Every family has its own way with potatoes. Growing up, my mom would buy frozen potato latkes, heat them up in the toaster, and serve them with Mott’s apple sauce (you can hear all about it on my mom’s episode of Lunch Therapy). Most families, I’d venture, are mashed potato families. Some do it from a box, others from scratch.
Here at Chez Amateur Gourmet, we’re a roasted potato family. Specficially: pee-wee potatoes roasted with garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and sometimes with spices thrown in (smoked paprika, cumin seeds, crushed coriander seeds).
Scared you, didn’t I? Well I didn’t mean to. It’s funny how many people read my last post and assumed I was ending my blog. That’s not what I said! I just said that my blog was no longer my primary source of income; in many ways, it’s a liberating state of affairs. It means that if I post on here (as I’m doing now) it’s because I have something I’m really eager to share with the world, not just something to fill up space on the internet (like that time I told you that my cake stand is really a punch bowl; though, weirdly, that post really caught on). In any case: chicken under a brick. Have you tried it? If not, why not? I bet I can guess: you’re afraid. I was afraid too. Then, this past Tuesday, I tried it and–I mean this seriously–I don’t think I’ll ever make chicken any other way again.
The weirdest thing: we moved to Atwater Village, right next to Glendale, only a few weeks ago. When our New York Times weekend subscription kicked in, I eagerly opened the magazine, as I always do, checking out the food column before attempting (and failing at) the puzzle. To my total amazement, Mark Bittman’s column celebrated a restaurant not in New York or even Connecticut…it was a restaurant in California, but not just anywhere in California: GLENDALE. Right down the street from us. 7 minutes away according to Google Maps. I nearly fainted with surprise.
The knives are out for Gwyneth Paltrow and her new cookbook. Eater, of course, had fun pulling out the most ridiculous lines of text (“Yes, eggplant is a nightshade, so this isn’t a recipe for times when you’re on an elimination diet”); but I was surprised today to see this scathing post on Mark Bittman’s blog. Surprised because Bittman co-starred on a TV show with Gwyneth, along with Mario Batali and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols. Bittman didn’t write the post (it’s by Jennifer Mascia) but it’s under his masthead. Mascia says, “At best [the book] makes it seem like healthy eating is strictly for the wealthy; at worst, it’s quack science for attempting to export Paltrow’s wacky elimination diet (no bell peppers, eggplant or corn? Huh?) to a populace that’s improperly nourished and financially struggling.” What do you all think? Are you fans of Paltrow’s cookbooks? Or does she make you foam at the mouth the way Hathahaters do around Anne Hathaway? And do you think Anne Hathaway will write a cookbook? If she does, will you hate it too?
The green room was filled with male models who do construction, the actor Alden Ehrenreich (star of “Beautiful Creatures”), a mob of make-up people, hair people, managers and agents all hovering around a plate of half-doughnuts, half-bagels and half-muffins. I hovered on the sidelines with my book publicist, Molly, and didn’t allow myself to feel nervous. That, I knew, was the trick.
If you haven’t heard about the no-knead bread by now, you clearly don’t read many food blogs (or newspapers, for that matter.) Last year, in The New York Times–actually, TWO years ago in The New York Times (the article was published November 8, 2006! Boy, I’m way behind on making this)–Mark Bittman coaxed a recipe from master bread baker Jim Lahey for perfect bakery-quality bread at home. Shockingly, the recipe required no work, no kneading of any kind. The food world was astonished. Food bloggers went ga-ga. I watched them go ga-ga. And, finally, last week I decided to go ga-ga myself.
The dish you see above is a dish from a four-star chef and yet it’s among the easiest you will ever prepare. It comes from Jean-George’s “Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef” which was co-written by Mark Bittman. As many of you know, Mr. Bittman is The Minimalist and it might seem strange, at first, that a man who prides himself on simplicity would co-author a book with a chef renowned for his complexity, innovation and flair. But this recipe proves that two opposing forces, working together, can generate electricity: it’s astonishingly good and amazingly easy. Click ahead and behold the splendor of Jean-George’s Braised Duck and Vegetables with Asian Spices.
