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A&E >  Food

Cooking on the quick

Author shows how to keep recipes short and simple

Avocado Soup with Crab is shown from “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express” this dish embraces the cookbooks premise of  speed, flexibility and relaxation. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Avocado Soup with Crab is shown from “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express” this dish embraces the cookbooks premise of speed, flexibility and relaxation. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Michele Kayal Associated Press

Mark Bittman wants you to be free. In his new book “Kitchen Express” the New York Times columnist and best-selling cookbook author offers more than 400 “recipes” that are more creative cooking suggestions than staunch commands.

This is good. This is empowering. This is no reason to be afraid. Bittman’s “precisely imprecise” approach debunks the “eatertainment” industry myth that cooking – real cooking – is a matter of precision.

At no more than a paragraph long, each of Bittman’s recipes is creative, quick and intensely flavorful, while still embracing modern cooking’s holy trinity of “speed, flexibility, and relaxation.”

For Fish with Thai Pesto, puree “a few good handfuls” of Thai basil with cilantro, oil, garlic and chile, cook some fish in “a couple of tablespoons” of oil, then top with the puree and serve. For a quick Panzanella (Italian bread salad), cube some bread, add tomatoes, olives, anchovies, garlic and capers, toss with red wine vinegar and olive oil, garnish with Parmesan. Or don’t. It’s up to you.

And that’s Bittman’s point. Tossing and pinching, adding and substituting, this is what your mother did. What all of us should be able to do. With confidence. Bittman makes it even easier for timid cooks by offering a comprehensive chart of substitutions.

Organizing recipes by season is the cookbook industry’s newest gimmick, and Bittman follows suit. Theoretically, this makes it easier to employ the freshest ingredients. But Bittman also nods to cravings – say an ice cream sandwich in the middle of winter – by offering an excellent index as well as lists of desserts, breakfasts, finger foods and other categories.

“Kitchen Express” is the perfect book for experienced cooks looking for fresh ideas. It’s also a great find for new cooks who want to discover their own style minus the intimidation factor. New cooks will also appreciate Bittman’s comprehensive pantry guide.

So turn off the TV. And honor your inner Iron Chef.

Avocado Soup with Crab

Recipe from “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express” by Mark Bittman, Simon & Schuster, 2009

Cooked shrimp or lobster are fine substitutes for the crab called for in this recipe. Author Mark Bittman also suggests crushed tortilla chips, diced tomato or crumbled queso fresco.

Puree a couple of ripe avocados with 2 cups of whole milk and a pinch of salt. Season a mound of fresh lump crabmeat with minced fresh red chiles, chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lime or orange juice. Serve the soup with a scoop of the crab.

Yield: About 4 to 6 servings

Zucchini and Dill Soup

From “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.” Add fresh ricotta, sour cream or yogurt while pureeing, for richness.

Grate a couple of zucchini. Cook a chopped onion in butter until softened, then add the zucchini and stir until softened, five minutes or so. Add vegetable or chicken stock and bring to a boil, simmer for about five minutes, then puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper and lots of fresh chopped dill.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Spicy Grilled Pork with Peach Marmalade

From “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.” The author writes: “If you like sweet and savory combos, you’ll love this.”

Combine a quarter cup of peach or apricot preserves with some minced garlic, a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of soy sauce, a half teaspoon of dry mustard, a pinch of cayenne pepper and salt. Coat thin, boneless pork chops with the marmalade and grill, taking care not to let the marmalade burn. Slice fresh peaches or apricots in half and remove the pits; sprinkle with salt and grill flesh side down for a couple of minutes until colored and softening. Serve the pork with the grilled fruit.

Yield: Varies

Caramelized Caprese Sandwich

From “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.”

Halve good crusty rolls or squares of corn bread or focaccia and toast under the broiler. Slice ripe tomatoes crosswise into thick rounds, spread out on a broiler pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and quickly brown on both sides. Serve open faced: bread first (olive bread is awesome), then sliced fresh mozzarella and fresh basil leaves, topped with the tomato slices; drizzle with pan juices.

Yield: Varies

Grilled Skirt Steak with Tomatillo Salsa

From “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.” He suggests using tomatoes, peaches or pineapple.

Season a skirt steak with salt and pepper. In a food processor, puree three or four tomatillos, a handful of cilantro, a clove of garlic, a jalapeno or other green chile, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, some lemon or lime juice, a dash of sugar, salt and pepper; process until smooth, then taste and adjust seasonings. Grill the steak to medium rare, about three minutes on each side. Serve the steak sliced against the grain and drizzled with the salsa.

Yield: Varies

Zucchini and Garlic Fusilli with Pistachios

From “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.” Equally delicious is a combination of zucchini and yellow summer squash.

Boil salted water for the fusilli and cook it; meanwhile, slice two zucchinis into thin disks. Toast a handful of pistachios in a dry pan until fragrant and turning golden; set aside. Cook some minced garlic in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until fragrant, add the zucchini slices and two tablespoons of water, season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft. Drain the pasta, reserving the cooking water. Toss the zucchini and garlic mixture with the pasta, adding more olive oil and water if needed; add the toasted nuts and serve with grated Parmesan cheese and plenty of freshly ground pepper.

Yield: Varies.

Brown Sugar Apple in the Microwave

From “Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Express.” Pears work just as well, Bittman says.

Core four apples and stuff the centers with raisins, walnuts, brown sugar and butter. Set upright in a microwave-safe dish, drizzle some port wine or brandy over each, partially cover and vent, and cook for about five minutes, rotating the apples as necessary and basting with the juices. Serve drizzled with the warm syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon.

Yield: 4 servings

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