The most influential New York Times food columnist since Craig Claiborne, Mark Bittman has become a must-read for home cooks.

Known as "The Minimalist," Bittman demystifies cooking, proving that any klutz can cook a gourmet meal with little time or effort. To prove it, he once did a cooking demo with one hand tied behind his back.

He's back with his most ambitious cookbook yet, "The Food Matters Cookbook: 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living" (Simon & Schuster, $35), in which he makes a compelling argument to eat a plant-based diet, using meat as a seasoning, flavoring agent or condiment; think mushroom stew with beef chunks instead of beef stew, or a meat-and-grain burger instead of an all-beef patty.

Bittman still eats meat, just not a half-pound every day like the average American. He argues it's not only a guide to better health but better for the environment. The fewer animals we raise, the fewer greenhouse-gas emissions are generated, he said. The world would need to double meat production by 2050 to sustain current consumption levels, he noted.

Q: Before we get into "Food Matters," let's talk about maybe the most influential recipe ever published: The no-knead bread recipe you posted in 2006, that you got from Jim Lahey of Sullivan St. Bakery. (The recipe requires little effort and no special equipment or technique.) It revolutionized home bread-making.

A: I think it is the most influential recipe in the last five years, for sure.

Q: Did you realize the impact that recipe would have across America?

A: Not at all. When Jim called me and said, 'Hey, listen to this, I have this cool idea.' He had called a whole bunch of other people [in the media]. I was not first on his list. But a bunch of people had said, 'Nah, it's not that interesting.' I was both smart and lucky, I guess.

Q: You lost 35 pounds. You haven't been eating a lot of those no-knead breads, apparently.

A: (He laughs.) I eat a lot of whole grains. I really believe the whole thing is about eating nonprocessed food and eating more plants than anything else.

Q: So explain the "Food Matters" way of life or diet.

A: Personally, I eat like a very strict vegan. I eat only fruits and vegetables and whole grains and legumes and nuts and seeds from morning until night. And then at night, I go eat whatever I want. And that's what has worked for me.

Q: Eating mostly plants isn't new. You see it in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe.

A: It's a diet that you could associate with poverty or certainly a diet that you associate with countries where meat isn't as plentiful and as cheap as it is here. So there is an irony in becoming the wealthiest country in the world or at least the biggest economy in the world and that is, people started eating all the wrong way. We became efficient at producing animals and processing food of all kinds. I don't think you can invent a worse diet than the American diet. Other countries eat what's locally grown for the most part. Fish and meat have always been a treat to supplement their diets.

Q: You talk about avoiding any food with five ingredients or more. Why?

A: In a store, there are very few foods that have more than five ingredients that aren't junk food.

Q: Take me through a grocery store. How does Mark Bittman shop?

A: I go down the produce aisle to see what looks good. Then I go down the food aisle, same thing. Then I go through the shopping list. The reason to go to the store is to make sure your pantry has what it needs. I am a firm believer in a well-stocked pantry ... you can make anything on a given night.