I have been deep in research to unearth the secrets of the cooking goddesses. Women who define their particular regions and styles of cooking, women who have written anthologies of recipes, distinguished books historical record on ingredients and technique. I have already told you about my dabeling in the authentic Indian cuisine of Julie Sahini and my constant adulation of Ruth Reichl. Now, after two months of flipping through her recipes with a quiet awe, I decided to tackle the work of Marcella Hazan.
Marcella Hazan is probably the most celebrated cookbook authors of Italian Cuisine. She is credited with introducing balsamic vinegar to the American household. Yes, she's more important then Giada. The Classic Italian Cookbook was released in 1973 and when that was a hit she published More Classic Italian Cooking in 1976. For those like me with very limited shelf space, in the 90's she revised and updated her recipes and combined them into a single book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a treasure I unearthed at the Strand in August, after several visits and much searching. Funny side note: the worst kept secret in cookbook publishing is that Marcella Hazan didn't write any of those books, in the actually writing things down sense. Her husband Victor did, because Marcella doesn't really speak enough English to write a coherent cookbook. Apparently letting the husband near the food is not something I invented.
As was one of my New Year's resolutions, I had decided to learn some Italian cooking, as those lovely tempting dishes have been invading the New York palate, and I can't afford to eat at Locanda Verde every night. This book is a fabulous way to learn, because this woman has OPINIONS, and is not afraid to tell you that you are doing it wrong. For example, you are not going to be patted on the head and praised for always using fresh pasta.
"There is not the slightest justification for preferring homemade pasta to the factory-made. Those who do deprive themselves of the most flavorful dishes in the Italian repertory."This is not to say that she prefers factory made either, she simply believes the two are different, and should be used for different purposes. The book is excellent at recommending what type of pasta you should serve with the various sauces. I chose two to start with that both called for "factory made" which gave me a break since I didn't have to spend 45 minutes making the pasta. Marcella probably would have still been disappointed in me though...
"Great factory pasta is made slowly: The dough is kneaded at length; once kneaded, it is extruded through slow bronze dies rather then slippery, fast Teflon-coated ones. It is then dried gradually at an unforced pace. Such pasta is necessarily limited to small quantities; it is made only by a few artisan pasta makers in Italy, and it cost more than the industrial product of major brands."Oops. I probably wasn't supposed to use Trader Giotto's then.
Eggplant and Ricotta Sauce, Sicilian Style
Adapted (slightly) from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Vegetable Oil
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 large yellow onion (or half of a small onion) sliced very thin
- 2 small to medium cloves of garlic, chopped
- 1 1/2 pounds fresh, ripe Italian plum tomatoes
- Fresh Ground Pepper
- 3 Tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
- 8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
- 1 pound pasta (Recommended: Cartwheel pasta. Fusilli or rigatoni also good.)
- Fresh grated parmesan for the table
Cut off the eggplant's green spiky cap. Peel the eggplant (or don't, if you don't mind eggplant skin and want to skip that step) and cut it into 1 1/2 inch cubes. Put the cubes in a colander and set over a bowl, then sprinkle liberally with salt. Let the eggplant steep for about 1 hour so that the salt can draw off most of its bitter juices.
While the eggplant is steeping, bring a pot of water to a boil. Cut an X into the bottom of each tomato. Plunge the tomatoes into the boiling water for 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and plunge into ice water to stop their cooking. Tomatoes should now peel easily. Core the tomato like the video below.
God I love Chow Tips. Discard the core (or use it for something else) and cut the tomato into thin strips.
Once the eggplant is done steeping, rinse the cubes under cold water. Wrap them in paper towels and squeeze to remove as much moisture as possible.
Put enough vegetable oil in a large frying pan to come up 1/2 inch on the sides, and turn to medium high. When the oil is quite hot, slip in as many eggplant pieces as will fit loosely in the pan. If you can't fit them all, fry in batches. Fry eggplant, turning often, 2-3 minutes. As soon as eggplant feels tender when prodded with a fork transfer it with a slotted spoon or spatula to a platter lined with paper towels to drain.
Add the strips of tomato, turn up the heat to high, and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the oil floats free from the tomato.
Add the eggplant and a few grindings of of pepper, stir, and turn the heat down to medium. Cook for just a minute or two more, stirring once or twice. Taste and add more salt to taste.
Toss the cooked and drained pasta with the eggplant sauce, add the grated Romano and the ricotta. Toss again, mixing all ingredients thoroughly into the hot pasta, and serve at once. Garnish with basil. Serve Parmesan on the side.
OK, that "until the oil floats free of the tomato" part? I still have no idea what that means, and a google search reveals that the only person to use that phrase is Marcella Hazan. After 8 to 10 mintues the mixture had become a more cohesive form and the tomatoes had relaxed into the pan, so maybe that's what it means. 8-10 minutes, then more on. That's what you should take from this.
The dish was fantastic, delicate but filling, creamy but with substance. I was greedy with it, I wanted to eat it up all at once but then I also wanted to just sit with the bowl under my face and let that garlicky eggplanty smell fill my nose. It is such a perfect recipe for this type of year when eggplant and tomato are so plentiful and fresh. The book has tons of zucchini and peppers too, it begs to be put to use in the early fall.
Marcella is walking me through this Italian thing bit by bit, maybe I'll be ready for the 3 hour Bolognese soon, and not the sausage cheat that I did in January. I'm dreaming of the cold winter day when I let this bubble in on my stove, warming every corner of this apartment. I think Marcella and I will get along just fine.