I am not a minimalist: my desk, like my life, overflows with clutter; I like big, loud, campy entertainment; at MoMA I roll my eyes at “White on White” and bow down before Dali, Kandinsky and Magritte (and not just because I like apples.) You’d think that if presented with a TV show by a man known as “The Minimalist” I’d recoil in horror. I like food that is big, brash and bold; I like abundance–the more ingredients the better; how could I ever like Mark Bittman and believe in what he does?
Well after tonight’s episode of “The Best Food in the World” on PBS, I’m ready to put him on a pedestal. In one single episode–approximately 26 minutes of television (there’s a chunk of advertising before and after)–Bittman, aided with Google Earth (or was it Google Maps?), grazed with cows on Bill Niman’s ranch, talked to the man himself, shot over to Tuscany where he ogled Tuscan cows with Mario Batali, met Marco the butcher who, I’m fairly confident, is the butcher profiled in Bill Buford’s “Heat”, had an Italian steak cook-off with Mario and then, just when you thought he couldn’t do any more, he popped up in Fergus Henderson’s kitchen at St. John and Henderson himself, a world class chef beloved for his fifth quarter cooking (offal: blood and guts), made his signature dish: roasted bone marrow with parsley salad. It was a stunning episode–one of the best examples of food television I’ve seen in a while. Bittman may be a Minimalist in the kitchen, but he’s quite the opposite when it comes to his show: it’s packed with hijinks and hilarity, dramatic cook-offs, food celebrities, dazzling plates of extraordinary food, and, more importantly, good old fashioned information. It leaves the large majority of cooking shows in the dust.
Why is it so good? Well, let’s take for example the cook-off with Mario in the hills of Tuscany. It’s one thing to have a saccharine TV host in a day-glo kitchen telling you how to grill your steak, it’s another thing to have two deeply intelligent cooks–one a chef, one a food writer–spatting and sparring over each and every step along the way. First of all, the steak itself made my jaw drop: it was the biggest steak I’ve ever seen in my life and there were two of them. (I think they were T-bones). Mario took his and rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, threw it on the grill and placed rosemary on the fire to give it an herbal scent. Bittman, The Minimalist, lived up to his title: he took the steak, unadorned, and threw it on the grill.
“I want it to caramelize really well,” he said, “and I think salt draws out moisture, so I’m going to add it at the end.”
“Ok,” said Mario. “But you’ll see with mine, it’s going to get really complex flavor. You’ll see at the end when we taste.”
There’s real tension there. These guys are joshing each other, sure, but beneath the surface each one really believes in what he’s doing. And then Bittman gives Batali a heart attack: he puts butter in a pan, puts the pan on the grill and adds soy sauce.
“Dude!” screams Mario. “We’re in Tuscany.”
Bittman shrugs. “It makes it taste good,” he says, unwilling to be bullied.
The steaks start to take on triumphant golden colors, sizzling and crackling, their aroma wafting through the screen. By the time they were done, I didn’t care which one had oil, which one had butter, I wanted to eat my TV.
“I use a thermometer to see if it’s done,” said Bittman.
“Why would you use a thermometer when you have a perfectly good tool right here,” said Batali, using his hand to press into the meat.
“Well most of my readers wouldn’t know how to do that,” countered Bittman. “I’ve got to give them a temperature.”
[I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea.]
These guys were so intent on one-upping each other I really thought the zippers would come undone and Larry Craig would pop out of the bushes with a ruler to judge.
When the steaks were finished, Mario cut into them carefully. Both steaks looked stellar (if a bit underdone) but Mario’s was the winner. “When you’re in Tuscany,” conceded Bittman, “you want to eat steak the Tuscan way.”
The fact that I could tell this story with so much enthusiasm speaks to the inherent quality of the show. Bittman understands that what makes something dramatic is conflict. That’s what makes Top Chef so entertaining, Hell’s Kitchen, and so on. The conflict partly comes from Bittman’s personality–he’s antagonistic–but also from the cleverly devised situations. The set-up of his other PBS show, “Bittman Takes On America’s Chefs,” makes those situations impeccably clear: he goes up against America’s great chefs to prove that simpler can be better. And I’m often embarrassed for him–the chicken with Red Hots he made for Jean-Georges made Diana, my roommate, groan in agony–but it’s part of the same winning formula. Bittman knows his food but, more importantly, he knows how to entertain. And that makes for good TV.