Review: Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix

I ordered Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix right after it was published as a “Happy Birthday to Me” present.  We own three Bittman books, and reference How to Cook Everything on a weekly basis, if not more.  Early reviews of Kitchen Matrix suggested it would be an improviser’s go-to, and the Amazon preview showed me a ton of glossy photos.  I’m a sucker for glossy photos in cookbooks.

First of all, this is a gorgeous book.  The photography is so appealing you’ll try to eat right off the page, and if you don’t want to rush to the store with a list after reading one or two of these, I’d be shocked. There are 2-page spreads on things like beets or cabbages that are as drool-worthy as anything I’ve seen.  This is a cookbook that makes celery look sumptuous.

The basic format is this: Bittman presents a common ingredient, like bell peppers or brown rice, or a dish like paella or ceviche.  Within a couple of pages, he tweaks that ingredient or dish to wind up with a variety of recipes, sometimes as many as 16.  Many of these are beautifully photographed; all are explained step-by-step with Bittman’s candor and encyclopedic knowledge.

The book is broken into sections: Appetizers; Soups and Sandwiches; Vegetables; Pasta, Grains, and Beans; Fish and Seafood; Poultry and Eggs; Meat; Condiments and Seasonings; Fruit; Desserts and Baking.  The emphasis is less on categorizing by ingredient or course and more on creating a quick-reference guide for home cooking.  Bittman maintains in his introduction that an improvisational style to home cooking will expand your repertoire and improve the variety of dishes you are serving; he strives in this book to provide home cooks with a tool that will promote experimentation and creativity.  The book is also designed to serve well for building weeknight meals; its off-the-cuff, use what you have style and quick-reference ingredient index make it a useful tool for making magic with the pantry staples.

Mark Bittman is a big proponent of eating fresh, and cooking fast and at home.  He creates recipes designed to use practical ingredients that are not usually too hard to find and that will maximize flavor while cutting down on prep time.  Whenever you’re cooking at home, there’s some prep work, but I feel like Bittman understands that just because you want to eat well doesn’t mean you want to spend your life in the kitchen.  Also, he gives a lot of options for getting more exotic flavors into your meals without having a huge pantry or spending a lot of money.  I think if you were to make everything in Kitchen Matrix it would be a lot of ingredients, but I feel the point is more to find the flavors you like best and use those ones in a lot of different ways than to buy and use every different flavor.

In the Counter kitchen, we are already fairly improvisational.  Our meal planning often includes the words, “What if we…”  Kitchen Matrix is already inspiring us, however.  The Slow Cooker Beans Recipe Generator is a marvel of possibilities; we’ve already devoured a pot.  We’ve been poring over this book to find the next wonderful idea and improvising more in the kitchen since it found its way in the house.  I know it’s going to be a new reference for us whenever we’re trying to find ideas, inspiration, and something to spice up our everyday (without spending all day in the kitchen).  I highly recommend this book to active at home cooks trying to prepare meals 5-7 days weekly, as it will give you lots of food for thought.