Thursday, May 04, 2006

More Dinners With Mario

la fage cahors 2002

"Our Dinner With Mario" has turned into several. Seems like every time we open The Babbo Cookbook we find yet another tantalizing dish we'd somehow overlooked before. Then that 120 Hours of Bologna spread ("5 days... 62 courses") showed up in the April issue of Gourmet ("Mario's Excellent Adventure" by Bob Sloan). All of the issue's Italy features were great, but the Batali section knocked us out cold. That Lasagne Bolognese alone was enough to make us weep. As a result of all of this, Mr. Batali has been very present in our thoughts for a few months now; not surpisingly this had led to a growing series of Batali-inspired meals.

A couple of weeks ago we started looking around for just the right meal to go with a lovely bottle of wine we'd acquired. We're not usually in the position to have truly fine wine, because of our budget we generally stick to the $10 - $20 range, and although you can have consistently good wine within this limited price range, you're never going to come across something sensational, something that expands your mind (beyond the mere effects of the alcohol) the way a really good wine does. [Again, because of my circumstances, I can count the number of times I've encountered a truly superior wine on one hand. This isn't to say, "Boo-hoo, poor me!" Rather, it is to say, "Let us drink wine!" or, rather, "Bring down the prices!", especially when they're as grossly inflated as they are in this province. Living in Germany for a year really opened my eyes. There, I was consistently getting wines that go for $20-30 at the Société des Alcools du Québec [SAQ] for €3.99-4.99. Some people have tried to convince me that the exchange rate accounts for this discrepancy. It doesn't. Even if it did, a Coke in a German restaurant often costs €3.00-4.00. Account for that.] Like I said, though, a few weeks ago we had just such a breathtaking bottle of wine, and we were trying to figure out the right way to enjoy it. We'd been told it should absolutely, positively be had with red meat, so we considered our options, tossed around some ideas, then decided we were well overdue for a steak.

We could have gone classic (like the filet mignon, sautéed mushrooms, and cauliflower gratin my sister used to favor for her birthday meal back in the day) but then we cracked open that copy of The Babbo Cookbook and the deal was singed, seared, and, uh, well, delivered. Batali's got two ever-so-delicious looking steak recipes in The Babbo Cookbook: a Dry-Rubbed Rib-Eye Steak and a Barbecued Skirt Steak with Endive alla Piastra. We opted for the latter.

Barbecued Skirt Steak with Endive alla Piastra

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf ("Italian"*) parsley
4 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup olive oil (extra-virgin, of course)
2 pounds skirt steak
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 heads Belgian endive**, quartered lengthwise
salsa verde (recipe follows)

In a medium casserole (a nonreactive one), combine the herbs, the garlic, and 1/2 cup of the olive oil and stir well. Place the steak in the casserole and turn to coat both sides with the herb mixture. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours (and overnight, if you've planned ahead).

Preheat your grill. Remove the steak from the marinade, brush off the excess herb mixture, and season with the salt and pepper. Place the steak on the hottest part of the grill. Cook for 3 minutes on one side, then turn the steak carefully onto the other side and cook for 2 minutes more. While the second side cooks, brush the endive quarters with the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and place on the grill, allowing the endives to get well charred.

Remove the steak from the grill and let it rest for 3 minutes. Place 2 tablespoons of salsa verde in the center of each plate. Slice the steak on the bias about 1/2-inch thick and divide the slices evenly among the plates. Serve the grilled endives alongside.

Serves 4 (or 2 for dinner and breakfast the next day)

Salsa Verde

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, stems removed
1 bunch fresh mint, stems removed
1 bunch fresh basil, stems removed
1/2 cup capers, rinsed and drained
2 salt-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed and drained
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp hot red pepper flakes
1 garlic clove
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the herbs, capers, anchovies, mustard, salt, sugar, pepper, red pepper flakes, and garlic and pulse to form a coarse puree. Then, with the motor running, slowly drizzle the olive oil into the the bowl until you get a relatively smooth puree. Season with salt and pepper. This salsa will keep for a week in the refrigerator.

Note: This recipe makes about 1 1/2 cups of salsa. Much, much more than you need for the skirt steak recipe. You may want to cut it by half or even by a third, unless you think you can actually use 1 1/2 cups of salsa verde in under a week.

Very simple, very easy, and just what the doctor ordered. As Batali points out, the skirt steak is already a very flavorful cut of beef. With that 4-hour marinade it was just plain luscious. The salsa verde gave the dish a whole new dimension while teasing out the herbal overtones of the marinade. This was most certainly not just any old steak.

Problem is, the steak kind of got overshadowed by that bottle of wine of ours, our 2002 Cosse Maisonneuve "La Fage" Cahors from the Southwest of France. Deceivingly light on the palate, this was a complex wine, a wine with multiple dimensions to it, at times earthy, at times giving off the taste of cherries and plums. We'd been told it was a bit particular and maybe not to our liking--well, we absolutely loved it and would drink wines like this much more often, were we able to afford them. Now, the thing is, we got this bottle at cost through a strange twist of fate, and even at that price we were straining our wine budget (actually, we were overstraining it). Local restaurants carry the bottle for around $70, while restaurants in the U.S. seem to carry it for just a bit less (around $55-$60). Meanwhile, this small-batch gem, made by Matthieu Cosse and Catherine Maisonneuve, retails for under €12.00 in Europe. Where's the justice in that? Don't we deserve to drink better for less? What exactly is the calculus that determines the overinflated prices we pay for wine in this country, and especially in this province? Just imagine the dinner parties we'd be having if we could pick up a bottle of a Cahors of this quality for $17.00 (the current exchange on €12.00) at the local SAQ. More on this later...

