Marcella Hazan (1924-2013): The Julia Child of Italian Cooking

Until Marcella Hazan published her instantly classic cookbook, you went to a restaurant that featured Northern Italian cooking, had a meal that was destined for your top ten list, and returned home with a nagging question:
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The death of Marcella Hazan, at 89, has produced tributes from everyone of importance in Food World.

It makes me want to open Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and cook.

Until Hazan published her instantly classic cookbook, you went to a restaurant that featured Northern Italian cooking, had a meal that was destined for your top ten list, and returned home with a nagging question: This is simple food. Why can't I cook like this?

With Hazan's book in hand, that changed. Her recipes were the essence of simplicity -- her famous tomato sauce contained only tomatoes, onion, butter and salt. But not so fast. She warned that "Simple doesn't mean easy." Her definition of "simple" was not a synonym for "lazy." As she said: "I can describe simple cooking thus: Cooking that is stripped all the way down to those procedures and those ingredients indispensable in enunciating the sincere flavor intentions of a dish."

So she began her book by setting forth some fundamentals.

Turn to page seven. "Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom," she begins. "It is not a cover, it is a base. In a pasta sauce, a risotto, a fricassee, a stew, or a dish of vegetables, a foundation of flavor supports, lifts, points up the principal ingredients." The metaphor, she continues, is "architectural." And you suddenly flash back to your childhood and your afternoons playing with blocks, and a very big light bulb goes on.

The light bulb here involves techniques: battuto (chopped vegetables), soffritto (sauteeing the battuto) and insaporire (bestowing taste, by coating the key ingredients with the flavoring elements). Her explanation is clear. By page nine, you are ready to cook.

Marcella's "secret" might just be the result of her fundamental innocence. She said she never cooked until her marriage in 1955. Her training was in science -- she had a PhD in biology from the University of Ferrara, Italy. Which explains her heightened sensitivity to fundamentals -- to process.

Just look at the recipes in these 704 pages. Few have more than 10 ingredients. Instructions put you in charge (you observe the meal you're cooking, you decide when it's done). And she makes sure that you won't be standing in the kitchen putting on the "finishing touches" while your guests twiddle their thumbs at the table -- this is hearty, traditional, Northern Italian "home cooking" that you can master for considerably less than the $3,000 that Hazan used to charge for a week of cooking classes in Venice.

You should try before you buy. In the case of a cookbook, that's easy. I let the book fall open to a recipe for a dish I make often (in part because it's terrific, but in larger part because it's incredibly easy). Here you go: a main course that is both simple and elegant, suitable for family dining and for your snootiest friends. Like the author, this recipe -- indeed, all her recipes -- is immortal.

Roast Pork with Vinegar and Bay Leaves

For 6 servings

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 pounds boneless pork loin roast
l teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
½ cup good red wine vinegar

In a heavy-bottomed or enameled cast-iron pot, put in butter and oil. Turn stove on to medium-high; when the butter foam subsides, put in the pork. Brown deeply, turning when each side is done.

Add salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and vinegar. Turn heat to low, cover the pot and cook, turning the meat occasionally. If liquid evaporates, add ¼ cup water.

When cooked through -- 40-60 minutes -- transfer the pork to a cutting board. Let sit for a few minutes, then slice. Meanwhile, remove bay leaves, add 2 tablespoons of water, and heat the gravy. Pour over the pork and serve.

Or try her on a recipe you've made your own way -- or someone else's -- a million times.

Bolognese Meat Sauce

for about 6 servings

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon for tossing with the pasta
1/2 cup chopped onion
2/3 cup chopped celery
2/3 cup chopped carrot
3/4 pound ground beef chuck, not too lean
salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole milk [or 2 %]
Whole nutmeg for grating
1 cup dry white or red wine
1 1/2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds pasta
Freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano at the table

Put the oil, butter, and chopped onion in a heavy-bottomed pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook and stir until the onion is translucent. Add the celery and carrot and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring to coat the vegetables with fat.

Add the meat, a large pinch of salt, and some freshly ground pepper. Break the meat up with a fork, stir well, and cook until the meat has lost its raw color.

Add milk and let simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating, about 1/8 teaspoon, fresh nutmeg and stir.

Add the wine and let it simmer away. When the wine has evaporated, stir in the tomatoes. When they begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours, stirring from time to time. If the sauce begins to dry out, add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary to keep it from sticking. At the end, there should be no water left, and the fat must separate from the sauce. Taste for salt.

Toss with cooked, drained pasta and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Serve freshly grated cheese at the table.

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