||A Review of: The Babbo Cookbook
by Byron Ayanoglu
There was a time when a restaurant meal meant rare delights that
we ate when we went out for special splurges, while a home meal was
based on recipes of normal things we could easily shop for and
prepare in our humble, normal kitchens. High-end restaurant food
is created from top ingredients (to which only professionals have
ready access) in well-staffed, fully-equipped kitchens, whose sole
purpose is to astound clients and render them willing to charge big
tickets on their credit cards.
In those old days, a recipe book featuring restaurant-cooking was
usually a vanity publication by the restaurant in question, a
publicity gimmick, often a giveaway to good clients, and useful
mostly as a memento of a great meal in that restaurant. No one would
seriously consider attempting recipes from such books, leaving them
pristine and unstained the better to adorn the coffee-table
(exceptions, such as Alice Waters's epoch-making efforts,
Now, in a dizzyingly competitive cookbook market, famous chef and/or
restaurant cookbooks are the norm, even though the recipes within
are just as impossible to properly render at home as ever. This is
particularly true for super-chefs crowned celebrities by television,
and even more so for multi-tasking chefs who commandeer TV shows
alongside well-regarded restaurants.
Such a one is Mario Batali, star of two Food Network shows, wine
merchant, author of two previous cookbooks, and owner of three New
York City restaurants. The Babbo Cookbook, a very handsome item and
his newest offering, is named for one of those restaurants and
recounts fare that is fiercely and joyously Italian.
Reading through it is like a virtual meal at the chef's honour-table,
from reinvented pre-dinner cocktails all the way to pre-desserts
and desserts, complete with mouth-watering photographs, little
anecdotes, and fully articulated, labour-intensive recipes, that
are chock-full of devilishly recherch ingredients.
Take for example cardoon, a leaves-plus-root relative of the
artichoke. Chef Batali asks for it on no less than four occasions,
and talks about it as if it were broccoli or green beans. I am a
foodie, and yet I have never heard of or seen a cardoon. Well, trust
me, now that I've read this book, I shall be on the lookout, and
if I ever find it I shall make damn sure that it becomes my favourite
Cardoon, however, is the least of the chef's culinary challenges.
One can, after all, replace it with Jerusalem artichoke, or even
crass, regular artichoke. But what do we do with recipes that depend
on non-sequiturs like chestnut honey', baby eels', jellyfish',
quince vinegar', or blood orange concentrate'? Do we pay huge money
and order them from the chef's list of New York sources'?
Personally, I'd ignore those recipes, and concentrate instead on
many other recipes that are easier to shop for and to cook if one
has the time. And I'd use this book for its true strengths. It deals
with home-made pasta in several easy-sounding versions, especially
in the realm of raviolis. It gives good hints on wine and its proper
service, and has excellent side-bar recipes for flavoured oils,
essential sauces, and a wide variety of biscotti (Italian cookies).
But most of all, I'd wait until I was hungry, sit comfortably with
it and embark on a gastronomic voyage to Babbo restaurant. I'd plan
my menu as if the waiter was by my side with his pencil sharp, and
money was no object.
For starters I'd go for Goat Cheese Truffles with its perky flavours,
and Jellyfish Salad just to taste something I've always dreaded
when swimming in the sea, and Warm Tripe alla Parmigiana because
I've never had tripe flavoured with vanilla, and Duck Bresaola for
a treat that takes 25 days to cure and dry if made from scratch.
In the pasta department, I'd try Calf's Brain Francobolli with its
tiny, mushy raviolis, and Black & White Strichetti for its salt-cod
content, which I've never partnered with pasta before, and Linguine
Fine with Baby Eels, as an ode to tapa-style baby eels I've enjoyed
in Spain, and Ziti with Tuscan-Style Cauliflower, because it looks
so good on the picture.
For my fish I'd commence with Black Bass in a Lemon Brodetto with
its swimming-scallops and its bits of sauteed squash, continue with
Wild Striped Bass with Charred Leeks and Squid, and finish with
Sauteed Skate and Rock Shrimp in a Saffron Sweet Clam Citronette
for the sheer enjoyment of the vast lists of excellent ingredients.
And then there would be the meats (osso-buco, sweetbreads), the
pre-desserts (sweet-savoury, cheese-based things to pave the way
to the sweets), and finally the puffy, surely-exquisite Chocolate
Hazelnut Cakes, and the chestnut laden (including that elusive
chestnut honey) Castagnaccio, a glazed, moist slice of cake-heaven.
But you get the idea. It is possible to use this book to eat superbly
without spending a penny, and without ingesting a single calorie.
Since this is as close to a fine New York City Italian meal as most
of us would get to, it is in fact worth every one of the sixty bucks
the book itself costs.