Cookbook Reviews:

The Minimalist Cooks at Home : Recipes That Give You More Flavor Out of Fewer Ingredients in Less Time

"This is modern cooking at its best -- flexible, fast, and fabulous."

by Mark Bittman
ISBN: 0767903617
Broadway Books/ $25.00/ 320 pages
Publication Date:  April 4, 2000

I have to admit that I am a sucker for these kinds of cookbooks.  Anything that promises to get dinner on my table in less time gets my immediate attention!   I'm honest enough to admit that though I love cooking, some nights it's a struggle to come up with a nutritious and quick meal for my family.

I guess I'm not alone, because Mark Bittman's new cookbook, based on his New York Times column, simplifies 100 recipes with quick-cooking lessons, shortcuts, and ideas for variations.

Bittman's 'less is more' philosophy leads to his signature recipes with a few ingredients in a few easy steps.  Some recipes here are really formulas which  require a minimum of fuss (for example:  "The standard -- and perfectly wonderful -- butter cookie recipe contains equal weights of flour and butter, sugar to taste (usually about half as much as the flour), an egg for every two cups of flour, enough milk to produce a batter, and any flavorings. )").  If you read carefully, the book will help you understand and  master techniques that will improve your cooking skills as much as any cooking class!
 With this book, you can get dishes such as
Sautéed Scallops Stuffed with Peanut Sauce, Thai Garlic soup, Pear and Gorgonzola Green Salad, Manhattan Clam Chowder or Chicken Curry on the table in no time flat!

Several of the recipes have black-and-white step-by-step photos to help you learn the technique.

This is a classic in modern cooking.  It will appeal to the adventurous, modern palate.  Every foodie will want this in their cookbook collection!  Some of the more gourmet ingredients may be hard to find in smaller towns, but with the internet such as it is, specialty items can be easily ordered.

My favorite thing about this cookbook is that following each recipe are ideas for spin-offs and add-ins.  The preparation and cooking times are listed  for each basic dish and  suggestions for variations are noted following the basic recipe.

This is another winner in the 'more flavor-less time' category!

Order The Minimalist Cooks at Home

hardcover  $17.50

 Sample Recipes:

Pumpkin Soup
Creamy Soup Without Cream

Work time:  15 minutes
Prep Time:  40 minutes
Can be:  prepared in advance; frozen; easily multiplied
Makes:  4 servings

2 pounds peeled pumpkin or other winter squash (weighed after peeling)
4-5 cups chicken or other stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper

1.  Place the pumpkin or squash in a saucepan with stock to cover and a pinch of salt.  Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.  Cover and adjust the heat so that the mixture simmers.  Cook until the pumpkin or squash is very tender, about 30 minutes.  If time allows, cool.

2.  Place the mixture, in batches if necessary, in the container of a blender and puree until smooth.  (The recipe can be prepared a day or two in advance up to this point; cool, place in a covered container, and refrigerate.)  Reheat, adjust seasoning, and serve.

With MINIMAL Effort:

Pumpkin and Apple Soup:  This screams autumn:  Add 1/2 tsp. dried ginger or 1 tsp. minced fresh ginger to the soup.  Peel, core, and thinly slice 2 apples; cook them in 2 Tbsp. butter until lightly browned, turning occasionally.  Use the slices to garnish the soup.

Creamy-and-Chunky Pumpkin Soup:  Measure about 1 cup of pumpkin or squash (you will almost always have extra), cut into 1/4 inch dice, steam until tender, and stir into the soup about 2 minutes before removing from the heat.

Pumpkin and Mushroom Soup:  Sauté about 1 cup sliced mushrooms -- chanterelles are best, but shiitakes (discard the stems) or button mushrooms are good -- in 2 Tbsp butter or extra-virgin olive oil until they give up their liquid and begin to become crisp.  Use to garnish the soup.

To make this basic soup more complex:

Add a tsp. of ground ginger (or 1 Tbsp. finely minced fresh ginger) or a tsp. of curry powder (and if you have it, 1/2 tsp. of turmeric) to the simmering soup.

Add 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. allspice, and a small grating of nutmeg to the simmering soup.

Garnish each bowl of soup with 3-4 grilled, sautéed, or roasted shrimp; or about 1/4 cup crabmeat or lobster meat per serving.

Garnish the soup with chopped chervil, chives, parsley, or dill.

Stir 2 Tbsp. to 1 cup of creme fraiche, sweet cream, sour cream, or yogurt into the pureed soup as you are reheating it.

Stir about 1 cup of cooked long-grain rice into the pureed soup as you are reheating it.


One Batter, Many Cookies
'the mother of all butter cookies.'

Work time:  30 minutes
Prep Time:  30 minutes (assuming you can bake 24 cookies at once)
Can be:  prepared in advance; frozen
Makes:  about  4 dozen cookies

Cookies are always easy, but even they can use streamlining.  One solution is to whip up a single batter -- in the food processor -- and finish it in different ways.  (You might call this 'the mother of all butter cookies.')  With this one dough you can flavor some, roll some, bake them at different temperatures, and fill a cookie plate with variety in no time.

