The Legend vs. the Recipes
For some reason, foodies still love to talk about Mario Batali. Not the food, which would be understandable, but the man and the myth. He may have lost his Molto Mario program, but he hasn't lost his fascination.
Part of the fascination is the American story of a young man with no career who started as a dishwasher in a pizzeria restaurant and built a restaurant empire (14 of them currently), wrote bestselling cookbooks, inspired a bestselling semi-biography, left a lot of angry detractors in his considerable wake, and spawned a whole school of TV shows, cookware lines, and who knows what all.
Some of the appeal may lie in the size, exuberant confidence, and sheer Rabelaisian swagger of the man in a time of Apollonian chefs and food writers murmuring about simplicity and precise adjustment of flavors and the morality of their ingredients, the very Dionysian Batali may be providing balance and reminding us that all things, including simplicity, can be overdone, and that a little gluttony can be an awful lot of fun. In the midst of a groundswell of mindful, earnest, and sometimes humorless and joyless eating, Batali winks at us and says "Overindulge. Dive in head first. If you don't, one day you'll wish you had, you poor sucker."
For all the talk, there's something that seldom gets mentioned these days the man can cook. I have never seen his shows and wouldn't buy any kitchenware that had a chef's name blazoned across it, but I own all his books, for a simple reason: the recipes are generally good and they work. Unusual combinations of ingredients are not used for shock value, but because the flavors combine in an interesting way and do unexpected things for each other. Supposedly chic ingredients like wild fennel pollen are used where the flavor makes sense, not thrown around randomly. Batali makes statements about the necessity of absolute simplicity in cooking, but the flavors that he produces are not simple, even when only two or three ingredients are combined in a straightforward way. For example, consider some recipes that I cooked from Italian Grill recently. "Tuna like Fiorentina" is, by Batali's own admission, a piece of poetic license. The original dish involves a T-bone steak, not a fish, and no Tuscan would eat tuna rare. But with thick tuna steaks, great olive oil, and lashings of rosemary, salt, a touch of sugar, and pepper, he creates a dish that respects the form of simple cooking (only one main ingredient and a few seasonings) while gently mocking any notion of simplicity with its big, bold flavor. Overdone? Not at all, in my opinion. Tuna can be a big, bold fish.
Even bolder is his recipe for chicken alla diavola. Batali's version is seasoned to within an inch of its life with orange and lemon zest and juice, pimenton (both hot and sweet), and a whopping five tablespoons of hot red pepper flakes to season two small chickens. It was too hot for me as written, but with the pepper flakes reduced to a tamer two tablespoons, it was plenty hot and was delicious enough to leave more "pure and authentic" versions in the dust.
Next, look at the recipe for Portobello mushrooms, which are grilled plainly, then marinated in a dressing of good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and anchovy and served over lightly dressed arugula. Their meatiness is beautifully accentuated, but they remain a mushroom brought to its peak of flavor, not a dreary meat substitute. The recipe for grilled onions combines beautifully charred red onion slices with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon thyme, and garlic to make a vegetable loaded with Mario's signature Big Taste.
That Big Taste can present you with a problem, and this is my only real caveat about the book: a meal assembled from it could get overdone in a hurry. Nearly all of the contorni have strong and pronounced flavors and may not take well to supportive roles. Give careful thought to harmonization of flavors, or you could end up with a meal that puts the "wretched" back in "wretched excess." Better yet, serve his main dishes with plainly grilled vegetables, and try a "small plates" meal of several contorni with plenty of crusty bread to absorb the impact. You are unlikely to regret it.
Recipe from the book: Mario Batali's Chicken alla Diavola