Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bits and Morsels - A conversation with Mark Bittman

The beautiful display of cool pops at popbar.

A conversation with Mark Bittman.
A few weeks ago I met Mark Bittman at The Taste of the Nation event. I'm such a fan of his that I just had to interview him. Mark is a busy guy who does everything well, but makes it look effortless. Besides writing the Minimalist column
for The New York Times, he has had his own shows on PBS, including a recent show where he traveled to Spain with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. He also has written numerous cookbooks including 'How to Cook Everything,' which now has an iPad application. He is innately practical and gives sensible, easy-to-follow advice. He’s lovely too, with no artifice at all. We met up last week at The New York Times.

I met up with Mark Bittman at The New York Times.
So what sparked your interest in cooking?

At one point I was a community organizer and I would always go home and cook. After I moved on, I was working a bunch of odd jobs ... but I was always cooking and I knew I wanted to write. In 1978 I walked into the offices of the New Haven Advocate and through a series of odd circumstances I wound up being their restaurant reviewer. I lived in New Haven and reviewed restaurants for Connecticut Magazine and I freelanced for the Hartford Courant, and then eventually for the New Haven Register, the Washington Post, and papers all around the country. In 1987, I became editor of the Old Cooks Magazine that was in Bridgeport at the time. Then in 1990 I began freelancing for the Times. After a few years, they asked if I wanted to write the column. At pretty much the same time I wrote Cooking at Home with a Four Star Chef with Jean-Georges and How to Cook Everything.

How long has the Minimalist column been running?

We are in our 13th year.

Mark Bittman and Jordana Z.
How do you keep it fresh every week? You make it look so easy.

I’m glad you think so. I make it look easy because you’re not seeing any of the work. There is work and a lot of thought and negotiation too. I cook and eat out a lot and am always talking to people about food. There are ideas out there and there is always something new and interesting. We are doing grilled lobster this summer and it’s not like people have never grilled lobster, but a lot of people don’t like to kill lobster. So I learned a way of parboiling a lobster from a bunch of chefs.

So you are basically killing it by boiling it, which people have less fear of than cutting it in half when it’s alive. Then you cut it in half and grill it and it works fine. A lot of the stuff is not self evident, but it’s elementary in the sense that it’s basic, but it’s smart. Not everyone knows how to cook. If everyone knew how to cook I couldn’t do the column.

How did you learn how to cook?

I think the way to learn is to find a cookbook that you like and look through it and see what you would like to make. You have to be able to read and follow instructions, but if the recipes are well written ... then it’s simple enough and you can build on that. There are stages of learning how to cook. Some people follow recipes slavishly for their whole lives, and some actually learn what they are doing and get better at it.

Food Matters by Mark Bittman.
The iPad app: "How to Cook Everything."
What do you like to snack on when you write?

These days it’s grapes or cherries. In the winter it’s nuts or apples.

What restaurants do you like to go to to relax?

I go to the same few restaurants all the time. I go to Szechuan Gourmet on 39th and Fifth, Jean-Georges with whom I go way back, Matsugen, and Peasant. Really, I eat out probably less than the average New Yorker. I never do take out.

I love your segments on the 'Today Show.' You are such a natural. Do you like being on TV?

For the most part and it does not make me nervous.

What are your thoughts on the oil spill and the seafood situation in the gulf?

It’s a disaster for many things more than the fish. I have been a fan of Gulf shrimp for a long time. Wild shrimp is so much better in so many ways than farm raised shrimp. More than half of our wild shrimp in the United States comes from the gulf. What else can you say? The whole fish scene is quite difficult. It’s not clear even at my advanced age I’m going to have fish for the rest of my life ... and you will not have a good fish eating life ahead of you. It’s unfortunate. I mean it’s more unfortunate for the fish than it is for us. We weren’t careful and maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Resources are not infinite. We see this with fish, oil, and land to name a few. You have to take care of these things. You can’t just pretend that if you keep using and using them, they will be there.

What advice would you give to someone who wants a career like yours?

You know, the most annoying thing is when people say they want to be Mark Bittman. I didn’t plan 30 years ago to be where I am today. People have to do what they like to do. Let me put it this way, I never had long term goals, I knew I wanted to write, so I figured out a way I could write. I knew I wanted to cook, so I cooked. The fact that the two of them happened together was a fortuitous circumstance. I never planned to make a living as a food writer. I thought I would try it and see what happened and then it was one foot in front of the other. It’s still that way where I’m planning what am I doing six months from now or a year from now. I don’t think you can say 'here is where I want to be 30 years from now,' because that's not how life works.

For more information about Mark please go to

Zeroing in on the coffee and mixed berries at popbar.
The heat is on. I don’t know about you, but I can’t take this heat. The good thing: it gives me a reason to cool off by partaking in some frozen treats like that of ice cream or gelato.

I’m a fan of the Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches, which are only 140 calories, but not skinny on flavor.

Last week I ventured out in the heat to the newly opened popbar. It’s located at 5 Carmine Street and the store is devoted to selling gelato, sorbet and yogurt pops. The pops come in plenty of flavors — banana, chocolate, strawberry, mint, coconut and coffee to name a few — and are made fresh (without preservatives) throughout the day.

When you order your pop, try customizing your topping, which is all part of the fun. My two favorite combos are the melon dipped in chocolate and coconut. Stock up on these for what looks to be a sweltering summer.

pop bar
5 Carmine St. (@ 6th Ave.)
New York, NY 10014
Tel. 212 255 4874
You can customize your pop with chocolate dips and toppings. Coffee dipped in chocolate is a good combo.
Clockwise from top left: I also like the melon in chocolate; All pops are made throughout the day in house; Coconut gelato pop.
Ice pops in a bag to go. Or for your freezer.
Comments? Contact Jordana here
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