Make it simple

2013-10-08 00:00

SUNDAY night and it’s my turn to cook. Which means pasta. Plus sauce. I’ve always liked Italian food — the no-nonsense approach to its preparation allows the flavours to emerge from the ingredients; you just have to help them on their way. Simple.

There are no complicated fancy sauces, even risotto is easy once you get the knack. Though, to be honest, my knack seems to be of the now-and-then variety.

Anyway, back to Sunday night. I’d already consulted The Classic Pasta Cookbook by Giuliano Hazan and planned to make fusilli lunghi alla rustica (long fusilli with peppers, olives and vegetables).

I hadn’t been able to get the long fusilli so penne rigate were co-opted for the job, which, says Hazan, this sauce is “also good with”.

An added recommendation for the choice of dish was Hazan’s note: “This zesty, flavourful sauce is a recipe of my mother’s that I am very fond of and have made minor changes to”.

His mother, Marcella Hazan, is the author of my all-time favourite cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook. My much-consulted paperback copy, purchased in 1989 for R11,20, is a regular port of call for culinary inspiration.

Using her son’s book, to which Marcella gives her imprimatur by way of a foreword, inevitably sees me taking her volume down from the shelf, flicking through its stained pages, and, as per usual, making a mental note to make Il diplomatico again, maybe for Christmas.

I am not alone in my admiration for Hazan’s book. I have an uncle — a retired army man — who has always been the cook in his family. Chatting to him once I mentioned Hazan’s book and it turned out it was his bible on all matters Italian (it’s subtitled The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating).

He enthusiastically recommended II diplomatico, a rum and coffee-flavoured chocolate layer cake. Simple? Yes, as it turns out.

“The marvellous thing about this dessert is that it requires no baking,” says Marcella.

All you need is an off-the-shelf pound cake (though not ideal, a solid madeira will substitute), espresso coffee, rum, and chocolate. Go Google.

Cooking. Conversation. Memories. It’s not surprising I was saddened a couple of days later to discover Marcella Hazan had died. Died on the same Sunday we were enjoying a meal based on one of her recipes and talking about her book.

Born Marcella Polini in Italy in 1924, she later married Victor Hazan who had moved back to Italy, where he had been born, from the United States.

The couple went to live in New York in 1955. At the time, Marcella didn’t cook at all. According to the New York Times obituary, her “training had been in the classroom, not the kitchen. She had a doctorate in natural sciences and biology from the University of Ferrara.”

However, Marcella was determined to cook for her husband and in-between “learning English by watching television and following the Brooklyn Dodgers … she began to learn to cook, relying on her memory and Mr Hazan’s copy of a cookbook by Ada Boni” — the famed Italian cook who died in 1973.

Marcella proved to be a natural: “Cooking came to me as though it had been there all along, waiting to be expressed: it came as words come to a child when it is time for her to speak,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir Amarcord: Marcella Remembers.

Chance played a role in Marcella passing on her new-found expertise. In 1969, when the instructor on the cooking course she was attending announced she was going on a sabbatical, Marcella’s class-mates suggested she take over. So she did, holding classes in the Hazan’s Manhattan apartment.

Marcella’s first book, The Classic Italian Cookbook, appeared in 1973. Unable to write in English, her husband became Marcella’s translator; a collaboration considered “one of the greatest in the history of cookbook writing and instruction”.

The couple always lunched together and on Saturday, the day before she died, they shared a meal her husband Victor cooked — pasta sauced with pesto made with some home-grown basil. According to her husband, Marcella’s family plans “to take her ashes back to her beloved village of Cesenatico [where she grew up] for a simple ceremony”.

“Marcella was always very distressed when she read complicated chef’s recipes,” Victor said.

“She would just say ‘Why not make it simple?’ So the sentiment holds. We will make it simple.”

Arrivederci, Marcella.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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