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,” —was with Marcella.
Marcella Hazan, who passed away earlier this week 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 cooking wine, Marcella reigned over Italian simplicity with a sharp mezzaluna, and stern words. And she liked whiskey.
In Hazan’s cookbooks we learned the regulations to and importance of tossing pasta. “In the sequence of steps that leads to producing a dish of pasta and getting it to the table, none is more important than tossing. Up to the time you toss, pasta and sauce are two separate entities. Tossing makes them one.”
If olive oil is the fat in the sauce, add small additions of it as you toss; 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 this is therefore Italian cuisine: economy plus simplicity plus good ingredients equals astonishing deliciousness. In the case of her tomato sauce, 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, nibbles with which to quaff prosecco. Four ingredients combine to make a simple sandwich in which all you taste is excellent ingredients and care. A paste is made with the Gorgonzola (at room temperature!) and olive oil; that is slowly and gently tossed into the mache (or arugula), keeping the mache crisp and fluffy. A small pile of this 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— astonishingly delicious.
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 (also known as lamb’s lettuce) or argula, 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.
Place 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 four 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.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.