Welcome to The Bittman Project
Let's do this
Welcome to Day 1 of The Bittman Project. We’re so excited and we’re glad you’re part of the community. (And in case you missed it yesterday, check out our announcement explaining everything you need to know about this publication.) Stay tuned for ways you can cook along with us, ask questions, weigh in on favorite ingredients, recipes and techniques, and steer the conversation. Today and every day, we invite you to participate in the comments. And if you know someone who’d appreciate The Bittman Project, please pass it along. Here’s what you’ll find in today’s issue:
We’re inviting you to join us in restocking the pantry: If we're going to be cooking together, let’s ensure we’re assembling a similar set of ingredients. Read on for pantry essentials, extras, and how to buy them.
We’re (re)launching “The Minimalists,” note the plural, which reflects that this time around, it includes many others, starting with my colleague Daniel Meyer. Check it out and enjoy this awesome first recipe. (Look for my complementary dishes in a later video.)
We’ve also got an answer to the eternal question, “Shit! What’s for Dinner?” —our weekly collection of fast, easy recipes to help you get from here to Sunday.
We Want to Cook With You
Our front-burner goal is to build The Bittman Project into a vibrant community of home cooks, but that'll only work if you're able to cook along with us, not just observe. So, before doing anything else, we want to make sure we're all on the same page.
If we're going to be cooking together, we should all have a similar enough set of ingredients on hand to work with; think of it like speaking a common language. Of course, no need to follow this list to the letter, but the more of these things you keep lying around in your kitchens, the more in sync we'll be.
With the following ingredients, you’ll only need to make one weekly shopping trip for vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, milk, cheese, and other perishables to make pretty much anything.
Also, later this week, we'll be sharing our favorite "secret" ingredients that take our cooking to the next level — not basic staples, but things that we can't live without. We'll also be asking you for yours, so start thinking.…
Here’s the list of staples that we keep stocked in our pantries and fridges.
Here’s an essential pantry ingredient. Start with a multipurpose, medium-flavor oil for cooking or drizzling if you’re going to pick just one (many home cooks have a few for different purposes). Look for the harvest date to read 2020 (or the year before the current one). That provides some assurance that the oil is fresh and tells you where the olives were grown, pressed, and/or bottled.
My go-to oils are grapeseed, sunflower, or safflower for high-heat cooking or when I want neutral flavor. Grapeseed oil has a velvety smoothness and often a green color that reminds me of olive oil; the others are a little nuttier and always golden. The labels don’t always indicate how the oil was processed, so looking for cold-pressed or other descriptions is a good start; it’s even OK if they’re a little cloudy.
Salt and Pepper
Kosher salt or sea salt are good choices and taste better compared to iodized salt. (Most Americans get plenty of iodine through their diet, and iodized salt has more salting power than kosher or sea salt, so using that same amount of kosher or sea salt compared to iodized salt results in less salt intake.) When it comes to pepper, black peppercorns in a pepper mill are my go-to. Salt is more essential than pepper, but you’ll need them both.
Have at least a few kinds: red and white wine, white, rice, cider. Then, if you’d like, sherry or Champagne —and so on. As for balsamic — that’s a good one, but be prepared to do a little legwork (and spend more) to find one that’s the real deal, not souped-up grape juice.
Ensure the soy sauce you choose is fermented from grains, not just colored water with too much salt. If you make a lot of Asian dishes, consider purchasing separate soy sauces labeled dark and light.
Rice and Other Grains
There’s so much you can do with these. In the case of rice, you can cook them ahead in bulk to reheat on the stove or easily in the microwave all week. Consider long- and short-grain rice, brown and white — as you like, and at least one other whole grain. Some people care about new crop — harvested within the year — because it cooks more evenly, though it’s more expensive. If it’s a new crop, it’ll say so on the label.
Pasta and Other Dry Noodles
For Italian dishes, if you’re buying mass-produced noodles, Italian brands are still the best. Keep a few shapes in your pantry. Also, consider rice noodles, soba, udon, etc.
Buy beans of all sorts: dried, canned, frozen, heirloom, new crop or not.
Only you can decide which you’ll use regularly. Buy only the amount you think you’ll use in a year. Whole spices are better than ground. Grinding your own from whole seeds or pieces—as with coffee beans—ensures they’re potent, though we know it can be a pain.
Flours and Cornmeal
You can’t bake — bread or anything else — or make quite a few sauces without flour (wheat or otherwise). For national brands, we like Bob’s Red Mill or King Arthur. Enthusiasts might want to order flour online or find some at their farmers market.
I usually start with good-quality whole plum tomatoes — they’re even better than fresh unless you’re elbow-deep in tomato season. Choose cans with the fewest ingredients listed. And if you want to splurge, consider DOP-labeled San Marzanos.
If you’re not going to make your own, there’s always high-quality prepared stocks that are increasingly available from specialty stores and restaurant take-out counters. They cost more, so just make sure if you go this route, they’re so good they’re worth it. Canned or boxed stock, whether chicken, beef, or vegetable, is usually less ideal than starting with water and a few vegetables and cooking for 10 minutes. I’d rather have a soup with slightly less flavor than one with lots of off-flavors.
