Book Review: Ingredienti, by Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan
This guide is the testament of a woman who based her cooking life on the truth of every dish she cooked and taught, the vigorous truth of clear, uncluttered taste, taste that arises neither from obeisance to dogma, nor from a craving for attention, but evolves inspired by, and respectful of, the ingredients that nourish it.–Victor Hazan in the introduction to Ingredienti
Marcella Hazan, the “godmother of Italian cooking” and the woman many credit with bringing Italian cuisine to the U.S., died in 2013, leaving behind two years’ worth of handwritten notes in Italian in preparation for Ingredienti. Her lifetime collaborator, Victor Hazan, translated and edited these notes, resulting in what is undoubtedly a classic before its time.
With Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks in my suitcase, I was already “tasting Italy” on my way back from London to my home in France. I had a plan: to use her books to learn how to cook Italian food.
That was nearly twenty years ago. It didn’t take me long to realize that the precious ingredients required were simply not available in provincial France. French supermarkets sold pasta made in France with French flour, not Italian pasta made from grano duro. French tomatoes were watery-tasting, even the canned ones. Mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano were rarities found only in a few exclusive shops in Paris. The French were just starting to get interested in olive oil, although in the Southeast it had long been the fat of choice thanks to its Greek and Roman history.
Disappointment quickly set in. Marcella’s Italian recipes weren’t going to taste of Italy using French ingredients. It is no wonder that she wanted to write Ingredienti. She knew this was a problem when living outside Italy and felt the need to enlighten her readers about how to choose and treat ingredients.
It was only later when I moved to Switzerland, where good-quality Italian ingredients of all kinds — tomatoes, pasta, cheese, fruit — were readily available that I returned to Marcella. From Geneva, it was also easy to travel to Turin to the Slow Food gatherings. During the Terra Madre conference, I’d arrive every morning with a roller suitcase and, over the course of the day, fill it with food to take back to Switzerland.
Later, in my Italian food journey — even when living in Italy — Marcella, and later Victor, became for me household words, their books like a treatise, a bible, that I refer to in times of doubt, for example, when I make “red” spaghettini alle vongole, which I must have made a hundred times using Marcella’s recipe.
As important as this book is, Marcella Hazan’s recipes are not only about ingredients. The true secret to her success is the lucid precision of the explanations. A scientist by training with two doctorates, her instructions are methodical, almost mathematical. She counts in minutes and half minutes, and you can count on what she says. Though her cookbooks were not written as culinary classes per se, once you’ve followed her risotto instructions a couple of times, you are struck by the rigorousness of the recipe, of how each step is in its proper place, and each time given is exact, and it becomes like a work of art or a perfect mathematical equation, with no excess and no frill.
Ingredienti is indeed a testament to Marcella Hazan’s undying commitment not only to Italian cooking, but also to the importance of choosing products and the actual process of shopping, on which we put too little emphasis. Marcella had an intimate relationship with products, knowing them inside and out as if they were the baby she’d raised. “Choose a pepper by its size, shape, and heft. It should be large, heavy, shiny, firm, and cubical in form. The long tapered ones are not as solidly meaty.” Now you have a clear image in your mind of what to look for next time you buy a pepper. The entire book is like this, leaving you with the impression that you’d been going to a market class with Marcella for a week and held the artichokes or peppers or onions in your hands.
Speaking of extra-virgin olive oil, she says, “if olive oil were a drug, it would have a place of honour among miracle drugs,” saying that “it well might be the most significant contribution to my survival.” Although she embraces the use of lard and butter, used in her native Emilia-Romagna, olive oil was the superstar in her kitchen.
On the important subject of pasta: one can’t say fresh pasta is always better than dried pasta. Fresh pasta, made with eggs and flour, longs for butter and cream, which seep into the crevices of its rough surface; dried pasta, made with water and flour, is a perfect marriage for olive-oil and tomato-based sauces, which slide gracefully around it. You’ll never look at pasta the same way once you’ve “consumed” this chapter; in fact, you’ll want to read it over and over, making sure not to miss a single point.
She tells you everything you need to know about Parmigiano-Reggiano, not to be confused with generic parmesan cheese. Its goodness depends on the origin of the milk, the breed of cow, the age, the season, and, of course, the method used to make it. Though this is not a recipe book, Marcella throws in the prize of Victor’s grandmother’s recipe for Parmigiano crostini, not to be missed.
The book is broken down by category of ingredient, including “Produce,” “The Essential Pantry,” and “Salumi,” with individual chapters devoted to classic Italian ingredients such as artichoke, eggplant, and tomatoes; pasta, risotto rice, olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and red wine vinegar; prosciutto, pancetta, and lardo, and a whole host of other products.
For those who live in locations in the U.S. where Italian ingredients are not available in the same way, just as I did in France, the book includes a fairly exhaustive list of online suppliers of good-quality ingredients with precise indications of what to order from whom.
Count on reading the book from front to cover in one or two sittings, and then keeping it on your kitchen shelf for easy, repeated reference, as you might do with a prayer book. As with all of Marcella and Victor Hazan’s collaborations, there is never an extraneous word, sentence, or idea, so you’ll want to read the important passages numerous times.
Like a yogi, Marcella repeated the same “postures” over and over, meditating upon the ingredients, seeking the truth in them with a focused faith and methodical effort. As a result, Ingredienti reads much like a text written by a spiritual master in old age. It is concrete proof of her dedication; it is the wisdom of years lived in perfect harmony with food, based on her immeasurable knowledge and intimate relationship with ingredients, but also on an almost spiritual reverence for their integrity. It is, indeed, a testament of Marcella and the truth she sought by going to the essence of every foodstuff she touched, and of the truth she attained in her reasoned, scientific manner.