Discovering Mark Bittman can be revelatory. I was so taken upon stumbling across The Minimalist, his aptly titled New York Times column, that I set about printing and binder-clipping my favorites as "books" — even sharing them. Then I realized (duh) that the Bittman fans are, if not legion, sufficient to keep fat tomes like his How to Cook Everything in print for years.
A Bittman "recipe" can be as simple as "Toss a cup of chopped mixed herbs with a few tablespoons of olive oil in a hot pan. Serve over angel-hair pasta, diluting the sauce if necessary with pasta cooking water." And a Bittman recipe is rarely more complex than the lentil soup-potato concoction on this page. But his new book bootstraps simplicity to a higher cause.
Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating (Simon & Schuster, 2008, available in paperback on December 28) posits that simple lifestyle choices can help curb your girth and global warming at the same time. A 2006 report from the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, "Livestock's Long Shadow," fingers livestock production for roughly one-fifth of all greenhouse gases. A review by the Worldwatch Institute (worldwatch.org) put the figure much higher — 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwise.
In Bittman's synthesis, the staggering environmental impact of raising livestock — energy to raise corn to feed cattle to ship beef around the world, for instance — is boiled down to: "Eating a typical family-of-four steak dinner is the rough equivalent, energy-wise, of driving around in an SUV for three hours while leaving all the lights on at home. If we each ate the equivalent of three fewer cheeseburgers a week, we'd cancel out the effects of all the SUVs in the country."
He wades through the latest "you are what you eat" studies similarly. This leads to his "very nearly sure" conclusion that cutting back on animal products and junk food in favor of minimally processed, simple, natural eats will leave you healthier and "quite likely thinner."
To put those ideas in action after 80 pages, he continues for another 200-plus. There are general suggestions: For instance, if you can't hack it as a vegetarian or vegan, you might ban meat from your daytime diet and leave it, in reduced quantities, for evening repasts. Bittman dispenses advice for stocking your kitchen and planning your meals. Finally, there are more than 75 recipes, all of which, in Bittman's style, include several variations.
Bittman admits that the impact of such advice is hard to gauge. "There's a little bit of preaching to the choir going on here," he says. "The reaction has been great. But my idea is to expand the choir or inspire other people to hear the message. And all I can do is keep talking."
The way Bittman stumbled into this particular line of talk is telling. Thirty years or so ago, he was driving a cab, substitute teaching and writing for a community newspaper: "The first thing that everyone liked that I was writing was my food writing, so from that point on, one thing more or less led to another." He took his food writing to the Times in 1990 and started The Minimalist about 12 years ago.
In other words, he's never been a chef and doesn't consider himself especially talented or skilled in the kitchen. He sees his job as reassuring the novice, "to say, don't worry about the details, no one is asking you to be Mario Batali, just try to make some good food and get it on your table."
If what Bittman proposes is a coherent philosophy of cooking and eating, what it doesn't have is an easy label. Conscious-eater doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Nor does "less-meatarian," which Bittman says is the best he's come up with.
But how about Bittmanite? Could that be a winner?
CURRIED LENTIL SOUP WITH POTATOES
45 minutes to prepare, mostly unattended
2 tablespoons peanut or grape seed oil
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons curry powder
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and seeded, if you like,
and chopped (or 4 canned tomatoes)
1 cup dried lentils, washed and picked over
1 quart vegetable stock or water, plus more if needed
1 can coconut milk or another 1 1/2 cups of stock or water
2 medium russet or sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 small zucchini, roughly chopped,
or 1 cup chopped green beans or carrots
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or mint leaves
Put the oil in a deep skillet or medium saucepan over medium high heat. When hot, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about three minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir in the curry powder.
Cook, stirring frequently, until darkened and fragrant, another minute or two. Stir in the tomato and lentils, then add the stock and coconut milk or water. Bring to boil; partially cover and turn the heat down to medium-low so that the soup bubbles gently. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are just becoming tender; stir in the potatoes and more stock or water if needed.
Cover again and cook for about 10 minutes, then stir in the remaining vegetables, adding a little more water if needed to keep everything brothy. Cover one more time and cook until the potatoes and vegetables are all tender, another five to 10 minutes more. Stir in the cilantro or mint and adjust the seasoning, and serve.