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Fast cooking is about strategy. Use these 3 tips to make the most of your kitchen

Mark Bittman's spinach carbonara is a vegetarian twist on a classic Italian dish. He says spinach adds "a variety of different nutrients and just mixes things up a bit."
Jim Henkens
Mark Bittman's spinach carbonara is a vegetarian twist on a classic Italian dish. He says spinach adds "a variety of different nutrients and just mixes things up a bit."

Updated September 25, 2022 at 3:04 PM ET

Fast cooking isn't about skill. It's about strategy.

That's according to six-time James Beard Award-winning food writer Mark Bittman. So when he sat down to revise How to Cook Everything Fast, he had an eye toward teaching technique, not just showcasing recipes.

"There are patterns [in cooking] that after you do many times, you begin to recognize and you do automatically. But beginning cooks don't see those patterns, and they don't have them laid out for them," Bittman tells NPR.

And he's indeed cooked — and written about cooking — many times. He's the author of numerous cookbooks, and spent decades writing about food for the New York Times.

"The attempt in Fast is to say: Here's how you really need to learn how to cook, here's how to organize ingredients. Here's how to use the right technique."

Bittman breaks down three strategies for faster cooking. His responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

1. Prepare as you cook

There's a lot of downtime in cooking. It takes time for the heat that you're using to be applied to the food that you're using it on. And you can use that time to do other things that make the whole procedure go more quickly.

2. Keep a well-stocked pantry

There are challenges around cooking besides the cooking itself. And one of them is shopping. To the extent that you can keep a good pantry, you can cook a lot of recipes without shopping. And that's a real advantage.

3. Always cook more than you need — think leftovers

If you're cooking beans for a dish, then cook a lot of them and either refrigerate or freeze what's left. Same with whole grains.

Whenever you can, it almost always pays to cook more, even if it's just cooking more of the given dish. That's the kind of thing that veteran cooks know and learn.


Below are three recipes from Bittman's revised edition of How to Cook Everything Fast that you can try at home when you're in a pinch. They have been excerpted by permission of Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Spinach Carbonara

With the richness of eggs and Parmesan and the fresh bite of lightly cooked spinach, this recipe offers a hearty meatless alternative to more traditional pasta carbonara. You can replace the spinach with escarole, kale, mustard greens, chard or broccoli rabe. Just cut the ones with large leaves and stems crosswise into ribbons and cook a little longer if necessary.

SERVES 4

Salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound spinach

2 cloves garlic

1 pound any long pasta

3 eggs

4 ounces Parmesan cheese (1 cup grated)

Pepper

Directions

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it.

2. Put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over low heat.

3. Trim off any thick stems from the spinach.

4. Raise the heat under the skillet to medium-high. Cook the spinach, adding a handful at a time and stirring between batches, until the leaves are just wilted, about 5 minutes.

5. Peel and chop 2 cloves garlic, adding them to the skillet as soon as you can (they'll cook with the spinach).

6. When the spinach is tender, turn off the heat.

7. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally. Start tasting after 5 minutes.

8. Crack the eggs into a bowl.

9. Grate 1 cup Parmesan cheese and add to the bowl; sprinkle with salt and lots of pepper. Whisk with a fork to combine.

10. When the pasta is tender but not mushy, drain it, reserving about 1 cup cooking water. Add the pasta to the spinach and pour in the egg mixture. Toss, adding a splash of cooking water if you want to make it saucier. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve.

Stir-Fried Chicken and Chard

Mark Bittman's stir-fried chicken and chard. The celebrated food writer says stir-fries are an ideal fast meal because they employ a key strategy for quick cooking — maximizing downtime.
/ Jim Henkens
/
Jim Henkens
Mark Bittman's stir-fried chicken and chard. The celebrated food writer says stir-fries are an ideal fast meal because they employ a key strategy for quick cooking — maximizing downtime.

It might not be the most common green used in stir-fries, but kale takes well to high heat and has a ton of flavor. The leaves soften quickly and acquire wonderful singed brown spots (especially in a cast-iron or carbon steel skillet), while the little bits of the stems form a crunchy counterpoint. Try serving this with soba noodles for something different.

SERVES 4

4 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil

6 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 1½ pounds)

Salt and pepper

1 inch fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic

4 scallions

1 bunch chard (about 1 pound)

2 tablespoons soy sauce, or more to taste

Sesame oil for serving

Directions

1. Put 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Also, slice the chicken into ½-inch strips or chop into bite-sized pieces.

2. Add the chicken to the skillet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, undisturbed, until it sizzles and releases easily from the pan, about 3 minutes. After that, stir occasionally, until it loses its pink color and browns in places, another 5 to 10 minutes. Also:

  • Peel 1 inch ginger and 2 cloves garlic; chop them together.
  • Trim and chop the scallions, keeping the white and light green parts separate from the dark green tops.
  • Rinse and trim the chard, keeping everything but the toughest stem ends. Cut the leaves across the stem into ribbons as wide or thin as you like.
  • 3. When the chicken is done, add the ginger, garlic, and white and light green parts of the scallions. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute. Transfer the chicken mixture to a bowl.

    4. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil to the skillet and turn the heat to high. Add the chard, a handful at a time if necessary to fit it in, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until the leaves soften and begin to brown slightly, 5 to 7 minutes.

    5. Return the chicken mixture to the skillet; add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and ½ cup water and stir until most of the liquid evaporates before turning off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with the scallion greens and serve, passing sesame oil at the table.

    Skillet Apple Crisp

    Mark Bittman's skillet apple crisp recipe can be used with any fruit and doesn't require an oven.
    / Jim Henkens
    /
    Jim Henkens
    Mark Bittman's skillet apple crisp recipe can be used with any fruit and doesn't require an oven.

    When you deconstruct the fruit and topping components of a crisp, you get a beloved dessert in a fraction of the time. And you don't even have to turn on the oven. The variations provide two of many alternatives and a whole different topping that works on any fruit. Use whatever is in season: peaches, plums, pears, berries—even bananas, mangoes, or pineapple. Cooking time is variable, just a few extra minutes one way or the other; you check for tenderness frequently.

    SERVES 4 TO 6

    8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

    2 pounds apples

    ½ cup walnuts or pecans

    ½ cup rolled oats

    ¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

    ½ cup packed brown sugar

    ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

    Salt

    Directions

    1. Put 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Also, core and chop the apples, leaving the skin on.

    2. Add the apples to the butter and cook, stirring frequently and adding water 1 tablespoon at a time if the pan starts to look dry, until the apples are tender, 5 to 10 minutes.

    3. Put 7 tablespoons butter in another large skillet over medium heat. Also, chop ½ cup nuts.

    4. When the butter is melted, add the nuts, ½ cup rolled oats, ¼ cup shredded coconut, ½ cup brown sugar, ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, and a pinch of salt; toss to coat. Cook, stirring frequently, until the topping is golden and crisp, 6 to 8 minutes.

    5. When the fruit is soft, divide it among serving bowls. Scatter the topping over the fruit and serve.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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    Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
    Tinbete Ermyas