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Nov 29, 2013 12:02 PM

How Too Cook Everything.....Badly?

I rarely cook from recipes. I improvise. But I have very little experience cooking soup, and I found myself with a bunch of leeks I needed to use up. So I hit up "How to Cook Everything", figuring I'd find a no-fail recipe for leek/potato soup.

The recipe was dismayingly hollow. Basically: slice some leeks, cube some potatoes, sauté briefly then boil in broth 20 minutes. Salt and pepper. That's it.

I wasn't hopeful, but figured I'd trust Bittman. After all, sometimes simple things turn out well. So I followed the instructions, and what I got tasted like stock with some leaks and potatoes. A "zero" on my deliciometer. I slurped down a "meh" bowl, then the next day struggled through a leftover bowl, and on the third day I threw the remainder out, bored to tears and wretchedly disappointed. Red pepper flakes helped not at all.

So, I'm not asking for tweaks for making better leek/potato soup. I can find that elsewhere. What I'd like discussion of is whether this is an anomaly, or if a lot of this book is just this hollowly awful. Is there anyone out there who LOVES the book (there apparently are millions) who can assure me that this is the worst recipe in an otherwise useful work?

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  1. Not sure what to say, that is the basic recipe of leek and potato soup. It is peasant food.

    6 Replies
    1. re: jaykayen

      I'm thinking that he's writing recipes as he writes them down for himself - the basics - leaving out the stuff he knows to do while forgetting that not everybody does know those things. I don't have to be told how to do a nice clear broth, but I DID have to be told several hundred gallons ago. I've got several recipes of his for stir-fries and treat them as bare outlines. I got another one sent to me by one of Mrs. O's nieces, who was raving about its goodness, but she's been cooking seriously most of her young life, and having often been on a tight budget she knows about soups and things.

      1. re: Will Owen

        There are almost 1600 recipes in HTCE. Imagine the commitment it would take to write and test each recipe to the point of perfection. I think he's in too much of a hurry to have that level of commitment.


        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          Not trying to flame or anything, but if a book makes an extravagant promise, then it had better actually live up to them. If I am buying (and using) a book, I am trusting they have been tested, preferably by an amateur cook in a reasonable kitchen.

          In contrast, I have a book ("Dinner for Eight") that was put out by the NYT. The author promises that each recipe is tested in a regular kitchen.

          I liked Bittman when I first learned to cook (the Minimalist series), but have moved on to writers like Slater and Bill Granger. Slater gives you free range in cooking, but is very good at telling you what the food will look like/when to turn, etc..

      2. re: jaykayen

        Julia Child's potato leek soup has cream and parsley added, but that would be a "cream of" soup, not actually potato-leek soup. He got the plain soup right.

        1. re: BangorDin

          Bittman's recipe lists the cream addition as one of the several modifications after the original basic recipe that the OP made

        2. re: jaykayen

          I think if you pureed the soup it might taste better, but other than that I can't really fault the recipe.

          You can add bacon, wine, and other things as you please but it's good to have the basic recipe to work from.

          Maybe too much broth? Or too little salt?

          1. If it were me, I'd thicken it up with a slurry and add more potatoes, maybe onions to it. I don't follow Bittman...

            1. I always think of that book as HTCE Mediocrely. So, maybe you just got the bad recipe in a compilation of otherwise mediocre recipes.


              I don't think he tests his recipes very thoroughly, to be honest. I think he comes up with an idea that he thinks SOUNDS good, tries it once, and then maybe tweaks it for publication without retesting. And I suspect he often lists out a bunch of variations that I swear he never tests. I don't have any proof of any of this but I find few of his recipes actually work. I don't know how he's sold so many cookbooks.

              Maybe he just has bad taste. I don't know.

              HTCE was COTM a couple of years back if you want to read some feedback on specific recipes people tried. Might give you an overall sense.

              2 Replies
              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                My sentiments exactly, especially the part about the recipes not working. Upon broaching the subject with some of my cook-wise friends, I got universal agreement from all except the ones who've never tried his stuff to begin with because they can't stand his tone.

                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  I have looked through his books at the library several times and I'm never moved to check one of them out, never mind actually cook from them or buy one. And I buy a LOT of cookbooks. I have almost 1,000 now and don't own a single book of his...

                2. I thought "How to Cook Everything" sounded so vainglorious... hence I steered clear of it. More recently, I've found Bittman to be such a proudly ignorant blowhard in his NY Times opinion pieces that I'm glad to have avoided his books.