Cargo shorts and orange Crocs: They’re not just for the kitchen. Ask Mario Batali — the exuberant chef-restaurateur, food television superstar and author also takes his Crocs to the crops.
Batali’s cuisine may be Mediterranean, but his sources are local. A farmers market frequenter and longtime forager, Batali partnered with the New York Botanical Garden to develop Mario Batali’s Kitchen Gardens within The Edible Garden; his portion includes a series of activities and special events centered around his recipes and family cooking.
His reign over Manhattan’s Italian restaurant-scape has been sweeping as well: Clean Plates-approved Babbo, Del Posto, OTTO Enoteca Pizzeria, Lupa Osteria Romano and hybrid marketplace and eatery sensation, Eataly.
Batali gave us the scoop on The Edible Garden, being an Italophile and locavore, duck testicles at the kids’ table and what he’s chewing on, at home and on set.
What did you have for breakfast today?
A macchiato at home, then some fresh fruit and cheese on set at The Chew.
How did your work with The Edible Garden begin?
I did a demo and a signing for Italian Grill at the New York Botanical Garden a few years back and was impressed — not only with the amazing grounds, but their commitment to healthful eating and educating kids on growing their own food. I wanted to be part of it, so we came up with this idea together!
Much of The Edible Garden’s programming is for families, and the funds support children’s well being through the Mario Batali Foundation. What is the most important thing parents can teach children about food?
It’s important to bring your kids into the kitchen. When they’re part of the process, they are never fearful of ingredients. My son Leo loves duck testicles.
Visitors to The Edible Garden interact with the same kinds of herbs and vegetables your restaurants use. Where do you source their produce?
Most of my restaurants are within walking distance of the farmer’s market, so they’re the source for a great deal of our produce. We take an annual chef’s trip upstate to my in-laws’ farm and pick wild ramps in the spring. We purchase other ingredients from farmers and go through companies like Dairyland for the rest.
What kind of food did you eat growing up?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so we had access fresh seafood like crabs, oysters and salmon. My brother, sister and I used to forage for berries on the weekends. My mom would preserve them and make fresh pies and jams. Of course, there’s also my grandma’s now famous calf’s brain ravioli with oxtail ragù.
How has your approach to cooking evolved?
I’ve always been about cooking in the Italian style, which is to say without much fuss, using fresh and seasonal ingredients. This hasn’t changed.
The products you import to Eataly are fantastic Italian ingredients, and the homegrown goods are delicious. How do you balance being a locavore with a love for global products?
For every imported product there is an equally delicious local alternative you can use. For example, at Eataly we make our burrata and mozzarella in-house using milk from local dairy farms. It tastes almost better because it’s that much fresher!
What’s first on your edible To Do list when you land in Italy? In Spain?
First step out of the airport, I cannot wait for a fresh espresso at a genuine Italian cafe. In Spain same thing, but I’m usually craving a chilled glass of cava.
Which summer ingredients are you most eager to work with?
I love to eat and cook with fresh Michigan cherries. It’s one of the perks of living in Northern Michigan in the summer. So dreamy!
Your friends want to escape NYC this weekend and find a killer meal they feel good about eating. Where do you send them?
My house, in Northern Michigan!
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 pounds small zucchini, striped zucchini or yellow summer squash, sliced into ⅓-inch-thick rounds, divided
½ cup minced tender parsley stems, divided
Maldon or other flaky sea salt to taste
2 tablespoons grated orange zest, divided
2-3 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes, divided
¾ cup Pomi strained tomatoes, simmered until reduced by half
Heat large pan over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil, then garlic; sauté 1 minute or until golden brown. Add half the zucchini and half the parsley; season well with salt. Sauté until zucchini is softened but not browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon orange zest and half the red pepper flakes; transfer to a large bowl.
Add 2 tablespoons oil to pan and heat until hot; add remaining zucchini and parsley. Season with salt and sauté until the zucchini is softened but not browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in remaining tablespoon orange zest and red pepper flakes; add to zucchini in large bowl. Toss gently.
Add tomato sauce to zucchini; mix gently. Stir in remaining tablespoon oil. Let stand 10 minutes or up to 1 hour before serving.
The zucchini can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; serve chilled or at room temperature.
Recipe courtesy of Molto Gusto (ecco, 2010). Batali images courtesy of Talisman Brolin for the New York Botanical Garden. Squash image courtesy of Quentin Bacon.