Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” books are reliable, creative and, most importantly, useful.
Why are the recipes that fill those books so well-loved and easy to adapt? Because Bittman knows, perhaps more than any cookbook writer today, how we cook. Sometimes, we start to cook with nothing more than a craving — a fruit cobbler, a potato salad or a grilled chicken — so he starts with a basic recipe for each and then offers up to a dozen ways to adjust the recipe to fit your palate or your pantry, as well as your schedule and skill level.
For example, in the latest book in this series, “ How to Grill Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Flame-Cooked Food” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30), Bittman starts the chapter on chicken with a basic grilled chicken breast recipe that includes alternative cooking times and methods for chicken thighs and turkey cutlets, as well as nine variations on the flavor profile (curried, Thai, North African, Mediterranean, etc).
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After a recipe for crunchy breaded chicken cutlets on the grill — yes, you read that right, breaded chicken on the grill — he shares this recipe for chicken in Mexican-style escabeche. Knowing that a Chinese-inspired sweet-and-sour sauce serves a similar culinary function, Bittman includes that variation, as well as a Jamaican-style escovitch and a whole fish en escabeche, a traditional dish in South America and the Caribbean.
Oh, and he reminds us that you can make the original dish with turkey cutlets, salmon, tuna or swordfish and that you can turn it into a main-course salad by serving it over baby spinach and adding sliced peaches, mango or grapes. As if we needed another reminder that Bittman really does know how to cook everything.
Grilled Chicken Breasts and Red Onion en Escabeche
1/2 cup good-quality olive oil, plus more for brushing
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon minced seeded jalapeño, or more to taste (optional)
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 red onion, cut into small wedges
If you’re using bamboo or wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, start the coals or heat a gas grill for medium direct cooking. Make sure the grates are clean.
Make the vinaigrette: Whisk the 1/2 cup oil, vinegar and the orange and lime juices together in a small bowl until thickened. Whisk in the garlic, oregano, cloves, cinnamon and jalapeño, if you’re using it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, taste, and adjust the seasoning.
Pat the chicken dry with paper towels, then pound the breasts to an even thickness if necessary. Brush with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper on both sides. Skewer the onion wedges and brush with the vinaigrette.
Put the chicken and skewers on the grill directly over the fire. Close the lid and cook the chicken, turning once, until the breasts are no longer pink in the center, 3 to 8 minutes per side depending on their size. (Nick with a small knife and peek inside.) Cook the onions, turning the skewers several times, until they have softened and taken on some color, even some char, 8 to 10 minutes per side. As they finish, transfer the chicken and onions to a deep platter or shallow bowl. Let them rest for 5 minutes.
Slice the chicken 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick and return it to the platter. Slide the onions from the skewers and scatter them over the chicken. Pour the vinaigrette over all and serve. Or cover and refrigerate for up to 12 hours and serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4.
— From “ How to Grill Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Flame-Cooked Food” by Mark Bittman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)