MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
Hunting today for kitchen inspiration.
Mr. MARK BITTMAN (Chef): You got red Russian kale--Right?--tot soy?
BLOCK: We've come to a farmer's market in McLean, Virginia, just outside Washington, and we've got an expert forager with us, food writer Mark Bittman.
Mr. BITTMAN: Mustard, chard...
Unidentified Man #1: Chard.
Mr. BITTMAN: ...bok choy, got everything in here. It's really nice, this beautiful color.
BLOCK: Mark Bittman writes The Minimalist food column for The New York Times and talks with us occasionally about food and cooking. On this spring day, we've come with open minds and full wallets. We're going to see what looks great, buy it, and then figure out what to do with it.
Mr. BITTMAN: Where were the beets? That seems the most interesting thing to me. Back over there?
BLOCK: We scoop up bunches of the tiny muddy beets, chunky asparagus, lots and lots of greens, long, fat spring onions, some hormone-free beef and farm-fresh eggs, a gentle rainbow of pastel colors.
Mr. BITTMAN: Why are these eggs so beautiful? Pale blue and white and--look at this, celadon green and olive green and really brown and--do they taste different?
Unidentified Man #2: They basically taste the same.
Mr. BITTMAN: All right. So we'll take a dozen.
Unidentified Man #2: OK.
BLOCK: Let's take two.
Mr. BITTMAN: Let's take two. Oh, now Melissa's stocking up.
BLOCK: How much are they?
Unidentified Man #2: They're $3 a dozen.
BLOCK: Let's get three.
Mr. BITTMAN: We'll take three.
Unidentified Man #2: OK.
BLOCK: So we load up the car and we drive back to my house in Washington. By the time we're in my kitchen, Mark Bittman has come up with a plan.
Mr. BITTMAN: We're going to make a salad with the beet greens and the salad greens that we bought, and we're going to put the asparagus and some of our beef on top. And then we're going to make a frittata with the bok choy and the spring onions. And we're going to make a beet salad or beet--I think we're going to make a beet pancake.
BLOCK: Beet pancake?
Mr. BITTMAN: But the first thing we--yeah, which is really a great thing. But first thing we need to do is peel these beets.
BLOCK: While our producer takes on the beets, I start chopping up the spring onions for the frittata, a baked, unfolded omelet. And Mark gets busy with the asparagus and a vegetable peeler.
Mr. BITTMAN: It's the kind of fussy thing I generally disapprove of, but in the instance of fat asparagus, which these are and I like, the skin gets a little tough, and I like to take at least some of it off. The really smart cook would have started a pot of water the minute he walked into the kitchen. There's this old cookbook guy, whose name I'm probably going to mispronounce, Edouard De Pomaine, I think it is, and he wrote a bunch of books. One of them was called "French Cooking in 10 Minutes." The guy had a great sense of humor, and he was really sort of the original minimalist. I mean, he really tried to simplify things. But he had this series of rules, and one of his rules was: When you walk into the kitchen, set a pot of water to boil. And he would say--he said, `I don't know what you'll use it for, but you'll find something.' And it's true. I mean, nine times out of 10, if you're doing any real cooking, you will boil some water. So...
BLOCK: And you're just sitting there waiting for that water to boil.
Mr. BITTMAN: Right. So now we've just started the water for the asparagus, which is 10 minutes after we should have started it.
(Soundbite of breaking eggs)
BLOCK: If you want to make a frittata, you've got to break those beautiful eggs. They'll get poured over a saute of the spring onions and the Asian greens, bok choy and tat soi, along with some grated Parmesan cheese. The beef will go on the grill. We'll slice it on top of our salad. But our main focus is this tantalizing beet pancake.
(Soundbite of food processor)
Mr. BITTMAN: Beets in the food processor, and I mean, we're just shortcutting here, because you could grate them. And since the beets are red, when you grate your knuckles and get blood in there, it wouldn't matter so much, but this is really fast.
(Soundbite of food processor)
Mr. BITTMAN: So we just want to pulse it until they're shredded, minced, chopped. See how they are on the edge here? That's about the texture we want all of them to be. And then we're just going to throw in a couple tablespoons of flour, some salt and pepper and that's it.
BLOCK: So the flour holds it together?
Mr. BITTMAN: A little bit.
BLOCK: Oh, they taste raw.
Mr. BITTMAN: They taste, like, chard.
BLOCK: A little bit bitter.
Mr. BITTMAN: Not as sweet as they will be.
Mr. BITTMAN: Right. Almost done.
BLOCK: The butter is falling.
A hunk of butter in a non-stick pan.
In go the beets. And now do you smoosh them flat?
Mr. BITTMAN: Flatten it. Yeah.
BLOCK: You want to press it down hard?
Mr. BITTMAN: It doesn't have to be hard, but let's even it out and make it look pretty (pronounced `purdy'). There you go. I am so excited about this beet thing.
BLOCK: How many times do you figure you've made this before?
Mr. BITTMAN: Ten, maybe 15. It's something I actually have made a lot. I like it a lot.
BLOCK: And you still get excited about it?
Mr. BITTMAN: Well, it's the first of the year. It is.
BLOCK: With nice, fresh young beets, too.
Mr. BITTMAN: Yes, the beets. OK. You think you're capable of ignoring it for a while?
Mr. BITTMAN: Because some of this stuff just needs to cook, you know. It's not about--you're not going to make anything happen by fussing over it.
BLOCK: So I stop poking at it. Mark flips the beet pancake to cook on the other side. It's got a foamy halo of butter all around the edge.
Mr. BITTMAN: I think a mistake I often make with this is that I tend to rush it. And I think with beets, it's better to cook it slowly, because the sugars come out. I mean, smell how sweet it is now. It's completely changed character.
BLOCK: Yeah, it smells good.
Mr. BITTMAN: It's lost that grassy chardy bitterness.
BLOCK: Well, a pound of butter never hurts. I mean...
Mr. BITTMAN: I think that it was three tablespoons, actually.
Pretty soon the salad of seasonal greens is tossed and dressed with emerald asparagus laid out next to rosy strips of beef. The frittata emerges from the oven, puffy and smelling like spring. And the beet pancake has caramelized to a nutty crisp.
How is it, Mark?
Mr. BITTMAN: It's so good.
Mr. BITTMAN: Except maybe it should be dessert.
BLOCK: Well, the crunchy part is so sweet. Have you made it before when it hasn't come out so sweet?
Mr. BITTMAN: Yeah, I have made it before and it hasn't come out so sweet. You know, a chef I worked with said to me that recipes are like a moment in time. You know that old saying, you can't put foot in the same river twice? It's sort of like that. I mean, you never have the same ingredients. The weather's never the same. The humidity affects things. Everything affects stuff. So every time you cook something, even if you think you're following a recipe, it's going to be a little bit different. You know, you can be a decent cook by following recipes, but as the years go by, if you keep cooking, you start to see that things are happening at a different rate. You start to recognize when things are done. You start to smell it and be able to touch it.
Mr. BITTMAN: And everything changes all the time.
BLOCK: Oh, that is really good. That is great.
Mr. BITTMAN: Glad you like it.
BLOCK: Mark, this has been fun. Thanks for coming over.
Mr. BITTMAN: It's great to be in your kitchen, Melissa.
BLOCK: You can find Mark Bittman's recipes for the beet pancake and variations on a frittata at npr.org.
Mark, you're going to do cleanup, right?
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