My first exposure to Mark Bittman came during a six month stretch in which I worked as an English tutor at a high school five or six years ago. I was not... how shall I put this... good at the job? Yeah, that's a good way to put it.
The second I stepped onto that campus, I immediately felt surging pangs of self-consciousness and anxiety that are uniquely adolescent in origin. Despite being a decade removed from high school at that point, I did not comfortably wear the uniform of authority, feeling instead like a naked and exposed peer. Needless to say, these traits severely hindered my ability to both enjoy and be effective in my duties.
The saving grace was that we frequently did not have a lot of work to do with the kids; they must have either already been brilliant writers, or no one cared that they were terrible, rendering our services useless. In those idle periods, a wave of welcome relief would wash over me, as my co-tutor and I would sit in the computer lab, killing time until the end-of-day electronic beep. We'd read a lot of goofy stuff on the internet and a lot of the New York Times.
Because this time killing often occurred near lunch, I found myself clicking to the Times' Food section. Mark Bittman's Minimalist column was an immediate draw. His personable style combined with his taste for simplicity and honest cooking was and is very much in my wheelhouse. True to the title of his column, the recipes were straightforward, accessible, and...well, minimal.
While I no longer use his recipes as a refuge from the menacing world of a high school library, they still provide comfort.
In recent years, Bittman has moved on from his Minimalist column, and his current position as an op-ed columnist expands his range beyond mere recipes. He's now free to discuss food on the familiar personal level—the cooking and eating—as well as larger issues of food policy, sustainability, and justice.
In one recent column he weighs in on the questions he's frequently asked about big issues of sustainability, food justice, and making smart food choices.
He says, "it seems the better educated and more concerned people are about this, the more confused they are. Drill deep enough and the list to worry about becomes overwhelming: organics, genetically modified organisms, carbon footprint, packaging, fair trade, waste, labor, animal welfare and for all I know the quality of the water that’s being used to wash your organic greens."
Upon reading this, I felt a certain amount of vindication for my own feelings of uncertainty. I often feel that the more I've learned about food, the more I'm paralyzed by the complexity of the decisions I must make; it can feel like a zero sum game where there's a negative consequence for every environmental or health benefit gained.
Sage that he is, Bittman implores us to simplify the approach. While we can (and do) hope for a less cynical, less corrupt government that is dutiful in protecting the health and well-being of both the population it serves and the land that feeds us, and while we can hope for a food industry that isn't trying to wring every last cent out of the nutritionally bankrupt and wholly unsustainable "food" it sells us, we will be better served if we exert our own agency in the meantime. Instead of focusing on these seemingly insurmountable paradigm shifts of government and industry, Bittman suggests we focus on a "two-step guide for an unassailably powerful personal food policy."
Those two steps are:
1. Stop eating junk and hyperprocessed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as “food."
2. Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.
This seems especially relevant in a time of resolutions earnestly made and quickly broken. I'm not one for formal New Year's resolutions, but I'm constantly looking for ways to make measured, ongoing improvement, so these sorts of simply guidelines are extremely handy for that sort of thinking.
While I personally do pretty well with step one (just ignore the occasional Doritos residue staining my fingers), step two is something of a perennial goal.
It is in that spirit, that I present to you a recipe from one of Bittman's many cookbooks, the especially invaluable How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Asian steamed dumplings filled two ways: leek and bok choy with blackbean
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
Before you attempt this, let me recommend one alteration that will further improve your quest to eat more plants than you did yesterday: double the filling recipes. They are supremely delicious all on their own. Simply topping some sautéed broccoli and brown rice with the leek filling and a little bit of the dipping sauce made for a quick and easy follow-up meal.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
- 1 teaspoon salt
Put flour and salt into bowl of food processor fitted with dough attachment and pulse to combine. Gradually add cold water while machine is running until relatively dry ball forms. Allow to run for addition 15 or 20 seconds.
Remove dough ball from processor and knead by hand, using as much flour as necessary to prevent sticking.
Pat dough into a tight ball, dust with flour, and cover with plastic wrap or towel and rest for at least 20 minutes.
After resting, place dough on lightly floured surface and cut dough into four pieces. Roll each piece into a 1-inch log, then cut into 1-inch pieces. Roll each piece out from the center into a rough circle, 3-4 inches in diameter.
Stir-fried leek filling
2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 cup finely chopped carrot
- 2 large leeks cleaned well and sliced thinly
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 or 2 tablespoons soy sauce
Oil large skillet over medium-high heat. Add carrot and raise heat to high, cooking for two minutes and stirring occasionally. Add leeks and about 1/4 cup water. Stirring occasionally, allow to cook for five minutes more.
Stir in garlic and a pinch of salt, and cook until leeks are very soft. Remove from heat and stir in soy sauce.
Stir-fried bok choy filling
- 2 small heads bok choy
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- 2 tablespoons black bean garlic sauce
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Cut bok choy leaves from stems, slicing stems finely and roughly chopping leaves. Oil large skillet over medium-high heat. Add bok choy, stirring occasionally and cooking until it softens and begins to lose its crunch, about 3 minutes.
Add about 1/2 cup water and cook, stirring occasionally until liquid evaporates or bok choy becomes very tender, about 10 minutes.
Add in black bean sauce, ginger, and garlic and cook for another minute or so, stirring to combine. Add in soy sauce and cook a few seconds more.
Putting it all together
Place about a tablespoon of filling on each wrapper. Moisten the edges of the wrapper with an egg wash and fold over to form a half circle. Press the seam tightly to seal. Continue to stuff wrappers until dough or filling is gone, placing each uncooked dumpling on a lightly floured plate or cutting board.
Steam each dumpling 8-10 minutes until dough is cooked.
Miso carrot dipping sauce
- 1/4 cup peanut oil
- 1.4 cup rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons yellow miso
- 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
- 2 medium carrots cut into 1 inch pieces
- 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and cut into coins
- salt and pepper
Put all ingredients except for salt and pepper into bowl of food processor and let machine run until sauce is mostly smooth.
Add salt and pepper to taste.