Cooking the Book: Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

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marcella hazanSo, today I’m breaking away from the usual beauty-related post and touching on another important area of my life: cooking and awesome friends.

There are three things I am passionate about: writing, makeup, and food. I love to cook, but I simply don’t do it enough. I work an average of 45hrs per week at my day job, and spend a lot of my free time working on my fiction writing and maintaining/creating content for this here blog. Too often my husband and I default to eating out or picking up take-out, which is both expensive and disheartening. (And fattening. Let’s throw fattening in there for good measure.)

At the end of June, I made a comment on my Facebook, that even once in awhile I would get the urge to cook my way through a single cookbook, Julie & Julia style. The outpouring of encouragement I received from friends astounded me. Then, that night, a dear friend texted me and said she was totally down with the idea. We picked a book, hatched a plan, shared the details with our close-knit group of lady friends, and the very next week the Cooking Adventurers were born: a group of eight culinarily crafty ladies determined to cook our way through at least 90% of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking over the next year (or more, really; since I don’t have any intention of stopping until I hit that 90% no matter how long it takes me). We’ve been sharing our experiences with the food and delicious pictures with one another as we go, and it has been a great time.

So. Would you like to see the delicious dishes that have come out of my kitchen over the past two months?

Warning–this is gonna be a looooong, pic-heavy, food p0rn-y post!

Also, I want to say upfront that I will not be including any recipes in this post (or any other post that follows this one about the cook-through). I have been making a supreme effort to follow each recipe to the letter (which is really hard for an improvisational cook like me). As such, I will not infringe on any copyrights here. However, each recipe’s title is listed in full and the page number it is found on is included, if you are so inclined to track it down and make it yourself.

And I do suggest you get the book, if you’re wondering. I’m sure you could Google a lot of these recipes and find them posted pretty much in full online, but–seriously, I want to encourage anyone who is interested in making these recipes to buy a copy of the book (Amazon has a ton used, if you’re searching for a discount). It is phenomenal. Simply the best cookbook on Italian cooking that I have ever read. (And I read cookbooks like novels.) Marcella’s advice is stellar. I love reading her thoughts and, even if she can be a touch persnickety now and then, I think part of what is making these recipes turn out so beautifully is following her directions to the letter.

Anyhow. On to the food.

bologneseMy inaugural recipe was “Bolognese Meat Sauce” (pg. 203)

The phrase most uttered by me throughout this experience thus far seems to be “Holy yum.” Maybe its not the most eloquent turn of phrase, but it really does sum up how amazed I feel every time I try one of these recipes.

This Bolognese was a great start to my cook-through. It was rich, thick, and satisfying; just what a real Bolognese sauce should be. Forget those bland, wussy “meat sauces” that are just browned ground beef swimming in tomato–this has such wonderful texture and layers of flavor that there really is no comparison.

It does take almost a full day of cooking, to get this puppy down to the perfect consistency. The beef is cooked in stages; first in milk, then in wine, then in tomatoes. This adds such a lovely complexity to the sauce; its a series of steps that really can’t be skipped.

So, a lot of work, yes; about seven hours of it from start to finish. But, most of that is hands off simmering time and, well, it is really worth it. This got a solid 5/5 from both me and the husband.

garlic-scented tomato saladNext was a the simple–yet startlingly delicious–“Garlic-Scented Tomato Salad” (pg. 548)

Now, I am a tomato fiend. I’m the person who eats them off other people’s plates if they get ignored. Even those sad winter-time tomato slices served alongside sandwiches and whatnot? Yup–even those. I just adore tomatoes.

So, when I saw that Marcella said this was a recipe that was consistently ranked highest by the students in her cooking classes, I just knew I had to try it.

 

Again–yum! Steeping that garlic in vinegar was a dynamite idea and one I will be using from now on when I make my vinaigrettes. I couldn’t believe the lovely, gentle garlicky-ness it added to the dish, without the actual pieces of garlic being present. This is, pretty much, the perfect summertime tomato side dish. (My grandmother and I sopped up every last bit of that juice, let me tell you; it was that damn delicious.)

The only thing I disliked it that it called for peeling the tomatoes (a task I found I sucked at). I understand the necessity for a softer, smoother bite… But next time, if its just for me, I think I’ll leave the peels on all the same! Still, this gets a hands-down 5/5.

romaine with gorgonzola and walnutsThat same day, for lunch, I made “Romaine Lettuce Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese and Walnuts” (pg. 551)

When I made this, I was hungry-but-not-meal-hungry (a state that, perhaps, only exists in my family). This fit the bill; it was light but rich and an easy dish to scale down to a one-size portion. It was the perfect mid-day sort of snack.

