Mark Bittman: A Minimalist with Maximalist Appeal
I first spied and became a closet fan of New Yawk's home cook supreme, Mark Bittman, when I wandered over to his video segments on The New York Times website. OK, technically speaking, I first fell for Bittman's totally unprepossessing way with words and ingredients in his "minimalist" column that is as much a Times culinary journalism institution as pine nuts is to pesto.
After reading his column, I would then scarf down my humble lunch at work while tuning into his spare, totally habit-forming video bits at the Times site. All of them were, and remain, redolent of Bittman's unelitest way with food.
I love this guy. He's truly got a face for radio. His accent is a slightly more New York Public Library version of the "d'ese and d'ose" of a Brooklyn longshoreman. Come to think of it, with just a touch of make-up, Bittman could easily have taken Rod Steiger's place in that taxi, as he listens to Marlon Brando claim how much of a "contenda'" he could have been.
But I digress. Bittman is such a revelation. Here is a guy who is one of food journalism's most respected voices and, OK, had put together a string of highly watchable cooking demos for the Times, yet gave zero indication that he could translate his totally relaxed, straight-talking charm to the bigger screen of the Cooking Channel.
But he does just that on The Minimalist. A recent episode was very much akin to making a movie from a stage play by keeping all the vital ingredients of character and plot but just opening it up a bit. That means designing a snazzy intro sequence in which Bittman (you can tell it's him by the outline of his professorial glasses) is shot in silhouette doing all sorts of silly kung fu with kitchen utensils. It means adding a sound-track of bluesy Hammond B-3 organ riffs, along with that same gypsy violin noodling that tags his Times' videos. And they've shot Bittman on location -- as in above his nondescript kitchen, on a Brooklyn rooftop, outfitted with a postcard view of Manhattan, and a gas-grill that would make Bobby Flay envious.
The sub-title, or culinary sub-text, for Bittman's show could be "cooking's a breeze." For Bittman makes everything look so disarmingly simple. And he gets so much done -- six dishes in an astonishing 24 minutes or so -- while seeming to sweat not a bit.
For his recent episode on finger-foods, Bittman managed to reduce the stress and neuroses involved in making these items to their lowest level possible, yet without sacrificing any apparent taste or sophistication. His outdoor-grilled chicken wings weren't slathered in some goopy sauce, or spiced to scald the tongue, but had the "minimalist" twist of having bunches of Provencal-style herbs (thyme, rosemary, and a crumbled bay leaf) stuffed underneath the skin.
It was during this chicken wing segment that the viewer receives the first of Bittman's truly useful bit of cooking advice, delivered with such nonchalance as to almost make me miss it. He smartly noted that the way to avoid burning the outside of a chicken wing, on the grill, is by placing it on the cooler half of the cooking surface, closing the lid, and cooking it for 15-20 minutes. When it's clearly cooked through, then and only then should one move it to the "hot" side of the grill where, for around four minutes, it can then take on all that gorgeous crust and rust color of classic chicken wings.
And when he is oil-frying the Venezuelan street food known as arepa, Bittman clears up any lingering confusion about when one should flip any fried good like that. To Bittman, there's no confusion: It is either when you see the brown creeping up the side or, even more obviously, when the fried item easily releases itself from the pan's bottom.
The default approach of Bittman is to reduce everything to its simplest analogy. When folding the collard leaves around freshly made lamb mini-meat balls, he describes this technique as quite simply just making burritos. Meanwhile, I'm fairly confident in saying flat out that no Cooking Channel or Food Network chef has ever woven in Hugo Chavez, the iconoclastic president of Venezuela. But Bittman does, as a prelude to his making arepas by noting that Chavez has tried to donate to the States several things including, in jest, free home heating oil.
Bittman's cooking techniques are so graspable that he's one of the few TV chefs who can get away with preparing something in real time -- such as his prosciutto rolls with asparagus and arugula. In a matter of seconds on camera, he's set out the prosciutto in an overlapping pattern, dressed arugula and lightly blanched asparagus in a basic lemon juice-olive oil vinaigrette and wrapped the wonderfully adherent prosciutto around the glistening greens.
Bittman's otherwise glibly comic touch reaches a kind of vaudevillian crescendo in the hilarious moment -- frankly never before witnessed on any cooking show I've ever watched -- in which he takes a section of his just-out-of-the-oven Parmesan cream crackers (a.k.a. "Cheez-its at an Academy Award level") and demonstrates a unique way of dividing them up: He simply cracks them against his bespeckled noggin', sending the perfectly formed cracker squares flying willy-nilly in front of the camera.
Maybe the best part of Bittman's on-screen persona is how naturally he comes by his self-deprecation. He dubs his minimalist alter-ego a "cocktail party savior" thanks to all these finger-food creations -- yet you see his tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Bittman is no more endearing than when he concludes his fried squid demonstration by admitting that "I have no friends here so I get to eat it by myself...Actually I have no friends at all." No tears. No pleas for sympathy. Just an ironic statement of fact.
And then, in typical New York slightly cynical fashion, as Bittman is about to start chowing down on his calamari fritti, he assures the viewers: "I'll have to eat this all by myself...so this is actually when not having any friends comes in kind of handy."
Something tells me, Mr. Bittman, that with your cooking skills and understated charm, you've probably got more pals than you need.
(The Minimalist airs 9:30 a.m. Sundays on the Cooking Channel.)