Finding comfort and escape in Marcella Hazan’s classic Italian cooking fundamentals ‹ Literary Hub

Before the pandemic hit, I never cooked. Many other demands on my time—having drinks with friends and colleagues, attending work-related events, going on dates—felt more important than spending hours in my windowless roach nest of a Brooklyn kitchen, preparing food that probably wouldn’t it would be as good as anything he could buy down the street.

My attitude changed once the restaurants closed and the shopping trips started to feel treacherous. Along with so many others, I began cooking, trying to find lightness and some semblance of control as uncertainty, loss, and fear of illness dominated life in lockdown. I moved in with a partner, cooked for two. We broke up, I went back to my apartment, I cooked for one. Meanwhile, I was preparing for a major move to Missoula, Montana, where I planned to attend graduate school. In a matter of months, cooking had become the most stable element of my chaotic life.

Missoula, where I landed in August 2020, offered mountains, fresh air, and a new community. But interesting ingredients were hard to come by in this small western college town, and I longed for New York’s vibrant culinary scene and my days wandering the world as a traveling art writer. So I bought a series of cookbooks, which nurtured my burgeoning culinary education, transported me to new places, and fed my long-standing habit of buying print to assuage uncomfortable feelings (as far as coping mechanisms go, not the best). worse).

One of my acquisitions, that of Marcella Hazan Classic Italian Cooking Essentials, was especially helpful. Originally published in 1991, the book unites two previous Hazan volumes: The classic Italian cookbook Y More Classic Italian Cuisine (both published in the 1970s). These books, as well as Hazan’s mid-century cooking classes in New York City, are widely credited with introducing true regional Italian cooking to the United States.

This fall, Knopf published a 30th anniversary edition of the cookbook. In a new introductory essay, chef Lidia Bastianich points to Hazan’s origins as a trained biologist and as a teacher, first of science, then of cooking. She writes: “A scientist at heart, Marcella made it her mission to profess the truth, true Italian cooking, in all of her recipes, lessons, and cookbooks. Her recipes are simple, delicious, and authentic, but most importantly, they work.”

This emphasis on truth and authenticity make Hazan Classic Italian Cooking Essentials more than just an introduction to a certain type of cuisine. Her singular voice echoes throughout the text, her haunting anecdotes and personal revelations making the volume feel both personal and literary. Classic Italian Cooking Essentials is part visceral travelogue, part lyrical field guide: both for cooking and for bringing warmth and sensuality to the home.

Even the cookbook layout offers a sense of comfort. The light green and yellow cover of my previous issue features a shaded bowl with an embossed floral design. Another bowl looms above. Maroon lettering overlays the image, echoing the maroon lettering inside that introduces each recipe’s title. The cover of the 30th anniversary edition does away with the bowl design and instead features colorful drawings of Hazan’s favorite ingredients: an onion, garlic, herbs, a tomato. In each edition, elegant simplicity reigns.

Classic Italian Cooking Essentials is part visceral travelogue, part lyrical field guide: both for cooking and for bringing warmth and sensuality to the home.

The same thing happens inside the book. Hazan often introduces his recipes with short, evocative notes on their origins and flavor profiles. For example, here’s the entry for Sweet and Sour Tuna Steaks, Trapani Style: “Another savory element of Sicilian cuisine’s remarkable seafood repertoire, this sliced ​​fresh tuna is easy to make and wonderfully appetizing, its sweet and sour flavor a delicious mix.” which is neither cloying nor caustic. Of the nine ingredients that follow, most of it is quite possible that you already have in your pantry, you will only need to buy fresh tuna in the market. The recipe consists of four steps, devoid of prettiness and that do not require sophisticated kitchen implements.

Yet while Hazan’s ingredient lists and instructions are spare, lucid, and to the point, her recipes themselves can be time-consuming. Flavor layering is integral to the Hazan methodology, and it can take minutes or hours to move from one step to the next. The cookbook begins with a list of “FUNDAMENTALS,” beginning with the heading “Where Flavor Begins.” “Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from below,” Hazan writes. She describes “battuto”, “a mixture of chopped ingredients”; “soffritto”, or what the battuto becomes once you sauté it; and “insaporire”, which means “to give flavor”. This latter technique requires the cook to add “main ingredients” to the base of the stir-fry, mixing everything together until the flavor significantly covers all the ingredients.

