157. Marcella Hazan
My mom lived in Florence, Italy for about a year. We always tease her that she exaggerates it to three years, or ten years, or twenty. But it was obviously a meaningful experience in her life, so we cut her some slack.
The best thing that she got out of Italy, other than some hilarious stories about her Italian boyfriend, Paolo, was that she learned how to cook a lot of great, authentic northern Italian recipes. Pasta with homemade tomato sauce was always a staple in our home. As I got older, I fell in love with Pasta e Fagioli, a northern Italian bean soup. Italian cooking taught me about the importance of a mirepoix to any recipe. Celery, carrots, and onions pretty much make anything taste good.
Marcella Hazan is the queen of northern Italian cooking. Her cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, is a brilliant guide to authentic and delicious Italian food. While her recipes are reliably good, what really makes this book stand out is the way she describes each step of how to make each dish. It is so clear and articulate, and it really sounds like Marcella is in the kitchen with you, talking you through each step of the way.
My two favorite recipes of hers are her Bolognese sauce and her Pasta e Fagioli. They are both super involved, but come out unbelievably delicious. I’ve added a couple of tips/modifications that I use to the recipes denoted by three asterisks (***).
For 4-6 servings
– 1 tablespoon vegetable oil ***I use olive oil.
– 4 tablespoons butter, divided
– ½ cup chopped onion
– 2/3 cup chopped celery
– 2/3 cup chopped carrot
– ¾ pound ground beef chuck ***I usually use 1/3 beef, 1/3 pork, and 1/3 veal. The beef is incredibly flavorful, but the veal adds a delicacy and the pork much needed fat. I don’t remember where I learned that, but I know it’s a classic Italian trick.
– Fresh ground black pepper
– 1 cup whole milk
– Whole nutmeg
– 1 cup dry white wine
– 1-½ cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, torn into pieces, with juice
– 1-¼ to 1-½ pounds pasta (preferably spaghetti), cooked and drained
– Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table
1. Put oil, 3 tablespoons butter and chopped onion in a heavy 3-½-quart pot and turn heat to medium. Cook and stir onion until it has become translucent, then add chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat well.
2. Add ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble meat with a fork, stir well and cook until beef has lost its raw, red color.
3. Add milk and let simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating, about 1/8 teaspoon, fresh nutmeg and stir.
4. Add wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated. Add tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When tomatoes begin to bubble, turn heat down so that sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.
5. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it will begin to dry out and the fat will separate from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add ½ cup water as necessary. At the end of cooking, however, the water should be completely evaporated and the fat should separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.
6. Add remaining tablespoon butter to the hot pasta and toss with the sauce. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.
And now, Pasta e Fagioli:
The classic bean variety for pasta e fagioli is the cranberry or Scotch bean,
brightly marbled in white and pink or even deep red hues. When cooked, its
flavor is unlike that of any other bean, subtly recalling that of chestnuts.
In the spring and summer it is available fresh in its pod and many specialty
or ethnic vegetable markets carry it. When very fresh, the pods are firm and
brilliantly colored, but even if they are wilted and discolored, the beans inside
are likely to be perfectly sound. You can open one or two pods just to be sure.
Cranberry beans can be frozen with great success and are better than the dried
kind. If your market carries fresh cranberry beans in season, you could buy a
substantial quantity, and freeze the shelled beans in tightly sealed plastic
freezer bags. They can be cooked exactly like the fresh. When fresh cranberry
beans are not available, the dried are a wholly satisfactory substitute and, if
necessary, one may even use the canned. If you can’t find cranberry beans
in any form, you can substitute dried kidney beans. ***I’ve also used dried navy beans or dried great northern beans. Also delish.
For 6 servings
– 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
– 2 tablespoons chopped onion
– 3 tablespoons chopped carrot
– 3 tablespoons chopped celery
– 3 or 4 pork ribs, OR a ham bone with some lean meat attached, OR 2 little pork chops *** I use cut up bacon. Easier to come across and totally works.
– 2/3 cup canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, cut up, with their juice, OR
fresh tomatoes, if ripe and firm, peeled and cut up.
– 2 pounds fresh cranberry beans, unshelled weight, OR 1 cup dried cranberry or red kidney beans, soaked and cooked as described below * OR 3 cups canned cranberry or red kidney beans, drained
– 3 cups (or more if needed) beef stock OR 1 cup canned beef broth diluted
with 2 cups water ***I usually use only water instead, and more of it, and cook the soup for a bit longer. I modify Marcella’s recipe with Giuliano Bugialli’s.
– Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
– Either maltagliati pasta, homemade OR 1/2 pound small, tubular macaroni
– 1 tablespoon butter
– 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
* Put the beans in a bowl and add enough water to cover by at least 3 inches.
Put the bowl in some out-of-the-way corner of your kitchen and leave it
there overnight. ***I often use this quick soaking method.
When the beans have finished soaking, drain them, rinse them in fresh cold
water, and put them in a pot that will accommodate the beans and enough
water to cover them by at least 3 inches. Put a lid on the pot and turn on
the heat to medium. When the water comes to a boil, adjust the heat so
that it simmers steadily, but gently. Cook the beans until tender, but not
mushy, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Add salt only when the beans are al-
most completely tender so that their skin does not dry and crack while
cooking. Taste them periodically so you’ll know when they are done.
Keep the beans in the liquid that you cooked them in until you are ready
to use them. If necessary, they can be prepared a day or two ahead of
time and stored, always in their liquid.
1. Put the olive oil and chopped onion in a soup pot and turn on the
heat to medium. Cook the onion, stirring it, until it becomes colored
a pale gold.
2. Add the carrot and celery, stir once or twice to coat them well, then
add the pork. Cook for about 10 minutes, turned the meat and the
vegetables over from time to time with a wooden spoon.
3. Add the cut-up tomatoes and their juice, adjust the heat so that the
juice simmer very gently, and cook for 10 minutes.
4. If using fresh beans: Shell them, rinse them in cold water, and put
them in the soup pot. Stir 2 or 3 times to coat them well, then add
the broth/stock. Cover the pot, adjust the heat so that the broth
bubbles at a steady, but gentle boil, and cook for 45 minutes to
1 hour, until the beans are fully tender.
If using cooked dried beans or canned: Extend the cooking time
for the tomatoes in Step 3 to 20 minutes. Add the drained cooked or
canned beans, stirring them thoroughly to coat them well. Cook for 5
minutes, then add the broth/stock, cover the pot, and bring the broth/
stock to a gentle boil.
5. Scoop up about 1/2 cup of the beans and mash them through a food
mill back into the pot. Add salt, a few grindings of black pepper, and
6. Check the soup for density: It should be liquid enough to cook the
pasta in. If necessary, add more broth, or, if you are using diluted
canned broth, more water. When the soup has come to a steady,
moderate boil, add the pasta. If you are using homemade pasta,
taste for doneness after 1 minute. If you are using macaroni pasta,
it will take several minutes longer, but stop the cooking when the
pasta is tender, but still firm to the bite. Before turning off the heat,
swirl in 1 tablespoon of butter and the grated cheese.
7. Pour the soup into a large serving bowl or into individual plates, and
allow to settle for 10 minutes before serving. It tastes best when
eaten warm, rather than piping hot.
Both the Bolognese and the soup taste best when left in the fridge overnight before eating – it allows all the flavors to settle and they are definitely tastier.
Give Marcella a try! She is a queen. Everything I have ever made of hers, from a simple pesto to any more involved dish, has been absolutely delicious.
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