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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. In his new book "How to Cook Everything: The Basics," Mark Bittman provides careful instructions - and a thousand colorful photos - on how to stock your pantry, what knives to buy, what's an aromatic, and how to boil water - seriously, how to boil water. The author of "How to Cook Everything" has just added "How to Cook Everything: The Basics." So to all of those who cook or attempt the task, what is your basic question about cooking? Just a quick reminder, we're not going to be able to take any new calls on the program today.

Mark Bittman is known for his column "The Minimalist," which ran for 13 years in the New York Times, for which he continues to write. It's now a show on the Cooking Channel as well. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

MARK BITTMAN: Hi, Neal. Nice to talk with you.

CONAN: And boil water, seriously?

BITTMAN: Well, you know, there's always this question about how much information is too much when you're doing cookbooks. But since this was a basic one, I thought we'd start at the beginning.

CONAN: You didn't get to it till page 24.

(LAUGHTER)

BITTMAN: Well, not literally.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: It is interesting. There are two pictures, one of which - a full boil and the other, a simmer. And you do describe the difference - which, you know, I could be the target audience for this book because there are so many recipes that begin with, you know, cube and brown. And I begin by saying, how big are those cubes supposed to be, and what do they mean by brown?

BITTMAN: Well, the complaints, to the extent that there were - one, about the original "How to Cook Everything" - which was 1,500 recipes and no photographs - was that it was overwhelming. It maybe took too much for granted about what people might, and might not, know - and that there were no pictures. So those were things I tried to address here. There are only 175 recipes - they're what I would consider core or essential recipes. And, you know, the picture of simmering water is valuable to a lot of people who have said to me, I don't know what a simmer looks like. So there you go.

CONAN: You've been writing about all these things for 30 years. Was it criticism of that first book that really - that it was too complicated or too challenging?

BITTMAN: Maybe not so much criticism, but an opportunity for me. It wasn't - I mean, "How to Cook Everything" has sold many hundreds of thousands of copies and been, by all standards, a success. So of course, it has critics. But for the most part, people like it. But again, there are people from the very beginning - and the book is, the original "How to Cook Everything" is 15 years old. From the very beginning, people came up to me and said, I don't want to know how to cook everything. I want to know how to cook something - or anything. And this is really addressed to those people.

CONAN: And you begin - I made fun of you by not getting to boiling water till page 24, but you begin by saying, what's the equipment that you need.

BITTMAN: Well, I think I get a lot of questions. And you know, we are - this is no news to anyone. We are a consumer-oriented society, so many people believe sort of in the - I think, in the magic of buying things. So we will join a gym and assume that will get us into good shape. And we'll buy cooking equipment and assume that it will make us a cook. But equipment is not - of course, you need some - but it is not the key to becoming a decent cook. And I think that my approach is, you need a minimal amount of equipment in order to cook well. And I try to outline what that equipment is and also, what the ingredients - that it's best to have on hand when you start cooking - are.

CONAN: And you don't seem to describe a kitchen that involves eight burners and gigantic freezers and refrigerators, either.

BITTMAN: Well, this is - part of the advantage of living in New York is, you don't have that, you know - unless you're in the $3 million apartment category, you don't have that option. So most of us have galley kitchens or 45- or 50-square-foot kitchens, and you equip them as best you can. But you give up on the six- and eight-burner stoves, and so on. And as it turns out, small kitchens work just as well as big kitchens. And when you're cooking for two or four or even six people, you don't need a lot of stuff - and you don't even need a lot of room.

CONAN: And I was also intrigued; there is a lot of instruction in this book on, I think, one of the more overlooked aspects of cooking - how to buy this stuff; how to choose which.

BITTMAN: Again, beginners - if you say to someone, you know, go buy some broccoli and it should look undamaged, the beginner doesn't really know what undamaged means. When you say fish should be bright-eyed and gleaming, that's also - if you've not seen that, then it helps to have the photographs.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Bittman about his new book, "How to Cook Everything: The Basics." If you have some basic questions about cooking, don't be embarrassed; give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Ricardo, Ricardo, with us from San Antonio.

RICARDO: Hi, great show. My question is, I love going to the roots and getting a really good steak. And recently, I just started getting into medium steaks. It took me awhile to get used to the red factor. But if I want to do this at home and save money, how do I talk myself into thinking it's a good steak, or what am I - am I more worried about the meat or the accent of blood all over my plate?

