This is currently my favorite cookbook. It has been for quite a while and I’m usually pretty capricious.
Marcella Hazan (Her Name Be Praised) earned her place in the Italian cooking pantheon with Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Originally published in separate volumes as The Classic Italian Cookbook in 1973 and More Classic Italian Cooking in 1978 – combined, updated, and revised in the current single volume in 1992)
As wonderful as it is, Essentials is as advertised. It’s the essentials. It resembles in style and layout, Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. I assume that was an intentional and successful attempt to claim staple status among Italian cookbooks in the same way Rombauer had general European-American books. It’s a broad overview. Her later, shorter books are more adventurous. They have a sharper focus and capture the mood and culinary fetishes she’s entertaining at a given moment. She’s more fun after she laid the groundwork.
I’ve got my mother’s copy of Marcella Cucina (1997.) Most of Mom’s cookbooks are heavily annotated. I remember a veal dish in a non-Hazan book exed out in pencil with the words “Never Again!” scrawled in the margin. Not so this book. There are a few notes here and there, but I get the sense that Mom thought Marcella did a pretty good job.
It’s such a refreshing read when contrasted with the nonsense spiritual save the Earth editorial decisions behind the text of so many modern cookbooks. I remember when Jamie Oliver was The Naked Chef. He was this fun guy that came up with brilliant and off the wall recipes with minimal ingredients. He, along with his food, was fresh and enjoyable. Somewhere along the line he transformed into Food Jesus and I can’t stand him now because all he wants to do is preach at me.
Marcella doesn’t preach. She admonishes every so often and does so with a grandmotherly disappointment that she even has to explain to you what should seem so elementary, but she does so gently. The effect is endearing. An example from the opening section on quality ingredients:
“How do you justify using an oil that may cost $25 or more a bottle? Let us do some figuring. Assume you have yielded to temptation and have brought home a 1-liter bottle of olive oil that costs you $30. I 1 liter there are 72 tablespoons, each one of which costs you just under 42 cents. Every time you toss a salad or sauté spinach or make a tomato and garlic sauce or drizzle a few drops of oil over bean soup or dress grilled or steamed fish, for 42 cents a tablespoon you are bestowing priceless flavor on your dishes. Except for onion, garlic, parsley, or salt and pepper, no other ingredient you might be using costs you so little, and none delivers so much. Had you spent half as much as for the oil, or even a third – and you should be wary of paying any less – you would have saved a few pennies, but lost an irreplaceable moment in your life in which to enjoy, in dishes you bring to the table, the pleasure of fully achieved taste.”
Most, but not all of the recipes are preceded by a paragraph or two sharing whatever experience led her to combine the following dish or under what circumstances she first came upon a particular recipe. She can put you in a café in Rome, a street market with remarkable peppers, and a friend’s kitchen for a light lunch.
My favorite paragraph in the book is one in which she goes against the advice of nearly every chef and cookbook author because she validates something I’ve been saying since I was twelve years old. Who doesn’t love confirmation from an authority? To wit:
“This applies mainly to factory-made semolina pasta. Home cooks have long known that the waster in which the pasta is cooked contained some dissolved starch, and they used a spoonful of this water as a thickener, adding it to the sauce, to which they gave a very fast blast of heat and a swirl or two before tossing it with the pasta. Restaurant cooks have gone further. They drain the pasta when it is quite underdone, add the pasta and some of its water to a skillet containing the sauce, and toss it over high heat for a minute or so. It is to my mind like using roux, that flour and butter fixture of French sauces. I have never cared for roux-thickened sauces and I don’t like the fashion for pasta “roux” as I call it. Today, in restaurant after restaurant, it imparts the same tedious, faintly gelatinous texture to what might otherwise have been fresh and lively sauces. When used occasionally and sagaciously – see the Broccoli and Mozzarella Pasta Sauce on page 146 – it is to impart a special consistency to that dish. When the practice becomes routine, it ends by being boring.”
This is my favorite recipe from the book:
Lamb Sauce for Pasta, Abruzzi-Style
(Ragu D’Agnello All’Abruzzese)
½ lb boneless lamb, any cut that is not too lean
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped onions
2 ounces pancetta, chopped very fine
1 tablespoon chopped rosemary leaves
Black pepper ground fresh
2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
¼ cup grated Romano or other sheep’s milk cheese
I add garlic and red pepper flakes, but that’s just me. The process is a bit long for me to write at the moment but an experienced cook should be able to suss it out. Cube the lamb, start with onions in olive oil, pancetta and rosemary, white wine, tomatoes, and then salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rigatoni or mostaccioli with heaps of cheese.
If you want more detail I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book. It’s worth it.