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“Nothing significant exists under Italy’s sun that is not touched by art.  Its food is twice blessed because it is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating.  While each nourishes the other, they are in no way identical accomplishments.  The art of cooking produces the dishes, but it is the art of eating that transforms them into a meal.”       Marcella Hazan

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Photo courtesy of epicurious.com

Marcella Hazan, a giant in the world of Italian cooking, has died at the age of 89. Just like Elizabeth David introduced the U.K. to Italian food and Julia Child brought French cuisine to America, Marcella Hazan was renowned as the Godmother of Italian regional cooking in America, with particular attention to northern Italy.

According to Marcella, “the first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it doesn’t really 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.”

Born in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, Marcella graduated with a doctorate in natural sciences and biology. After marrying Victor Hazan, who was born in Italy but raised in New York, Marcella moved to the U.S. in 1955. Feeding her husband true Italian meals became her passion. Her career in teaching and writing about Italian food began when she was 49 years old. Proof that you can realize your dreams at any age. She had signed up for a Chinese cooking class, and one day, after the instructor had cancelled the class, her fellow classmates asked Marcella to teach them how to cook real Italian food instead. And thus began her illustrious career.

She began offering cooking classes from her apartment in New York City, proving that the only way to cook Italian was with fresh and simple ingredients. Together with her husband Victor, she went on to open a cooking school in Bologna.  Discovering that her students had no idea what good olive oil truly tasted like, or fresh eggs, freshly picked fruits and vegetables, the flavour of fresh and varied seafood, she decided that taking the students directly to the source was the best way to learn about regional Italian cooking. She then went on to open a school in Venice. And then came the cookbooks. Six of them. All classics. Written entirely in Italian and translated by her partner in life and in business, Victor. On Sunday, after Marcella had passed away peacefully, Victor Hazan wrote on Facebook: “Marcella, my incomparable companion, died this morning a few steps away from her bed. She was the truest and best, and so was her food.”

Is it love or white truffle?

Photo courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

She had this way of writing. Almost bossy. Harsh even. And that was one of the things I loved about her. Her writing. Commanding that I do just as she says because that’s how it’s supposed to be done. And somehow, her prickliness was a comfort to me. I knew that I was in good hands and doing things properly. I always knew that by following Marcella, my dish would be remarkable. Take salt as an example. She urged her readers to use more salt in their foods, advising them that if they were so concerned about salt affecting their life expectancy, then to “not read any further.” Or her take on garlic. “The unbalanced use of garlic is the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking. It must remain a shadowy background presence. It cannot take over the show.” And like my dad, Marcella certainly had no qualms about using an abundance of olive oil and butter. The more, the tastier!

It was from Marcella that I picked up a lot of my own cooking techniques. My Ragu Bolognese is credited to her. As is my Lasagne Bolognese. Fresh pasta. Gnocchi. Veggies and meat. And to pay tribute to her, I thought I’d try a dish of hers that I’d never had before. Risotto alla milanese, from her book “The Classic Italian Cookbook, The art of Italian cooking and the Italian art of eating”.

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Ingredients for 6 

1 quart/4 cups of chicken broth

2 tablespoons of pancetta, finely chopped

2 tablespoons of finely chopped shallots, or yellow onion

5 tablespoons of butter

2 tablespoons of olive oil

2 cups of of Italian Arborio rice

1/2 teaspoon of chopped whole saffron, dissolved in 1 1/2 cups of hot broth

Salt, if necessary

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup of grated Parmesan

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Bring the broth to a slow, steady simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed casserole over medium-high heat, sauté the pancetta and shallots in 3 tablespoons of butter and all of the olive oil.

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After about 5 minutes, add the rice and stir until well coated. Toast the rice for a few minutes and then add 1/2 cup of broth, about a ladleful.

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Continue to add a ladleful of broth as the rice dries out, stirring almost constantly so the rice does not stick to the bottom. After 15 minutes, add half of the dissolved saffron. When the rice has dried out, add the remainder of the saffron. And here is classic Marcella: “Herbs that call too much attention to themselves are a rude intrusion upon the general harmony of a dish, but if you like a stronger saffron presence wait another 5 to 8 minutes before adding the diluted saffron. But be careful it doesn’t upstage your risotto.” Needless to say, I did as I was told.

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When the saffron liquid has been absorbed, finish cooking the risotto with the hot broth. (If you run out of broth, add water.) When the rice is done, tender but al dente, firm to the bite, taste for salt. (Remember that you will be adding 1/2 cup of cheese.) Add a few twists of pepper to taste, and turn off the heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the Parmesan cheese, and mix thoroughly. Spoon into a plate and serve immediately, with freshly grated cheese.

And to finish, here’s another classic Marcella: “Once risotto is made, it must be served. It cannot be warmed up. If absolutely necessary, however, you can partially cook it several hours ahead of time. This is an unorthodox method, but…” Oh Marcella! You will be missed!

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