The Babbo Cookbook

by Mario Batali
ISBN: 0609607758

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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, notwithstanding).
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 too.
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.

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