Mark Bittman is a justifiably widely read cook, with a New York Times column called “The Minimalist” and a fun blog called Bitten on the New York Times web site. As you probably have figured out, he often distills recipes to their essence, in the process paring the steps and ingredients down to a bare minimum. And sometimes, it works very, very well. He has a recipe for crab cakes that is probably the best I have ever made, and that’s saying something, because my lovely wife is a crab cake maniac.
Ah, my loyal legions of readers, you can hear the “but” coming a mile away. And you would be correct. Everyone loves the simple flavors of a grilled steak or a simply cooked piece of fish or even a perfectly roasted chicken. These are wonderful, timeless foods that never seem to go out of style or favor. Simplicity of flavor does not mean boring or pallid, as these dishes ably demonstrate. However, our palates enjoy complexity at least as much as intensity, certainly when we reach adulthood.
I am a big fan of monster wines, usually Zinfandels, that explode in the mouth with intense fruit flavors, a huge shot of alcohol, and tannins and acids that zing my taste buds. I also like the layers of flavors that a good Pinot Noir can provide. Those lovely, interesting layers that seem to go on and on; none dominating, just meshing into a great wine but also separate enough that I can detect fascinating stuff going on in my mouth. Of course, it’s the same thing with food. That grilled steak is a fantastic meal, but age the same steak, get some interesting and intense minerally flavors, along with the subtle funkiness of aged beef, and it becomes a better dish.
Add some complexity of flavor to food — and that comes most of the time with more complex technique and layers of ingredients — and it will appeal to the palate in ways that the simple stuff just can’t. The ideal is to eat both, and that’s why cooking can be at once fun and maddening. Who hasn’t made a simple and good recipe a few times but wondered how adding a bit of this or that, sautéing the onions before adding them, reducing the stock just a bit more, searing the meat before cooking, and on and on and on, would improve the dish…and time and complexity be damned! I certainly have.
This is absolutely not a criticism of Mark Bittman, whose cooking is fun and interesting and whose obvious love of food is infectious. Just watch some of his cooking shows and you will discover a man who truly lives to eat. My guess is that he cooks both ways. His minimalist technique is a wonderful thing, but I’ll bet that every once and a while, he sneaks in a recipe that takes five hours, uses 17 pots, seven bowls, every spoon and whisk in the house, and requires several visits to the reference library — and is worth it!