Wednesday, February 23, 2011

the beginning

I didn't really need a new hobby, but this seemed like fun.

I like to blog, but I have not been good at it. I like to think I have excuses. My first blogs were based on places we ate while traveling, and we don't travel that much, so I was sporadic. Then I started adding posts about cooking, and that didn't always work because I cook off the cuff so much that by the time I'm done, I often don't know what I did. Then my job started to entail writing about most of the things that I blogged about, and it started getting a little weird.

So, I needed something to focus on. And I decided to cook through a cookbook. I've seen friends do it, liked the results, and I thought it sounded like fun. I started reading cookbooks with an eye toward choosing one to cook through, and I picked three finalists: Live to Cook, by Michael Symon; Il Viaggio di Vetri, by Marc Vetri; and Momofuku, by David Chang. The thing they all had in common was they were all by chefs whose restaurants I had been to and loved, they all were of cuisines that were among my favorites, and they all had challenging elements. So then I had to pick one.

So, after much consideration, I picked … the Babbo cookbook, by Mario Batali.

Wait. How did that happen?

Well, I had been trying to figure out what to do with a bag of beef cheeks that was in the freezer. Oh, don't tell me you don't have a three-pound block of frozen beef cheeks sitting in your freezer. You know how it is. Anyway, I knew one of the signature dishes at Babbo was a beef cheek ravioli. I like ravioli. So I grabbed the Babbo cookbook off the shelf to see if it was in there. It was. The recipe looked kind of hard. So I started to put it away, then decided to look closer. I was capable of doing all the steps, it was just that there were a lot of them, and there were ingredients that would be hard to get. Harder than beef cheeks, which weren't easy. Then I looked at the other recipes, and thought the same thing about most of them.

So, why not do all of them?

That way, I can sort of feel like I'm eating at Babbo all the time, even though I live a thousand miles away. Sounded like a good idea.

The way I see it, there will be three major challenges:

Sourcing. There are going to be ingredients that are hard for me to get. We don't have proper butcher shops around here. Our seafood is excellent, but it is intensely regional and doesn't necessarily match that of New York. We have a long growing season, but for the most part, that translates into citrus, corn and tomatoes. I have plans to attack each of those issues. I'm going to take some pains to not get things the easy way. I mean, if I can get it easily, I will. But I'm planning on growing some of the things I need. And going out of my way to get good ingredients, not just whatever I can find. And I may get wet. We'll talk about that more as the dishes come up.

. To get through the book in a reasonable time frame, I'll need to know when I can cook things as they relate to when things are available. Plus, when I make a sauce or something that goes in more than one dish, I'll want to do all those at the same time, so I don't end up making parsley oil -- or whatever -- a bunch of times. And when I go out and get lamb's tongue, I might as well do all the dishes that call for lamb's tongue, so I don't have to source lamb's tongue more than once.

. I suck at discipline. But there are about 110 main and side dishes in the book, plus associated sauces and drinks and desserts. I'm not setting a deadline, but I figure if I do a main (fish, meat or pasta) and a side (antipasto or contorni) every week, plus any associated sauces along the way, and throw in drinks and desserts as extras on occasion, we're looking at about a year. That sounds reasonable. And it sounds like a deadline. A soft one, anyway. Also, I don't usually follow recipes, and learning to do that will require another kind of discipline.

So, I don't list the actual cooking as a challenge. That's a little bold, probably, because I'll be working with a lot of ingredients I've never considered eating, much less cooking. And while one of the reasons I chose Babbo was because it was the most challenging of Mario's books, the techniques are things I can do. I think. I mean, we'll see.

As I get started, I throw out there that most of these recipes are for four or eight people, and we only have two here. So some of you will be required to help us eat this stuff. And if you want a specific dish -- say the calf's brain ravioli, or one of the lamb's tongue dishes (there are two) -- you might want to reserve your spot early. I figure those are premium dates, like when the Yankees or Red Sox are in town.

Up first:
Whole roasted branzino