This is the second in a series of reviews of classic cookbooks that have become staples in my cookbook library. COOK WITH JAMIE by Jamie Oliver was the first. There will be more in the coming year.
I will never forget first time I ever ate a plate of pasta with Genoese pesto. I was visiting my landlord in his home in East Hampton, New York. I rented his Brooklyn Heights apartment in 1975 while he was taking a sabbatical from teaching at Hunter High School in New York. Like me, Jack McNeil loved opera and he was an outstanding cook. During a visit that long-ago weekend, he served pasta with pesto and it completely blew me sideways. I thought it was one of the most intoxicating dishes I'd eaten to that point. Fragrant basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, butter and Parmesan cheese were combined in a sauce and poured over hot pasta and tossed. It seemed like the most exotic thing I've ever tasted, but at the same time, the simplest, most elemental of dishes. A few years later, I bought THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK (Knopf), Marcella Hazan's first cookbook, and found her recipe for Blender Pesto. I spent what seemed like a fortune on a bunch of fresh basil, Parmesan cheese, and some pine nuts at Balducci's an upscale New York Italian grocer in Manhattan's Greenwich Village (sadly no longer around) and made a batch of pesto for a dinner party. Everyone loved it and I thought I was the most sophisticated of hosts. Ms. Hazan's recipe had butter, which added a touch of richness and combined both percorino and Parmesan cheese. For me there's never been a recipe as delicious or as fresh-tasting as Marcella Hazan's. I used to put up batches of freezer pesto sauce to enjoy in the winter months (when basil was impossible to find in the markets), where you added butter and cheese after you defrosted it.
Last summer when I planted basil in my new garden in Portland, I was rewarded with an enormous basil harvest. I pulled THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK down from the shelves and made batches of pesto sauce, something I hadn't done in years. It was just as wonderful as I'd remembered. Over the years, I've sometimes I spooned this superb emulsion into risotto, or on a baked potato. It was always delicious on freshly boiled homemade gnocchi. I've tried other variations on pesto sauce with cilantro or parsley, and other ingredients but nothing matches the depth of flavor of classic Genoese pesto, and Hazan's recipe remains my go-to source when I'm craving it.
Marcella Hazan was the first widely read authority in this country on authentic Italian cuisine from all regions. Through force of personality, her celebrated cooking classes, and her contacts within the food world, including the influential New York Times, Hazan essentially taught us the differences between Italian food and Italo-American cusine (though it would be many years later when Lidia Bastianich wrote her masterful Lidia's Italian-American Table, which rightfully elevated this wonderfully lusty American hybrid cuisine). Hazan sourced the recipes by region in a scholarly, yet accessible way. Her work introduced many young cooks to the pleasures of risotto, gnocchi, roast spring lamb with white wine, polenta, the many kinds of frittatas, the astounding variety of vegetable dishes Italians eat including, fried zucchini blossoms, artichokes, and fava beans, and so much more. We learned about pancetta, dried mushrooms, Italian rice used for risotto, semolina and other Italian products. She talks about olive oil without reference to extra virgin olive oil and there is no mention of balsamic vinegar, both of which would become widely available in the U.S. in the decade following THE CLASSICAL ITALIAN COOKBOOK's publication.
Another great recipe from this book was the pork loin braised in milk. The first time I read this recipe I was intrigued. It made no sense in relation to anything I'd cooked up to that point. You brown a small boneless pork loin in butter and olive oil, and then you add nearly three cups of whole milk, salt and pepper and gently braised the pork on top the of the stove in a small, heavy Dutch oven with the lid ajar for a few hours. When the meat is tender, you pull it out of its milk bath and keep it warm. What you are left with in the pot are these beige milk curds that have the consistency of custard. You spoon off most of the fat and add a few tablespoons of hot water to the pan and vigorously stir the sauce which breaks up the larger curds. The sauce doesn't smooth out--it still looks a bit curdled. No problem. You thinly slice the meat and pour the sauce over the slices and scatter freshly chopped parsley over all, before you serve. It's divine--the loin is fork tender, its sauce is creamy in texture but subtle tasting and quite substantial. I've seen many variations of this recipe since but it is the simplicity of Hazan's creation that draws me back to this wonderful dish again and again.
A third recipe that I've made over and over again is a Meat Loaf Braised in White Wine with Dried Wild Mushrooms. This elegant, compact meat loaf is nothing you've ever seen before. Lean ground beef is combined with a classic panade of white bread and milk, with the addition of onion, salt and pepper, chopped pancetta or prosciutto, Parmesan cheese, garlic, egg, and bread crumbs and rolled into a large salami-shaped loaf and braised in a sauce of tomato paste, reconstituted wild mushrooms, and white wine. It's a spectacular and simple entree from Tuscany. Every recipe in this superb book is set out with Hazan's combination of specificity of technique and her wonderful, no-nonsense personality (that sometimes borders on the brusque).
Hazan offers five different tomato sauces here. Why five? Because some are more appropriate with dried pasta, one is particularly fine for gnocchi, another is recommended for use when summer tomatoes are in season. It is these distinctions which elevate her work so much, and help in our understanding of this very great cuisine.
I've cooked from Hazan's other fine cookbooks, including a second volume of Classic Italian recipes, and four other volumes. I'm devoted to the Italian cookbooks of Lidia Bastianich and Michele Scicolone, and Mario Batali. Yet it is THE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKBOOK, and its companion, MORE CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING, both published more than thirty years ago, that I return to over and over again.
In 1992, Knopf, Hazan's long-time publisher brought out ESSENTIALS OF CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING, which brought together both volumes with updated and new material and that is the book you'll find most easily today. I often saw copies of both originals at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, and I'm sure a local purveyor of old cookbooks will surely have them. They are worth searching out.
Marcella Hazan is a culinary heroine to her many followers and is revered for introducing the joys of the Italian kitchen, much as Julia Child did with French cuisine.
Blender Pesto ready when I need it
Enough for a bout 6 servings of pasta
2 cups fresh basil leaves (see note below)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed with a heavy knife handle and peeled
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated Roman pecorino cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature
1. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in the blender and mix at high speed. Stop from time to time and scrape the ingredients down toward the bottom of the blender cup with a rubber spatula.
2. When the ingredients are evenly blended, pour into a bowl and beat in the two grated cheeses by hand. (This is not much work, and it results in more interesting texture and better flavor than you get when you mix in the cheese in the blender.) When the cheese has been evenly incorporated into the ingredients, beat in the softened butter.
3. Before spooning the pesto over the pasta, add to it a tablespoon or so of the hot water in which the pasta has boiled.
NOTE: The quantity of basil in most recipes in given in terms of whole leaves. American basil, however, varies greatly in leaf sizes. There are small, medium, and very large leaves, and they all pack differently in the measuring cup. For the sake of accurate measurement, I suggest that you tear all but the tiniest leaves into two or more small pieces. Be gentle, so as not to crush the basil. This would discolor it and waste the first, fresh droplets of juice.
In re-reading Hazan's original recipe, I couldn't find information about freezing, but I do recall somewhere that butter and cheese are added after defrosting the pesto, though I cannot remember why this was so. In any event, I usually freeze four batches to enjoy in the winter months.