I cheated and used glazed walnuts, which are pretty darn amazing when paired with the vinegar and sharp, funky cheese.

Now, I personally adore blue cheese, so this was right up my alley. It is pretty prevalent in the dish. Of course, if you’re not a fan, you might find it a little much–its really just lettuce, walnuts, and the cheese; dressed simply with vinegar and oil.

If you don’t like it, pass yours my way ’cause I’d gladly eat this over and over. 5/5

shredded carrot saladAnother really simple and incredibly tasty veggie side dish I made not long after was the “Shredded Carrot Salad” (pg. 549)

This little gem is labor intensive but super tasty.

Next time I might for-go the hand-grating for the food processor, but it was worth the effort of making. This is one of those simple, four ingredient kind of recipes where you look at it and think, “Really? Is that all? Is this going to be worth it?”

The answer is, yes; yes it is.

What comes together in that bowl is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The acidity from the lemon juice and the freshness of the olive oil are key here; and its a key I found that I love!

I have never had a tastier raw carrot dish–it just bursts with unexpected flavor. I’d give this one a 4/5 and will likely make it again soon.
oven browned tomatoes

Aaaaand then I made another tomato dish. (What?! It was early July; the tomatoes were gorgeous–I couldn’t help myself!) This time I made the “Oven Browned Tomatoes” (pg 527)

My tomatoes never really got browned, as you can see, even when I cooked them for an extra 15 minutes. I don’t know if that is a failure of  my oven or my tomatoes or what. Maybe they were particularly hardy little buggers; they stayed surprisingly firm on the outside.

Oh well. Maybe next time I’ll let them go even longer to see if they develop more color, but even so; they were super tasty even like this. Concentrated tomato flavor, packed with savory garlic and fresh parsley; drizzled with olive oil… Love at first bite, I tell you.

As a tomato fiend, I found these tasty as a side dish (on their own) or even as a midnight snack. (Yes, I snack on tomatoes. Yes, I’m weird.) Totally a 4/5 (missing a point for not browning properly) for me.

These were also fabulous when diced up and used in the next dish’s sauce…

pork sausages smothered with tomato and onion“Pork Sausages with Smothered Onions and Tomatoes” (pg. 429)

I don’t know about you but you add the word “smothered” to a recipe title and I just want to eat a truckload of it. This dish was no exception.

For the sausages, we got an excellent mild sweet Italian sausage from Whole Foods that didn’t have a bit of fennel in it (both because Marcella specifies that they be mild with no strong spices and because I loathe fennel seeds). As I just mentioned, I cheated on the sauce a bit and used a batch of the Oven Browned Tomatoes in the sauce instead of plain ones, but I’m glad I did. That decision was delish.

I also took the sausages out and browned them on both sides (after their braise), as they were looking a little pale and sad. The result? Delicious pork, delicious sauce–total 5/5 yum. 

Also pictured there (under the sausage) is the “Instant Polenta” (pg 276).

So far, that is the only recipe I wasn’t enamored with. Perhaps it was the brand of polenta we tried or a cooking fail on my part, but it was pretty bland and kind of gluey in texture. It was okay under the sauce from the sausage, but neither of us found ourselves eager to eat the leftovers. 2/5 for this one.

lentils with bacon and pastaMoving along, we come to “Lentil Soup with Pasta, Bacon, and Garlic” (pg. 100).

I’m something of a lentil snob. Nothing ever comes close to my grandma’s, in my mind.

These? Gotta admit it; they are pretty darn delicious. Not quite as good as grandma’s but–really–what ever will be? I can accept them as a substitute if I have to. I mean; bacon, garlic, tomatoes–how can you go wrong with that as a flavor base?

This is a hearty, comfort food sort of dish that I will make more come winter. They were great the night I made them, but I think–as with most lentil dishes–they tasted even better the next day and beyond.

4/5. Yum.

gorgonzola sauceOn my birthday, I treated myself to something my husband wouldn’t come within a mile of touching: “Gorgonzola Sauce” (pg. 194)

Dear husband is not a fan of cheese and will not come within a foot of the funky blue stuff. (Seriously; he had to leave the kitchen–the scent alone was too potent for him, bless his heart.) I, however, love the stuff and can’t get enough of it, so this recipe was high on my list to try ASAP!

