This interview was originally broadcast on March 19, 2012.
In his new book, How to Cook Everything: The Basics, Mark Bittman explains with careful instructions and 1,000 colorful photos how to stock your pantry, how to dice vegetables, which knives you should buy — and to really get back to basics — how to boil water. He also includes 185 no-fuss recipes (you can find Bittman's recipes for green beans with shallots and rice pudding below).
Bittman is a food writer and columnist for The New York Times. He joins NPR's Neal Conan to talk about food fundamentals, and takes questions from listeners about kitchen how-to.
On caring for cast-iron pans
"Should you use soap? I do, but sparingly and not all the time. It depends how gunky it is. And, you know, the way to make a cast-iron pan nonstick is to just keep using it and use more fat and leave more of that fat in there when you're done cooking. So, you soap less. But I would not say never use soap. I would say use soap occasionally.
"... The great thing about cast iron is if you have one that's rusted or really looks beat up, you can throw it in a fire and leave it there for an hour and it will come out maybe not quite good as new but perfectly functional. ... It'll burn [the] rust off."
On soaking dried beans
"The thing I want to stress here is that no one should not cook beans because they haven't been soaked. They will cook eventually, and many beans cook in as a little as an hour, but soaking is a rehydrating process, which, of course, can happen while the beans are cooking as well as in advance.
"So ... soaking reduces cooking time some, but not by anything like 50 or 75 percent. And it's not essential; that is a myth that it's essential."
On eating red meat
"I firmly believe that well-raised animals are better for not only the environment, but for us personally. But you can't prove that. At least, you can prove it in terms of the environment, but can't prove it in terms of personal health.
"But I think the primary reason to support well-raised meats is that [because] it's actually more difficult to raise them, they will be costlier. They will be more rare, and meat will resume or could resume its proper place in our lives, which is as a treat rather than as something we can eat whenever we feel like it."
Recipe: Green Beans With Crisp Shallots
By Mark Bittman
Boiling and then sauteing vegetables gives you more control over doneness.
Time: 30 to 40 minutes
Makes 4 servings
1 1/2 pounds green beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sliced almonds, optional
1. Bring a stockpot of water to a boil and salt it. Fill a large bowl with cold water and lots of ice cubes and keep a colander handy. To trim the beans, snap or cut off the stem end and any brown spots. Cut them into 2-inch pieces or leave them whole.
2. Add the green beans to the boiling water and cook until they just start to get tender but remain quite crunchy, 3 to 5 minutes depending on the size of the beans. Drain the beans and immediately plunge them into the ice water. Let them sit for a minute to cool thoroughly, then drain them. (You can prepare the beans up to a day before finishing the dish; cover well and refrigerate.)
3. Put the oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter melts, add the shallots and cook, stirring once or twice, until they're golden brown and crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the shallots to a plate lined with paper towels. Leave the fat in the pan.
4. Add the green beans to the skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve hot or warm with the shallots on top and almonds sprinkled over if you're using them.
Recipe: Rice Pudding In The Oven
By Mark Bittman
The term comfort food is overused. But not here: There is nothing more soothing.
Time: About 2 hours, mostly unattended
Makes at least 4 servings
1/3 cup any white rice
1/2 cup sugar
4 cups milk
1. Heat the oven to 300F. Combine the rice, sugar, salt and milk in a large gratin dish that holds at least 6 cups. Stir a couple of times and put it in the oven, uncovered. Bake for 30 minutes, then stir. Bake for 30 minutes longer, then stir again; at this point the rice might be swelling up and the milk should begin to develop a bubbly skin (if so, stir it back into the mixture).
2. Cook until the rice plumps and starts to become a more noticeable part of the mixture and the skin becomes more visible and darker, about 30 minutes more.
Now the pudding is getting close to done, so check on it every 10 minutes, stirring each time (it should reach the right texture in 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the kind of rice you used).
3. The pudding will be done before you think it's done. The rice should be really swollen and the milk thickened considerably but still pretty fluid (it will thicken more as it cools). Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold.
From How to Cook Everything The Basics: All You Need to Make Great Food — With 1,000 Photos by Mark Bittman. Copyright 2012 Mark Bittman. Excerpted by permission of Wiley.