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Robin Garr

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RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by Robin Garr » Thu Apr 06, 2006 1:53 pm

<table align=right width=165><tr><td>Image</td></tr></table>Defending Mario

Who knew that Chef Mario Batali, the FoodTV luminary, would be so controversial? After I featured a trip to his flagship New York City restaurant, Babbo, in last week's FoodLetter, along with my variation on an oxtail recipe from one of his cookbooks, my E-mail box overflowed.

Some of you thanked me for bringing my perspective to a place where a lot of foodies have dined or would like to dine, and there were the usual questions and comments about the recipe. Somewhat to my surprise, though, a few of you wrote to ask, in short, "Why did you do that?"

All the critics were kind and constructive, and I appreciate that. Still, it's hard to ignore thoughtful comments like these from a former New Yorker: "I was saddened to read about a Mario Batali-type restaurant in your column. ... This mass-media restaurant doesn't need hype. ... We want to know about the local places, not the TV chef places - anyone can find these and book ahead of time."

My old online pal Harald from Vienna added another perspective: "Removing bones and gristle may be the secret of Babbo's cooking but it is certainly not in the spirit of Italian cuisine. ... I am sure the sugo was delicious. And most probably all the rest as well. But the joy of *** food is its absolute exclusiveness (and - sorry for that - the absolute impossibility to copy it as a hobby cook). So I rather stay with traditional Italian recipes."

These are legitimate questions that deserve candid answers. My response to the first question was that I thought long and hard about reporting on Babbo because Batali, after all, does get a huge amount of publicity on FoodTV. But the man has earned legendary status the old-fashioned way, I think, and - as your notes revealed - a lot of you are interested in my thoughts about his restaurant (well, one of them) and the food. The best thing about Batali, it seems to me, is that his enthusiasm and passion for Italian food and cookery transmits itself to viewers and readers, and inspires us to learn more about the cuisine ... and to cook it.

Harald makes a good point, too, that we never go wrong when we stick with the basics. But at the same time, it's the innovators who break new culinary ground by daring new ideas; if they don't all work, that's the price of progress. But I was impressed with the Batali method of "deconstructing" peasant meats like oxtails and pig's feet, turning them into something more refined, more suited for white-tablecloth service, and I had a blast reinventing his oxtail recipe for chicken thighs.

The proof of the pudding (or the ragu), though, came from a happy reader who made it at home herself: "The dish was delicious! I'm not sure if I'll make it again - it was rather time-consuming to cut up the chicken meat into bite-sized pieces, though very tasty at the end - but I'm glad I tried it."

And that, after all, is what this column is all about.

Just for fun, I've set up a poll on our Netscape WineLovers Community, inviting you to cast a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote on Chef Mario. It just takes a second, and you don't even need to register to vote, so I hope a lot of you will take a moment to participate. Click here to vote!

For today's recipe, please indulge me in just one more Batali dish - this one's more traditional, Fettuccine Verdi ai Fegatini from his most recent cookbook, the 2005 "Molto Italiano: 327 Simple Italian Recipes to Cook at Home." It's a meaty pasta dish indeed, a mix of chicken livers, pancetta and prosciutto dice in a thick sauce of white wine, onions and garlic with porcini mushrooms, served over green linguine, my substitute for Mario's fresh-made spinache fettuccine.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 ounce (30g) dried porcini
1 cup (240ml) hot water
1 ounce pancetta
1/2 medium onion
1 carrot
1 clove garlic
8 ounces chicken livers
1 tablespoon (15ml) olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 bay leaf
2 or 3 whole cloves
1 fresh scallion
2 ounces prosciutto
Salt
Black pepper
4 ounces green (spinach) fettuccine or linguine
2 ounces grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese

PROCEDURE:

1. Soak the porcini in the hot water for 10 or 15 minutes, then drain, reserving the strained soaking liquid, and chop the reconstituted mushrooms.

2. While the mushrooms are soaking, mince the pancetta, chop the onions coarsely and peel the carrot and chop it fine. Peel and smash the garlic clove, and cut the chicken livers into small dice.

3. Heat the pancetta in the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat until it has rendered its fat. Increase heat to medium high and saute the chopped onions and carrots and the garlic for three or four minutes, until they soften and start to brown. Add the chopped chicken livers and cook just until they lose their raw red color. Put in the wine, tomato paste, bay leaf and cloves and about one-third of the reserved mushroom water; bring to a simmer, then reduce heat and cook gently, uncovered, for about 15 minutes. (Mario calls for 30 minutes, but that seemed unnecessarily long to me.)

4. While the sauce is simmering, chop the scallion fine and cut the prosciutto into 1/4-inch dice. Start a pot of salted water boiling for the pasta. When the 15 minutes are up, add the chopped mushrooms and scallions and the diced prosciutto to the simmering sauce, along with a little more of the mushroom liquid. You want enough liquid to keep the sauce from sticking, but only just; this should be a thick, not soupy, sauce. Check seasoning and add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste; it probably won't need much salt beyond that contributed by the pancetta and prosciutto.

