Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Wednesday, April 13, 2005


Mark Bittman Doesn’t Get it

In Today’s Times, there’s a piece where Mark Bittman – in a fairly shameless bit of self-promotion for an upcoming television series – contrasts his own cooking with that of a famous chef. In today’s article, he contrasts a Jean-Georges Vongerichten recipe for sea bass fillets, with his own far simpler creation “sesame crusted fish.” The Jean-Georges recipe, as described, runs eight steps, and takes a full hour. Bittman’s recipe has four steps, and takes fifteen minutes.

There are several problems with his story.

The most obvious is that Mark is comparing a recipe for nothing more than a piece of fish -- with a complete entree that includes a full complement of side vegetables. Unless you count sesame seeds as a vegetable, he hasn't actually cooked dinner. So his comparison of the time involved, or the number of steps, or even the number of ingredients, is practically meaningless.

The next problem is that Mark cleverly ignores the fact that nearly all of the Jean-George dish can be prepared in advance. The beauty of this type of approach is that you could literally do all of the prep work, and then go out for cocktails, secure in the knowledge that you can finish your dinner in ten minutes ... whenever the mood strikes, using only two pans.

What the Jean-George recipe actually describes is a simple and elegant method of cueing up a dish ahead of time. All of the vegetables that need cooking at all are cooked in advance. The mushrooms are cooked merely to create a tasty bit of stock. The nuts and spices are toasted and blended ahead of time. Even browning the butter can be done early -- but I wouldn't bother; I would just brown the butter at the last minute, and stir the mushroom stock in to cool it.

The final steps come down to this: "warm up the vegetables in a flavored brown butter while you saute a piece of fish." How hard is that, really?

Here's my take on how you can do this at home. Any time during the afternoon, or up to several days ahead of time, you can complete the first four steps of the Jean-Georges recipe. In fact, these steps can even be completed before you buy the fish. [Note: for some reason, I can't get the link to the online version of the recipe to work; you should be able to find it by linking to the article, and then following related links the the "Sea Bass Filets with Mushroom Beurre Noisette"]

In steps one and two, you're making a mushroom stock, which you can reserve in a tiny container. In step three, which you can do while you're doing steps one and two, you make a nut and spice mixture. This you can also reserve in a tiny container. (I wouldn't fret, by the way, if I didn't have exactly two almonds and exactly two hazelnuts on hand to make this stuff. Pick or on the other, or pick up a jar of mixed nuts and pick them out.) In step four, you're pre-cooking the vegetables, which you can also easily manage while doing steps one through three. Dump these together into yet another tiny container, and you're ready to roll. (You may as well chop your herb garnish while you're at it, too.)

You now have three little containers (or four including the herbs), with everything you need to head start the dish: a bit of mushroom stock, a nut-and-spice mixture, and some pre-cooked vegetables. You also have your fish filets, and some cherry tomatoes -- which you haven't touched yet. The rest of the ingredients are fairly typical pantry items.

Now here's the final dish, in four steps, which should take not more than ten or fifteen minutes, (including the time to warm up the pans):

  1. Brown 3 Tablespoons of butter in a small sauce pan. Stop the cooking by adding the mushroom stock (stand back; it will spatter a bit). Keep warm.
  2. Place a skillet over high heat. Meanwhile, season and coat the fish fillets. Season with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Brush with cream. Then press only the flesh side into the nut and spice mixture.
  3. Melt 2 Tablespoons butter (I would use clarified butter here, or 1 T butter + 1 T oil) in the skillet, then lay the fish fillets in skin side down. Cook 3-4 minutes per side. (Here I question the recipe: I might fire up the oven, start the fish on the stove top, and then let them finish in the oven, without flipping them at all. You're less likely to leave a lot of burnt nut-and-spice mix in the pan that way).
  4. While the fish cooks, warm the vegetables. Add the onions, beans, and cherry tomatoes to the mushroom-brown butter sauce, and gently heat through. To serve, place the vegetables with the sauce in a warm serving bowl, place the fish filets on top, garnish and serve immediately.

The bottom line: since Bittman's dish isn't a complete dinner -- there's absolutely no basis for the claim that his method is any quicker or easier. The Jean-Georges recipe, on the other hand, is interesting -- and readily adaptable to busy schedules.


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