Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Chef Mario Batali conducted a cooking demonstration at Hirabara Farm in Waimea.

Lasagne is love

Chef Mario Batali frames his
philosophies in homespun wisdom
and handmade pasta

Asparagus Milanese

By Betty Shimabukuro

Let's begin at the bottom, as in street-level, as in the man's footwear of choice. Mario Batali runs four New York City restaurants, hosts two Food Network cooking shows, raises two boys and writes cookbooks. He does it in Converse All-Star Chuck Taylor high-tops. Orange high-tops. He has a dozen pairs, with three in current circulation in various stages of wear, but all orange.

Meet Mario

His restaurants: Babbo, Lupa, Esca and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria, all in New York City
His Food Network shows: "Molto Mario," airing at 4:30 p.m. weekdays and "Mario Eats Italy," at noon Mondays and 3 a.m. Saturdays
His cookbooks: "Simple Italian Food," "Mario Batali Holiday Food" and "The Babbo Cookbook"
His awards: 2002 James Beard Foundation best chef of New York City; nominee for 2003 outstanding chef nationwide. Babbo was named the James Beard best new restaurant of 1998.

Culinary Conversations

Next up: Lee Hefter of Spago Beverly Hills, Nov. 7 to 10
Dates pending: Todd English of the Olives and Figs restaurants, based in Boston; Jamie Oliver, host of "The Naked Chef"; and Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger in Boston and host of "Eats Meets West" and "Ming's Quest"
Call: (888) 424-1977

"For a while, I mixed it up with a little teal, a little salmon mousse -- but now it's pretty much orange all the time," Batali said.

"I haven't told a lot of people this, but orange is the new black. Ask my kids. They wear orange about all the time because it's cool. We're not afraid of color. As William Blake said, 'Exuberance is beauty,' and that's what we dig."

Batali said all of that in about the time it took you to read the words "William Blake." And that's basically the essence of Mario: Exuberant, fast-thinking, faster-talking, living color.

"My mind works much like a William Faulkner novel," he said. "It's really stream-of-consciousness."

A select group learned this quite well over the weekend at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows on the Big Island, where Batali inaugurated a resort program of elbow-to-elbow, knife-to-knife encounters with big-time chefs.

He led two hands-on cooking demonstrations, plus whipped up a couple of dinners. And rarely stopped talking. Breathing seemed optional.

If you've seen his TV shows, you know he is constantly pouring out information. It's not noise for the sake of entertainment; it's real news about pasta, about Italian cooking by region, about selecting ingredients. In person, he's just like that, magnified.

Keep up and you'll learn the purpose of gluten ("It's what allows bread to hold the breath that yeast gives it"), the correct texture of pizza dough ("You really want it to shatter like you're biting into a light bulb, with a little pull"), the difference between truly fresh eggs and the aged ("It's just ... transcendental"), the value of a $30 bottle of olive oil that lasts two weeks ("two bucks a day for an improved quality of life").

You learn about food and you learn about him. A quote from Blake or a line from the film "This is Spinal Tap" might fall into the conversation, as easily as a reflection on France -- "The F-country" -- "they feel the need to complicate things if they can." A comment on cuisine, not current events.

Oh, and while the consciousness is streaming, here's a Mari-observance on Jimi Hendrix: "When I listened to Jimi Hendrix, I wasn't in a clear state, which is not to glorify the taking of drugs, but there was a little inhalation in my family."

Batali works with Sean Priester, left, and Ian Ashe Young on torching techniques for a dish of Mascarpone and Bananas Brulee. Priester has a catering business on Oahu. Ian, 14, the youngest participant at the event, cooks in an enrichment program at Assets School.

No more than 20 people attended each of Batali's events, which is the idea behind Mauna Lani's Culinary Conversations: intimate affairs that give each participant personal time with the chef.

The original price of the package, accommodations included, was $3,500 per person, and the resort had expected to fill 10 slots easily with its mainland clientele. Given the insecurities of war, this didn't happen, but the events filled up anyway, at last-minute kamaaina and a la carte rates.

Participants included chefs, foodies and fans. Maria Whitt of Bogart's Café in Kapahulu received the Mario package as a gift from her boyfriend. Until now, she hadn't had a day off in the 2 1/2 years since she opened her restaurant. Whitt is self-trained and serves mainly espresso, breakfast items and few simple lunch dishes. After a day in the kitchen with Batali, she was inspired to add a pasta machine to her kitchen.

Batali's advice on first approaching such a gadget: "The thing about equipment is not to be afraid. Because if you are afraid, the machine will know it and it will hurt you."

Caterer Sean Priester also received the weekend as a gift, from his wife. Priester says he appreciates the simplicity of Batali's approach.

"I love Italian food and I think his philosophy is correct: letting the ingredients speak for themselves. That's something I need to learn."

