Friday, February 03, 2006

Our Dinner With Mario

One of our friends was kind enough to loan us his copy of Mario Batali's The Babbo Cookbook recently, and we've been leafing through it longingly ever since. Like a lot of other showcase cookbooks by today's celebrity chefs, the book is very stylish indeed, and to a great extent it features the intricate sorts of recipes that establish one's signature and cement one's reputation in today's culinary world. The book has a nice balance, though, and many of the recipes are simple, warm, and approachable, with clear, concise instructions, ingredients whose pursuit won't give you grey hairs or bust your bank, and methods that aren't overly precious or finicky. Thus, on the one hand, you find recipes like Grilled Quail with scorzanera alla romana, braised dandelions, and blood oranges in the Terra e Bosco (From the Earth and Forest) chapter, while, on the other, the pasta chapter in particular has numerous recipes that are ideal for a worknight (as we found out), recipes like Penne with zucca, onions, anchovies, and bread crumbs, Ziti with Tuscan-style cauliflower, and, the one we were most immediately attracted to, Bucatini all'Amatriciana.

We had a special occasion for two lined-up, so we decided to have a homestyle Italian night with a homebaked loaf of rustico bread, a couple of Italian cheeses (a Piave and a peppery Pecorino), a nice bottle of wine, a hearty pasta dish, and a panna cotta for dessert, and we turned to The Babbo Cookbook for all the necessary recipes. In the end, it wasn't exactly a Lady and the Tramp Italian dinner [that's coming, so stay tuned]--among other things, we didn't bust out the red-check tablecloth and the Chianti-bottle candleholders--but it was still very nice.

As you know, Michelle has been on both a cocktail kick (inventing them and mixing them more than drinking them, truth be told) and a blood orange kick of late, so it was only natural that we should start the evening with one of Batali's Blood Orange Bellinis. The preparation couldn't have been easier, but the finished product was a hit as an aperitivo, drop-dead gorgeous to look at, delightful on the palate. Perfect with the cheese and cracker appetizer we had before stepping into the kitchen to make dinner.

blood orange cocktail

Blood Orange Bellini

1/2 oz. blood orange juice
3 oz. prosecco (as you can see, we went Spanish instead of Italian with our choice of wine, but the results were still brilliant)

Pour the juice into a flute (or a stem-less Chardonnay glass, if you just bought one and you're dying to give it a test ride, as the case may be), and top with prosecco. Serve immediately.

Serves one.

Once we'd finished our drinks and had our appetizers, we opened our bottle of Italian red--a feisty little Falconera, Conte Loredan Gasparini, 2001--and moved into the kitchen to prepare our pasta dish.

Bucatini all'Amatriciana

3/4 lb guanciale or pancetta, thinkly sliced (we still haven't found a reliable source for guanciale here in Montreal, so we opted for the pancetta--we also used quite a bit less than 3/4 lb and the results were still excellent)
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 red onion, halved and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/2 - 1 1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes (Batali recommends 1 1/2 tsp, but elsewhere in his cookbook he talks about using habaneros for a pasta dish in order to make it "incendiary," so his threshold for spice is evidently quite high--we love our spicy food, but we recommend starting with 1/2 tsp and then working your way up to your desired level of spice)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups basic tomato sauce (we used something closer to 2 cups) [*recipe follows]
1 lb bucatini
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (we found that 1/2 bunch was perfect for us)
Pecorino Romano for grating

Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tbsp salt. If you add oil to your cooking water, Batali recommends against it. Among other things, it makes the pasta less receptive to the effects of the sauce.

Place the guanciale or pancetta slices in a 14-inch sauté pan in a single layer and cook them over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, turning from time to time. Remove the meat to a paper-towel lined plate and get rid of half the fat, leaving enough to coat the garlic, onion, and red pepper flakes. Return the guanciale or pancetta to the pan with the vegetables, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onion, garlic, and guanciale or pancetta are light golden brown. Season with salt and pepper, add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Cook the bucatini until al dente, being very careful not to overcook and keeping in mind that the pasta will continue to cook a bit more once it's added to the sauce. Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce. Add the parsley, increase the heat to high, and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among your bowls, making sure to warm them first. Top with freshly grated Pecorino and serve immediately.

Like Batali, we're both big fans of bucatini. I got turned on to its charms a number of years ago when a friend of mine came back from a summer in Italy armed with authentic homestyle recipes from the Piedmont region. She had a bunch of us over and made an outstanding bucatini pomodoro soon after her return. I made a point of scribbling down the details and have been making it ever since. Batali points out that bucatini are sometimes referred to as "garden hoses" not only because of their unique tubular shape, but also because of their uncanny ability to make quick work of a businessman's tie. I wouldn't recommend making this dish for a first date, unless you're someone of impregnable self-confidence, but Michelle and I are well past those kinds of hangups. Plus, we don't wear ties very often.

*Basic Tomato Sauce

1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 28-oz cans peeled whole tomatoes (or 1 jar homemade tomato sauce, as the case may be)
kosher salt to taste

In a 3-qt saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and onion and cook unitl soft and light golden brown, about 8-10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook for 5 minutes more, or until the carrot is quite soft. Crush the tomatoes with your hands and add them with their juices. Bring to a boil, stirring often, and then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes, or until the sauce has a thick consistency (Batali suggests that it be "as thick as hot cereal"). Season with salt and serve. This sauce will keep for one week in the refrigerator or 6 months in the freezer.

I can't tell you how happy I was to find carrot in Batali's Basic Tomato Sauce. I'd just had a conversation with my mom about carrot in tomato sauce (her standard tomato sauce always contained carrots back in the day) and I'd been looking around for such recipes since. In this case, the main thing is that this sauce was a perfect match for the bucatini dish. You wouldn't believe how much the shredded carrot added to the overall effect, both in terms of texture and in terms of flavor.

Our dessert was also taken from Batali's book, despite the fact that the preamble to the recipe called it a "flavor poem." Note to cookbook writers: sometimes less is more.

Saffron-Orange Panna Cotta

250 ml heavy cream
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. saffron
zest of 1/4 of an orange or lemon
1 1/2 sheets gelatin, hydrated
1/4 c. milk

Bring cream, sugar, saffron and zest to a boil. Add gelatin, stir. Let infuse until well-flavoured. Add milk and strain into glasses or cups. Chill several hours. Serve in glasses or unmold onto a plate, with fruit or without. Delicious.

Thanks to Mario for joining us for dinner. Thanks to Etienne for making this dinner possible.


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