Why I like Mario Batali.

January 24, 2010

I went to the library today hoping to pick up a copy of Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas so that I could try the 100% whole wheat bread that is being talked about on The Fresh Loaf lately and, after being told by the library that there was no guarantee they could find me a copy, slunk somewhat spritely in defeat to the cookbook section, looking to dull my disappointment somewhat by finding something else to tickle my fancy for a time. I came home with four worthy selections:

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which needs no introduction.

Whole Grain Breads by Peter Reinhart. I have Bread Baker’s Apprentice and love it for ideas on breads, so I wanted to see what this particular book was like before I place an order on Amazon for it next month. I’m particularly impressed with the epoxy method. It works very well.

Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes by, well, Martha Stewart. I know, I know. I don’t really want to be known as the Iowa version of her, but there’s worse things to be considered. It has nothing to do with the fact that there’s a recipe for a malted milk chocolate cupcake in there. Not at all…

The last, and not least, of the selections I stumbled upon more by chance. I happened to look in the section where they kept all the other Food Network personality cookbooks and thought I struck gold:

The Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali was there, and I was taking it home.

The biggest reason it appealed to me, at least insofar as I skimmed it while standing there, was the sweet pea flan. Oh. My. God. It looks like heaven in a little green package. And with a carrot vinaigrette and mint garnish? Yes, please.

When I got home I perused a little further in. Asparagus Vinaigrette with black pepper and pecorino? Yes. Basic pasta recipe that’s easy to understand? So there. Duck. Liver. Ravioli.

My mind is racing.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I know that most of these dishes are beyond my grasp simply for reasons of ingredient availability. The asparagus you can find right now is skinny and woody. Pecorino cheese has to be sourced from 40 miles away. And I have no idea where I’d go to find duck liver. My budget constraints are a whole five page story themselves.

However, I don’t really have to.

One thing about this book is that, yes, this is what they make at Babbo, but he also gives some substitutions. He subscribes to a philosophy that I really relate to: find the freshest ingredients you can and make something great out of them. I can look at the recipes in this book and say “as soon as I can find this, I’ll make it this way, but until then, maybe I can substitute that” and it’ll still be okay.

The other good thing, though, is that not all the recipes are that hard to source ingredients for. There may be a few popping up here soon.

Another thing he seems to be on the same wavelength as me about is the fact that the small things matter. As I write this, I have a very large pot full of chicken pieces simmering away on the stove. Tomorrow morning, when I wake up, that humble pot of cast-offs will have been transformed into the most luscious, decadent stock imaginable. It will go into many things that I could’ve used store-bought stock for, and those things will be better because of it. You wouldn’t think that something like homemade stock would make a difference, but it does, both on the wallet and the palate. It is worth the time and the minimal effort that goes into cutting the vegetables, throwing the chicken in on top of them, filling the pot with water, and setting it to simmer.

The same goes for a loaf of bread. Sure, you can take some flour, salt, yeast, and water and create a loaf of bread, but it will have almost no flavor. Take that same flour, salt, yeast, and water and let it slowly ferment over hours and you have something transcendent and amazing.

These simple touches are what make a meal memorable. Your guests don’t have to know that you’ve done it, but when they ask where you bought the incredible sauce or the tasty loaf of bread you can proudly tell them that you made it yourself. They may even ask for the recipes.

Of course, there’s the fact that it feels good to create these things yourself as well. The sense of accomplishment is amazing.

Today: stock. Tomorrow: chicken and dumplings, fresh tomato sauce, fresh pasta for freezing. After that? Who knows. All I know is that as a cook, and as a person, I’m better for doing all of it. I appreciate my food more when I have to work a bit for it. And I’m finding out that there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of work if that work gives me something so far above what I can buy it’s almost spoiling me for store-bought forever.

Imagining how great my risotto with peas and parmigiano will taste is all the incentive I need.

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