A conversation with Mark Bittman

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A small group of journalists got together with New York Times food writer, Mark Bittman at the recent Natural Foods Expo in Boston. The visit was part of Bittman’s book tour for “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.”

It seemed a bit of a contrast to be chatting with Bittman above acres of booths selling products that have been packaged with “organic” or “gluten-free” labels since the kitchen guru thinks the best approach to maintaining a healthy relationship to food is to just start cooking.

“One surefire way to be healthy is to cook your own food – that way you have complete control over what you are eating,” Bittman says.

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Yet a key element that Americans seemed to have lost is the natural joy of creating a tasty and interesting meal, Bittman says. Getting people to chop and sautée vegetables instead of flipping channels on the Food Network is proving to be a formidable challenge. How do you make something that people associate with chores look more fun?

“It’s like the Zen of house cleaning,” Bittman says about mastering cooking. “You are learning to do simple tasks and learning to do them well…. How do
you convince people that exercise is fun even though it looks like work?.... It’s the missing key and very hard to do.”

Bittman says his approach to cooking changed the day he bought one of everything he saw in the produce section at the grocery store. It forced him to learn how to use and enjoy anything from leafy kale to bok choy.

Other tips Bittman shared:

• It pays to have a well-stocked pantry with “tons” of beans, grains, and canned vegetables. “If I have eight kinds of beans in the cabinet I know they are there and so I’ll use them,” says Bittman.

• Choose “seasonal” over “organic” foods, because seasonal implies local, which often means the freshest produce that has also used the least amount of energy to grow and transport.

• Try turning traditional recipes “upside down” by using meat as a flavoring instead of the focus of a dish.

• If you are a parent heading into the supermarket, leave the kids at home. Their pleading will have you buying things you don’t need or want just to keep them quiet.

• If you are single, don’t always resort to ordering in dinner. Just pick up a few things from a local market every day or every other day to keep fresh ingredients on hand.

• Eat more plants. Or think of it is as eating three fruits or vegetables a day. It's that simple.

You can read the Monitor’s review of Bittman’s book “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating” here . A paperback version of “Food Matters” will be available in January 2010.

Kendra Nordin reviews books about food for the Monitor.

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