Late to the Plate: Guest Blogger Jessica Schein Takes on Bittman's Basics

Chunky Vegetable Soup

Living in New York City for the first 30 years of my life meant that dinner was delivery, a deli counter special, or eating out. I only stepped into my tiny kitchen for the hairdryer that I stored in a cabinet. So when I moved to Seattle and found that the only eat-in option was Domino's I was in a bit of a bad sitch. For weeks I made the only thing I could—scrambled eggs with ketchup on the side. 

Then a co-worker gave me Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. “It’s for beginners," she told me, so armed with my ingredients list I marched to the supermarket that night determined to whip up one of his masterpieces.

It was anything but, as were the next night’s and so on and so forth. Most of the time my boyfriend pasted a sweet grin on his face and said nothing, but I heard his resistant gulps growing louder with every bite.

Still, I kept trying--and eating many frozen “back-up” pizzas as we called them--until I finally got better.

How? Well, by practice of course, but also by reading through every recipe as many three times before getting down to business, pulling ingredients from the shelves before the boiling was underway, and chopping/slicing/dicing everything beforehand, even if a recipe indicated I would have time while the onions softened.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means an expert now. I’m just trying to navigate my way around the kitchen without having learned a thing about cooking before 30—and I’d venture to guess I’m not alone. We’re all so busy it’s easy to rely on convenient store meals and take-out.

But the more I read, the more I see that cooking at home is a much better alternative to sodium-laden sandwiches filled with ingredients ending in –-ide. That’s not to say it’s easy, even if a recipe says “beginner.” I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a recipe with a prep time of 20 minutes only to find that 40 minutes after starting I’m still chopping.

So to help you (and me!), I’m planning to break “basic” recipes down into clear steps, give you the real low down on the prep time, and share any tips I pick up along the way—making the process of cooking for us novices hopefully more enjoyable.

To kick off this series I’m going back to Bittman and the book that started it all, How to Cook Everything. On a cold winter’s night I love a hearty soup with a few pieces of sourdough bread. I had a lot of leftover veggies from the previous week so the Chunky Vegetable Soup recipe seemed a good way to cut out the fridge clutter and eat well. It makes 4 to 5 servings (in my home it ended up being 5 healthy portions) and Bittman claims that it takes 45 to 60 minutes to make. Does it really though? Let’s find out.

  • 1/4 cup of olive oil ** 3 tablespoons to sauté the onions, carrots, and celery; 1 tablespoon to be dropped in at the end of cooking. Prep time: 30 seconds
  • 1 medium onion, diced **Prep time: 3 to 4 minutes
  • 1 stalk of celery, “peeled” and diced ** Peeling celery apparently means getting rid of its strings by pulling at them from the top of the stalk. I tried this but I’m frankly not sure if I did it right. I lost patience and began dicing away. In the end no harm came from not de-stringing. Prep time: 4 minutes
  • 1 carrot, diced ** I used 10 baby carrots since that’s what I had on hand. Prep time: 2 minutes
  • ½ cup prosciutto or other ham (optional) ** I didn’t include this b/c I didn’t want to buy it. Not sure how the recipe would have tasted with it but I sure didn’t think to myself “I wish there were pork products in this soup” when I was eating it. Prep time: 0 minutes
  • 1-1/2 to 2 cups of “hard” vegetables ** I added 2 cups of fingerling potatoes but regular Yukons would work, too. Bittman also suggests winter squash, turnips, or parsnips. Whatever you use should be diced into pieces 1/2” or less. Prep time: 3 to 4 minutes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper ** I hate the term “to taste” ‘cause it’s too ambiguous. I used 8 turns on my pepper grinder and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Prep time: 30 seconds
  • 6 cups of chicken, vegetable, beef stock, or water ** I used 4 cups of chicken stock and 2 cups of water. Chicken stock has a lot of sodium so I diluted it with the water. Prep time (measuring it out): 30 seconds
  • 1 cup peeled, seeded, and chopped tomato ** I tried peeling one tomato on the vine but soon gave up. I ended up scooping out the inside of 5 and chopping them up with the skin on. Like my impatient celery incident, no harm was had by leaving the skin on. Prep time: 10 minutes
  • 1-1/2 to 2 cups of soft vegetables ** I added 2 cups of kale but green beans, cooked dried beans, zucchini, and summer squash are fine, too. All should be diced into pieces smaller than 1/2”. Prep time: 3 minutes
  • ½ cup chopped parsley leaves **Prep time: 2 minutes
  • Freshly grated parmesan ** Prep time: 0 minutes. I grated it over the soup once it was ladled into bowls
Total Prep time:  About 30 minutes


1. Put 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a deep, heavy pot (a Dutch oven works really well). 
    When it’s hot (about 3 minutes) add the onion, carrots, and celery and cook until soft 
    (about 5 minutes). Total time: 8 minutes
2. Add the hard vegetables, ¾ teaspoon of salt and the pepper. Stir twice, and then add in   
   the liquid and tomatoes. Stir two more times. Total time: 2 minutes

3. Crank up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Total time: 12 minutes
4. Lower the heat so that it bubbles slowly, not furiously like when it boils. Let it simmer 
    until the vegetables are soft and the tomato is broken up. Stir five to six separate 
    times. Total time: 16 minutes
5. Add the soft vegetables and parsley and heat the liquid up so it simmers again. Total 
   time: 3 minutes
6. Let the soup simmer until the vegetables are soft. Total time: 14 minutes

7. Adjust seasoning if necessary (I didn’t at all) and add in the last tablespoon of olive oil. 
   Total time: 1 minute
8. Ladle into bowls and grate the parmesan three times. Total time: 3 minutes

Total Cooking Time: About 60 minutes.
Combined prep + cooking time: Around an hour-and-a-half.

In the end, the soup was seriously nom-worthy! I would definitely make it again. However to cut down on the chance of 11pm post-dinner munchies, I’d cut out ½ to ¾ cup of vegetables and add in a can of rinsed chickpeas or cannellini beans for protein’s sake. Also, to save time I’d use diced tomatoes in juice from a can next time around, which Bittman admits is fine.

So consider testing your cooking chops with this soup—it’s not very difficult but it’s a definite crowd pleaser. My formerly weary boyfriend even had seconds and we celebrated the success with two glasses of wine. Happy Saturday evening, indeed.

Cheers and happy cooking!

Jessica Schein is a semi-novice cook & writer living in Seattle, WA. When not combing through cookbooks she can be found reading young adult fiction, wishing that Friday Night Lights would return for a sixth season, or running. You can follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.