Onions, garlic, shallots, celery, carrots, scallions, ginger, and fresh chiles are handy and good keepers.
Lemons and Limes
Squeeze your own; avoid bottled juice.
You can spend a little or a ton, but generally, local or regional brands should be freshest. I usually use unsalted.
When eggs are fresh, and the chickens are raised with room to roam, the difference is remarkable: brighter yolks, a viscous white, a cleaner scent when you break it open.
You must get the real stuff, Parmigiano-Reggiano imported from Italy: Whether it’s pre-grated or not, up to you.
Sugar, honey, real maple syrup.
Parsley and probably cilantro are essential. Fresh herbs should be stored in the refrigerator: Most need simply to be wrapped in damp towels and slipped into a plastic bag. Put those with fragile leaves— like basil, chervil, dill, mint, and parsley—stem down in a jar of water (like flowers) with a plastic bag loosely covering the leaves; trim the bottoms and change the water every day.
Baking Soda, Baking Powder, and Cornstarch
These are baking essentials, with the exception of cornstarch, which you’ll also find many uses for.
Nuts and Seeds
Raw and toasted nuts and seeds will add texture, crunch, and protein to your cooking. Consider almonds and walnuts and peanuts, for starters. For seeds, try pumpkin and sunflower.
I keep porcini and shiitake around; you could try more kinds, too. If you haven’t cooked with them before, you will be shocked by what they can do (you can also save the soaking water and use that).
Long-Lasting Vegetables and Fruits
Consider various kinds of potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, winter squash, apples, and oranges.
Capers, Anchovies, and Other Tinned Fish
I love the salty, briny flavor they bring to dishes. Get salt-packed if you can.
Choose your favorites: ketchup, mustard, salsa, mayonnaise, hot sauce, horseradish, chile oil, etc.
An increasingly necessary ingredient and a must for Vietnamese and Thai cooking. Consider Three Sisters or Red Boat or look for those that include little more than fish and salt.
White or yellow miso is mild, while the red is quite strong—experiment with what you like best.
If you like Chinese, Korean, or Japanese food, or you eat a lot of grain bowls, then you need sesame oil. Get the toasted stuff and keep it in the fridge.
Making your own is always preferable; coarse Panko-style crumbs are a good alternative. These aren’t essential, but I’d be lost without them.
The reduced-fat kind is fine, actually.
From raisins to apricots or apples, dried fruit is nice to have around for snacking and cooking.
Especially in the winter, we use frozen corn and peas for sure, greens like kale or collards, and lima or other shell beans.
Wine and Beer
If you drink with it, you should cook with it, whether it’s red or white wine. Beer can impart bold flavors, so a pilsner or lager might be more versatile.
The Minimalist Returns — With Friends
If you’re a fan of Sichuan food, you’re probably familiar with the dish known as twice-cooked (or double-cooked) pork. It’s a hunk of pork belly simmered in water, sliced thin and stir-fried with vegetables (often baby leeks) and a holy trinity of Sichuan staples: chili bean paste, sweet wheat paste (often called “sweet bean sauce”), and fermented black beans. It’s salty. It’s fatty. It’s heaven.
Earlier on in the pandemic (August, I think, though time has mostly lost all meaning), I went vegan for a month and started messing around with ways to make something inspired by twice-cooked pork, but without any pork (you see the problem). The solution is tofu, a brick of it, sliced into 1/4-inch slabs, dried out in the oven until firm and gently chewy (dare I say “meaty?”), then stir-fried with many of the same things that make the original dish so lovable (minus the rendered pork fat). The result is not one of those “pretty good for a vegan dish” dishes; it’s just plain old good.
You can find the Sichuan ingredients at most Chinese supermarkets (if you have access to one and are even entering stores these days) or online; I got my most recent batch here. And even if you have no intention of cooking this dish, I’d urge you to check out the recipe and video; the tofu method alone is worth a look.
Sichuan-Style Twice-Cooked Tofu with Leeks
Makes: 2 main course servings, or 4 servings as part of a larger meal
Time: 1 3/4 hours, mostly unattended
6 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the baking sheet
One 14-ounce brick extra-firm tofu
3 or 4 leeks, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds total (thinner ones if you can find them)
1 tablespoon Sichuan chile bean paste (doubanjiang)
1 teaspoon sweet bean sauce (tian mian jiang)
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon fermented black beans
2 teaspoons sugar, optional
Cooked rice for serving
1. Heat the oven to 250 degrees and lightly grease a large rimmed baking sheet. Drain the tofu and cut the brick, the short way, into 1/4-inch slices. Put the slices on the baking sheet, spaced slightly apart. Transfer to the oven and bake, carefully flipping the slices and rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking, until the tofu is lightly browned (it’s more like yellow) and has lost quite a bit of its moisture, 75 to 90 minutes. It’s fine if the slices are slightly crisp around the edges, but they should still be pliable. When they’re cool enough to handle (it won’t take long), cut each slice in half lengthwise, and set aside. If you like, you can let the tofu cool and refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze for several months. Just make sure to thaw the tofu completely before proceeding with the recipe.
