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Recipe-free cooking

(article, Caroline Cummins)

In his New York Times column, "The Minimalist," Mark Bittman tries hard to live up to his job title. His latest piece, subtitled "101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less," is exactly what it says: 101 "recipes" of just a sentence or two each, amounting to nothing more than very simple directions. 

For days, the article has been the most-emailed article on the Times site. (And blogged, on Chow and Life Begins at 30, among others.) Apparently everybody wants meals like these: instructions, not measurements. And why not? What Bittman is offering is a way of thinking about cooking, instead of a cookbook.

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Most of his dishes are the kind of thing that any decent home cook, scrounging around in the cupboard, would come up with: pasta served with oil and herbs, lightly steamed or sautéed seafood, broiled eggplant topped with cheese. Many of the concoctions rely on prepackaged food: couscous, tinned fish and beans, cured meats. They're easy, tasty, and nutritious.

But watch out. Some of the recipes are deceptively simple. (Try number 12: "Boil a lobster. Serve with lemon or melted butter." This elides crucial info, such as the fact that you need to kill and then dismember a skeleton-covered creature.) Some of the recipes are just plain weird. (Check out number 52: "Grill or sauté Italian sausage and serve over store-bought hummus, with lemon wedges." Maybe this would work with some crusty bread on the side, but otherwise it's just glorified mush.) 

And salad, in the Bittman worldview, is seldom allowed to just be salad; it tends to get machoified with eggs and tuna fish (salade niçoise, number 34), eggs and bacon (frisée aux lardons, number 37), bacon and chicken (Cobb salad, number 32), even grilled steak (Southeast Asia steak salad, number 62).

To each his own, of course. If browned chunks of hot dog served with beans and ketchup makes you happy, go for it. And the point — whether good food or bad — is that cooking needn't be a production. It's just food.

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