If there is any one cook and cookbook author who has most informed my own cooking since I first picked up a skillet in a serious way, it has to be Marcella Hazan.
I can hardly believe that it has been 30 years since I bought her first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook, in 1973. It still occupies a handy place on my shelf, too, even if every page is spattered with food, the jacket is long gone, and the bright red-and-white covers are just about falling off.
Like most Americans, I've learned a lot more about Italian food and cooking than I knew in the early 1970s, when most of us, even if we had enjoyed a taste of real Italian heritage through friends or family, thought of Italian food as pizza, red-sauced spaghetti and rough red wine in wicker-wrapped bottles.
For many of us, Marcella was the primary guide in leading us to a fuller, richer understanding of Italian cuisine. The introduction to her first book may seem self-evident to modern "foodies," but back then it was a revelation to learn that "The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it actually doesn't exist. 'Italian cooking' is an expression of convenience rarely used by Italians. The cooking of Italy is really the cooking of its regions, regions that until 1861 were separate, independent, and usually hostile states. ... The cooking of Venice, for example, is so distant from that of Naples, although they are both Italian cities specializing in seafood, that not a single authentic dish from the one is to be found on the other's table."
The Classic Italian Cookbook was just right for me as a budding amateur chef intrigued by world cuisines. The recipes weren't so complicated that you had to work all day to make dinner, but they weren't boringly simple. They always seemed to work as intended, and rarely resulted in a dish that I didn't like. I loved the way that she introduced the recipes with short discussions that ranged from Italian-food lore to stories of growing up in Italy. So many of her dishes became household favorites, "go-to" recipes that I still make regularly - ragu Bolognese, veal shanks ossobuco, pasta with white clam sauce and many more - and even if my renditions have evolved far from the originals over many years of repetition, I still think of them as Marcella's.
Naturally I grabbed her succeeding books as soon as they appeared: More Classic Italian Cooking in 1978 and Marcella's Italian Kitchen in 1986, although I passed on the 1995 Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking since it was just a revised update that combined the first two books into one. In 1997, already well into her 70s, Hazan published Cucina Marcella. And now she delights us again with the new Marcella says ... , just out from HarperCollins Publishers.
Subtitled "Italian cooking wisdom from the legendary teacher's Master Classes, with 120 of her irresistable new recipes," it's vintage Hazan, full of her wit and sometimes-opinionated wisdom, and delicious Italian recipes that work.
I came home from Florida on Monday to find a review copy waiting in my mail, and I've already cooked four dishes from it: Lele Rivolta's Leek Sauce, Il Sugo di Porri della Lele (Page 172), turns simple leeks and butter into a coarse-textured, rich and aromatic sauce for short pasta. Broccolini and Cannellini Bean Soup, Zuppa di Broccolini e Cannellini (Page 114), is a hearty vegetarian soup to warm a winter night, a particularly quick dish if you choose the canned-bean alternative. Baked Cabbage and Parmesan Cheese, Verza Gratinata al Parmigiano (Page 302) proves that veggies don't have to be healthy to be delicious ... chopped steamed cabbage is stirred into a silken bechamel sauce with Parmigiano, then baked under a crisp crust of more Parmigiano and bread crumbs.
Finally, for today's featured recipe, let's cook Hazan's new Pot Roast of Beef with Garlic, Anchovies, Vinegar and Pancetta, or in Italian, Arrosto di Manzo alla Novarese (Page 268), beefy chuck roast stovetop-braised in the style of Novara in Piemonte. The dish, as always, is Marcella's, although as usual I've outlined the procedure and ingredients I used, in my words, not hers. I hope she wouldn't object.
In a recent interview in The New York Times Magazine, Hazan told reporter Amanda Hesser that this cookbook will be her last. "I'm old, I'm 80, and it took me four years to write this," she said.
But I'm not convinced that this sturdy octogenarian really means it. After all, she said exactly the same thing in 1997, in an interview with Detroit Free Press writer John Tanasychuk, who reported, "The woman credited with teaching the U.S. about authentic Italian food has just written a new cookbook. She says it's her last."
Buon' Natale, Marcella. You have brought millions of people happiness through the food that you love.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves four, or two with leftovers)
2 to 3 pound (1 kilo) beef chuck roast
NOTE: Marcella calls for a 2 1/2 pound piece of boneless beef chuck, but I had a 3-pound bone-in chuck roast handy, and it worked fine. I think beef cooked on the bone is more flavorful anyway.
1. Peel the garlic, cut the pancetta into small pieces, and open the can of anchovies. Put the oil, vinegar, mustard, garlic, pancetta and anchovies into a heavy dutch oven or oven-safe casserole large enough to hold the beef, and put it over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquids blend.
2. Put in the beef and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and turning the meat every few minutes. Add a little of the water if the liquid starts drying out, but you shouldn't need much: This dish braises on the stove top with only a little liquid.
3. Season the meat with a good ration of freshly ground black pepper, but I advise against salting at this point - the anchovies, Dijon and pancetta bring quite a bit of salt to the party, and it's too easy to overdo. I suggest waiting until serving time to check and adjust seasoning.
4. Cover the pot, reduce heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for at least two hours or until the beef is tender. Turn it occasionally and watch the liquid, adding a little water if it starts to dry out. I find, though, that the beef gives off enough liquid that this shouldn't be necessary.
5. Take out the beef and slice a few serving pieces across the grain. Turn up heat and reduce the liquid somewhat if it seems thin, and serve it poured over the meat. I served the meat with a mashed-potato and cauliflower puree and the Baked Cabbage and Parmesan Cheese, Verza Gratinata al Parmigiano from Marcella says ...
MATCHING WINE: The hearty beef and bold flavors that infuse the dish call for a lusty, tannic red, and the modest but full-bodied Madara 2001 Alicante from Spain filled the bill. A little too tannic for enjoyment on its own, it stood up nicely to the beef.
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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004
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