5. Cook the pasta while the sauce simmers for another 10 minutes or so. Drain when ready and put the cooked pasta in the sauce, stirring quickly over high heat to bring it all together. Serve in warm bowls, topped with a ration of grated cheese. (Mario calls for the more robust Pecorino Romano, which should be fine with this dish; I used the always-on-hand Parmigiano because it was handy, and it worked well, too.)

WINE MATCH: The earthy, meaty flavors in this dish and the wild-mushroom accent suggested a Pinot Noir, but it just didn't seem right to serve anything but an Italian red, so I pulled the cork from a Rocca di Fabbri 2000 Rosso di Montefalco, a blend of Sangiovese and the local Sagrantino from Umbria. It should have been great, but unfortunately the wine showed signs of having been "cooked," a good thing for food but not for wine. More about this in a coming 30 Second Wine Advisor.

BUY THE BOOK ONLINE:
Mario Batali's "Molto Italiano" is available from Amazon.com in hardcover for $22.02, a 37 percent discount. Purchases made using this exact link will return a small commission to us at WineLoversPage.com.
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Re: RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by ChefCarey » Thu Apr 06, 2006 2:19 pm

My two cents, Robin. In my mind Mario and, possibly, Alton Brown are the only two people who really know what they are talking abpout on the Food Network. There's a ton of bs and bad information from the rest of the crew. He's the only chef I watch - oh, and Anthony Bourdain, but not for the cooking. :)
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Mike Filigenzi

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Re: RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by Mike Filigenzi » Thu Apr 06, 2006 2:44 pm

Robin -

Although I don't have the perspective that Joseph has, I agree with him regarding Batali. Celebrity or not, he really does bring a lot of passion to his cooking. Plus, his cookbooks are great. You probably won't want to make every recipe, but there are many that are well within the average home cook's range and others that will encourage one to stretch out a bit. You adding your own perspective to your supper at Babbo is great as I don't know anyone who's been to his restaurants. It's good to hear that the quality of the food is up to snuff.

Mike
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- Julia Child
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Stuart Yaniger

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Re: RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by Stuart Yaniger » Thu Apr 06, 2006 6:08 pm

Ditto Joseph's take, but with one addition: Wolfgang Puck. When he did a guest turn on Iron Chef, I was just blown away by the reminder that the sonuvabitch can really cook, not just promote his brand. Everyone else on that network makes me wince, and my viewing time per week has dropped from 10 hours to one hour, maybe, on a good week.
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Robin Garr

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Re: RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by Robin Garr » Thu Apr 06, 2006 6:33 pm

Stuart Yaniger wrote:Everyone else on that network makes me wince, and my viewing time per week has dropped from 10 hours to one hour, maybe, on a good week.


I think food geeks in general agree with this, unfortunately. FoodTV seems to get dumbed down more and more and more. Remember how much we used to talk about all the shows? You rarely see it any more ... and frankly, even the few bright spots - Mario, Alton, Ming - don't turn up much in prime time.

Of course, they lost me when Jill quit being on much ...
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Re: RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by Mike Filigenzi » Thu Apr 06, 2006 7:00 pm

Robin Garr wrote:
Stuart Yaniger wrote:Everyone else on that network makes me wince, and my viewing time per week has dropped from 10 hours to one hour, maybe, on a good week.


I think food geeks in general agree with this, unfortunately. FoodTV seems to get dumbed down more and more and more. Remember how much we used to talk about all the shows? You rarely see it any more ... and frankly, even the few bright spots - Mario, Alton, Ming - don't turn up much in prime time.

Of course, they lost me when Jill quit being on much ...


Just to bitch about FN a little more, I caught Giada for the first time last night. The show was a potentially interesting one on a catering group at a New York hall that was setting up for a big benefit/dinner thing. But even when the chef had interesting things to say, the camera tended to stay on Giada. And she kept doing this horrible forced-smile thing that looked like someone stuck a fishhook in each corner of her mouth and had people pull hard on each of them. Yuck.

Maybe someone will set us up with "Food Network II" someday....


Mike
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- Julia Child
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Re: RC/FoodLetter: Defending Mario

by ChefCarey » Fri Apr 07, 2006 11:10 pm

Stuart Yaniger wrote:Ditto Joseph's take, but with one addition: Wolfgang Puck. When he did a guest turn on Iron Chef, I was just blown away by the reminder that the sonuvabitch can really cook, not just promote his brand. Everyone else on that network makes me wince, and my viewing time per week has dropped from 10 hours to one hour, maybe, on a good week.


I thought about Puck when I said that. He is a good cook, no doubt. Definitely grant him that. He has trouble holding my interest. And I remember him from Ma Maison when he worked for Patrick Terrail.

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