My exact thoughts, as posted to the Cooking Adventurers group were:

“Sooooo there’s nothing weird about eating pasta with “Gorgonzola Sauce” (pg 194) for breakfast, is there? Well, if there is, I’m invoking the “it’s my birthday, I can do whatever I like” clause.

This stuff rocks my socks. As a blue cheese lover, I am seriously in love with this. Rich, creamy, tangy–guh! I’m sure I’ll pay for eating a big bowl of this later but dang, it is tasty.

I served mine over capellini with some diced cherry tomatoes from the garden (and the little pops of acidity were welcome among all that creaminess). I’m already wondering how this would taste over a nice prime rib or some other lovely cut of beef…”

That opinion stands; this stuff is a blue cheese lover’s dream. Total 5/5.

And yes, we discovered; it tastes excellent over a nice roast beef.

swordfish steaks salmoriglio styleI’m not a big fish eater (again, its something the husband will not touch and I myself have only ever cooked mild, white fish like Tilapia or Halibut for myself on rare occassions), but one of the fish I do really like is swordfish. Having never cooked it myself, I was taking a bit of a risk when I decided to make it for a gathering of friends, using the “Grilled Swordfish Steaks, Sicilian Salmoriglio Style” (pg. 289) recipe.

Lucky for me, it was excellent. And I mean, straight-up deeeeeelicious!

It was super easy, too. The steaks cooked up really fast on the grill; only about 3 minutes per side, and then it was just a matter of poking some holes with a fork and pouring the mixed up vinaigrette down over the fish.

The fish was moist and fragrant with the lemon and oregano. Simple, flavorful, and the plate was cleaned in a matter of minutes of my snapping that quick picture. Can’t ask for more than that.

5/5 again!

cream and butter sauceNext, I made the “Cream and Butter Sauce” (pg. 193), aka all’Alfredo.

I served over this sauce over spaghetti with grilled chicken and pan-seared broccoli.

I was amazed; it was one of the lightest, yet tastiest, Alfredo sauces I’ve ever had.

I usually find Alfredo too rich for my stomach and too goopy for my palette, but that was so not the case with this one. The pasta seemed to absorb almost all of the cream and butter, leaving the noodles delightfully flavored but not swimming in thick sauce. I think adding the chicken and broccoli was a fantastic choice; it made it a full meal and the flavors all melded well together.

It was fantastic and, yet again, so damn simple. But, even more importantly, my husband liked it. My husband, who loathes most things dairy, liked this! He even went back for seconds. It was that good!

Another 5/5.

oxtailsThis next recipe is one I couldn’t wait to try–“Oxtails, Vaccinara Style” (pg. 446)

Both the husband and I love oxtails. They are one of the most delicious cuts from the cow. They require long, low cooking times but they are packed with collagen and become fall-apart tender. Guh! So good. I purchase mind in two-packs at Costco and make them a few times a year, in various ways, but this is now our new favorite.

I say again: holy yum.

These ‘tails were amazing. Rich, tender, falling off the bone goodness cloaked in a deliciously tomato-y sauce. I did make a diversion on this one and used my immersion blender to purée the veggie bits and juice into a gravy at the end. I had braised mine in the oven so my veggies were still a bit too piece-y for our liking. I think the thicker consistency is just lovely and it clings to the meat mmmm!

5/5!

potatoes with onion tomato and sweet pepperOne of the best recipes I’ve tried so far is the “Potatoes with Onion, Tomato, and Sweet Pepper” (pg. 523)

Mmmmm, this was warm, filling, comfort food!

This dish one reminds me of a similar one my grandma makes (only she puts squash in hers too).

The only thing that disappointed was the cooking time. Mine took crazy long to cook! (A little over two hours, where Marcella quoted a fraction of that time.) Maybe my Yukons were tough little buggers? Or my “low” heat was too low? Who knows. Either way, the end result was fantastic–super tender ‘taters coated with tomatoey-onion goodness. Sooooo good!

Pretty sure this was intended as a side dish (which is how I served it the first night, alongside some steak) buuuut this is just my idea of a great meat-free main dish too. I ate a big bowl of the leftovers for lunch the next day.

