A new mom & Mark Bittman’s new book on cooking FAST

My baby got to meet Mark Bittman this weekend. Or, rather, Mark Bittman got to meet my baby. However you want to think about it. He signed a copy of his latest cookbook, How to Cook Everything Fast, to Miss Cora, and I’m sure she can’t wait to tackle its 1,000 pages of recipes.

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Bittman was in D.C. this weekend promoting his latest tome of recipes, which was published last week. He sat down with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan on Saturday night at GWU’s Marvin Center to dish about the new book before a sizable audience of fans (nearly every audience question started with, “Mark, I love your column. Been reading for years.” etc.)

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Somehow, my husband and I made it out to the event with our 4-week-old that night. I’ve taken literally all those “Oh, they’re so mobile at that age” comments and am sure it will lead me to a regrettable situation eventually. When they said we had seats reserved in the front row (thank you Politics & Prose!), I thought surely this night would be the one I’d regret. Surely she’d lose her bananas right there in front of everyone, and we’d have to do a different sort of walk of shame aaaaaall the way to the back door. But she did swimmingly! My husband, the baby whisperer, held her the entire time (and, at one point, shamelessly held her over his shoulder so the entire audience could coo at her cuteness). She slept and quietly took in all the cooking wisdom.

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Back to the book. I read Tim Carman’s great review of it last week before we went to the event. I knew I would love, if not suddenly, desperately need this cookbook in my life. This cookbook basically describes the way I already cooked, though I’d have been ashamed to tell you that before Bittman said it was OK. In the book, he basically throws mise en place out the window and teaches people how to prep for a recipe even as you’re cooking your way through it.

“The problem (with most cookbooks) is we are writing recipes as if we are chefs. You need all these ingredients. I have to gather and measure, but, if you’re a chef, someone does that for you,” Bittman said at the event.

“We looked at the choreography of people who know how to cook. We tried to rewrite recipes in a way that merges seamlessly prep and cooking… I wanted to take away the excuse of, ‘It takes too long.'”

As a chronic multi-tasker known for taking on more than I can handle, and in no place more than the kitchen, this book is my cup of tea. Add in the fact that I just had a baby and — thanks to the incredible generosity of church friends, neighbors and family who’ve showered us with food — have not cooked a proper meal in about a month, and I saw this cookbook as the dose of inspiration I’d need to get back on the proverbial horse. (That is, once I get back from taking a one-month-old on her first plane ride to my sister’s wedding this week. Did I mention taking on more than I can handle?)

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Even if I don’t get a chance to dive into the book’s 2,000 recipes this week, the conversation between Bittman and Yonan was inspiration enough to return to the all-important pastime of cooking.

“The only way you can control what goes into your body is by cooking it yourself. In an era where we are having public health crises, we have to ask, ‘How are you going to fix this?'” Bittman said.

“Either take matters into your own hands, or change the environment so it’s more supportive to cooking and the eating of real food.”

One of the highlights of the chat, for me, was when Bittman compared cooking for the first time to driving a car for the first time, pointing out that people shouldn’t expect to be whizzes at it right out of the gate. Joe’s response was pretty priceless:

“So is telling people to prep as they go (in the kitchen) analogous to telling them to text and drive?” Yonan said.

In my experience, it can be. I can often get in over my head trying to chop as things are already on the stovetop or under the broiler. But I look forward to cooking with recipes that are actually intended to work that way. Bittman’s book rethinks recipes that are notoriously painstaking and reimagines them in a way that’s approachable for a weeknight dinner, in less than 45 minutes and often in about 20 or 30. Chicken parmesan, wonton soup, fruit crisp. They may not be the best version of that recipe you’ve ever created (there’s a reason you go to a restaurant and pay someone to cook your short ribs all afternoon), but, Bittman pointed out, cooking your food yourself is always the better option.

“Cooking is about compromise. You never have the perfect ingredients or enough time,” Bittman said.

The book is also chockfull of helpful hints for setting up a more efficient kitchen. It includes a list of pantry staples and pictures of better chopping techniques along with a great layout of a thoughtfully stocked and organized kitchen.

But the highlight of the night was when Joe Yonan tried to steal my baby. She’s just that cute, people!

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