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

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Farmers Market Herbs and BreadI don’t know how much you guys enjoyed my post regarding the Cookbook Cook Through my friends and I are currently doing, but I loved sharing it with you. To recap, as briefly as I am able, a few lady friends and I are cooking our way through at least 90% of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking over the next year. (Given that I only average 3 recipes a week, it will likely take me far longer, since I don’t have any intention of stopping until I hit that 90%.) 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.

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 helps that all of the recipes have been good–most are outstanding and even the few that didn’t wind up suiting our tastes were still tasty and completely consumed (rather than being terrible disasters that wound up in the trash). I don’t know of any other cookbook that has yielded up such consistently tasty results, at least not in my collection!

So, here I am; back with another collection of yummy images and musings on the recipes I’ve tried since!

Standard warnings apply:

1) This is gonna be another long, pic-heavy post!

2) I will not be including any recipes in this post (or any other cook-through post). I have been making a supreme effort to follow each recipe to the letter (which is really hard for an improvisational cook like me) and, 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.

pork stuffed chickenFirst up is the “Rolled Fillets of Breast of Chicken with Pork and Rosemary Filling” (pg. 340)

What a mess! This dish was one that tested my patience something fierce. I had a really hard time with the filling (as you can probably see in my messy picture); it just wouldn’t stay in my chicken! Marcella tells us to use a toothpick to hold each roll together? Well, I needed three and there was still leakage.In hindsight, using some butcher’s twine to tie the rolls up might have helped buuuuuut I didn’t have any on hand at the time.

Grrr, arrgh. Nothing ruffles my feathers more than a recipe not behaving the way it should. The only thing I can think, was that maybe my pork was too lean, because it crumbled up into lovely little browned bits as it cooked. They were tasty, don’t get me wrong; just not very conducive to stuffing.

The flavor of the overall dish was pretty good even if the presentation was lacking. I would have liked a bit more garlic flavor in the filling. Marcella has you remove the smashed cloves after cooking, but next time I would mince the garlic and keep it in the filling and, perhaps, add in some breadcrumbs and egg as a binder to get more of a true American-thought “stuffing.”

But the pan sauce you get after you deglaze it with the wine? Dynamite. That sauce was awesome on the mashed potatoes.

parmesan mashed potatoesSpeaking of those potatoes… “Mashed Potatoes with Milk and Parmesan Cheese, Bolognese Style” (pg. 518)

Holy hell were these good!! Creamy, buttery, with the slight salty-nuttiness from the Parmesan. Guh. I’m drooling again, just thinking about them!

They were incredibly rich but sooooo good. I love me a potato in many forms, but mashed were always my least favorite. So many times, I’ve had to slog my way through gluey, bland mashed potatoes… Ick. I just never bothered going through the effort of making my own, figuring they were too tricky or too finicky for me to bother with.

These changed my mind. I will be making these often! They were well worth getting a potato ricer for this. (Mine was somewhere around $15.00 on Amazon, with free Prime shipping.) That ricer is likely key to this recipe being a success. It made these the smoothest, fluffiest mashed potatoes I’ve ever made; hands down. Ah-mazing.

potato and ham croquettesAlso, they were delicious as all get out when served with the leftover white wine pan sauce from the chicken rolls (above), so I imagine they’d be equally fabulous with gravy. I don’t know for sure, because we were gluttons and used the leftovers from my batch to make “Potato and Ham Croquettes, Romagna Style” (pg. 519)

Sweet mother of God.

I think my original comments to my cook through buddies says it all:

“Make a double batch of taters to make sure you have enough leftovers to do so, if you must–just do it!!!

By “ham” she means prosciutto and by “croquettes” she means amazing pan-fried potato-y pattie goodness. Stuffed with said prosciutto.

Pure, fattie bliss over here tonight. Excuse me while I gain five pounds…”

Yes, my husband and I might have gained five pounds that night, if not more. We ate the entire batch. As a side dish, with some fried chicken. (God, I feel like the world’s worst fattie admitting that.)

chicken with two lemonsA few days later, we had some friends over (one of whom is participating in this cook through) and we tackled two more of Marcella’s recipes. The main dish was “Roast Chicken with Lemons” (pg. 327). Something so simple shouldn’t be so tasty! This is really a ridiculously simple recipe: a chicken, two lemons, salt, pepper, and some twine. That’s it.

