I just got back from visiting my friend Bird for her birthday, and on Monday, the day after her big birthday bash (stayed tuned for that story!), we went to a place that I have been dying to experience (you don’t just go to this place, you experience it), the Italian food market in the Chelsea area of New York City: EATALY.
This giant marketplace is the result of the collaboration between two rock stars in the world of food, chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich. They are married to Italian food like a religion and that passion makes them experts in all things Italian. Their philosophy to food is my kind of religion too, the best ingredients should highlight a dish, with little need for complicated sauces and an over-zealous hand.
They believe, and I quote, that “Good food brings all of us together, and helps us find a common point of view” That is what I have been writing about in my blog for the past two years. I firmly believe that if the food is good, no matter who is sitting around the table, there is joy and pleasure. It is so corny to say it out loud, but if the food is good, there is no need to talk about anything else but the food, (forget politics and religion for once!).
This beautiful market that is an explosion of fresh pasta, olive oil, fresh fish, meat, bread, vegetables, cured meats, dried foods, salts, chocolates, and on and on. If you can say it in Italian, it’s here! There are seven restaurants interspersed over the entire market, located conveniently near the produce stall or counter which sells the type of food it serves.
As I said, it was a massive place, but somehow felt homey, with restaurants and food areas designed in a way that made each space appear intimate, dispelling that feeling of being overwhelmed by choice and general panic at where to begin your food shopping or dining. It felt exciting to walk around with hoards of people who were just as passionate about food as I was. I spent some time in Italy this year (3 months to be exact) and had visited enough food markets to know that this one felt very close to the genuine article, and lots of Italians apparently agreed with me as there was constant Italian chatter to be heard all around me.
My poor friend had to work Monday (she is usually off that day) and so we decided to meet at the big marble bar in Manzo Ristorante (a place for meat lovers) and enjoy a cocktail while we discussed what we would make for dinner. The goal was to cook with ingredients only purchased from Eataly that evening, so we had to think carefully, while not thinking too much at the same time – what a delightful task.
We both enjoy the same foods (down to cold sardines eaten from a can) so I didn’t foresee any fighting between steak or fish. of course we settled on fish, and then I thought about what Mr. Batali said about the cooking of fish in one of his cookbooks that I often peruse while sitting in my kitchen: “leave it alone!” He said that Italians are so proud of their fish that masking it with anything like a sauce or powerful seasonings borders on criminal (his thoughts, my words!).
Bearing that sound advice in mind, we decided to fry the fish is olive oil, infused with a little fried thyme sprigs and garnished with fresh lemon juice and sea-salt. After our delicious cocktails we made our way to the fish counter and choose some gorgeous wild sea-trout. I know I bought too much, (2 lbs for 2 people) but I loathed to think if I wanted more I would have to do without (eyes-bigger-than-belly syndrome).
The rest of the shopping was easy: a little bottle of extra-virgin oil, a couple of lemons, coarse sea-salt, cheese, bread, and finally something green to go with everything. We choose a head of escarole (which we discovered later when we looked at our shopping bill at home that it cost $8! We called the store in disbelief and sure enough it was $8 per lb – all the more reason to enjoy it!) The last, but by no means least ingredient, was a nice bottle of wine to go along with everything. We settled on a Sardinian wine, Argiolas Perdera from the Eataly wine shop. We were now armed with EVERYTHING EATALY and left Chelsea with an eye on Bird’s kitchen and the prospect of good food.
As I familiarized myself with the part of the living space called “the kitchen” (no more than a few feet with a sink, with cupboards above, stove, 2 feet of counter space and a window sill and alcove that acted as the hold-all-pots-pans-and-utensil shelf), we opened the wine and poured a couple of glasses. It was perfect. I sliced the cheese and breads, and we contented ourselves with munching on this while I lazily prepared the fish.
It was a great test to my culinary prowess to restrict myself to only using what was in our grocery bag. I had to resist adding a drop of white wine to the pan or a little stock to perhaps poach the fish. And, all good Italian cooks were proved right again about how simply fish should be cooked. With oil, thyme, lemon and salt, I cooked the best trout of my life. I will take a little credit, but the majority of the success was due to the fabulously fresh fish.
Our evening would not have been better had we gone to the best restaurant in the city. We had it all, good food, wine, a kitchen that smelled of Italy, and the best company imaginable (referring to my friend, not me of course).
I have plans to go back to EATALY on my next visit and maybe this time stand at one of the high marble counters enjoying a pizza and glass of earthy red wine, while I ponder what to throw into my shopping basket.
This is a great meal with strong flavors all the way around, from the zingy meat fish to the spicy sautéed greens. I really hope you give it a try!
*This is a Blood Type A Friendly recipe (trout, escarole and olive oil being highly beneficial to A’s). Leave out Parmesan cheese if you want to be very strict*
You will need:
2 lbs wild sea-trout fillets (if 2 pieces: cut into 3, if 3 pieces: cut in half)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
18 (give or take) sprigs fresh thyme
1 tsp good quality sea salt (Maldon or some other course or flaked salt)
juice from 1 lemon
1 lemon, cut into wedges
1 head escarole, washed & chopped
1/4 lb good quality Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese, sliced
freshly ground black pepper
extra extra-virgin live oil for drizzling
1 loaf good quality bread, thinly sliced (I used a delicious walnut bread and a Parmesan bread, but any good crusty, fresh bread will do)
1 – Cut fish as instructed above. Wash and pat fish dry with paper towels, and season with a little sea-salt and freshly ground pepper. Prep escarole, juice and slice lemon and reserve on a plate and into a little bowl. Slice bread and cheese and place on a wooden board or nice plate.
2 –Put saute pan on medium/high heat and let the pan warm before adding about 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add 1/2 of the thyme leaves and let them sizzle for a few seconds before placing fish, skin side up, into the hot pan. You will probably do this in two batches. Do not crowd the pan or the fish will get soggy.
3 – Fry undisturbed for 4 minutes. Adjust heat up or down according to how the fish appears to be cooking. (you want it to look like it is slightly sizzling, but not so high that it is out of control. The more you cook fish, the better you will become at reading it). Turn fish carefully with a spatula or egg turned and allow to fry for another 4 minutes in which time the skin will get nice and crispy.
4 – When all fish is cooked, (you will need to add more oil and thyme leaves before you cook the rest of the fish), place on a warmed platter, and cover loosely with foil. Keep warm while you cook the escarole.
5 – Wipe out you pan (you may have to wash it quickly) or use another pan. Place pan on medium/high heat and let the oil warm. Place the escarole in the pan and cook undisturbed for about 1 minutes. Add a little coarse salt and pepper and give everything a stir with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook like this for about 4 more minutes until it is perfectly wilted but the ribs are still crisp.
When everything is ready, squeeze lots of lemon juice over the fish and scatter a few lemon wedges on top (for diners to add more lemon to their fish if desired). Place the escarole, fish platter, and bread and cheese on the center of the table, along with a good quality extra-virgin olive oil, salt and black pepper. Add oil to bread and cheese if you like, and maybe add a few fresh thyme leaves to the escarole.