Sunday, April 27, 2003

Times columnist finally eats his words

'Minimalist' Bittman uses casual buffets for his own entertaining, too


Mark Bittman has discovered the home buffet.

Perhaps this shouldn't surprise us: The man who writes the popular weekly "Minimalist" column for The New York Times food section prefers to entertain by putting the food out and letting his guests serve themselves. No more fancy sit-downs at the house of the author of the new The Minimalist Entertains (Broadway; $26).

But on the other hand, Bittman is also the guy who wrote the encyclopedic How to Cook Everything (Wiley; $29.95), and the new How to Cook Everything: The Basics (Wiley; $20). So for Bittman, it was easier, until recently, to preach about minimalist cooking than actually do it at home for guests.

"Until four or five years ago, I was hung up on the two modes of cooking," he says. "Casual, easy weeknight cooking and complicated weekend cooking."

Mark Bittman
His complicated weekend cooking was reserved for home entertaining. Because he is a respected, award-winning food writer, his guests had high expectations when they came for dinner. Or so he thought. He would spend days planning dinner parties and hours cooking for them.

Then an epiphany was forced on Bittman. A friend woke him from a Saturday afternoon nap with a phone call to ask what time to come over for dinner. Bittman had committed to entertaining six friends that night - but had completely forgotten about it.

He had no time to worry or panic, only a few precious hours to shop and cook a simple meal. He served marinated olives, bistro-style chicken with vinegar, a salad and chocolate mousse. It wasn't perfect, but his guests loved it. Bittman discovered he was his own harshest critic when it came to entertaining at home. And he knows he is not alone.

"The whole cooking bar has been raised by the television Food Network thing," he says. "People might let themselves get away with something casual during the week, but on weekends for guests, they feel like they have to do something fancy."

In The Minimalist Entertains, Bittman shows us that is not the case. He offers 40 seasonal menus, most for dinner, most with three to four courses - a starter, entree, dessert and sometimes salad. The complexity ranges from "A Simple Spring Dinner" to "A Light and Elegant Midwinter Meal." But despite the menu labels, Bittman tells readers most of his menus can be served as a casual buffet, or as he likes to describe it, the "throw-the-food-out-and-let-them-attack-it method."

Mark Bittman will sign his cookbooks 3-5 p.m. Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion, Madison and Edwards roads, Norwood. 396-8960.
"I'm often uncomfortable at sit-down dinner parties," he says. "Usually you can only talk to the people on each side of you and the one across the table. And what if you don't like those people?"

Many of Bittman's starter dishes are make-ahead soups or simple, cold nibblers like marinated olives.

The majority of his desserts, such as Coeurs a la Cr╦me with Strawberries and Ricotta with Walnuts and Honey, are understated because the author frankly admits he doesn't like to make desserts. (Although he does like to eat them.)

Hosts shouldn't become obsessive about pairing wines with food, Bittman advises. But he observes that wine is a fine option because "it can ease the flow of conversation and makes food taste better."

Wine or no wine, sit-down or buffet, Bittman concludes the best reason for not killing yourself when entertaining at home is simple.

"You should enjoy your own party," he says.


Marinated Olives

4 cups assorted olives

8 garlic cloves, lightly crushed

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves

1 lemon, cut in half and segmented (like a grapefruit)

Toss together all ingredients in a bowl. Marinate an hour or longer at room temperature. After the first day, refrigerate, then remove from refrigerator an hour or two before serving. Makes 8 servings.

Coeurs a la Cr╦me with Strawberries

1 pound cream cheese

2 cups whole-milk yogurt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

11/2 cups sugar, or more if needed

2 quarts strawberries, rinsed, hulled and sliced

Use fork or blender to cream together cream cheese, yogurt, vanilla and half the sugar. (If mixture is too thick, add a little heavy cream or milk.) Mixture should be quite smooth. Place in a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth or a clean dish towel, and place strainer over a bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

About a half-hour before serving, toss strawberries with remaining sugar and let sit at room temperature. Turn cream cheese mixture out onto a plate and divide into eight portions, or place some of the mixture in each of eight bowls.

Taste the berries and add more sugar, if needed. Serve the coeurs a la cr╦me ("hearts of cream" because heart-shaped molds are traditional) topped with the berries. Makes 8 servings.

The Minimalist Entertains (Broadway; $26)


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