On teamwork, substitutions, and Batali

Pompano, Peppers, and Endive Salad, as adapted from Mario Batali

Already hungry after a Sunday spent movie-watching, Stephanie and I sat in the Whole Foods Potrero parking lot sluggishly flipping though pages of Mario Batali’s “Simple Italian Food” book. In the doldrums of low blood sugar, we picked probably the most complex recipe in the book:

Polenta-Crusted Pompano Salad with Sauteed Spicy Peppers Vinaigrette, Chicory and Tomato Oil

Three different dressings to add to three different components means your time in the kitchen just got pushed to third power! (t_prep + t_cook)^3!

Ingredients for Tomato Oil

But apparently wemust be bad at math, because we worked as a team and banged this dish out in a show-stopping 40 minutes. Here’s the key: share the job of prepping the veggies, then split up and get one person on dressing and veggie prep, and get the other soul on the range. Even in our tiny kitchen befitting the smallest of pygmy chefs, a lack of physical space is no reason why “two cooks can’t be one” in the same kitchen.

Layering Flavors: Sweet and Smoke

Let’s talk ingredient substitutions for a bit. Some people take recipes very literally and follow ALL steps to the letter. I don’t get these people when they eat their culinary carbon copy and it’s not what they’re used to, or just doesn’t seem “right” somehow. Its all gotta do with substitutions. For example, this recipe calls for chicory. We went to the store and the chicory looked really lame. The endives, however, looked awesome.  Big surprise: we went with the endives. If you read a recipe and understand why something is added to a dish, then it is easy to use some taste logic to make substitutions based on seasonality and availability. If you can substitute an ingredient that is grown locally, then even better. Our endives were from Belgium, however.  Whatever. So my bitter leaves racked up some air-miles—I’ll make an exception for flavor!

"Immersing" ourselves in the art of homemade dressings

Recommendations:

A couple more substitutions are also worth mentioning. Use Bob’s Red Mill corn meal instead of uber-processed meals or quick polenta – Bob’s includes the germ layer, which makes for a pleasant crunch when fried.

Use a pan with olive oil just beneath smoke-point

If you don’t want to go all crazy buying a bunch of different types of peppers for your marjoram vinaigrette-salad, then just use those little baby sweet peppers or just some poblanos. Keep it simple.  As for choice of tomatoes for the T-oil, we had great luck with those ping-pong-sized greenhouse tomatoes sold on the vine. They were wonderfully ripe and retained a stronger tomato essence than the picked-and-plucked ones.

Also, get an immersion blender. Ours is from Kitchen Aid, and it has enough torque to double as an oil drill. For those of you playing the home game: an immersion blender is a small appliance that will change the way you make soups, dressings, smoothies, and other “blendables” for the rest of your cooking days.

What did our meal taste like?

Like flavor profiles that we don’t get enough of: pungent aromatics and pronounced glutamate sensations from homemade tomato oil, crispy and cool bitter notes from the endives contrasted with the sweet smokiness and earthiness of peppers sautéed in paprika and dressed in marjoram, and a very light acidity of the Port-Balsamic vinaigrette countered with the richness of the pompano.

Trying to make it pretty.

I would say that the salad components actually outshined the fish in terms of vibrancy in appearance and taste. Given this, we felt like trout, mahi, or even wahoo would have done just fine, so go with those if they’re cheaper for you. Don’t pay $14 for a whole pompano like we did! If you don’t care, then buy the pompano; the price of a memorable dinner is always justified.

If you have the time and inclination (and a willing sous-chef), this dish will be a pleasure to make, and its flavors will leave you pleasantly surprised!

Color and Contrast

Drop us a comment if you have another Batali recipe that you like. Don’t have a favorite Batali recipe? Then how do you feel about his restaurant paying $5.25M to settle against claims of tip-skimming? Ouch!

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