(LAUGHTER)

BITTMAN: You know, I think if you're into steaks, you probably have discovered that the better cuts - well, there are more expensive and less expensive good cuts, but I would look at rib eye, and I would look at skirt - which is much less expensive but really great. And, you know, I'd use high heat. I'd follow timing instructions. There are some of those in my book, or you can find them elsewhere. And yeah, I guess I wouldn't worry. Medium is not going to leave a lot of blood on your plate anyway, so I think you'll be OK.

CONAN: But another basic question: How do you know when stuff is done?

BITTMAN: Well, this is - I spent a lot of time going over this, and there are basically three ways to tell whether something is done. You can peek inside; you can poke at it; or you can measure it with a thermometer. I mean, the fourth way is, you're experienced enough to know what things look like when they're done. And that does happen to experienced cooks, and it doesn't take all that long. But thermometers are, you know, we have instant-read thermometers that cost less than 10 bucks and are supremely accurate and will work. Cutting into something and seeing if it feels tender, or looking at whether there's too much blood or not enough, or whatever, is also a pretty good method.

CONAN: Ricardo, thanks very much for the call. Good luck. Here's an email we have from Christie in Salt Lake City: I'd like to ask Mark Bittman about soaking beans. How long should I soak them, and what are the benefits? I assume these are dried beans.

BITTMAN: I assume they're dried beans also. And this is one of the great puzzles of our time - in a very minor sense, of course. Yeah, I soak beans if there's time to do it. And I soak them overnight, or I soak them for a few hours, or I boil them for a minute and soak them for a couple hours. But I think the thing I'd 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. The soaking is a rehydrating process - which, of course, can happen while the beans are cooking as well as in advance. So cooking - I mean, soaking reduces cooking time some, but not by anything like 50 or 75 percent. And it's not essential that - it is a myth that it's essential.

CONAN: Wow. All right.

BITTMAN: Wow.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: The soaking industry is going to be complaining.

BITTMAN: You learned something. Yeah.

CONAN: There, I did, yeah. Let's go to Sarah(ph), Sarah with us from Mariposa in California.

SARAH: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So my husband has a beloved cast iron pan, which I also like to use. But sometimes, the eggs don't - sorry; forgive the street noise in the background.

CONAN: That's OK.

SARAH: Eggs don't quite roll off our pan in the way that they do when I cook at my friend's house. So that's part A of the question. How do I - what do I do to get my cast iron pan to be basically, you know, nonstick? And B, I have also been very firmly instructed to never use soap when I'm washing. I think, you know, if I cook, I probably shouldn't be the one washing the dish anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

SARAH: But is it true that I shouldn't be using soap in order to scrub, and clean properly, the cast iron?

BITTMAN: So the three questions are, should you be the one washing the pan? And the answer is no. 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.

CONAN: And I was...

SARAH: Very good.

CONAN: I was interested, Sarah, to read in Mark Bittman's new book that if you do over-soap and dry out the pan, just bake it with some vegetable oil for - what, 350 degrees for an hour or so?

BITTMAN: That sounds good. You know, the other thing - 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.

SARAH: Well, like a wooden - like a log fire?

BITTMAN: Like a real fire. Yeah, it'll burn rust off of there.

CONAN: Huh, all right.

SARAH: That's good to know. Well, thank you so much.

CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much. Here's an email from Indira(ph) in West Valley, Utah: I always end up making a black and mushy goop that only resembles rice. How do you cook rice the right way - the right amount of water so that it's not mushy; the right amount of heat so that it doesn't burn black - and make it savory too?

BITTMAN: I'm a little bewildered by this question because there's few things that are easier to cook than rice. And there's a half a dozen methods, all of which will work. But I think the sort of easiest one is to put in double the amount of water in rice; cook it with the cover off until little, moon-crater bubbles appear on top; and then turn the heat off, and cover it for another few minutes. That, at least, will keep it from burning - as long as you're watching it.

CONAN: Do you use a rice cooker?