As a rule, Batali said, he favors his food stripped-down. "We want it to be simpler, less built-up, less intensive of flavor."

When he taught a group to make pici, a thick noodle resembling an earthworm, he didn't care if they made big fat juicy ones, small slim slimy ones or an itsy-bitsy worm that looked like it had just swallowed a grape.

"The best stuff is the stuff that is truly handmade," he said, many times and many ways through the weekend.

The pici was dressed in a simple sauté of radicchio, red onions and cardoons, a slightly bitter, celery-like stalk from the artichoke family, popular in Mediterranean cooking. The flavoring was olive oil, salt, pepper, scallions and grated goat cheese. Italians refer to what goes with pasta as a "condiment," Batali said, as they never drown their pasta in an American-style sauce.

Mario Batali grates Parmigiano-Reggiano -- "the undisputed king of cheeses" -- over a plate of Asparagus Milanese during a cooking demonstration. Batali says an Italian pantry requires the cheese -- along with good olive oil, balsamic vinegar, dry pasta, canned tomatoes, sea salt and pine nuts.

What distinguishes a dish is great ingredients, fresh and at peak season.

"The Italians are firm believers that by the time you leave the grocery store, the fate and quality of your meal is already decided. ... By the time you get the asparagus into your home, it has already decided how good it is going to be."

Fear not your food, he said, and be not a slave to any recipe, to the point that you have to give up if you can't find one ingredient. Improvise or, better, let good produce, or fresh fish, or a great cut of meat drive you. In Italy, he said, "they go to the store and buy the five best things and then they go home and figure out what to do with them."

Best is not always prettiest, by the way. Tongues, heads, livers, ribs, cheeks and brains all make their way onto Batali's menus. But never anything as sanitized as a filet mignon. Cheaper, earthier cuts offer more flavor, texture, interest.

"The reason I go out to eat at a restaurant is to have something I can't make at home. A filet -- and I don't want to cast aspersions, but in my opinion it sucks -- there's no trick to it, anybody else can do it."

Batali learned his approach in a northern Italian village called Borgo Capanne, population 100, where he lived and worked for 3 1/2 years after leaving London's prestigious Le Cordon Bleu for lack of interest. (The approach is partly inborn, as well: Batali's father, Armandino, after retiring from Boeing, opened an acclaimed hole-in-the-wall in Seattle called Salumi, where he serves house-cured meats on a communal table, in keeping with Mediterranean tradition.)

Batali's status now defines restaurant success, but he said he does not let it consume him. He lives near his restaurants so he can spend time with his young sons. Food Network shows are taped six months at a time, so they aren't a constant concern.

He takes one boy to school daily, then has coffee with his wife, Susi Cahn, owner of Coach Dairy Goat Farm. Meetings with staff follow. "At some point I try to find my boys, between 3 and 4 o'clock, and then I start service wherever I need to be."

His role is to inspire and direct, he said, although he gets all the hands-on kitchen time he needs. "I can do whatever I want. That's the beauty of it. The timbre of my day is of my own choosing."

Batali's pici-making session was held at Hirabara Farm in the cool heights of Waimea, in an outdoor kitchen where Kurt and Pam Hirabara often host guest chefs. Later Batali signed the Hirabaras' wall of chefs. He tried to use an orange marker but it failed and he had to go with purple. "Cardoons are love," he wrote. "Pici is light. Lasagne is truth."

It has the cadence of Blake's "exuberance is beauty," and it speaks to Batali's adoration of pure food. "What more sacred thing can you be doing," he asked, "than feeding the people you love?"


A fresh approach

This Batali recipe demonstrates the chef's simple approach in the kitchen.

A few notes: Each portion is topped with a slightly runny egg (if you fear undercooked eggs, this dish may not be for you). Batali uses duck eggs and fresh sorrel, a slightly lemony green. Both these items are hard to find locally, so substitute chicken eggs and basil.

Asparagus Milanese

28 medium asparagus spears
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup olive oil
4 eggs
1 cup fresh sorrel, finely sliced (may substitute basil)
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring about 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot; fill a large bowl with ice and water. Snap off hard ends of asparagus.

Blanche asparagus 70 seconds in boiling water; do not cover pot. Remove with tongs and drop into ice bath to stop cooking. Drain.

Heat 1/4 cup of the butter and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a saute pan over medium-low heat until dark brown. Add asparagus and toss. Add 1/4 cup of the cheese and toss until melted. Divide asparagus among 4 plates.

Wipe out pan, return to heat. Add remaining butter and oil. When foam subsides, crack eggs into pan, being careful not to break yolks. Cook sunny side up, about 2 minutes. Place 1 egg over each portion of asparagus. Sprinkle with sorrel and remaining cheese. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional information per serving (not including salt to taste): 510 calories, 48 g total fat, 21 g saturated fat, 290 mg cholesterol, 420 sodium, 7 g carbohydrate, 17 g protein.

Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.

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