My mother’s generation had their love affair with Julia Child. Mine, perhaps in response to watching the pots and dirty dishtowels stack up, as our mothers mastered The Art of French Cooking, fell in love with Marcella. Marcella Hazan, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, became the voice, famously authoritative, of excellent Italian cooking. As Julia introduced Americans to coq au vin, Marcella sent spaghetti and meatballs back to the Italian/American restaurant kitchens, and taught us that Italian cuisine is as varied as the country itself. Julia ruled complicated French recipes with her high-pitched giggle and a sip of the cooking wine; Marcella reigned over Italian simplicity with a sharp mezzaluna, and stern words. And she liked whiskey.
Here are just a few of the hundreds of Marcella-isms that have lead me in the kitchen:
If olive oil is the fat in the sauce, add a bit of it as you toss the pasta; if butter is the fat in the sauce, add a couple of teaspoons of butter into the pasta and sauce as you toss.
Egg pasta must be tossed in a wide platter, because it is too delicate to toss in a deep bowl.
That old trick we had proudly acquired of adding a tablespoon of pasta water to the sauce to thicken it? Marcella says, well, it’s ok in some recipes, but “when the practice becomes routine it ends up being boring.” – too gelatinous tasting for her.
Discipline the garlic, Marcella demanded. “The unbalanced use of garlic is the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking,”.
In respect to Hazan, many writers have recalled her magical three-ingredient tomato sauce, a potion of all that is Marcella, and all that is therefore Italian cuisine: economy plus simplicity plus good ingredients equals astonishing deliciousness. In this case, butter plus canned tomatoes plus a halved onion equals the only tomato sauce you will ever need.
Here is another Marcella recipe that echoes the magic above. For years I’ve been making these little tramezzini – sandwiches served in Venetian bars as small bites with which to quaff prosecco. Four ingredients combine to make a bite of something in which all you taste is excellent ingredients and care. A paste is made with the gorgonzola (at room temperature!) and olive oil, and it is slowly and gently tossed into the mache – (or arugula), keeping the arugula crisp and fluffy. A small pile of the mixture is mounded on a slice of crustless white bread, made into a sandwich, and carefully sliced in half to save from squishing the mound. It sounds silly, but this is just the kind of detail that takes this from being just a sandwich to being a light, flavor-packed delight of an appetizer – astonishing delicious. Grazie, Marcella.
Gorgonzola and Mache sandwiches
makes 8 sandwiches
1/4 pound Italian Gorgonzola cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 pound mâche (lamb’s lettuce or arugula), roots trimmed, leaves washed and dried
8 slices firm-textured white bread, crusts trimmed
Put the Gorgonzola in a small bowl and break it into small pieces with a fork. Add the olive oil and mash until creamy.
Put the mâche in a bowl. Add the creamed Gorgonzola, a little at a time, turning the leaves gently with a fork until evenly coated.
Mound one-fourth of the mâche and Gorgonzola filling in the center of each of 4 slices of bread; top with the other slices. Position a sharp knife diagonally across the slice of bread; hold the bread down with your other hand so as not to flatten the filling and quickly slice the sandwich to produce two tramezzini.