Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Celebrity Chef Death Match

At my sibling site, one of the Fluffsters wonders what I meant by my reference in a previous post to a dispute between Mark Bittman and Mario Batali about braising. I referred to a "dispute (in my mind)," not the kind settled in small claims court or outside the saloon, and I didn't mean to impute to these estimable cooking gods any mutual ill feeling. But I suppose a clarification is in order, lest the braisers of the blogosphere find themselves unsure of where to go from here.

Braises are dishes in which food is cooked gently in simmering liquid. Some culinary sticklers prefer to use terms such as "stew" or "daube" or even, good heavens, "blanquette" to describe such dishes. I am no stickler.

On his Food Network show Molto Mario, Iron Chef Batali tends to repeat himself. Once you have seen as many episodes as I have, you can hear his shtick in your head as you try to fall asleep at night. "There is no Italian cuisine, there's only regional cuisines." "Pasta should be dressed like a salad, not swimming in sauce." "The most important ingredient in any fish or seafood dish is freshness." "When an Italian walks into a grocery store, he expects to go home with the best thing they have on sale." "If you ask an Italian where's the best place in town to eat, they won't say at a restaurant, they'll say at my mama's house, at my grandma's house, at my aunt's house." I could continue, but I feel like I'm about to fall asleep. So, one of Mario's big shticks has to do with braising. He says, "The difference between good cooking and really great cooking is taking the time to brown the food really well." I.e., a great braise starts with meat that has been seared in a dry pan, which is then deglazed with a braising liquid in which the meat simmers until it's done. I don't know what to say here about the Sad Billionaire's broccoli, which I must leave aside.

Mark Bittman, who has a fantastic new cooking show on PBS, writes in his opus How to Cook Everything that the browning step in making classic beef stew "isn't absolutely necessary." In his braised beef brisket recipe he writes that if you skip the initial browning, "the difference, in the end, will be minimal." Veal stew with tomatoes: "It's best to brown the meat first for extra depth of flavor, but it is not essential."

Thus in my mind I saw a dispute, since MarBat insists on always browning, and MarBitt insists that the difference is minimal. They can't both be right. My point in the chili description was that an extra layer of intense browned beef flavor--courtesy of that magical Maillard reaction--would have detracted from rather than improved Chico's flavor-explosive braise. I chalk this up to differences in styles of cooking. Italian flavors are generally simple and straightforward by comparison with Cincinnati chili, so you would miss the browning step much more in one of Mario's traditional dishes.

Anyhow, Fluffsters, keep browning if you like it, or skip it if you don't. There's no right and wrong in the kitchen, only delicious and even more delicious.


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