Hazan believes that bad food is often the result of impatience. “An imperfectly executed soffritto,” in which the onion may be “simply stewed or incompletely sautéed,” will affect the flavor. About insaporire, he writes, like a master wagging his finger: “The unsatisfactory taste, the limpness of dishes that claim to be Italian in style, can often be attributed to the reluctance of some cooks to execute this step thoroughly, to their inability to give enough time to enough heat, or even skip it altogether.”

One cold winter afternoon in Missoula, I cooked up Hazan’s famous beef sauce Bolognese. Minimal introductory information and a few tips precede the recipe. “ragout, as the Bolognese call their famous meat sauce, is characterized by a soft, smooth and comforting flavor that any cook can achieve by being careful with a few points”, Hazan tells us. It suggests what kind of meat to buy, when to add salt to the meat (immediately), what kind of pot works best (“ceramic is preferred in Bologna and by most cooks in Emilia-Romagna”), and, what is Most important, it instructs us to “cook the meat in milk before adding wine and tomatoes to protect it from the acid bite of the latter.”

Although the recipe itself includes just five simple steps, their order is crucial, and the recipe calls for watching the sauce for three to four hours while allowing each layer of flavor to cook. The Bolognese recipe works in the manner of a perfect short story: the writer includes the simplest arrangement of the right elements, allowing the language to magically expand outward and reverberate far beyond its own contours. I spent hours moving between my couch, where I would curl up to read a novel, and the stove, where I would add items to the pot, stir, and taste.

As the winter sun set, I poured myself a glass of wine and opened up even more to the heady aromas that filled my apartment. Butter, onion, celery, carrot, meat, milk, nutmeg, wine and tomatoes were mixed together slowly, lovingly, playing with each other as they simmered. And when my friends arrived to share a meal with me, my apartment was fragrant and warm and full, I hope, with the care I had put into the plate.

That intimate gathering around food is also part of Hazan’s grand plan. “Food, whether simple or elaborate, is cooked family style,” he writes. “There is no such thing as Italian high kitchen because there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking. All roads lead home the kitchen of the house—the only one that deserves to be called Italian cuisine.” And meal by meal, from kitchen to kitchen (to the occasional bar), my grad school friends and associates became my Missoula family.

Hazan helped me see that eating nourishment and sharing a family meal is simply essential. To privilege invention and work outside the kitchen, but not inside it, is to play with patriarchal distinctions of value.

Hazan’s festive kitchen conception, the kitchen of the house, embraces the domesticity I had rejected in New York: I had been single and career-oriented for most of my twenties, opposed to traditional notions of femininity and settling down. I grouped cooking into those categories. However, Hazan helped me see that eating nourishment and sharing a family meal is simply essential. To privilege invention and work outside the kitchen, but not inside it, is to play with patriarchal distinctions of value.

Hazan herself was a cook, an educator, and an incredible creative success. She continues to be influential to many contemporary cooks. Her adoration for anchovies: “Of all the ingredients used in Italian cooking, none produce a more heady flavor than anchovies. It’s an exceptionally adaptable flavor,” heralds Alison Roman’s long reign. Her careful ideas about flavor combinations and her scientific approach to cooking find their echo in the methodologies of Samin Nosrat (who, in his blurb for the new book, also credits Hazan with the start of his obsession with the leaf of laurel).

I was also wrong to think that cooking and poring over recipes could be limiting. Hazan’s writing, like any great book, allows the reader a sense of escape. Leaf through its pages and it will transport you to Venice, Florence, Sicily and vice versa.

Not long ago, in my kitchen in Los Angeles, where I recently moved, I made Hazan polenta shortcake with raisins, dried figs, and pine nuts. She introduces the recipe with a charming anecdote: “When James Beard was in Venice many years ago, he was fascinated by this local speciality, whose nuts and dried fruits recall the trading days of Imperial Venice with the Near East, and asked me to try it. did. provide this recipe.”

I offered a piece of this dense fennel-flecked cake to a colleague while we whipped up another Hazan recipe: eggplant and ricotta sauce, Sicilian style, together. He peeled the tomatoes and eggplant while I chopped the onions and garlic. He hadn’t read the recipe carefully beforehand, and it turned out that we needed to soak the eggplants for an hour, “so that the salt can extract most of their bitter juices.”

I poured two glasses of the Sicilian wine my cooking partner brought over and we moved between my sofa and the kitchen, letting Hazan’s guidance structure our evening. When the time came, the two of us patiently softened the eggplant, browned the onion, and sautéed the tomatoes. We indicate with each careful step how we might ultimately care for one another.

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