Author Mark Bittman, aka "The Minimalist"

I’m a big fan of cookbook author and food columnist Mark Bittman.  I love his simple, flexible approach to cooking — hence his moniker “The Minimalist” for his weekly New York Times  column.  When my friend Trish gave me a copy of Bittman’s latest book, Food Matters, I was thrilled.  I read it right away.

 Like Bittman’s cookbooks, Food Matters reflects a clear, concise and practical approach to food.  But it is a bit different:  part manifesto and part cookbook for what Bittman calls “saner eating” — saner for both the personal health of individuals and the environmental health of the world.  

The fundamentals are, well,  pretty fundamental.  Eat far less food derived from animals (not just meat but dairy).  Eat a lot more plants, i.e., vegetables, fruits and whole grains.  Avoid processed foods and just say no to junk foods, like potato chips and sodas.

Doing this, he says, “could help you lose weight, reduce your risk of many long-term or chronic diseases, save you real money, and help stop global warming.”  Plus, he says, it’s easy and requires no particular sacrifice.

By now, we all have a pretty good idea of which foods are healthy for us and which are not so much.  Of course, that doesn’t stop us from eating unhealthily; according to Bittman, the average American consumes a half-pound of meat every day.   Not to mention a whole cup of sugar a day as well!

But what struck me most was Bittman’s argument linking overproduction and overconsumption of not only meat but processed foods in general to global warming.  I did not know, for example, that global livestock production accounts for one-fifth of all greenhouse gases — more than emissions from transportation.  Nor would it ever occur to me that production of a 12-ounce can of diet soda requires 2,200 calories, about 70 percent of them to make the aluminum can.  Pretty ironic, for a zero-calorie drink.

Start doing the math, and it gets out of control pretty quick.

To Bittman, “[t]he choice is obvious:  To reduce our impact on the environment, we should depend on foods that require little or no processing, packaging or transportion, and those that efficiently convert the energy required to raise them into nutritional calories to sustain human beings.”

Those foods turn out to be mostly plants. 

Fortunately, this is something we can do ourselves.  (We certainly can’t rely on the government or the food industry for guidance in this area, and Bittman convincingly explains why not.)

Bittman draws on his personal experience and views to explain how we too can eat more sanely.  He eschews diets per se; he does not believe in counting calories, grams of fat, food points or anything else.  Nothing, with the exception of junk food, is completely off the table.  Enjoy the occasional cheeseburger and fries if that’s your choice.  Bittman himself is a self-described “vegan until 6”  — not a vegetarian but a “less meatatarian.”

So, go ahead; embrace moderation.  The ham and Swiss sandwich that you love so much?  How about just once a week?  It’ll be more special.  Explore the salad bar.  Ease into a saner, more conscious way of eating; just start by doing what works for you.  And watch as you lose weight naturally and improve your health while making your own small contribution to sustaining the planet.

Food Matters includes 77 recipes for saner eating, one of which I tried out and have included below.

Not Your Usual Ratatouille
Makes:  4 to 6 servings

Time:  @ 30 minutes

What makes this ratatouille different is the cauliflower, which adds crunch to this very healthy dish.  At Bittman’s suggestion, I threw in a can of drained cannelini beans for a bit more protein and heft.  It was yummy with the sole I made for dinner last night (another Bittman recipe from another book), but even better today for lunch with a bowl of soup.  Note:  I found it difficult to cook all the vegetables properly with only a quarter of a cup of oil, so I added some chicken broth.  You could add any broth or even some dry white wine if you like.

  • 1 medium or 2 small eggplants (about 8 ounces)
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
  • 1 small onion chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 2 medium tomatoes, cored and chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 cup chopped basil leaves for garnish
  • Good vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice, optional

1.  Trim the eggplant and cut into large cubes.  If the eggplant is big, soft, or especially seedy, sprinke the cubes with salt, put them in a collander, and let them sit for at least 30 minutes, preferably 60.  (This will help improve their flavor, but isn’t necessary if you don’t have time.)  Then rinse, drain, and pat dry.

2.  Put 2 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  When hot, add the eggplant, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.

3.  Put the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in the pan and add the cauliflower.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until it loses its crunch, about 4 minutes.  Add the onion, garlic, and red pepper and cook and stir for another minute or two, until they’re soft.  Add the tomato and thyme and cook for another minute, until the tomatoes release their juice.  Return the eggplant to the pan, along with basil leaves.  Give it a good stir, taste and adjust for seasoning, and serve hot or at room temperature, with vinegar or lemon.  The ratatouille will keep for a couple of days, covered and refrigerated.