Burning Down the House: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian

HOW TO COOK EVERYTHING VEGETARIAN, BY MARK BITTMAN
BOSTON: HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 2007.

This month J.K., 13, decided to try out Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. As mentioned in a previous column, she loves his earlier How to Cook Everything (we’re now on our second copy); if our family could have only one cookbook with us on a desert island, that would be the one.

While one might think that “cooking everything” would about cover the available terrain, Bittman has published approximately 20 food-related books (I’m slightly highballing that estimate because it’s probably climbing as we speak). So it was no easy task to decide which of his other cookbooks to try next.

Since J.K. doesn’t eat meat, one might have predicted she would love Bittman’s vegetarian cookbook even more than the first one. The verdict, after trying it out this past month, is a little more complicated—J.K. said she likes the first one better because it’s “more thorough” and “has more different types of recipes.” When I expressed surprise that she as a non-meat-eater would prefer the cookbook with the meat, she admitted that, actually, she likes Bittman’s earlier cookbook better because it’s “less focused on healthy food.” Aha! Of course! I get it.

What I love about Bittman’s cookbooks is how, despite his eminence as a food writer, his writing is down-to-earth and straightforward, which engenders confidence in the reader that (s)he can do it, too. For example, I loved his first suggestion for “Cooking Grains, the Easy Way”. He writes: “This process will allow you to cook almost any grain, perfectly, every time. You really don’t even have to measure anything. I’m providing a recipe for the method, but you don’t need it: Put the grains in a pot with water and cook them until they’re done the way you like them. Period.”

Sure enough, J.K. threw some wild rice in a pot with some water, let it boil and then simmer with the lid on, and some time later it was done. Weird. Likewise, his range of options for fried rice, which J.K. made twice this month, was similarly reassuring. (“Simplest Fried Rice with Peppers” is “mildly flavored, not earth-shattering, but very fast, very good, and a respectful treatment of a revered leftover.” Of “Basic Fried Rice with Lettuce,” he says, “Surprised? Try it.” And I love that he says of “Basic Fried Rice with Frozen Vegetables,” which will no doubt become a household staple here, “No apologies; this is better than you might think.”)

The cookbook is sprinkled with helpful tips, such as “25 Great Ideas for Using Leftovers” and “21 Ingredients You Really Need.” Again, these are reassuring, though I was surprised that along with the basics (rice, pasta, beans, eggs), one of the items was dried mushrooms. Which brings me to the flipside of Bittman’s accessibility: many of the recipes here are more elaborate than I’m likely to make for dinner, but they do offer the possibility.

J.K.’s younger brother and I, beset with an unexpected tomatillo delivery, made a triple batch of tomatillo salsa, which we didn’t love as much as we’d hoped (too onion-y). But later, on one of those nights when no one knew what to make for dinner, I happened upon the recipe for “Baked Black Beans and Corn, Enchilada Style,” and mixed the salsa with canned black beans, frozen corn, and tortillas. All of us liked it. Veering into the more elaborate, J.K. made “Braised Tofu with Eggplant and Shiitakes,” which her dad and I really liked but J.K. did not, acknowledging that she pretty much doesn’t like eggplant, though she did like the mushrooms.

Ollie, our bearded dragon, had been looking out the window in another room during most of the meal, but entered the kitchen just in time to comment on the eggplant dish. “The first thing I noticed upon entering the kitchen was a suspicious smell. So I decided to investigate,” she reported. “Maybe for once, I thought, my hoomans will make a good thing and share with me. I was wrong on both fronts. Then they started passing me around the table as they usually do. Then the mom said, ‘I want to eat that with scallions.’ I thought, "I got to go! Because guess what was on the table? Some scallions. And guess what was next to it! A lizard. Me!”

BRAISED TOFU WITH EGGPLANT AND SHIITAKES

1/4 cup peanut oil or neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn
1 cup sliced shiitake caps (reserve stems for stock or discard)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger (optional)
1 1/2 pounds eggplant, trimmed cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks, and salted, rinsed, and dried if you like
1 tablespoon Chile Paste, or to taste (optional)
1/2 cup vegetable stock or water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 pound tofu, prepared by the methods [in cookbook] or simply blotted dry, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil for garnish (optional)
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish (optional)
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
2 tablespoons minced scallion for garnish (optional)

  1. Put half the oil in a deep skillet or shallow saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add the shiitakes and some salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  2. Add the remaining oil, and a few seconds later, the garlic and the ginger if you’re using it. As soon as it sizzles, add the eggplant. Cook, stirring every minute or so until the eggplant browns, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the chile paste if you’re using it, along with the stock. Stir, scraping the bottom of the pan if necessary to release any stuck bits of eggplant. Cook until the eggplant is really tender, 10 to 15 minutes more, adding a little more liquid if necessary (unlikely, but not impossible).
  3. Stir in the soy sauce and tofu and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tofu is heated through, about 5 minutes. Stir in the reserved shiitakes and turn off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning, then garnish as you like and serve.