Bittman, I still love you, but I’ve finally learned to live without you

27 Feb

Tonight I had an itch to cook. After a winter of not moving around much in an attempt to avoid the wet, bone-gripping, never-leaves-you-even-when-you-go-inside Guangzhou cold, I’ve been feeling sedentary, and I just needed some uncomplicated, nutrient-dense, homemade food pumping through my system. Once again, I am struck by the infinite number of ways common vegetables, oils and liquids can be combined to be filling and delicious and make you forget that there’s not an ounce of meat in your dish.

My choice of ingredients was determined by my suddenly remembering that I had some organic, preservative-free vegetable bullion cubes at home that I’d snatched up in organic grocery store in Hong Kong. They’re the kind I used to buy back home, and I miss them. I’ve also recently discovered an open-air market right next to my new work location, which happens to be on the way home to my apartment. It’s so ridiculously convenient, I have no excuse NOT to cook.

I miss my huge red Mark Bittman cookbook, my bible, “How to Cook Everything.” It was falling apart and had sticky pages and water-stained pages, and food splatters, and it was woefully too heavy to fit in my luggage. I believe it sits on a shelf in my parents’ house, waiting for someone to pick it up and use it. Inspired by the possibility of making good broth from a really good concentrate (not the stuff you can find in grocery stores here, the quality of which is worryingly difficult to judge because everything is in Chinese characters instead of English), I immediately thought of the Soups section of Bittman’s book, the chapter that made me realize what an amazing cookbook I’d managed to buy and got the wheels of my attention to detail as pertains to food’s fundamentals and how they mix and match groaning to life with a slow, rusted, but persistent propulsion.

Two years after beginning to cook with Bittman’s suggestions, advice and shared knowledge, I realized tonight that I’ve retained quite a bit now that I don’t have easy access to basic, versitile, exploration-inspiring recipes to rely on as a crutch. I prepared my broth, not having a way to measure the amount of liquid but knowing it doesn’t matter because if the broth was weak, it’d be flavored by the sweating veggies. I started with the holy trinity, the aromatics onion, celery and carrot, because they seemed to be the base of every soup Bittman made, and I think he or someone else even referred to the white-green-orange triad by that delightfully blasphemous name. My bulk was white potatoes, which I knew would help make me full while everything else, much less substantial once it sits in the stomach, added the complex flavor. Dried basil, black pepper and dried oregano pumped the sauteeing aromatics up to a new level, especially once they really mixed with the butter/olive oil mixture everything was dancing around in.

I added the broth after, in this order, the aromatics and then potatoes (which I gave a minute to begin to brown). The potatoes cooked quickly due to the way I cut them, but before they finished, I threw in some whole wheat penne I needed to use up and a can of whole peeled tomatoes which I coarsely cut up with a knife in the can itself before pouring in. For garnish, I threw in a few tablespoons of minced celery leaves (which I use here as parsley since that beautiful herb is difficult to come by). The result was similar to a minestrone without the beans, and it was quite tasty.

But, I also wanted something crunchy and fresh – overwhelmingly fresh – and full of a medley of things and consistencies and flavors. The result was a slaw-like salad with mostly thinly sliced or shredded or crushed pieces of: green cabbage, romaine lettuce (mostly hearts of romaine), mango, yellow bell pepper, carrot, celery and almond. I tossed it with a dressing made of S&P, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, and extra-virgin olive oil, heavy on the tangy ingredients, and shaken to emulsify.

The almost all-vegetable result of these dishes was a full stomach that was absolutely packed with a large quantity of food and thus was satisfied, but not at all stuffed. And it’s so good for the immune system – much-needed right now. It feels good to be able to rely on my knowledge of basics I hadn’t even realized I’d absorbed when presented with an opportunity to cook coupled with a lack of time for and the inconvenience of printing out more creative recipes.

Soup Ingredients:
2 cubes vegetable bullion (or just use water and let the aromatics and potatoes cook longer in it)
about 1 liter of water
1-2 cups diced carrot
1-2 cups diced celery
1-2 cups chopped white or yellow onion
1 T. butter
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 t. salt
1 t. pepper
3 medium-large white potatoes, quartered lengthwise and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 regular can whole peeled tomatoes
1-2 cups penne
2-3 T. chopped celery leaves

Salad Ingredients:
1-2 cups cut (1-2 inch pieces) romaine (mostly hearts)
1 mango, sliced lengthwise
1 half head of green cabbage, halved and very thinly sliced
1 red onion, quartered and thinly sliced
2-3 T. chopped almonds
3/4 cup shredded carrot
3/4 cup thinly sliced celery

1 large thinly sliced yellow bell pepper

Dressing Ingredients:
proportion of 3:2:1 of extra-virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar and fresh lemon juice
salt and pepper


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