Another 5/5.

tomato sauce with onion and butterMy true favorite out of the book so far is a dish that Marcella is famous for: “Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter” (pg. 152)

This gem has become a Cole kitchen staple.

While I love making a nice slow-cooked marinara, and will likely never think a red sauce can be better than my grandma’s, this sauce in particular has become my quick, easy, go-to sauce for weeknights and beyond. It is just too good to be so darn simple! Some tomatoes, one onion, some butter, and some salt and–BAM! One of the tastiest sauces you’ll ever have.

Recently I’ve started using an immersion blender to puree the cooked onion into the finished sauce, instead of removing it like Marcella says, and I think my husband and I both like that version even better than the original. Then again, we’re onion lovers, so–that makes sense.

I make this one again and again and again. Total 5/5.

parmesan green beans“Sautéed Green Beans with Parmesan Cheese” (pg. 472)

Quick, simple, and darn tasty!

Then again, how can you go wrong with something cooked in butter and covered in cheese?!

One thing I love about this cook-through, is how it gets me to see old things in new ways. I love green beans, I love Parmesan cheese…. Yet, for some reason, I never thought to combine the two.

This one was another stupid easy recipe: it really is just sauteing the beans in butter until crisp-tender (or completely tender, if that’s your preferred texture), then adding the Parmesan and stirring until it melts down over them a bit. Serve and devour.

How simple, yet I might never have thought of it if I hadn’t read through this book! Another 5/5.

pork chops with tomato and porciniThe green beans above were cooked to go with the “Braised Pork Chops with Tomatoes, Cream, and Porcini Mushrooms” (pg. 421)

This is a fabulous dish. Like, company-worthy fabulous.

My chops were so tender they nearly fell off the bone, and this sauce was to die for. It tasted very similar to something I’ve eaten at our favorite local Italian restaurant (which is a bit upscale and super expensive). I can easily see this sauce adapting to chicken or shrimp and I fully intend to try that in the future!

I served it over the egg noodles that accompanied the pork and still sopped up what was left on my plate with bread!

My only wish is that the sauce was thicker; mine was quite loose. Next time I might take the good ol’ immersion to it and see if pureeing the tomatoes into it helps, or maybe add a touch of cornstarch slurry to tighten it up. As it stand, 4/5 but if I thicken up that sauce, I could see it becoming a 5/5.

barely soupThe last recipe I made, at the time of this post’s creation, was the “Barley Soup in the Style of Trent” (pg. 114)

Mmmm–another hands down winner. This came out thick, hearty, and was very comforting!

I was getting over a cold when I made this soup, so it really hit the spot like whoa. My husband went back for seconds and grandma had a bowl too; we all enjoyed it immensely. I can see myself making this again and again in colder months!

I did the variation that called for using unsmoked ham in it instead if pancetta because I just couldn’t find pancetta anywhere the day I wanted to make it. Even then, it was super tasty–rich, thick, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food.

The next day it thickened up to a near-solid porridge like consistency, which I found just as enjoyable. 5/5

Verdict…Sort of?

I am having a complete blast with this experience. It has gotten me excited about cooking again. I love to check in every morning and see what awesome dishes my friends are cooking up, and they inspire me to choose my next kitchen adventure. (It doesn’t hurt that I haven’t had a single bad recipe from this book yet!) While I’m still not in the kitchen as much as I like (being far too frazzled on most weeknights), I’ve been making a conscious effort to cook at least one new recipe on each day I’m off from work. It has been fun, eye-opening, and belly-filling. I am truly grateful to the wonderful friends who decided to embark upon this adventure with me.

I think I’ll likely post an entry like this every month or two, recapping what I’ve made in the interim and how I felt about each dish. I know this has primarily been a beauty blog (with some random subscriptions thrown in), but I think–as it’s one year anniversary approaches–I feel its time to expand it a little bit beyond makeup and skin care. After all, this blog is named for me, and being a makeup artist/esthetician is just one part of my life. I’d like to share a little bit more about what makes me tick, now and then, and this cookbook cook-through it a big part of that right now.

To cap this all, let me sum it up by sharing a lil’ moment with y’all:

Last night, as we ate that delicious barely soup for dinner, my husband commented, “I like this new ‘cooking’ you.”

And you know what?

I do too.

2 thoughts on “Cooking the Book: Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

  1. Val

    I like the cooking you too! An excellent compliment to all the other yous, and it’s made me a cooking me as well. You. Are awesome 🙂

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