For Bittman, new focus is on veggies

The Baltimore Sun

I cooked the "reformed" Mark Bittman pizza the other night. This version, found in his new book Food Matters, was made with whole-wheat flour and rosemary leaves. To it can be added a "light touch" of tomato sauce and meat as an optional topping.

In prior years, the pizzas I have made using recipes in the cookbooks written by Bittman, a New York Times columnist, were heavier on the sauce, lighter on the vegetables, loaded with sausage.

Bittman says he and his cooking style have changed. His new admonition is "first eat big platefuls of plants." He also advocates eating beans for breakfast, snacking on popcorn cooked in a brown paper bag and eating like a vegan, at least until 6 o'clock at night. In the evenings, he doesn't rule out meat and fish, but eats them in small portions.

In a recent telephone interview and in his new book, Bittman laid out the thinking and the personal factors that led him to his new approach. About two years ago, he said, when he was 57, his doctor told him that his health problems - high blood sugar, cholesterol, weight gain, sleep troubles - could be assuaged if he "ate like a vegan."

Around the same time, he read a United Nations report that stated global livestock production was responsible for about one-fifth of global greenhouse gases. For him, the "issues of personal and global health intersected ... exquisitely." Finally, while Bittman was not a vegetarian, he had developed some flavorful dishes while writing How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

So he put 77 recipes in Food Matters, dishes that reflect his new plant-dominated lifestyle. He lost 35 pounds. He said that he still eagerly devours everything, but he just consumes different proportions.

When I got Bittman on the telephone - we've known each other for years and I regularly refer to his cookbooks - I asked him if he still ate burgers and if he was any fun. He answered the first question. "I still long for a cheeseburger, but I also long for spending time at the beach. I add it to the list of things I occasionally indulge in."

The best answer to the "was he any fun" query came from Mario Batali, the New York chef who along with actress Gwyneth Paltrow traveled around Spain with Bittman filming the 2008 PBS series Spain ... On the Road Again.

"No," Batali said, "Mark was never any fun. But he is funny."

Moreover, Batali said, Bittman can be persuasive. While Batali told me in a telephone interview that he was not ready to follow Bittman's practice of eating "a handful of beans or a slice of tomato for breakfast," he did read Bittman's book and "found it compelling."

As a result, Batali said he, too, was cutting back on "the volume of meat" that he eats. Now he, like Bittman, refrains from eating meat until the evening meal.

"But after 6 o'clock, all the trotters come dancing out," Batali said, referring to pig trotters, one of the signature dishes of Batali's "nose-to-tail" cooking style. His take on Bittman's new approach, Batali said, would be to fix "a big plate of white beans, with [a small portion of ] pork belly floating on it."

Bittman says one of his central concepts is simply shifting the emphasis in a dish from meat and dairy to vegetables. For example, he said, a frittata that once called for four eggs now uses only two but he increases the vegetable content to as many as six cups.

In some instances, he said, lowering the amount of meat returned the recipe to its original form. "Take cassoulet. It used to be a bean dish. Then it became a dish with a ton of meat. Now it's back to beans," he said.

I asked Bittman if this shift away from meat had generated negative comments from fans of his earlier cookbooks. He said no. The publicity effort for this book had concentrated on the east and west coasts, regions of the country, he said, "where people seemed to be waiting for this kind of cooking." His reception in the cattle country would probably be less welcoming, he said.

At our house, reaction to Food Matters has varied. My wife warmed to it quickly, fixing several recipes, including a granola with rolled oats, a polenta, and coconut cookies made with nuts, but no butter.

I liked the fruit smoothie, yogurt and fresh fruit blended in a food processor, but had some issues with the flatbread pizza.

The dough, made with whole-grain flour and flavored with slices of onion and rosemary leaves, was pretty good. To my taste the suggested topping, sliced vegetables and a little tomato sauce, needed help. So I fell back on a couple of old favorites: shredded mozzarella and slices of spicy Italian sausage.

I guess you could call it a "coalition pizza." The bottom was wholesome and socially sound; the toppings were decadent. For me, the journey to a vegetable-dominated pizza is likely to be a long one.

whole-grain flatbread pizza

(serves 4)

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups water

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 large onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves

Put the flour in a bowl, add salt, then slowly add the water, whisking to eliminate lumps. Cover with a towel, and let sit while oven heats to 450 degrees, or for as long as 12 hours. The batter should have the consistency of thin pancake batter.

When ready to bake, put the oil in a 12-inch rimmed pizza pan or skillet, along with the onion slices and rosemary, and put it in the heated oven. Wait for a couple of minutes for the oil to get hot, but not smoking. Carefully remove the pan, give the onions a stir, then pour in the batter and return the skillet to the oven.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes, or until the flatbread is well-browned, firm and crisp around the edges. It will release from the pan when it is done. (It might need some help from a spatula.)

When the bread is done, top it as you would a pizza, using a relatively light hand. Smear a thin layer of tomato sauce, then add a sprinkling of cheese and thinly sliced vegetables, cooked meat, olives, whatever. Turn on the broiler and put the pan under the heat until all ingredients are hot and bubbly. Let rest, then cut and serve.

From "Food Matters," by Mark Bittman

Per serving (without pizza toppings): : 229 calories, 4 grams protein, 14 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 24 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 584 milligrams sodium

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