not the Joy of Cooking? Better Homes and Gardens? Rachael Ray?

No, friends, no. Let me tell you a little story about last night that will help illustrate why I am so devoted to The Bittman (as I refer to it in my head).

By the time I got home from work last night, it was 10pm and I was starving. I had a whole pantry of nothing in particular and a refrigerator of wilted leeks and condiments. I saw a bag of whole-wheat pasta snuggled in the back corner of the pantry, so pasta it was. But it was going to be boring old nothing on it at all pasta. Blegh. Wait, I thought. I bet THE BITTMAN can save my meal! And o boy did it ever.

I flipped in the index (the completeness of which is one of my favorite things about the book) to pasta, then went the to appropriate page. Right there, a basic little recipe for oil and garlic sauce. Alright! This meal was not going to totally suck.

But wait! There were, as there are with almost every recipe in the book, several suggested variations on the recipe. Including one that called for toasted breadcrumbs. Which were also lurking in my pantry. And when I moved them, I found a small jar of tomato paste. So I toasted the breadcrumbs in garlic-y oil, added the tomato paste, and then added a cup or so of pasta water to thin the sauce out (a trick I learned from earlier treks through THE BITTMAN). Tossed it with the pasta, spiral pasta, which held the tomato-breadcrumb sauce beautifully, added salt and pepper, and holy shit, I had the best pasta dish I’ve made in months!

That is the beauty of The Bittman, for me. It has never let me down. It has endless variations that keep my meals from being boring. Whenever I panic and think, ack, how long SHOULD I boil these eggs/steam this broccoli/let this dough rise, The Bittman is there with its lovely index and personable and clear writing to keep me calm. I don’t worry when I see strange vegetables at the farmers’ market. I buy them with confidence, because The Bittman is waiting at home to give me five ways to prepare them.  You will feel like the MacGyver of cooking with this book.

In fact, it’s the only cookbook that I give a pass for not having any pictures (aside from some very helpful drawings for various skills like coring a cabbage, another thing I learned from The Bittman). Normally I like my cookbooks full of food porn. My other favorites—Nigella for baking, Ina for entertaining—oblige with glossy arty photos that make me drool, but that is not what The Bittman is for. It is a cooking tool, as indispensible to my kitchen as a paring knife and saucepan.

So when you’re looking for the right gift for graduation, housewarming, or for “hey dude maybe YOU could try cooking every once in awhile around here,” get The Bittman. If you’re a vegetarian, there is also How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, which is basically just as awesome. Get both, they look really nice together on the shelf and both have the satisfying heft of true wisdom.

As a bonus, below please find the recipe for my dinner last night, which I am naming Bookseller & Bittman Pasta to honor both my inspiration and the fact that it is pretty cheap to make.

You will need:

a bag of whole-wheat pasta (I used Trader Joe’s whole-wheat spiral pasta, forget what the Italian name for it is)

garlic, 2-3 cloves (I used this awesome thing I found the other day which is basically little ice cubes of crushed garlic, I think the brand name was Doret)

one little can tomato paste

1/2-1 cup breadcrumbs (I had some that came with herbs included, I highly recommend these. If not, you’ll probably want to add some Italian herbs into the recipe)

good olive oil

salt and pepper


1. Start the water boiling. Add a lot of salt (I love salt, but even if you don’t, The Bittman instructs that a good amount of salt is crucial to the best pasta).

2. This whole step, keep the burner on medium heat. Get out a decent-sized saucepan and put in a few glugs of olive oil. (The Bittman recipe calls for 1/3 cup, but I hate measuring olive oil, it’s always such a mess.) Add garlic, let it do its thing for awhile, then add the bread crumbs, 1/2 cup or so. Then you’ll probably need to add more olive oil so they’re soaked through. Move the bread crumbs around enough to keep them from burning, but not so much that they don’t crisp up, for 3 minutes or so, until they start to smell really good. Add most of the can of tomato paste (you can probably add the whole can, I just didn’t). Mix it up until you have this kind of bread crumb tomato mush. Turn off the burner.

3. At this point your pasta water should be boiling. Add pasta. Go find your book and read for a little bit.

4. Five minutes later, look up in shock. Holy shit! The pasta! Fish a piece out, it should be done. (The Bittman has very wise words about how to tell when pasta is done that you should check out.)

5. Before you drain the pasta, dip a measuring cup in and take out a little over a cup of the pasta water (I used a 2-cup Pyrex measure, which was perfect for this). Put that water in with the bread crumbs and tomato, stir to make a thick sauce. Add more water if you want. Take out another cup or so of water. Drain the pasta.

6. Put the pasta back in the pot, pour the tomato sauce over top. You will probably need to pour in a bit more water so that it all comes together well. I added more breadcrumbs at this point, I don’t remember why. Salt and pepper to taste. The pepper isn’t so important, but the right amount of salt makes this perfect. I did not have cheese in the house (I know, very surprising!) but if I had, I bet some sort of Parmaesan with a nice bite would have set this off really well.

7. Enjoy! This made about four big bowls. Just as good as leftovers (eating it right now) as it was last night. Incredibly satisfying.


7 comments so far

  1. Katherine on

    I have to agree on the Bittman. I fell in love with him through the vegetarian cookbook, and I’m not a vegetarian, but it’s probably the cookbook I use most often. At the store, I describe it as an “enabling” cookbook. It enables you to make whatever might be in your head.

    The most common recipe in my house: born of thinking, I want quiche, but I want it to have spinach, feta, and tomatoes in it. The Bittman made me able to produce it and now I recreate it constantly.

    Now he is helping me to learn to refine my own pasta recipe and even make my own tofu. I would not have imagined that a year ago. LOVE

  2. Sherry on

    I’ve been reading so much about Mark Bittman lately. Now with your praise, I’ll have to check out this book — and seeing it’s from Wiley makes me smile.

  3. Molly on

    I buy (or request as gifts) cookbooks that inevitably stay shut up in my cupboard because I never have the ingredients required for 99% of the recipes. But this sounds like a book that might actually get put to use…I will definitely check it out.

  4. Rebecca on

    YES! I love HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING. That book taught me how to cook chicken and do a lot of practical things. And it’s well written, which is nice.

    But my very favorite thing about it? The sample menus in the back: “Summer Dinner Party on the Patio,” “Winter Tea,” “Round-Up-Your-Closest-Friends Cocktail Party,” “World Series Dinner.”

    It’s not that I actually use any of them. I just love looking at them.

  5. Ann Kingman on

    How To Cook Everything is my favorite cookbook as well — I use it like my mom used The Joy of Cooking (oh, who am I fooling, she mostly used Betty Crocker). We are now on our 3rd copy. Favorite recipe: Overnight Waffles.
    Most redeeming: I always hated pork chops til I cooked them the “Bittman” way.
    Biggest hit with the kids: Glazed carrots. My girls fight over the leftovers.

  6. Ann Douglas on

    This is a really helpful review. Illustrations and photos can be overused in cookbooks, dramatically increasing the production cost. Great writing can be worth a thousand pictures (or something like that).

  7. alvahbessie on

    I have this cookbook too. I’m a huge fan of the Bittman and his Minimalist videos. One of my favorite recipes is Tomato Paella. Love it and so easy to make. Hmm, that might be Thursday’s dinner.

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