Recently, the Post ran a pretty solid article on how to stock a kitchen with only 20 essentials tools and utensils. I’d add one more: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food. “Big Red”, as I now refer to it, has become the go-to guide in my kitchen, and even though I'm pretty comfortable with a chef's knife, when I think back to a time when I wasn't, How to Cook Everything would have shoved Joy of Cooking off the shelf.
Bittman's unpretentious style infuses every part of this book, from what appliances to buy to the actual recipes. He is exceedingly accessible, especially to beginners or people who like to cook but who don't see themselves making gougères anytime soon (but if so, the recipe is on page 99). He doesn't believe one needs an award-winning kitchen stocked with the most and best tools and appliances, and he offers his own kitchen as proof: "7 feet long and 6 feet wide...it has a moderate-size refrigerator, what was once considered a full-size stove (as opposed to the compact “apartment-size” stove or the monsters recently gaining popularity), annoyingly little counter and storage space (yes, I sometimes must remove the stored pots and pans before using the oven) and even a small dishwasher."
That's more my style...and, I suspect, the style of most people.
How to Cook Everything is a well-organized walk through every course and food group you might reasonably encounter in a modern market -- super or farmer's. Recipes begin with building-block essentials, which are easy and/or popular and provide the basis for variations. Each recipe is also identified as fast (less than 30 minutes), make-ahead (and store for finishing or serving later) and/or vegetarian (600 of the 2000 recipes are vegetarian).
Throughout the recipe sections, Bittman provides basic information about the main ingredient: types, variations, cooking methods. For example, the section on beans begins with the basics of buying, storing, preparing and cooking and continues with a 3-page chart on types, varieties and cooking times before launching into 37 pages of recipes, interspersed with sidebars on achieving certain textures of cooked beans, bean/green/pasta combos, edamame, lentils, etc. There is little you won't know about beans when you're done.
However, not everyone needs voluminous information on beans (or grains or spices or apples). If you only need to refresh yourself on a technique rather than a recipe, check out the extensive index and look up either the technique or the technique and the food you want to prepare. I recently grilled a whole chicken and just needed to know whether I started it bone- or breast-side down; less than a minute later, I had my answer (bone-side first). When are steaks done? How can I jazz up plain rice in less than 30 seconds? Which potatoes are good for salads? How do I squeeze tofu? You ask, Bittman answers.
His presentation technique is to provide a basic recipe and follow it with all kinds of variations for modifying it. Want to make that pound cake low fat? Replace 1 stick of butter with a cup of low-fat yogurt. Wondering how you're going to use all that black bean puree you made? Spread it on crostini, use it as a dip for vegetables or place it under a grilled main course.
It’s utterly impossible to be intimidated by a chef who recommends putting leftover Crème Anglaise on Cheerios.
In his typically friendly and low-key manner, he offers subtle suggestions, followed by his catchphrase, "...if you like." The recipes can be followed to the letter but really are intended as starting points; Bittman encourages cooks to experiment with the basics that he provides. Indeed, it's how one learns to cook.
While this is a basic cookbook, the volume of information launches it past that category into, dare I say, The Only Cookbook You'll Ever Need territory. I was even surprised to find grilled chapati in the index, which immediately brought back memories of Tanzania, where the tortilla-like discs of fried dough wrapped in greasy newspapers are a cheap roadside staple. Adzuki beans to yuzu sorbet, bulgur to zucchini: it's in there.
But for me, the moment that defined Big Red's Number One spot in our kitchen was when I walked in one morning to find it open on the counter. Neil, my boyfriend, was facing the stove but craning his neck towards the buckwheat pancake recipe. For someone who eschews -- no, disdains -- recipes as much as Neil does, this was no small honor to Bittman.
You can catch Mark Bittman over at the NY Times, where he writes "The Minimalist" column and his Bitten blog. Every so often, the online NYT posts a short video with Bittman preparing a recipe in 5 minutes or less; the amount of information you come away with far exceeds the time spent watching. In fact, no one in recent memory has brought great cooking within the reach of everyone as well as Bittman has.