Nov. 14 2019

Public Health Students Whip Up a Meal With Mark Bittman

It’s not often you see rows of stoves in a public health classroom. But this wasn’t a usual public health class. In early November, Mark Bittman, best-selling cookbook author and Columbia Mailman School instructor gave a dozen public health students a lesson in cooking.

The classroom at the International Culinary Center in SoHo, the usual environs of aspiring chefs, saw master’s students prepare a handful of seasonal vegetarian dishes while contemplating the links between public health and a delicious home-cooked meal.

The cooking class is one part of an expanding expertise in food at the Columbia Mailman School. This summer, the School launched a student fellowship to sponsor food-related summer internships and welcomed Lewis Ziska, a renowned scientist who studies the impact of climate change on agriculture. Recent faculty scholarship related to food has examined nutrition in a conflict zone in Armenia, the relationship between tortillas and folate deficiency in Mexico, and the availability of gluten-free restaurant food in the U.S.

For a second straight year, Mark Bittman will host one of the School’s marquee lecture series, Food, Public Health, and Social Justice. The first of these public conversations—November 19 at the Lenfest Center for the Arts on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus—will feature Professor Ziska and others in a discussion on the changing climate and what it means for nutrition and food security.

In the SoHo classroom, Bittman stood next to a large table stacked with vegetables—turnips, parsnips, radishes, carrots, beets, and more. “This is seasonal cooking,” he told the Columbia Mailman cooks. “Everything on this table with the exception of the lemons and limes is harvestable within five miles of this classroom.”

Working in pairs, students peeled, diced, and chopped, then applied heat using the facility’s professional-grade stoves. Savory aromas filled the room. Bittman observed their progress and offered pointers, such as the best way to peel a turnip: Put your thumb at its base and pull the knife toward you. (Scroll down for one of the recipes.)

The non-credit cooking class filled up soon after it was announced. Almost all of the students who signed up were familiar with their teacher’s cookbooks; many had experience with cooking his recipes. About half were members of the student group FPOP (Food Policy and Obesity Prevention).

As they progressed on their recipes, students considered their relationship to cooking and its place in public health.

Chopping onions for a barley risotto, Melissa Vajanaphanich and Elaine Chae said they make their own meals every chance they get. Like many graduate students and anyone with limited time and resources, they like to stretch their recipes so they can be enjoyed over several days.

Nearby, Aditi Rao measured teaspoons of suya, a seasoning popular in Nigeria. “Home cooking is almost always the healthiest option,” she explained. When you cook for yourself you know all the ingredients and where they came from—often the Tuesday farmer’s market on campus. It’s also more sustainable than take-out, she added, since cooking at home produces less waste.

As he consulted with Bittman on the proper temperature for a pan of turnips, Noah Goetzel said cooking was the right thing to do for anyone in public health who advocates for healthy eating and nutrition. “We might as well walk the walk,” he said.

As soon as their recipes were complete, the public health cooks plated the results and passed them around. The room quieted and everyone savored the flavors. Bittman heaped on praise.

“Everyone in public health should know something about cooking,” he said. “Even simple ingredients cooked yourself are better than anything else.”

Braised and Glazed Radishes, Turnips or Other Root Vegetables

An elegantly simple and wonderful way to prepare all kinds of vegetables. Other vegetables you can use: anything hard and fibrous, really—jicama, parsnips, celery root, waxy potatoes—but not vegetables that easily become mushy, like starchy potatoes or sweet potatoes. Recipe adapted from The New York Times and How to Cook Everything The Basics.

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes


2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 pound radishes, trimmed, or daikon, turnips, or rutabaga, peeled and cut into chunks
½ cup stock, white wine, or water, plus more as needed
Salt and pepper
Fresh lemon juice (optional)
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish


Combine the butter or oil, radishes, and stock in a large saucepan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bring to a boil. Cover and adjust the heat so the liquid bubbles gently. Cook until the radishes are tender, 15 to 20 minutes, checking once or twice and adding liquid as needed.

Uncover and raise the heat so the liquid bubbles aggressively. Cook off almost all the liquid so the vegetables become glazed in the combination of butter or oil and pan juices. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and add a little lemon juice if you like. Garnish with parsley and serve.