Italian Goddess of Fussy
There are no pictures on this blog. Maybe you didn’t notice.
Some people say they love cookbooks. But often what they love about them is the large glossy pictures of professionally styled food. It’s food porn. We all know it.
You may be one of these people. But I am betting, since you keep coming back here to this picture-free bastion of fussiness, that you might be convinced to swap sides. In cooking, I believe it is much more useful to have the 1,000 words than the carefully composed and exposed image.
Let me introduce you to a serious woman who will use all of those words and more to teach you what Italian food can be.
Her name is Marcella Hazan. And her book is Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. There are no photos. It is not Italian-American meals in thirty minutes or less. It is thoughtful. It is thorough. It is incredibly fussy.
I admit having a soft spot for this book. My entry point into cooking was making desserts for the dinner parties thrown by my friends (more on this later). And this book was one of the first I used to make appropriately fanciful dishes. The standout was the Diplomatico – A Chocolate Dessert with Rum and Coffee (pp. 577-9).
It starts with lining a loaf pan with cheesecloth. Then you brew espresso and mix it with rum and sugar. Next is to soak pound cake slices in the liquid, making more if needed, and lining the bottom and sides of the pan. Then you make the chocolate filling and spoon it into the cake-lined pan. Finally, you soak more cake and put a top layer over the filling, wrap it all in cheesecloth and let the loaf cure in the refrigerator for a day or two.
To serve, very carefully un-mold from the pan and cheesecloth. Whip up fresh cream, and use the stiff cream to frost the loaf. Slice and serve with berries.
Marcella writes about this recipe, “Is there any other dessert…that rewards such little effort with such gratifying results?” Now maybe it was because I was new to cooking, or in my early 20s, but this dessert was a multi-day, multi-step, destroy the kitchen masterpiece. Delicious? Yes. Easy? Hell no.
So we have established that cooking her easy dishes can take a long time. They can also be physically demanding. Her risotto (pp. 242-59) has you constantly stirring for over twenty minutes. But it is so good, that if you live through the ordeal, you might always look down upon what is called risotto in fancy restaurants. And her polenta (pp. 273-7) is even worse. Not only do you have to stand over boiling water whisking in the cornmeal at a painfully slow pace, you are required to constantly stir for over 40 minutes. And polenta is a good bit thicker than rice.
Luckily for your sake, she does include a variation, “Polenta by the No-Stirring Method,” which counterintuitively has plenty of stirring. It just looks like no-stirring when compared to the traditional technique.
But cooking her food can also change your mind about everyday Italian standards. I followed Marcella’s instructions to the letter for Bolognese (pp. 203-5) and found a butcher who would coarsely grind me three pounds of “the neck portion of the chuck.” On top of the sofrito, I browned the meat, then simmered it with milk, then simmered it again with a specially selected bottle of Italian white wine, before adding a few tomatoes and slowly simmering for another few hours.
I cannot even begin to tell you how delicious this is, and the order of magnitude by which it outshines any other meat sauce.
Cooking her food can also be ridiculous. Like when ADS made the Pan-Roasted Whole Boned Chicken with Beef and Parmesan Stuffing (pp. 344-6). Imagine a Turducken. But smaller. Made out of a chicken wrapped around a meatloaf. It is maybe just a tad less disgusting than it sounds. But executing the dish properly is a culinary achievement in itself.
In all honesty, I rarely have the time these days to make the recipes from this book. Although the kiddo and I had a great time making her Potato Gnocchi (p. 260-2), which he enjoyed rolling out like a Play-Doh snake. Who knew that cooking with a child could turn out such lovely little light pillows of potato pasta?
Still, when I specifically need to cook something extra special, and something Italian might do the trick, this is the book I reach for first.
At the beginning of spring, I was asked to bring a sauce for a poached salmon. I wanted something seasonally appropriate with a full flavor and settled on one of Marcella’s simpler sauces – Salsa Verde (p. 42). At the end of the meal, everyone was asking for the recipe.
It is two-thirds cup parsley leaves, 2½ T capers, 6 anchovy fillets, ½ t finely chopped garlic, ½ t strong mustard, 1 T fresh lemon juice and ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Dump it all in a food processor and pulse until it is a uniform consistency. Add salt and additional lemon juice to taste.
It goes to show even the fussiest cooks are not fussy all the time.