TRAVERSE CITY — Mario Batali chopped a huge bunch of fresh basil in a food processor, then added a splash of extra-virgin olive oil.
As he explained the proper way to make pesto, journalists seated at tables hung on every word and occasionally stood up to snap pictures. A video camera captured the food action up close and played it back on a large screen.
Celebrity chef Batali teamed up with Pure Michigan to host food and travel journalists from around the country on a "familiarization tour" of his favorite vacation region. The June 27-July 1 tour included visits to area farms, restaurants and wineries like The Cooks' House, Grand Traverse Pie Co. and Black Star Farms.
It also took the journalists to scenic landmarks including the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Glen Arbor and Leland's Fishtown.
But the highlight was Batali's cooking demonstration at Chateau Chantal showcasing locally sourced ingredients. The "Made in Michigan" epicurean event gave journalists the chance to get up close and personal with the über chef and part-time northern Michigan resident and to sample two of his new summer recipes.
In talking about his love for the region, Batali told the journalists: "If you walk around and look at this place you realize there are Napa and Tuscany and all those places, but nothing that scratches all these (gastronomical and aesthetic) itches."
While preparing Michigan Walleye in Prosciutto with Pesto Fregola and "Pinwheel-style" Beef Braciole, the Italian chef waxed enthusiastic about fish from Carlson's in Leland, Leelanau Raclette cheese and meat from Pleva's in Cedar.
"It is the old-school old-style butcher shop from heaven," he said of Pleva's, also known for its cherry-enhanced meats.
Michigan cherries got their due in recipes, too. Batali included dried cherries in the beef dish and said one of his favorite things to do with the fruit is make cherry vinegar. His method? Cover overripe cherries with red or rice wine vinegar and let the vinegar sit in the sun for two days before giving it away as Christmas presents.
The media tour was all about more exposure for the region, said Brad Van Dommelen, president of the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"Most of these people are food editors who write about what happens in the food culture," he said. "It's a great connection to have Mario to talk about the agriculture of the area, the cooking."
The tour was one of about a half-dozen Pure Michigan conducts around the state every year, said George Zimmermann, vice president of Travel Michigan at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. This year familiarization tours also will feature Detroit and Mackinac Island.
"The only thing that's different about this one is the Mario connection and the live (feeds) he did for morning and mid-morning shows," said Zimmermann, adding that paying for the journalists' airfare and other expenses is a favorable trade-off for the publicity the tours generate.
"The premise is you're not going to get extensive coverage in most publications or sites unless the journalists actually come and visit," he said. "We just started doing national advertising in 2009 but still there are lots of travel journalists who don't know this area."
Freelance travel writer Jimmy Im said he'll use what he learned to write about the Grand Traverse region for publications like food.com and fodors.com.
"What's interesting is that a lot of people don't know about Traverse City unless they're foodies," said Im, who's based in New York City. "For instance, I didn't know about the sand dunes, the beaches, the fun little restaurants, the pies. There's a lot more to experience."
"I love it here, it's beautiful. I never knew," said Lisa Mamounas, a food and art writer for Louise Blouin Media and founder of Culinary Insiders (www.culinaryinsiders.com), which creates events, trips and tours with celebrity chefs around the world. "I never even considered it (as a vacation spot). It's a surprise. How can you not know it's the most beautiful American place? I've been tweeting already and learning local ingredients. You're much more culinary oriented than we realize."
Batali said home grilling and cooking is getting bigger every year as people get excited about regional American products. Other food trends include people looking to the flavors of Southeast Asia and moving away from pure proteins and toward augmenting their diet in different ways.
Among other tips Batali shared:
- Pas much attention to shopping as cooking. "The tricks to Italian cooking are rarely tricks, Italians know the shopping is as significant as the dish."
- Go directly to the source. "Don't buy box beef from box stores. The best way to buy meat is to go to a butcher you trust. Pay 10 percent more."
- Sometimes less is more. "If you keep adding herbs thinking you're creating a symphony, you're just confusing the flavors. Choose one or two herbs in each dish and stick with them."
- Cut down on portions. "Six or seven bites of anything and you should be done. Serving a little makes eating more luxurious."
Mario Batali's Michigan Walleye in Prosciutto with Pesto Fregola
2 pieces walleye fillets (have your fishmonger remove bones and skin, and all of the nasty stuff too; about 2½ lbs. total)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ozs. thinly sliced prosciutto
1 lb. fregola, acini di pepe, or orzo
1 c. pesto (see below)
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded, and cut into ¼-inch dice
¼ c. extra-virgin olive oil
¼ c. pine nuts, toasted until golden brown
Rinse the walleye and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper.
Arrange half of the prosciutto slices on a work surface, overlapping them to make a rectangle large enough to enclose one of the walleye fillets (use enough prosciutto to enclose the fish securely, but you may have a couple of slices left over). Lay the fish in the center and fold the prosciutto up and around it to make a tight roulade. If necessary, secure with butcher's twine or toothpicks. Repeat with the second fillet. Set seam side down on a plate and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. Place a piastra on the grill to preheat.
Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt. Set up an ice water bath. Drop the fregula into the boiling water and cook until just al dente. Drain and immediately refresh in the ice bath; when it is cool, drain the fregula extremely well.
In a large bowl, toss the fregula with the pesto and red peppers. Set aside.
Brush each prosciutto-wrapped fillet with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Place on the piastra and cook for 6 minutes, unmoved. Gently roll each one over 90 degrees and cook for 4 minutes. Repeat twice, for a total cooking time of about 18 minutes; the internal temperature should be about 150° in the thickest part of the fish. Transfer to a platter and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Cut the tails into ¾-inch slices and arrange nicely on top of the fregula. Drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, sprinkle with the pine nuts, and serve. Makes 6 servings.
3 garlic cloves
2 c. lightly packed fresh basil leaves
3 T. pine nuts
Generous pinch of Maldon or other flaky sea salt
½ cup plus 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
¼ c. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 T. grated pecorino romano
With the motor running, drop the garlic into a food processor to chop it. Add the basil, pine nuts, and salt and pulse until the basil and nuts are coarsely chopped, then process until finely chopped.
With the motor running, drizzle in the oil. Transfer to a small bowl and stir in the Parmigiano and pecorino. (The pesto can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, topped with a thin layer of extra virgin olive oil, for several weeks in the refrigerator.)
Makes about 1 cup.