It was a sad September last year when the world learnt of the passing of one of the great cookbook writers, Marcella Hazan (April 15, 1924 – September 29, 2013). Although Italian, she wrote extensively in English about Italian cuisine and is credited not only as one of the foremost authorities on the Italian cuisine, but also introducing real Italian cuisine to the American market, through her books, and cooking classes.
She earned a doctorate in natural sciences and biology from the University of Ferrara. In 1955 she married Victor Hazan, an Italian-born, New Yorker. The couple moved to New York City a few months later, and she was thrown into the kitchen at the deep end, never having cooked. As she recounted in the introduction to her 1997 book Marcella Cucina, ‘… there I was, having to feed a young, hard-working husband who could deal cheerfully with most of life’s ups and downs, but not with an indifferent meal. In Italy, I would not have wasted time thinking about it. My mother cooked, my father cooked, both my grandmothers cooked, even the farm girls who came in to clean could cook. In the kitchen of my New York apartment there was no one.’
She took to the task in earnest, first using cookbooks from Italy, and after learning the basics,with a clear memory of the flavours of home, quickly found it easy to reproduce her childhood food memories. As Marcella grew in confidence in the kitchen, she started giving Italian cooking classes and in 1969 opened her own cooking school, The School of Classic Italian Cooking.
In the early 1970s, the New York Times asked her to contribute recipes. She published her first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book, in 1973. If there is one Italian cookbook you must have, this is it. It is still as poignant as ever, superbly written, to such an extent that pictures are unnecessary. Over the years she continued to publish a series of well researched and written recipe books on Italian cuisine. Due to the great success of her first two books, in 1992, the two were collected in one volume, The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
Apart from her conciseness and attention to detail in her recipes, they still stayed fresh, simple and seasonal. Some of the techniques that became synonymous with her included:
- Choose vegetables that are in season and plan the entire meal around them.
- Soak vegetables in cold water for half an hour before cooking to remove all trace of grit. Cook them until they are just tender, not mushy, so that they have a rich flavour.
- When sauteéing onions, put them in a cold pan with oil and heat them gently; this will make them release their flavour gradually and give them a mellower taste than if started in a hot pan.
- Although some types of pasta, like tagliatelle, are best made freshly at home, others, like spaghetti, should be bought dried. Pasta should be matched carefully to the sauce it is going to be served with.
- Olive oil isn’t always the best choice for frying; in delicately flavoured dishes, a combination of butter and vegetable oil should be used.
- Garlic presses should be avoided at all costs.
In 1998, Marcella retired from her cooking school, and she and Victor moved to Longboat Key, Florida. She is greatly missed!
Interested in buying any of her books? Visit – Red Pepper Book Company – The South African online bookshop, is able to offer you great prices on any book you are looking for, new or second-hand, and they deliver to your door.