Corrections or additions?
This article by Pat Tanner was prepared for the November 29, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Mario Batali’s Holiday Cookbook
I had every reason to dislike Mario Batali’s latest
cookbook, "Mario Batali Holiday Food" (Clarkson Potter, $23).
First, I am almost always disappointed in books by celebrity chefs,
and Batali is among the most popular chefs in America right now. As
Food Network’s "Molto Mario," he is instantly recognizable
for his signature ponytail and shorts, which he wears even to the
black-tie James Beard Foundation awards. His particular style of
cooking has also made him one of Manhattan’s most popular
with three restaurants, Babbo, Lupa, and Esca, and an Italian wine
store to his credit. None of these accomplishments necessarily heralds
a good book — often quite the opposite.
Also, his is a small book, both literally (eight inches by eight
and in terms of the number of recipes (about 60), with a relatively
big price ($23). Add to that an extremely limited focus — four
meals, from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day — and you’ve just
about eliminated any possibility that I might buy such a book.
The killer for me, though, should have been the subject matter: the
feasts of the most important days in the calendar for
— like me. Nevertheless, I still thought Batali’s accumulated
memories and household traditions growing up in his Italian-American
family in the Pacific Northwest would be no match for the ones I
growing up in mine, in northern New Jersey. (Although, to his credit,
he did graduate from Rutgers University, where he majored in economics
and Spanish theater.)
Needless to say, I loved this book and everything about it. Mario
Batali, who will appear at Wegmans in West Windsor on Saturday,
2, to sign copies of his book, brings such a generous spirit to the
book and its recipes that it is impossible to dislike it. What’s more,
even those unfortunate souls who weren’t lucky enough to grow up in
Italian-American families — heck, even those who don’t celebrate
Christmas and New Year — can get a lot out of this book. All it
takes is a love of the kind of authentic Italian food Batali dishes
up, which combines pristine ingredients and traditional principles
with a modern sensibility that is informed by his extensive travels.
The book opens with a menu centered on the traditional Christmas Eve
Feast of Seven Fishes (of which the specific number can vary, Batali
acknowledges, to ten or some other number, depending upon where in
Italy the family comes from). This menu is representative of the ones
that follow in that it consists of a combination of easy-to-love
such as linguine with clams, more gastronomically challenging dishes
such as marinated eel, and modern but fitting additions such as a
blood orange bellini aperitivo. (For the last, pour one-quarter cup
blood orange juice into a chilled champagne flute and fill with
prosecco, the sparkling Italian wine.) The recipes are so tempting
and so well thought out that I could forgive even Batali’s preference
for red sauce for the linguine, a mortal sin in my family where white
clam sauce reigns supreme.
The book is greatly enhanced by Batali’s descriptions of family
traditions. "I wouldn’t consider it Christmas Eve without a dish
of glazed eels… It wouldn’t be New Year’s in Italy without lentils
and sausage," he writes. I enjoyed reading that one of his fondest
memories is of Christmas Eves when the Batali household was lit only
by candlelight. I wonder if he continues that tradition with his own
family, which includes his wife, Susi Cahn, whose family owns the
Coach Dairy Goat Farm, and their two sons, Benno and Leo.
Throughout the book, I came across reminiscences that mirrored my
own, with subtle differences. In both our households, for example,
it is a tradition for the senior male to make homemade sausage for
the holidays. In the Batali family, whose recipe is included in the
book, it is served on Christmas Day; in my family, it is the
of the Christmas Eve meal that follows midnight mass. Such variations,
explains Batali, are typical: "Not everyone celebrates the same
way or with the same dishes; each region (indeed, each household)
has its own specialties and rituals, all of them irresistibly
A few family photographs appear at the beginning of the book, but
the bulk of the photos are glamour shots, taken by Quentin Bacon,
of the prepared dishes, as well as stunning views of Italy’s Amalfi
coast, the area that runs more or less from Naples to Sorrento.
affection for and knowledge of this, the Campania region of Italy,
where he has traveled and studied in recent times, is an important
part of the book. Seafood plays a significant role in the cooking
of the region, and this dovetails nicely with many of the traditional
holiday dishes, as do regional specialties like limoncello, the sweet
lemon liqueur made from giant coastal lemons. Limoncello appears in,
among other things, a baba, where it replaces the traditional rum.
This and other recipes are appropriate for any form of entertaining.
Take the Napoletano potato cake, for example, which is part of a
Day dinner that includes three antipasti dishes, two pastas, a
"secondi" or entree, and an assortment of treats from the
cookie box Grandma Batali sent her grandchildren each Christmas.
Of the potato cake side dish Batali writes, "I make
this in a springform pan because it looks twice as cool… Like most
of the contorno (side) dishes in this book, it serves very well as
a light lunch with a salad." Such dishes, and such advice, are
what make this book surpass its seeming limitation as just another
holiday cookbook. What dinner party, what brunch, what "light
lunch with a salad," wouldn’t be enhanced by a savory potato dish
that includes ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, sopressata, and mozzarella
— especially one that looks "twice as cool" as you might
expect? The Batali style is everywhere in the book: biancomangiare,
which he describes as "almond clouds in vanilla almond milk,"
is, he predicts, "destined to replace panna cotta as the next
hip dessert in post-tiramisu Italian restaurants."
Two other aspects make this book much larger than it may seem at first
glance. Each of the four menus (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New
Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day) includes suggested wines from the Campania
region, courtesy of Batali’s business partner, Joseph Bastianich.
With the exception perhaps of the white wine Lacryma Christi
of Christ"), these are not as well known as other Italian wines.
They deserve to be, if my sampling of one of the recommended wines
is any indication. At Princeton’s Corkscrew wine shop I found a
red, a 1998 Rubrato from one of Campania’s leading winemakers, Feudi
di San Gregorio ($12).
Best of all, each of the four sections ends with a selection of
or edible gifts, many of which are a snap to make. This, too, is a
Batali family tradition, according to the chef: "We flavored
cured our own olives, made all the cookies and decorations for our
Christmas tree. We did this because the joy of creating good things
together is what great traditions and holidays are all about."
It is also what this book is all about.
— Pat Liuzza Tanner
Route 1 South, West Windsor, 609-919-9300. The chef signs copies of
his new cookbook, "Mario Batali Holiday Food" ($23; Clarkson
Potter). Saturday, December 2, 4 p.m.
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