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Why Is Marcella Hazan's Book Essential? Because She Reduces Recipes to Fundamentals -- And Yet They're Restaurant Quality

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There you are, in a restaurant that features Northern Italian cooking, having a meal that's destined for your top ten list.

Then the old nagging question arises: This is "simple" food. Why can't I cook like this at home?

You can. But like everything else, you must master some fundamentals.

Those fundamentals are overlooked in most cookbooks. Or the writer chooses not to share them, so you'll continue to be in awe of his/her prowess at his/her restaurant. Or they are elevated to a philosophy so complex you can never hope to master it.

The great appeal of Marcella Hazan's books is that she's no snob. (True, she disdains microwave ovens, but what serious cook has ever suggested that you can do more than make popcorn in these devices?) She wants to communicate. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, she does.

Turn to "Fundamentals," on page seven. "Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom," she begins. "It is not a cover, it is a base. In a pasta sauce, a risotto, a fricassee, a stew, or a dish of vegetables, a foundation of flavor supports, lifts, points up the principal ingredients." The metaphor, she continues, is "architectural." And you suddenly flash back to your childhood and your afternoons playing with blocks, and a very big light bulb goes on.

The light bulb here involves techniques: battuto (chopped vegetables), soffritto (sauteeing the battuto) and insaporire (bestowing taste, by coating the key ingredients with the flavoring elements). Her explanation is clear. By page nine, you are ready to cook.

Marcella's "secret" might just be the result of her fundamental innocence. She says she never cooked until her marriage in 1955. Her training was in science --- she has a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Ferrara, Italy. Which makes me suspect she has a heightened sensitivity to fundamentals --- to process.

Just look at the recipes in these 704 pages. Few have more than 10 ingredients. Instructions put you in charge (you observe the meal you're cooking, you decide when it's done). And she makes sure that you won't be standing in the kitchen putting on the "finishing touches" while your guests twiddle their thumbs at the table --- this is hearty, traditional, Northern Italian "home cooking" that you can master for considerably less than the $3,000 that Hazan used to charge for a week of cooking classes in Venice.

You should try before you buy. In the case of a cookbook, that's easy --- I let the book fall open to a recipe for a dish I make often (in part because it's terrific, but in larger part because it's incredibly easy). Here you go --- a main course that is both simple and elegant, suitable for family dining and for your snootiest friends.

Roast Pork with Vinegar and Bay Leaves

for 6 servings

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 pounds boneless pork loin roast
l teaspoon whole black peppercorns
3 bay leaves
½ cup good red wine vinegar

In a heavy-bottomed or enameled cast-iron pot, put in butter and oil. Turn stove on to medium-high; when the butter foam subsides, put in the pork. Brown deeply, turning when each side is done.

Add salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and vinegar. Turn heat to low, cover the pot and cook, turning the meat occasionally. If liquid evaporates, add ¼ cup water.

When cooked through -- 40-60 minutes -- transfer the pork to a cutting board. Let sit for a few minutes, then slice. Meanwhile, remove bay leaves, add 2 tablespoons of water, and heat the gravy. Pour over the pork and serve.

Try it. Taste it. Close your eyes. Could you not be in your favorite Italian restaurant -- or even in Italy ? Yes? Then you'd better invest in this book. Pronto.

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