I love cookbooks.  I love to buy them and keep them in stacks around my kitchen, always within arm’s reach when I need a little bit of information or inspiration.  I like to read a good cookbook almost as much as a novel, for the way it can take me someplace far away or remind me of things comfortable and familiar.  But, in truth, I rarely cook from them.  So when a new cookbook has me dog-earing pages and running for my grocery list — especially when the recipes are not particularly flashy or exotic — it’s worth mentioning.

Mark Bittman is a practical cook.  His books, of which I now own four, are full of reliable and accessible dishes, as is his “Minimalist” column in the New York Times.  But as much as I can appreciate his talent, I’ve never been inspired to follow his recipes (except for this one, of course).  Until now.

Bittman’s newest book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, speaks to me.  If you’ve already read a book or two by Michael Pollan, the first 75 pages of Food Matters — a manifesto on the perils of the modern industrial food complex — will sound very familiar.  The next 50 pages are devoted to nutrition and weight-loss (the author’s weight loss, to be specific).  It’s a lot to wade through, but in essence Bittman is answering Pollan’s call to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” with his signature pragmatism, laying out a concrete plan of action for incorporating more vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains into your diet and decreasing your reliance on meat and dairy.

The recipes that follow are wonderful in their simplicity, flexibility, and utility.  Our grocery budget is stretched pretty thin these days (the responsibly-raised meat and wild-caught fish I love so much are awfully expensive), and trying to cook family meals that accommodate multiple food allergies (dairy is the most onerous) is a constant challenge.  So I appreciate Bittman’s novel spin on traditional favorites:  brown rice pudding made with coconut milk (pulse the rice briefly in the food processor to rough up the grains so they’ll release enough starch to thicken the pudding — brilliant!), savory porridge made out all manner of whole grains, cassoulet with lots of vegetables, and brown rice paella, to name a few.

In honor of the Super Bowl, which I won’t actually watch but feel compelled to cook for anyway, I give you Mark Bittman’s chili.  His recipes are so easy and well-edited, I actually followed this one (almost) as written.

Bean and Vegetable Chili

Adapted from Food Matters

Yield:  Serves 6-8

3 tbsp. olive oil

1/2 lb. ground beef, pork, turkey, or chicken (optional — I left it out)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small onion, chopped fine

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium eggplant, diced (1/2″ – 3/4″ is good)

1 zucchini, diced

1 or 2 carrots, diced

1 c. chopped mushrooms

1 fresh or dried hot chile, seeded and minced (I used 1 tsp. ancho chili powder instead)

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. minced fresh oregano (or 1/2 tsp. dried)

1 c. chopped, canned plum tomatoes (3 or 4), with their juice

4 c. cooked, drained beans (I used navy and cranberry), cooking liquid reserved (drained, canned beans is fine, too)

2 c. vegetable stock or water, as needed (you’ll need it if you use canned beans)

Minced fresh parsley or cilantro, for garnish

Warm a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat.  Drizzle in the olive oil, then add the ground meat, if you’re using it, and cook, breaking up large pieces with the back of a spoon, until well browned, about 10 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the meat from the pot and pour off all but about 3 tbsp. of fat. (If omitting meat, just heat the olive oil and continue below.)

Add onion and cook for 5 minutes or until softened.  Add remaining vegetables and spices, a generous pinch of salt, and black pepper and cook until vegetables have released their juices and are starting to caramelize, about 10 minutes more.  Stir in the oregano, tomatoes, and beans, and pour in enough of the reserved bean cooking liquid (or vegetable stock, or water) to just cover.  Turn up the heat, bring chili to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes to allow flavors to meld and beans to get very tender.  Add additional liquid, if you like your chili on the soupier side, and adjust the seasonings to taste.

Garnish with cilantro or parsley, and serve with brown rice or cornbread.

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