In fact, with one batch of batter you can make four different types of cookies -- add lemon juice and zest to one-fourth of it, for example, chopped walnuts to the second, raisins to the third, and coconut to the fourth.  The basic batter can also be varied with ginger or a mix of spices, chocolate chips, or orange.  It's also great plain, made with white sugar or brown, or even molasses.  Finally, this batter can make rolled-out, cut, and decorated cookies; just chill it first to make it easier to handle.

The standard -- and perfectly wonderful -- butter cookie recipe contains equal weights of flour and butter, sugar to taste (usually about half as much as the flour), an egg for every two cups of flour, enough milk to produce a batter, and any flavorings.  The proportions of the basic ingredients -- the flour, butter, sugar, egg and milk -- determine the underlying taste and texture of the cookies.  Make them with more flour and they're cakey; use more butter and they're delicate, with better flavor;  here, I go for the second option.

I've refined the classic recipe to do all the mixing in the food processor, which is fast and easy.  (You can, of course, make this batter in a standing mixer, or by hand.  In either case, cream together the butter and sugar first, then add the mixed dry ingredients.)  Because the processor is such a powerful machine, it's easy to overdevelop the gluten in the flour, which leads to tough cookies.  (This is also a problem with electric mixers, but rarely with cookies that are made entirely by hand.)

My solution is to replace a quarter of the flour with cornstarch, which develops no gluten and, as a bonus, adds a silken quality to the cookies (and baked goods in general).  Even so, it's still important to process the ingredients gently, letting the machine run no longer than necessary at each stage.

The baking procedure is determined by the results you prefer.  At 375 degrees F, the edges brown nicely and the center of each cookie remains pale and tender after about eleven minutes of baking; at 350 degrees F, there will be no browning and the cookies will take a minute or two longer.  In either case, slightly longer baking times will produce crisp cookies.  These times assume, of course, that your oven is reasonably accurate; since most ovens are not, check the cookies every minute or so after eight minutes have passed.  Note the timing of the first batch and subsequent batches will require less attention.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
3/4 cup sugar
pinch salt
2 sticks chilled butter, cut into bits
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1/2 cup milk, more or less

1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F

2.  Combine the flour, cornstarch, sugar and slat in food processor and pulse once or twice.  Add the butter and pulse 10 to 20 times until the butter and flour are well combined.  Add the vanilla and the egg and pulse 3 or 4 times.  Add about half the milk and pulse 2 or 3 times.  Add the remaining milk a little at a time, pulsing once or twice after each addition, until the dough holds together in a sticky mass.

3.  Remove the dough from the machine to one or more bowls.  Make cookies as described in Step 4, or make any of the cookies listed in "With Minimal Effort."

4.  Drop rounded teaspoons of dough (you can make the cookies larger or smaller if you like) onto a nonstick baking sheet, a sheet lined with parchment paper, or a lightly buttered baking sheet.  If you want flat cookies, press the balls down a bit with your fingers or the back of a spatula or wooden spoon.  Bake 11 minutes, or until the cookies are done as you like them.  Cool on a rack, then store, if necessary, in a covered container.

With MINIMAL Effort:

Butterscotch Cookies:  Substitute half or more brown sugar for the white sugar, or simply add 1 Tbsp. molasses along with the egg.

Citrus Cookies:  Do not use the vanilla;  add 1 Tbsp. lemon juice and 2 tsp. grated lemon zest along with the egg.  The same can be done with orange juice and zest.  A couple of Tbsp. poppy seeds go well here also.

Chocolate Chip Cookies:  Stir about 1 cup of chocolate chips into the finished batter.  (The butterscotch batter variation is good here.)

Chunky Cookies:  to the finished batter, add about a cup of M&Ms (or other similar candy), or roughly chopped walnuts, pecans, or cashews; slivered almonds; raisins; coconut; dried cherries; and so on.  Or combine any chunky ingredients you like.

Ginger Cookies:  Add 1 Tbsp. ground ginger to the dry ingredients.  For even better flavor, add 1/4 cup minced crystallized ginger to the batter by hand (this works well in addition to or in place of the ground ginger.)

Spice Cookies:  Add 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. each ground allspice and ground ginger, and 1 pinch ground cloves and mace or nutmeg to the dry ingredients.

Rolled Cookies:  Freeze the dough batter for 15 minutes or refrigerate it for about 1 hour or longer.  Work half the batter at a time, and roll it on a lightly floured surface; it will absorb some flour at first, but will soon become less sticky.  Do not add more flour than necessary.  Roll about 1/4 inch thick and cut with any cookie cutters; decorate as you like.  Bake as above, reducing the cooking time to 8 to 10 minutes.

Puffy Cookies:  The basic cookies are flat.  for airier cookies, add 1/2 tsp. baking powder to the dry ingredients.