TERRY GROSS, host:
Our TV critic David Bianculli has had many food adventures, tasting strange and exotic - some might say scary - meats. He's grilled kangaroo, alligator - he says it tastes like chicken - and crocodile, which doesn't. He told us yak is delicious, but that bear was too disgusting even for him, which is saying a lot. So we thought it would be fun for David to interview Mark Bittman. He wrote The New York Times column "The Minimalist" for 13 years. Now Bittman writes an opinion column on food-related matters and is a food columnist for The Times' Sunday Magazine.
David interviewed Bittman in 2008 after the publication of his book "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Mark Bittman, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MARK BITTMAN (Food Columnist, The New York Times): It's great to be here, Dave.
BIANCULLI: Your new book, "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," has an obvious limitation: no meat. But was that restriction freeing, as well?
Mr. BITTMAN: Interesting question, because when you started asking it, I thought immediately of this Japanese woman I met a couple of years ago who was a brilliant chef who only did super-vegan, you know, really, really limited stuff. And I asked her why, because she ate meat and she obviously enjoyed it, but she only cooked very, very limited. And she said, it's like pen and ink. And I said, what do you mean? She said well, you know, you limit things so that you can explore the universe of them more thoroughly, which seemed like a very Japanese thing to say.
BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Sounds great, though.
Mr. BITTMAN: But I - you know what? I think that I'm not interested in proselytizing for people to be vegetarians, but I am interested in proselytizing for people to eat fewer animal products. We raise animals now in what can only be called an industrial fashion. And I think the more people know about that, the more turned off they're going to be by that.
BIANCULLI: All right, here's my big question, in theory. What I wanted to do for the interview was pick out a recipe of yours that I was very skeptical about in advance. That...
Mr. BITTMAN: I am already amazed that you found one you could be skeptical about. But go ahead.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. No, I did.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: And I couldn't find it in the vegetarian cookbook. I had to go on "The Minimalist" and go back. And it was - we're in firm agreement as meat eaters that - you know, we're talking about rib eyes as the best part of the steak and...
Mr. BITTMAN: No question.
BIANCULLI: ...and that, you know, simplicity is wonderful here. And you have a recipe which says instead of just doing it the normal way, just put it uncovered, you know, over a little wire thing in the refrigerator for like two or three or four days and flip it once a day and don't cover it. And then this gives it this crust that you can then cook with. So...
Mr. BITTMAN: It dries it out a little bit.
BIANCULLI: A little bit. Well, let me tell you, I did an A/B test. I got two rib eyes. I have a real good butcher...
Mr. BITTMAN: You know, I'm very glad you did this. I can't wait to hear what you say.
BIANCULLI: Yeah. So what happened was - so I kept one wrapped up and did it the way I normally would do. I did the other one. I did a rub on the -equal rub on both. But the one that was dried in the refrigerator, after a couple of days, it started looking like rib eye jerky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: You know, and the last time meat looked like that in my refrigerator, honestly, I threw it away. But I thought...
Mr. BITTMAN: Right.
BIANCULLI: Okay, I can sue you if it doesn't work. I can talk to you about this or get some sort of...
Mr. BITTMAN: You didn't throw it out, though. You cooked it.
BIANCULLI: I did not throw it out. I cooked it. And eating them side-by-side, it was remarkably better.
Mr. BITTMAN: Well, how is this a scary question?
BIANCULLI: Well, yeah. Well, yeah.
Mr. BITTMAN: You got me all nervous. But now you're telling me that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
BIANCULLI: Because it looked horrible. It looks horrible.
Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah. Yeah, it does dry out.
BIANCULLI: And you didn't warn me in the recipe that it was going to look, you know, inedible before you cooked it. But it was so much crustier and crispier and better. So how did you figure that out?
Mr. BITTMAN: You know, refrigerators are a pretty drying environment. And that's why people hang meat in cool places, because you want to - if you think about all the different meat preparations, the traditional ones of aging and drying meat, they're things that people love. And a prosciutto, which is essentially a dried ham, it's hung for 18 months, and almost all the moisture is leaving that. And if you think of dry, aged beef, that's exactly what it is: dry, aged beef. But my thinking in the refrigerator thing was not really to age the meat, although that's something I want to try to play with at some point, or I've been threatening to play with at some point.
My thinking was really when you are trying to brown a steak, especially in a home environment where you often don't have the kind of high heat they have been restaurants, your biggest enemy is moisture. And if you put a piece of meat on a rack in a refrigerator, I figured it would dry out. And the whole thing's not going to dry out. What's going to dry out is the outside.
Mr. BITTMAN: And then it's going to take a crust really, really well. So it wasn't that hard to think about this. It wasn't that hard to figure it out, and I was pretty sure I was right, which is why I was actually was getting nervous when you were - with your big buildup, making me feel like you were going to tell me I was wrong.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor David Bianculli spoke with Mark Bittman in 2008 after the publication of his book "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian."
And so we conclude our All You Can Eat series with another recipe that I will never, ever try - never.
Here's Dave Frishberg.
(Soundbite of song, "Let's Eat Home")
Mr. DAVID FRISHBERG (Musician): (Singing) I like to stroll on the Costa Del Sol at sunrise. And to me, Waikiki is the place to be, speaking fun-wise. I like to dine in a Florentine palazzo. You can laugh and call me fatso. That's okay by me.
I like to stick with the first-class ticket buyers, setting trends with my trend-setting friends, the frequent fliers. I like to shop on the Champs Elysees, eat curry in old Bombay and spend New Years Eve in either Tel Aviv or Rome.
But if it's all the same to you, let's eat home.
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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