Marcella Hazan: Patron saint of home kitchen

Chicago TribuneOctober 9, 2013 

US NEWS HAZAN-OBIT TB

Marcella Hazan, who made it her life's work to preserve and innovate recipes that reflected the best of regional cooking in Italy and in the process introduced legions of Americans to the true foods of her native land, died Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 at her home in Longboat Key, Fla., said her husband, Victor. She was 89 and had been in failing health for several months. (Chicago Tribune/MCT)

MBR — MCT

Tacked up in my cubicle, its edges curling, is a David Sipress cartoon printed in Gastronomica long ago. A woman messes with a food processor while a friend gapes, incredulous, at a shrine over the stove, a tiny figure in an alcove decorated with flowers and lit candles.

"It's not a saint, exactly," the caption reads. "It's Marcella Hazan."

Marcella Hazan, who lived in Longboat Key, was the patron saint of my kitchen. I have often joked with friends, declaring that impossible idea. But it's actually true, in a way. For Marcella's voice has informed my cooking, my thinking about Italian dishes and ingredients and how to treat them for more than 25 years.

And so she has for legions of fans, all of whom must have stopped and thought of their favorite recipes of hers when they heard that she died Sunday.

Through her hugely influential cookbooks, Marcella became the queen of Italian cooking in this country, as this very section declared her in a 2005 cover story marking the publication of her last cookbook, "Marcella Says ..." The story of her long career as cookbook author and teacher, launched with "The Classic Italian Cookbook" in 1973 -- which was written at the urging of New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne -- is well known. That career and her fan base were built on her six cookbooks (translated from her Italian writings into English by her husband, Victor) stressing authentic flavors, techniques and ingredients.

As I contemplated what to make for dinner Sunday, I leafed through a few of Marcella's books. With the evening slipping away, I flipped past ambitious projects. What would Marcella do? Why not a homemade spaghetti, with the simplest of sauces, aglio e olio (garlic and olive oil)? It seemed very Marcella -- simple ingredients, carefully crafted with attention to flavor and texture -- and it seemed very me.

I used her dough recipe, a ratio of 2 large eggs for 1 cup flour, adjusting for the oversize farmer's market eggs -- just as Marcella would have us do. Her recipe produced silken, soft dough. Dinner was heavenly.

And I thought, it wasn't just that Marcella taught us to cook Italian, to make a proper tomato sauce, to braise pork in milk for a luscious caramelized result. She showed us the possibilities. And she gave us confidence. Her authoritative voice said, here, this is how you do it. Now you try.

And we did.

CANAPES WITH WHIPPED MORTADELLA, PICKLES

Makes: 16 canapes

Note: From "Marcella's Italian Kitchen" by Marcella Hazan. This recipe represents Hazan's championing of flavor from simple ingredients and preparation. It utilizes one of my favorite Italian ingredients, mortadella, an Italian sausage often compared to bologna (although the latter is a pale imitation). And it demonstrates her principle that ingredients must be the very best. When I've served it, it has always been met with exclamations. We've preserved Hazan's wording in this recipe to demonstrate her care in providing instructions to home cooks. Serve with wine or other pre-dinner drinks.

Enough good-quality, firm white bread or its equivalent to make 16 squares or rounds about 1-3/4 inches square or in diameter

4 ounces mortadella

1- 1/2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon cornichons or similar cucumber pickles chopped fine, plus 2 or 3 pickles sliced into thin rounds

Trim the bread of its crust and cut the slices into 16 squares or make 16 rounds.

Peel away the casing from the mortadella and put the mortadella and the butter in a food processor or blender. Process to a creamy consistency. Remove it from the processor's or blender's bowl.

Mix the chopped pickles -- the pieces should be no bigger than one-third of a grain of rice -- with the mortadella.

Place enough of the mixture over each square or round of bread to make a mound about 1/2-inch high.

Top the mound with a single disk of the sliced pickle.

The cookbooks

• "The Classic Italian Cookbook" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973)

• "More Classic Italian Cooking" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)

• "Marcella's Italian Kitchen" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986)

• "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

This is a compilation of her first two books)

• "Marcella Cucina" (HarperCollins, 1997)

• "Marcella Says ..." (HarperCollins, 2004)

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