Simplicity is the key ingredient

Mark Bittman has never attended a culinary school, taken cooking classes, or worked in a restaurant.

But today, the former Boston cab driver is the toast of foodies and epicurean bon vivants. Recently, the witty, down-to-earth father of two won both Julia Child and James Beard awards for his ambitiously titled "How to Cook Everything," (Macmillian, $25).

"I started getting into food when I was about 20, learning from good cookbooks and cooking for my roommates and girlfriends," said Mr. Bittman in a recent interview. "The years went by, and I decided to start writing - food was all I knew, and all anyone would publish."

At the beginning of his foray into gastronomy, Bittman was wild, passionate, even "obsessed" about fish. "I loved going to open-air fishmarkets like the one at Fulton Street in Manhattan, and going out on boats, really trying to enter the world of fish," he reminisces.

"At first I was enthralled with food as a sort of intellectual subject. Like vegetables, there's such a variety - hundreds of different types." Bittman also received the 1995 IACP/Julia Child award for his definitive tome "Fish."

"Cooking in a simple way is more fun and more rewarding than trying to copy some convoluted recipe from [chef] Emeril Lagasse's show," he says.

But Bittman's conversion to simplicity was not immediate.

"An interesting thing happened to me a few years ago," he says. "I used to knock myself out when I would have company come over to my house. I'd spend days planning the menu alone. I'd think about what wild things I could do to impress people, would whip up 'Tortelli con Zucca' at the drop of a hat.

I realized later on that people were really thrilled to eat what I could cook informally. They'd go berserk over what I thought was a boring risotto. That was quite a revelation."

Bittman has translated this philosophy into his weekly column in The New York Times - not surprisingly called "The Minimalist." The recipes he writes are not necessarily five-minutes-zapped-in-the-microwave fast, but they are simple, no-nonsense, and delicious.

"People need to start to want good food," he says. "In the same amount of time it takes for a box of macaroni and cheese to boil, you can cook wonderful pasta with a sauce of butter, sage, and Parmesan - unless of course, you really need to eat something bright orange or you're 3."

Bittman bemoans the exaggerated dishes served by some chefs. "People think it's no good unless they see very complicated 'gourmet food' with cross-cultural, crazy sun-dried tomato, goat cheese, and artichokes concoctions," he comments, referring to a recent meal at a tony restaurant.

After the 1980s exuberance and the '90s obsession with impressing people with food, Bittman views minimalism as "real cooking - everything else is artificial."

Bittman gets a lot of inspiration from Southeast Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. "There's a dangerous internationalization of food, which is resulting in a loss of regionalism," he says. "Places like Italy and Thailand are still very protective of their regional heritage and diversity. But, France, no way!

He thinks Americans have too many hang-ups about cooking at home - causing them to order take-out and eat highly processed convenience foods. And Americans are only getting chubbier.

He believes that returning to home cooking is the next food trend, and that people will discover that this is the real key to trimming down. "Unfortunately there has not yet been a study linking weight control with home cooking," he says. "I can't believe that people who eat regular food at home can really become obese. No one is going to dump a can of Crisco into their food at home - it's just too disgusting."

Bittman's mission is to convert the kitchen skeptics. "It's not easier to cook a good meal than to make a phone call - no - but it's not much harder," he says.

He feels the biggest problem is that "we've lost a couple generations of cooks." He believes that cooking came to be viewed as a form of oppression during the women's movement. "This represented a great sociological change because women lost enthusiasm for cooking. It was stigmatic for men to do the cooking back then, and fewer women encouraged their daughters to cook. So now we have a lot of people who don't know how to do the basics."

With his helpful instructions on everything from selecting shellfish to peeling asparagus and whipping up numerous quick pasta sauces, Bittman wants to encourage people to cook and to look at a recipe and say "I can do this."

"I don't want them to say 'Oh, this is too hard, why bother?'"

*Elisabetta Coletti is on the Monitor staff.

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