2. While the tofu bakes, prepare the leeks. Trim off the roots and any hard, dark green leaves. Make a long vertical slit through the center of the leek, starting about 1 inch from the root end and cutting all the way to the green end. (Leaving the root end intact helps keep the leek from falling into pieces when you rinse it.) Rinse well, being sure to get the sand out from between the layers, then cut the leeks crosswise into roughly 2-inch pieces.
3. Put the chile bean paste, sweet bean sauce, garlic, fermented black beans, the sugar, if you’re using it, and 4 tablespoons of the oil in a small bowl. Stir to combine.
4. If you have a fan above your stove, you might want to turn it on; things can get a little smoky. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the tofu slices and cook, stirring or tossing frequently, until they’re slightly crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. If the pan is totally dry, add another drizzle of oil. Add the leeks to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re tender and browned, 4 to 5 minutes.
5. Push the leeks over to one side of the pan, and add the bean paste mixture to the empty part of the pan; it will start to sizzle almost immediately. Cook, stirring constantly, until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
6. Add the tofu back to the pan and toss everything together. Cook, stirring constantly until everything is evenly coated in the sauce, and the tofu is heated back through. Taste and adjust the seasoning; if it’s not salty enough (which is unlikely), you can add some salt, or drizzle on a little soy sauce. Serve immediately with rice.
Shit! What’s For Dinner?
It’s inevitable that some days you haven’t planned anything to cook, the afternoon sneaks up on you, and all you can do is throw your hands up and say, “Shit! What’s for dinner?” For those times when you just need something fast, easy, and tasty, we’ve got you covered. Here are three recipes to help you navigate this week.
Garlic Fideo Soup
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes
You can’t go wrong with a soup made of lots of fried garlic and noodles topped with fried bread crumbs. Chicken stock would work well if you have some handy.
1 pound fideos, or capellini or other very thin pasta
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped garlic
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons sweet paprika (preferably pimentón)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, cilantro, or epazote, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish
6 1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
1/2 cup fried bread crumbs (see below)
1. Put the noodles in a sturdy bag and whack them with a rolling pin or the back of a knife, breaking them into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
2. Put the oil in a large pot over medium-low heat. When it’s hot, add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and beginning to color, 5 to 8 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to medium-high. Add the noodles, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring almost constantly, until they darken, a minute or 2. They will probably not cook perfectly evenly — some will become darker than others — but avoid letting more than a few pieces blacken.
4. Add the paprika and most of the parsley and stir for a minute to coat the noodles. Add the stock, taking care to loosen any noodles or garlic that might have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles are just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve right away, garnished with the remaining 2 tablespoons or so of parsley and the bread crumbs.
How To Make Fried Bread Crumbs
Tear a few slices of good-quality bread (preferably a day or two old) into pieces and put them in a food processor. Pulse a few times, then let the machine run for a few seconds until coarsely chopped. For every 1/2 cup of bread crumbs, heat about 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet. When it’s hot, add the crumbs and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Season with salt or and drain on towels; use immediately.
Winter Squash Curry
Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 30 minutes
Preparing raw winter squash takes some practice, but since you’ll want to make this otherwise-easy recipe all the time, you’ll get a knack for it quickly. Serve with some plain steamed or boiled rice.
2 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1 chopped fresh chile, like jalapeño or Thai
1 1/2 pounds butternut or other winter squash, peeled and chopped
1 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons peanut butter
Salt and pepper
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
1. Put the oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the curry powder, ginger, and chile and cook until the onion just starts to brown, about 2 minutes more.
2. Add the squash, coconut milk, and peanut butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover, and adjust the heat, so it bubbles steadily. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the squash is tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Check the pot periodically and add a little more liquid to prevent the squash from sticking. If the squash is done and the mixture is still soupy, remove the lid and increase the heat so the liquid bubbles furiously; cook until it’s thicker than stew. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot or warm.
Skillet Pork Chops
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Time: 30 minutes
A basic sear-and-simmer technique that provides the foundation for all sorts of experimentation. For instance, replace the garlic with ginger, chopped fresh rosemary, or curry powder; replace the water with chicken stock, canned tomatoes, orange juice, or coconut milk; or replace the vinegar with Dijon or soy sauce. The possible flavor combinations are endless.
4 bone-in shoulder or center-cut loin pork chops (about 1 inch thick; about 2 pounds total), trimmed of excess fat
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 tablespoon butter or more olive oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
1. Sprinkle the chops with salt and pepper. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the chops and raise the heat to high. Cook until they brown and release easily, about 2 minutes. Turn and brown the other side. Transfer the chops to a plate.
2. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the wine and garlic and cook, scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine almost bubbles away, about 2 minutes. Return the chops to the pan and turn them once or twice in the pan juices. Add 1/2 cup water, adjust the heat so the liquid barely bubbles, cover, and cook until the chops are tender and slightly pink inside, but not dry, 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Transfer the chops to a platter. Stir the butter into the pan juices. Add the vinegar, taste, and adjust the seasoning. Pour the sauce over the chops, garnish with parsley, and serve.