BITTMAN: I have. But you know, this is another peculiarity of the small kitchen, is that you have no room for things that you don't use all the time. So if you're going to use a rice cooker every day or twice a week, you want a rice cooker. But if you're going to use it every two months, there's no room for it in my kitchen.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Bittman, the author of "How to Cook Everything: The Basics." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Cathy(ph), Cathy with us from Lansing.

CATHY: Hi. I wanted to tell you my strategy. When I travel with my family and we get a kitchenette or a studio kind of condo, I have to walk in the door, see what equipment is there, and build a grocery list from nothing. So what I do is, I sit on the plane, and I think about what I need to feed my family and because I'm Greek, it's always going to be oregano...

(LAUGHTER)

CATHY: ...rice, salt and pepper; just a few basic items. But one thing I have to do, I pack my 12-inch chef knife; a non-stick, oven-proof skillet; and a great-big note for TSA.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: They're going to need the note, yes.

CATHY: They do notice the note. Someone actually scribbled a little thing on it, saying, enjoy your time.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's nice.

BITTMAN: Make sense to me. I mean, I constantly am adding to my list of things to bring when I'm going to use other people's houses - whether on vacation or as a visit - and it is amazing how the smallest thing can really be helpful.

CATHY: Really. And it matters, the equipment that you have. I can't cook with those flimsy, little, tin pans that they stock for people to use, and I always end burning things or wrecking the dinner somehow. But if I have a pan that I know will work every time, and a knife I know I can use without cutting off my fingers, it's always a bonus.

BITTMAN: There you go.

CONAN: Cathy, thanks very much for the call. This is from Soroa(ph) in Palo Alto: Please ask Mr. Bittman to elaborate on his recent recommendation of a fake chicken product. I was absolutely stunned to read it. Why not eat - just eat less chicken and meat, but eat non-processed food?

BITTMAN: Well, of course, that's my position as well, and this was something of a turnaround. But it was turnaround because I became convinced that saying, just eat less meat and chicken and real food, was not addressing everybody's desires; that some people like, shall we say, processed food and want to have the experience of eating the equivalent of, say, a Chicken McNugget. But they are willing to try something that is not a Chicken McNugget. But they're not willing to make falafel, for example. So this was an attempt to address that audience with something that I thought was better than what had preceded it, anyway, in the world of fake food. It is going to be around - fake food - so I think it's important to look at the pluses and minuses of it.

CONAN: We're not quite to "Soylent Green" yet, though.

BITTMAN: Well, you know, we have a lot of really weird stuff going in the food world, obviously. And I thought that this stuff, which is a fake chicken made in Maryland, has fewer bizarre ingredients than most other analog meat - or whatever you want to call it - and is made pretty simply. I also - you know, I was also arguing that in a way, it seems more consistent with what I believe; to recommend that people eat fake meat than to recommend that they eat bad meat, which is what a lot of us have been doing for the last few years.

CONAN: And that leads to this email from Edmond(ph): I hear his warnings about the health risks of red meat in particular. The nutritional profile of grass-fed, pasture-raised organic meats is quite different than that of corn grain-fed animals. When he warns of the health consequences of eating meats - red meats, in particular - does he distinguish between organic grass-fed, pasture-raised animals and grain-fed, factory-raised animals?

BITTMAN: Well, I do. You know, there've been those studies that show that - I mean, I should preface this by saying 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 you can't prove it in terms of personal health. But I think the primary reason to support well-raised meats is that 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.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. Theresa(ph) is in on the line with us, from Oakland.

THERESA: Oh, hi. I've taught myself to cook in the last five years, and I think I've done pretty well. But the one thing that still, I can't get a handle on is fish. I feel like each recipe is individual to the type of fish it is. And I was wondering if there are some standards that you can recommend to buy and cooking fish.

BITTMAN: There are. I don't think I can do it here. But I can tell you, at the risk of sounding self-promotional, that my approach is exactly not that; that I tend to group fish by how they look and how they cook, and not to say, this is a recipe for sea trout and if you don't have sea trout, go find another recipe. Do something that's quite the opposite. So you might have a look.

THERESA: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck, Theresa. And Mark Bittman, thanks very much for your time today. Good luck with the book.

BITTMAN: Nice chatting, as always, Neal. Take care.

CONAN: Mark Bittman, the author of "How to Cook Everything: The Basics." You can see his recipes for green beans with crisp shallots and rice pudding in the oven. Both of those are at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

It's the TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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