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Food for Thought

Mille Grazie, Marcella

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Marcella Hazan, the great Italian cook and cookbook author, died Sunday at her home in Longboat Key, Florida. She was 89.

About eighteen years ago, a friend who knows a lot more about cooking than I do, gave me Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking as a gift. She told me that the book was pretty much all I needed if I wanted to learn how to cook real Italian food at home. So, I started. And I started, as many people do, with Tomato Sauce with Onion & Butter. Half an onion, some canned or fresh tomatoes, and a little more than half a stick of butter. Cooked together, with some salt, and in less than an hour you have the platonic ideal of tomato sauce. Now if your idea of 'cooking' (like mine at the time) is toasting Thomas' English Muffins, smearing Pizza Quick, and adding a sprinkle of Polly-O, this recipe is nothing short of revelatory. It's far less complicated than mini-pizzas, but infinitely more satisfying.

But Tomato Sauce with Onion & Butter is a gateway recipe. It builds up your confidence to turn the page and embark on Tomato Sauce with Olive Oil and Chopped Vegetables, which is only slightly more challenging, but no less delicious. Turn another page, and suddenly you're making (and properly pronouncing!) Amatriciana. Peas, Bacon, and Ricotta is a snap. Zucchini Sauce with Basil and Beaten Egg Yolk is advanced, but wonderful. And then there is the Bolognese.

Marcella's Bolognese, which spans pages 203-205, is a game changer. It's not difficult, really, but it requires patience and attention. As you simmer the milk, evaporate the white wine, and add very few tomatoes, the recipe—for a first time Bolognese-maker—challenges your expectations of what a 'meat sauce' is supposed to be. It's rich, but not heavy; satisfying, but not saucy. Eaten over pasta alone, or incorporated into lasagne or baked rigatoni, Marcella's Bolognese might be my favorite of her recipes. Not because it's the best Bolognese in the world (one needs to keep an open mind!), but because after mastering it, I felt like a different kind of home cook—one who could finally close the book and start cooking.

You can find Marcella's cookbooks in our collection, both in the Schwarzman Building and in branch collections. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and Marcella Says... are both available on the open shelves in the Rose Main Reading Room. And I highly recommend her son Giuliano Hazan's pasta titles, too.

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