Anyway, a couple of weeks later, through another strange twist of fate, we found ourselves in possession of a rather nice, if modest, piece of fresh tuna. Again, we weighed our options then instinctively turned to The Babbo Cookbook. There we found a recipe for Tuna al Tarocco, or Tuna with Blood Oranges, and as it was nearing the end of blood orange season we decided to see out the season with one final bash.

seared tuna à la Babbo

Tuna al Tarocco

8 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 red onion, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 6-oz tuna steaks (Batali calls specifically for Big Eye Tuna, but any sashimi-grade tuna steaks will do)
1 cup instant potato flakes
1/4 cup crushed black peppercorns
1 blood orange cut into segments
1/2 lb mizuna
1 recipe sweet garlic cloves (recipe follows)
1 head of radicchio, cored and with the leaves cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large radishes
4 scallions
4 tbsp blood orange vinaigrette
2 tbsp parsley oil (recipe follows)

In a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil until it reaches the smoking point. Add the sliced mushrooms, red onion, thyme, and salt and pepper and sauté until the mushrooms are crispy, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Season the tuna steaks well with salt and pepper. Combine the potato flakes and the crushed peppercorns, moisten one side of the tuna steaks just slightly with water, and then press the moistened side into the potato flake and peppercorn mixture. In a 12- to 14-inch nonstick sauté pan, heat 4 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat till you reach the smoking point. Sauté the steaks, crust side down, until the crust is crispy, about 3 minutes. Turn the steaks and cook an additional 2 minutes. The steaks that result will be medium rare.

While the tuna is cooking, in a separate 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil until just smoking. Add half the blood orange segments, the mizuna, the sweet garlic cloves, and the radicchio and toss over high heat until the greens are just wilted and warmed through, about 1 minute (no more).

Serve the tuna steaks on top of small mounds of the salad mixture and the shiitake mixture. Garnish with the remaining blood orange segments, the radishes, and the scallions. Drizzle the steaks with the vinaigrette and parsley oil.

Blood Orange Vinaigrette

I cup blood orange juice
1 tablespoon prepared mustard
1 tabespoon black olive paste (available from specialty stores and some of your better supermarkets)
1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a small saucepan, cook the orange juice over high heat until reduced to 1/3 cup, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the mustard and black olive paste until well combined. Whisk in the oil until emulsified. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Parsley Oil

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil, chilled for 2 hours
1 teaspoon salt

Place all of the ingredients in a blender and puree until nearly smooth and uniformly green. Strain through a fine sieve.

Note: We made several alterations out of necessity. First off, we only had two tuna steaks (actually one modest tuna steak, which we cut into two even more modest tuna steaks), so we cut the quantities down accordingly. Secondly, we made the blood orange vinaigrette but we eliminated the blood orange segments because the blood oranges at that point were fine for juice but not fit to serve otherwise. Thirdly, we substituted spinach for the mizuna because we find mizuna hard to come by around here. We made one alteration that had nothing to do with necessity. I flat-out flubbed the Parsley Oil, of all things, failing to strain it. Oops. Finally, we weren't sure what to do with the shiitake mixture because Batali's recipe left us high and dry, so we just improvised.

Now, you're probably thinking to yourselves, "How could you? Blood orange season is long gone now!!" I know, I know, but the real lessons to be learned from this recipe have nothing to do with blood oranges, they have to do with the mushrooms, the warm salad, and, most importantly, with the potato flakes. We're well acquainted with the cult of panko, but we'd never come across a recipe for an instant-potato-flakes crust. We're glad we did. The crust turned out perfectly and the potato flavor melded with the tuna, the assorted vegetables, and the vinaigrette just beautifully. This was easily the finest seafood meal we'd made for some time. And this time it didn't get overshadowed by no wine.


*My grandmother used to refer to flat-leaf parsley as Slovak parsley. In our neighborhood it's known as Portuguese parsley.

**As far as I know my grandmother never referred to this as Slovak endive, nor is it known as Portuguese endive in these parts.


Anonymous said...

Good post AJ and keep ranting about those absurdly high wine prices (here in Ontario it’s the same deal but thankfully the LCBO is fast recognizing that wine is not only made in France or Niagara-on-the-Lake!)

May I contribute the following observations?

Italian-Slovak-Portuguese-etc.-parsley: the real item; use it, lots. No wonder that each culture claims it as its own!
Not to be confused with:
(Unclaimed by any culture)-curly parsley: indestructible tasteless green herb that will not wilt or spoil willingly and entertains misguided notions of being the ultimate plate decoration item; ingest at your own risk.

Belgian endives: Roquefort’s and red wine’s best friend.

Skirt-steak: devilish French butchers’ invention; the beef eaters’ ultimate wet dream!

A in Ottawa

aj kinik said...

Hi A,
Nice to hear from you and thanks for your observations.

The only thing that I can say about the curly parsley is that both my grandmother and the local Portuguese community always just refer/referred to it as "Canadian parsley," regardless of whether it was grown in Canada or not.

I'll have more to say about the SAQ later, but the LCBO is looking better and better all the time, even if they still insist on having those silly Beer Stores. Plus, you guys get Pimm's. 'Nuff said.

On that note: cheers.