Comments: We love the story in Genesis where Eve is beguiled by the talking serpent into eating an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve agrees with the serpent that "the tree was good for food." (Check – good looking apples!) And she agrees that "it was pleasant to the eyes." (Check again – beautiful tree, beautiful fruit! – what's not to like?) Finally she agrees that it was "a tree to be desired to make one wise." (Hmmm – a tree that one would look to for wisdom? A tree?) Regardless of any religious sentiment, that's where we would have to draw the line.
We'll get back to Eve in a moment. Right now, we are smitten with Mark Bittman's new book: 101 20-minute recipes for each season, presented in paragraph form, with quantities and substitutions of your choosing. There is an assumption that you know how to cook already (you have to know how to poach eggs, how to make a frittata, you have to know some traditional recipes by name, as some (Migas, Chilaquiles, etc.) are not at all descriptive). There are no lists of ingredients as in most cookbooks, so you have to read the paragraph carefully so as not to miss an ingredient or two.
How the book is organized is something of a revelation. We grumbled for a while, because while some recipes are clearly seasonal, others are not, and how are you going to find them? And not every soup, or salad, or sandwich is religiously grouped with its brethren. But there are nine pages early in the book that categorize many recipes so you can find them: Dishes that Double as Appetizers, Brown-Bag Lunches, Desserts You Can Eat Any Time of the Year, The Easiest of the Easiest, The Best Recipes for Picnics, The Best Do-Ahead Recipes for Potlucks, Best Recipes for Reheating, Soups You Can Chill, etc., etc. At the back, before a killer index, are another batch of suggestions for combining recipes for a Weeknight Dinner Party, Romantic Supper, Better-Than-Chinese-Takeout, Kid's Night, Room-Temperature Buffet, Picnic or Road Trip, Holiday Blowout, and Weekend Brunch. If you can't find recipes you want in this book, you can't find them in any book.
Many recipes are not main courses; some are side dishes, some desserts, a few breakfasts, a very few drinks, yet even those that are meals might seem a little skimpy to some. Many recipes produce main dishes, but as Bittman is a leading advocate of modest portion size, these will not overwhelm you.
We love that Bittman's seasonality is rooted in the northeast, not somewhere in Berkeley or further south, where it's easy to proselytize about eating seasonally and locally. In the northeast, you have to have real faith.
Our biggest criticism with these recipes is that you don't have rich flavors develop and marry over a few hours of stewing. You have a style of cooking that relies on throwing together fairly assertive ingredients and, unlike the serpent, relatively little subtlety. But they're 20-minute recipes, for heaven's sake, and wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to long-cooking recipes, and many there be which go in thereat. But narrow is the gate and strait is the way that leads to good 20-minute recipes, and few there be that find them.
Now, getting back to Eve, it is Bittman's introduction that throws us a little. He says the style of cooking presented in his book is about three things: speed (check!), flexibility (check, check!), and relaxation (huh?). If you're a modestly competent cook on the lookout for quick, tasty dishes, you'll have somewhere in the vicinity of 404 new, solid recipes that you can tailor to your needs. But if you're anything like us, a 20-minute recipe is likely to induce a certain amount of pressure. Bittman may provide speed and flexibility. But the relaxation bit is something you'll have to find within yourself….