Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday Cook Book

Do it right – cooking with Marcella Hazan

It’s said that Marcella Hazan taught America to cook Italian. Proper Italian that is, with all the classic ingredients and methods. I don’t know about that but I do know she taught me a lot. I first heard about her from some friends in New York and I somehow managed get my hands on a copy of her Essentials of classic Italian cooking Alfred A. Knopf 1993. Nobody I knew in Dublin or later in Barcelona where I lived after college, had ever heard of her but when they tasted the food I cooked from this now classic volume they took notice.
Her cooking was a revelation and has probably informed my own approach to food more than anything else. Hazan drummed into me, and I’m sure countless others, that the quality of your ingredients matters more than anything. It’s the essence of Italian and indeed, all good food. Period.
Take a dish like eggplant Parmesan. Unlike in the States, this dish isn’t a staple in Europe except in some parts of Italy so it was new to me when I tried it.  Those luscious layers of fried aubergine, rich tomato sauce with basil leaves, Mozzarella and Parmesan crystalised like nothing else the value using less rather than more ingredients. To do it right you have to follow all the steps – salt the eggplant, wipe the resulting bitter liquid, lay each slice out to dry but not for too long in case they go chewy, lightly dust each one with flour then fry. It’s quite a process. I’ve done it for up to 30 people in a hot Barcelona kitchen in August and yes, I nearly passed out with the heat, my hair smelt terrible but it was worth it. It tastes even better the next day so I tend to ration seconds something I never do. It’s that good. But, and this is important, if you get lazy and, say, skip some or all of those steps or simply grill the aubergine do something like use dried basil instead of fresh you might as well not have bothered at all. Yes, the dish might be edible but it will not resemble Hazan’s amazing original.
It’s an old school cookery book (no pictures!) and the chapters are mainly grouped by courses and ingredients-  pasta, polenta, soups etc. All ingredients are covered and there are sections on buying and storing. We start with Fundamentals a really useful introduction for any homecook where she discusses things like how to build flavour, the classic soffritto, “bestowing flavour”... It’s a fabulous introduction and really makes you think about how you cook. Like a lot of my favourite cooks, Hazan is a teacher.
While there are countless wonderful recipes you can follow what I really love are the tips, general guidelines and observations. Take salad, Hazan explains that this course “releases the palate from the grip of the cook’s fabrications, leading it to cool, fresh sensations, to a rediscovery of food in its least laboured state” Of course it does. On dressing said salad “A little vinegar is sufficient to be noticed, a little too much monopolizes all your attention to the disadvantage of every other ingredient”. Is she bossy? More than a little but you learn so much that it doesn’t seem to matter. A must.

Marcella Hazan’s garlic scented tomato salad
This salad is a fine example of a Hazan recipe. I haven’t altered anything as I know she wouldn’t approve and anyway why would you? It’s nothing short of amazing. Very simple but with a couple of steps I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Basically it’s sliced tomatoes with basil dressed in olive oil and red wine vinegar. There are 2 tricks – first of all the vinegar is infused with lots of garlic and secondly the tomatoes are peeled. The resulting juices are heavenly. Just be sure you have lots of bread.

You’ll need:

900gr best tomatoes

5 cloves garlic crushed

A teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

A dozen fresh basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil

Peel the garlic cloves then mash them with a knife handle (Hazan fiercely disapproved of garlic crushers). Put them in a bowl with the salt and vinegar and set aside for 20 minutes. Skin the tomatoes using a sharp knife or a swiveling-blade peeler then cut them into thin slices. Lay the tomatoes out on a plate or dish and when you’re ready to serve, rinse the basil leaves in cold water, tear into 2 or 3 pieces and sprinkle on top of the tomatoes. Pour the garlic scented vinegar through a strainer over the tomatoes. Generously drizzle with olive oil and serve.  

Hazan was famously unable to cook until she married and quickly realised d that married life depended on it. As soon as she started she realised she was a natural and aws soon giving cooking classes to friends and the a cooking school was set up. Her first book The classic Italin cook book was published in 1973 and then another followed in 1978 More classic Italian Cooking. Essentials of Classic Italian cooking is a the two of these in one volumn.


Maxwell Mead Williams Robinson Barry said...

wow, what a delicious treat.
yummy looking stuff.


Jingle said...

superb review.

Indie said...

Great review And now I know what to do with all this basil that is over running my garden!