Dirty Work: Lessons from Mario Batali on How to Cook a Badass Meal Using Fresh Produce

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Dirty Work: Lessons from Mario Batali on How to Cook a Badass Meal Using Fresh Produce

I’m supposed to give the man who knows more about produce than I will in my lifetime a tour of the MUNCHIES garden. I hope I can keep up.
April 6, 2016, 8:07pm

Welcome back to Dirty Work, our new series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce.

In 1996, the greatest cooking show on television began. The plot was simple: a young, red-headed chef with encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine would stand behind a stove and cook delicious Italian dishes for friends. He'd fill up viewers with facts on regional cooking while serving real-deal plates of food to his guests in the studio.

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The show, Molto Mario, taught us about regionality, technique, and important life lessons like salting your pasta water.

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A cold autumn day on the VICE rooftop. All photos by Sydney Kramer.

Of course, Mario Batali needs zero introduction. Pull up the lauded chef, restaurateur, and TV personality's Wikipedia page, and you'll discover more trivia on his life than what you'll find on President Obama's: "Batali's signature clothing style includes a fleece vest, shorts, and orange Crocs."

Today, I'm standing next to those famous orange Crocs on an overcast November day on the rooftop at VICE HQ. In a few seconds, I'm supposed to give the man who knows more about produce than I will in my lifetime a tour of the MUNCHIES garden. I hope I can keep up.

WATCH: Master of Lunch with Mario Batali

We're here to do some dirty work: harvest fresh herbs and vegetables from the garden that Batali can cook with for fellow food nerds and Master of None creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. As I grab a pair of Batali orange-colored garden sheers and a tote bag, we're ready to explore.

Our urban garden is not unlike the uncoiffed mane of Jeff Bridges: it is wild, untamable, and full of surprises.

The author sampling fresh lemongrass from the MUNCHIES herb garden with Mario Batali.

I start with the wildcard, and point to our wild carrots that grow at random around the roof—out-of-place leafy green fronds that look like Victorian-era ferns experiencing an identity crisis. Batali is intrigued. He kneels down and begins to pull, then yank, a carrot the size of a toy poodle from the ground. The act nearly takes him down, and the crater left behind the root vegetable is evidence that our roof soil runs deep above the office directly below it.

So with our lapdog-sized veggie in tow, we walk over to the herb garden, where Batali runs his hands through savory, rosemary, basil, mint, and lavender. I pluck a single leaf of wormwood, which smells like the airflow of a basement inside a cigar addict's home, for him to sample. I deeply regret the gesture. "I think you want the stem," he politely responds as he kneels down to break off a stalky bit. He hands me a piece, and we taste the botanical in silence. It is bitter, full of fennel and anise, and harsh on the tongue. "I'd need this properly distilled before I could enjoy it," he admits.

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We're only five minutes into this tour, and I've managed to blow out our palates with one of the most jarring flavors in the entire garden. I quickly pull a sorrel leaf to chew on and forget what just happened. "That herb was made famous by the Troisgros brothers with a salmon dish they made called salmon du soleil. Sorrel is great because it reminds me of watermelon without being sweet," he notes.

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Harvesting beets and kohlrabi from the MUNCHIES salad garden.

This garden is a buffet, so we also sample fresh lemongrass stems, which Batali assures me are the "most delicate" he's ever tried. We pass by pineapple sage, lemon mint, and anise hyssop, which he suggests turning into tisane, except for the lemon verbena, which "smells like Pledge" and "works great as a bug repellant."

RECIPE: Mario Batali's Carrot Fritelle with Honey Drizzle

Now that we're halfway through inspecting the garden, we've got very little produce to show for it. Ten steps to our left, and we're at the salad garden, where Batali is nibbling on a few leaves of peppery arugula. The green is his favorite variety, because when in Naples, "it grows wild in the cracks of the sidewalks." We sample some spicy mustard greens and tatsoi, but cut to the chase and quickly start harvesting turnips, beets, Swiss chard, and green onions from the cold soil for his lunch menu.

Batali grabs a small, tender kohlrabi from the vegetable bed and begins to work his magic. "After the first frost, these kohlrabi get twice as sweet, even if the ground is frozen. If I cooked with them right now, I'd rid them of dirt, cut them in half, and serve them with soft butter, sea salt, and a magnum of white wine. We can go on a kolhrabi and Chablis cleanse."

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He surveys the rest of the vegetable tops and points over to the Chioggia beets. "The beet greens are the unsung heroes in this garden. My favorite raviolis are made with beet greens. You can save the greens, make beets, and serve them later. You could also pickle the beets now and then save them for later and serve with them with the first prosciutto made last year that comes up right after Christmas." He pulls a handful from the ground and throws them into a bag. I'm starting to notice who is really giving the tour around here.

RECIPE: Mario Batali's Beet and Ricotta Ravioli with Poppyseed Butter and Ricotta Salata

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The heirloom tomato vines in the main vegetable plot in the MUNCHIES garden.

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang like to eat, and so far, we've only got a baby head-sized carrot, a couple beets, turnips, and some kohlrabi for them.  Sorry, guys. I take Batali over to our main plot to show him some black radishes and ground cherries to spark some inspiration, but he stops us dead in our tracks. "Does Action Bronson know we're hanging out here? It's like I'm sneaking into the hen house. Sorry Bronse'." He maniacally chuckles, and spots the large patch of green heirloom tomatoes that never matured this past summer. They hang, waiting to be picked.

"In Campagna, where they grow San Marzanos, when the tomatoes are still green and hanging off the vines at the end of the season, they'll take the plant out from the roots and hang it in the cellar. The San Marzanos will slowly ripen over the course of the winter because they're still on the vine. Isn't that crazy?" But time is not on our side to watch these things ripen, so Batali throws out some other options. "With green tomatoes like this, they make a slightly bitter raw green tomato pesto that is so delicious."

RECIPE: Mario Batali's Vicenza-Style Chard and Beef Meatballs

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The fruits—er, vegetables—of our labor: beets, wild carrot, black radishes, and turnips.

The vegetable bag is getting heavy and so is the cold autumn air, so we bring our haul to a picnic table to assess what the Master of Lunch will do next. We dump green tomatoes, black radishes, beets and their greens, the world's first Williamsburg freak carrot, green onions, kolhrabi, green scallions, herbs, and some chilies on the table. We step back to take it all in.

"This is twice as plentiful as I thought. I'm the kind of guy who can see a bag of groceries and 200 different meals. I thought you guys had some sort of hobby garden out here. This is a jungle of deliciousness. I think we should probably make something."

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Green tomatoes and scallions await their fate.

He ditches the wild carrot—a dead ringer for poison hemlock—and brings his haul back to his own kitchen to masterfully create a lunch of carrot fritters with honey, beet, and ricotta ravioli, and Vicenza-style chard and beef polpette (meatballs) for the Master(s) of None, proving there's still molto in Mario yet.