Team Mario Batali's Vegetable Challenge
Mark Ladner. Photo © John Kernick.
Mario Batali is an unlikely champion of vegetables. The chef, who became famous at his New York City restaurant Babbo for stuffing beef cheeks into ravioli, also has a place dedicated to steakCarnevinoin Las Vegas. Batali maintains that he's less a meat guy than a nose-to-tail guy ("I got some media coverage for using the tail, the ear, the oink," he says). And now he's also proclaiming himself a vegetable guy. His brand-new book, Molto Gusto: Easy Italian Cooking, is based on recipes from Otto, his terrific Manhattan enoteca and pizzeria, where vegetable antipasti as well as pasta and pizzas dominate the menu; the few meat and seafood dishes are starters. "Protein has been intensely over-represented on the plate," says Batali. "Now, the garden should be the main drag for main courses."
Batali's co-author on Molto Gusto is Mark Ladner, executive chef and partner of Batali's elegant Manhattan restaurant Del Posto. Ladner helped open Otto and happens to be a flexitarian, or semi-vegetarian. "I can eat a pound of lettuce," he claims. "I can, too!" says Batali. In this spirit of friendly competition, F&W invited them each to create three recipes that showcase vegetables. We also asked them to make these dishes wine-friendly, despite wine-challenging ingredients such as artichokes, asparagus and vinegar. F&W then enlisted Dan Amatuzzi, the wine director at Otto, to offer pairing suggestions.
For his asparagus recipe, Batali grilled the spears until they were charred. "You've got to practically burn it, that's what makes it so good," he advises. He topped the spears with a luscious black-pepper zabaglione, and Amatuzzi poured a fruity Tuscan red to go with it. "It pairs well with the charred asparagus and cuts the rich sauce at the same time," Amatuzzi says; Batali agrees. Ladner shaved his asparagus into long strips, then tossed it with a delicious Parmesan dressing. Amatuzzi chose a citrusy Southern white to match the salty cheese.
Batali and Ladner have become so accustomed to a minimal-meat diet that it took them no time to compose Molto Gusto. In fact, they wrote most of it on a plane ride from New York to Melbourne, Australia. ("We went the long wayit was a 32-hour trip," says Ladner.) Batali promises that everyone can benefit from the pro-vegetable lifestyle: "It will make everything better. The planet will live longer, people will feel better, their sex lives will get better, their apartments will get bigger. With more vegetables, it can all happen."