Title: The Food Matters Cookbook
Author: Mark Bittman
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Year: 2010

Full Disclosure: I’m a Mark Bittman fan. While I am generally inept as a fan, I managed to actually read his “Minimalist” columns regularly for years on end. In me, that translates to serious devotion. So simply seeing his name on the cover could have, possibly, biased me. Just a little.

In spite of any potential bias, his most recent addition to bookshelves everywhere is a pleasure. While providing the reader with carefully written, elegant but simple recipes, Mark (if I may take the liberty) provides a range of flavors from around the world. From Italy to North Africa and Thailand to Argentina, classics are adopted and remade into healthful and guilt-free dishes. Seriously, there are a plethora of recipes that assuage any type of food-guilt you may have: environmental, social, animal welfare, health, financial, and many are even wickedly allergy friendly. Adaptations and variations are encouraged, making it easy to use locally produced or more affordable ingredients. Some of the recipes have meat and fish in them, but many do not and most could be adapted to vegetarian with little thought or effort.

From the basics (Vinaigrette and All-purpose Tomato Sauce) to the complex (Crisp Noodle Cake and Zucchini Cornmeal Fritters with Yogurt-Dill Sauce), there are recipes for everyone. I couldn’t make it through the appetizer chapter without flagging half the recipes, and only found myself disappointed in the Soups section because there was a predominance of tomatoes. As I’m not a tomato-eater, it is not a chapter for me. But others may find it pleasing.

One goals for my vacation week is to make handful of recipes from the book. Crispy Rice Treats were delicious, but given that I couldn’t quite follow the recipe, no longer attributable. Polenta Cakes with Garlicky Mushrooms were very delicious even though my polenta making technique leaves something to be desired (chill it long enough!). The “crispy” squares melted into blobs, and then into just plain baked polenta. The mushrooms, however, were brilliant in their simplicity and more than compensated for any polenta imperfections. The Mini-Potato Parmesan Rostis were very decent fresh from the oven, but considerably better cold for supper the next night. The Cauliflower, North African style was quite reminiscent of my ventures into Moroccan cooking but overly heavy on the coriander and too light on the chili powder. Just a touch would have brought out the lemon and parsley. My coriander-loving friends happy ate seconds, though.

I do sometimes have trouble following a recipe, though, and found that the Pasta with Cumin-scented Butternut Squash and Lamb had to be modified dramatically. Partly, because I only wanted to get one pan dirty but also because my aunt left me no onions. My version, with chick-peas instead of pasta, no onion, added cabbage, and no tomato paste was pretty good. If I make it again, I’ll measure and post it up. The point of this anecdote is that the recipes presented are also excellent fodder for your own creations. Given that most of them are relatively simple, you can easily take elements and replace them or utilize substitutions.

The Cooking Matters Cookbook ranks fairly high on my list. While it’s not the first and only cookbook you should own, I would rank it among the top ten, or five if you have vegan and carnivore friends who attend the same potlucks or dinner parties. It’s definitely making my birthday list for this year.