Marcella Hazan’s Most Profound Lesson

October 28, 2016

Ingredienti is Marcella Hazan’s most personal work—more so, to me, than Amarcord, her actual memoir. It’s her last, great gift to home cooks, where sixty-plus years of kitchen smarts, prejudices, and wisdom leap off the page. (Victor, her husband, translator, writing partner, and sounding board completed the book after her death in 2013.)

Snapshots from Marcella's journal that Victor translated for Ingredienti.

The book is untethered from the constraints of traditional recipe format and, instead, is full of teensy, sensory not-recipes; the words flow quickly into a shorthand journal of a life that really did center on cooking at home with Victor.

I first knew the Hazans in the 1990s as Marcella’s food stylist and media escort for her Los Angeles book tour for Marcella Cucina. A shared understanding of the importance of family meals—il sacro desco (the sacred table)—brought us together several times over the years, including a week-long “live-in” at the Mondavi estate in Napa and a visit to the Hazans in Longboat Key. I was fortunate enough to experience many of the lessons in Ingredienti firsthand.

Marcella, Victor, and Me, Longboat Key 2000. Photo by Amelia Saltsman

What’s the Italian comfort food? Boiled potatoes lavished with great olive oil and a splash of red wine vinegar. Okay to use canned chickpeas? Yes! Never tried stinging nettles? They have an “untamed, earthy flavor.” Sauté them with garlic and olive oil; “they are terrific with sausages and beans, in a frittata, or in a risotto.”

The book is mostly devoted to produce. For Marcella, seasonal ingredients are the foundational element of every Italian (really, any) dish. As she wrote in her first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook, “Vegetables define the meal,” they give it a sense of season and contour. Contour! Contorni! Got it! Who can argue? No other savory food group offers such a diversity of colors, flavors, and textures in an endlessly unfolding series of seasonal arrivals and departures to guide a cook’s decisions.

So to borrow from the title of Marcella’s most famous work, the essentials of Italian or, for the most part, any cooking are all here: how and when to buy various vegetables from the humble to the exotic; how to clean, prep, and store them; how to stock your pantry (pasta, risotto rice, oils, vinegars, salts, canned tuna, and the like); which salumi adds depth to a dish or becomes a transcendent sandwich on buttered bread; and most importantly, the few cooking principles necessary to turn these ingredienti into rich, real-life meals.

In Ingredienti, Marcella has made her peace with shopping and cooking in western Florida instead of Venice. She may tell us where to find the best borlotti in Italy (fagioli di Lamon in the northeastern foothills of the Italian Alps) but like a true friend, also how to manage with dried beans from the supermarket (use them up within six months of purchase) or to pass up wrinkled beets. This is real life, I read between the lines; just because you’re not swanning through the Rialto market is no excuse for bad food. This may be her most profound lesson: everyone can make better food.

It boils down to a couple of non-negotiable simple techniques and principles. First, listen to the ingredient; for seasonal produce to shape a dish, we must let it guide us and and let it shine without hiding it under too many elements.

Second, build flavors patiently as you cook. It’s not hard, but there are no shortcuts. You must be willing to engage in fearless, deep browning to coax depth and complexity from even the most basic ingredient.

Take onions. On my visit to Longboat Key in 2000, for our midday main meal Marcella made the roasted onions described on page 77: halved, slathered in olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and roasted until well-browned, even blackened, in places (it took twice as long in the oven than indicated in the book). Cross-hatch the onions’ surface (as for deep-fried onion flowers) to allow oil and seasonings to permeate the flesh and for the roots to become tender without burning. The result is intense, caramelized onion sweetness. I ecstatically scribbled Marcella’s verbal instructions as we sat in the kitchen that day. They are almost word for word—minus my OMG’s—as they appear in the book.

One of the worst criticisms Marcella could level at a dish was to label it “wet food”—an overly dressed salad, pasta drowning in sauce, or worst of all, an insipid soup, braise, or risotto because the cook didn’t take the time to build flavor. It’s such a simple step: Add liquids to the pot in batches, waiting until the first has reduced and melded with the browned ingredients before adding more. It’s the difference between boiled and deeply flavorful food.

First, listen to the ingredients.

Like any good autobiography, Ingredienti completes the story arc that began with The Classic Italian Cookbook (Knopf, 1987). Then, there was no mention of prosciutto, balsamic, or radicchio, and great northerns were offered as a substitute for white kidney beans (that is, cannellini). Now, Marcella can swoon over her favorite DOP cannellini di Sorana, the thin-skinned super-creamy varietal from a twenty-five-acre appellation zone in Tuscany, and know we’ll have a point of reference. Better yet, Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo obtained Sorana seedstock and is growing Marcella beans closer to home in California. How far we’ve come, thanks in large part, to Marcella.

As for me, I’m heading into the kitchen to boil potatoes.

Marcella's last book, Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market, is available wherever books are sold.



AntoniaJames October 28, 2016
There is so much wisdom in every book Marcella Hazan wrote, and her husband's skillful (and loving) editing makes them all such a pleasure to read. His -- or perhaps their -- "writer's voice" puts them in a class with the all-time great food writers, such as Joseph Wechsberg and Baron Roy Andries de Groot. I recently ordered "Ingredienti" but am still waiting for it to be delivered. I have a feeling it will be their best book of all. <br />Thank you for this lovely review. ;o)
Author Comment
Amelia S. October 28, 2016
Thank you for kind words, Antonia! I'll be eager to hear what calls to you first once you open the book. I was ravenous from the moment I started reading.<br />And yes, most definitely "their" voice.
Colleen October 28, 2016
Amelia- the roasted onions you mention in this article- which cookbook are you referring to? I'd love to make them tonight!
Author Comment
Amelia S. October 28, 2016
Hi Colleen, the onions are in Ingredienti, page 77. Let me know how they turn out!<br />