Although Marcella Hazan passed away more than a year ago, and since my blog is fairly new, this is my first chance to pay tribute to this great lady. During the last quarter of the last century, it was Marcella who taught Americans how to cook simple, traditional Italian food.
I’ll set the stage when Marcella first came into my life. I was single and living in Los Angeles and could barely cook anything. I had about 5-6 index cards with some of my mother’s recipes and a cookbook she had recently sent me for my birthday, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook. This is the orange one with the three-hole punch pages and the pretty pictures. Pot roast, cheesecake, brownies, etc. Traditional Amercan fare. I still have it. I still like it.
But my little repertoire was blah: stuffed peppers, pork roast with sauerkraut, meatballs. [I was fairly inept too but never did anything as bad as what my sister did when she left home: thicken her spaghetti sauce with flour. Sorry, Joanne.]
So there I was in L.A., stuck in a culinary La Brea Tar Pit so to speak with just me and Betty C., when I decided to really switch up my cooking. I went to the bookstore (remember those) and turned into Walter Mitty. I bought Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking and an Italian cookbook that intrigued me by a woman I had never heard of, Marcella Hazan. Neither cookbook had pictures–just drawings of mostly armless hands doing things with knives.
I knew Julia child from her popular cooking show on public broadcasting. And I loved French food. We never had French restaurants in Ohio when I was growing up but I loved the ones in L.A. I did not start simple: roast duck with cherry sauce. I’ll never know if it would have been good. My boyfriend arrived, saw the cherry sauce pan sitting in the sink where I had momentarily stashed it for lack of kitchen space. My boyfriend thought he’d help me clean up. I had put the saucepan with the cherry sauce down in the sink because my kitchen was small, the stovetop crowded. I noticed him at the sink. I heard running water. I turned to see the cherry sauce bubble up, over the side of the pan and down the drain like the garbage he thought it was. We ate out.
On my next occasion with Julia, I decided to make her moussaka. A quick look at the 2-page recipe and I had two questions: how hard can it be? And what the h@ll is a charlotte mold? I ran out and bought one so I’d be properly equipped for my new gourmet career. [I still have that charlotte mold. My daughter keeps it to house the stinky sponges she uses to clean her saddle and riding boots.]
So next I tackled Julia’s 2-page moussaka recipe to serve to friends. You have to peel the eggplant so the peels stay in one piece so you can drape them over the mold. Hour after hour I worked. Then I wondered why someone was ringing my doorbell at that time of the afternoon. But it wasn’t afternoon. It was evening. Those were my guests. The moussaka had just gone into the oven. The kitchen looked like a tornado had come through it. The moussaka? Fantastic.
What attracted me to Marcella’s book were the short, simple recipes made with just a few ingredients. The book that I bought out of blind faith was, I realize these many years later, a first edition. It’s pictured below. I don’t know how I’ve kept it in such good shape all these decades. Sheer, blinded love I guess.
My Italian-born relatives were from southern Italy, from Caserta just east of Naples. So the Italian cooking in my family, indeed in most Italian-America homes years ago, reflected that southern style. Marcella was from the region Emilia-Romagna where the dishes are very different. I used to sit in bed at night turning the pages of her book like a novel and discovering revelation upon revelation. A few stand out:
- You can use butter to make a red sauce. Who knew? Revolutionary for me.
- You use chopped or grated carrot to sweeten the acidic tomatoes in a red sauce. Who knew? No more sugar for me.
- You can cook a pork roast in milk. Who knew? We never cooked pork roasts in milk in Ohio.
- Cooking pasta, of course, was serious business. Discussing all the variables involved in achieving al dente, such as type of pasta, hardness of the water, etc. Marcella declared and I quote: it is impossible to make good pasta at over 4500 feet above sea level. Well…who knew? I scuttled my plans to move to Denver.
Marcella, you are still much loved and very fondly remembered. Even, I’m sure, by people in Denver.