Sorry for the Frankenstein-like image there, but–well–that’s my first sewing job, so cut me some slack. I tried to sew my bird up tight (but not too tight), but alas; mine didn’t “balloon” even when sewn shut. Whatever.

It was still very good, if not super pretty. The meat was moist and had a delicate lemon fragrance. The pan drippings made a wonderful base for gravy. We picked that carcass clean, so I’d say this was a win!

parmesan risottoAlongside the chicken we served my first ever risotto: “Risotto with Parmesan Cheese” (pg. 244)

Yum! This was indeed my first risotto, so we kept it simple, but it will certainly not be my last!

Again, this was something I thought would be too hard or some such nonsense, so I’d never attempted it. And consdiering it usually costs a pretty penny to eat out at fancy Italian restaurants, it was dish I never got to have often. (Certainly not as often as I would have liked!) Luckily my friend Tori helped get over my fear of making it. She was a great risotto coach and I love her to pieces for helping me along!

Now that I know risotto is so simple to make at home, I can’t wait to make it (and many variations of it) again. Hell, I could probably eat the whole damn thing myself, given the chance. It was pure creamy deliciousness (which was lovely under some of the gravy from the roast chicken) and I’ve been craving another batch ever since…

sausages and cream sauceOne night I was in search of a quick pasta sauce that wasn’t another red sauce, and I came across the “Sausages and Cream Sauce” (pg. 201)

Quick, simple, and with a short ingredient list? Done!

This was another of those “something this simple shouldn’t taste so good” experiences. Really it is just some sausage, onion, and cream, but it yield a rich, tasty, and filling meal. It helps that we have fallen in love with a mild fennel-free Italian sausage that we get from Whole Foods; they’re perfect for Marcella recipes! (But I bet this sauce would also be dynamite with a mix of hot and sweet!) I served this batch of  sauce over orecchiette so the sausage-y bits would get caught up in the little nooks.

My husband had only been intending to stop in and pick up a to-go package of this sauce/pasta, as he had an engagement at a friend’s house across town. However, after taking a quick  bite he wound up sitting down and polishing the whole thing off. Can’t ask for a better endorsement than that.

While we ate, we discussed how this sauce is a sort of culmination of our combined culinary growth. When we met, I wouldn’t eat sausage and he wouldn’t touch cream. Tonight we were licking our bowls. I’d call that progress!

pork braised in milk and spinach and prosciutto crespelleOne weekend another friend (also cooking through this cookbook) and I got together to create another culinary collaboration. We had intended to tackle one of the Osso Bucco recipes, but the fates conspired against us. We couldn’t find veal shanks anywhere! Not at the supermarket, not at the butcher–it was a big letdown. On the fly we scrambled to think of a new main dish substitute, and the only one I could think of that was entirely committed to memory was something i had been planning to cook later in the week “Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style” (pg. 417) So, we went with that, served alongside “Baked Crespelle with Spinach, Prosciutto, and Parmesan” (pg. 269)!

The pork was incredibly easy and largely hands off, which made it ideal when we had all of the steps of the crespelle to complete. Though not pretty, the pork was buttery tender and very moist by the end of its 3-hour simmer. Those little nutty brown clusters atop it are the cooked down milk. They have a taste I can’t quite describe but they were surprisingly delicious.

However, it was the Baked Crespelle with Spinach, Prosciutto that stole the show. Holy yum people; they were so much easier than we had anticipated and man, so delicious! That filling was the die for. Over dinner we were musing over all the glorious filling possibilities for those lovely little crepes. Safe to say, we are all crespelle coverts!

apple frittersWe also decided to do up a dessert while watching Doctor Who, so we made “Apple Fritters” (pg. 576), served alongside vanilla ice cream and some of the reserved rum mixture from marinating the apples (to spoon over the ice cream).

Yum!

Simple and tasty, which I am finding to be the Marcella hallmark. I think that lemon zest-dark rum-sugar marinade would be good for just about any fruit. Every time I turned the apple pieces in the marinade, I found myself licking my fingers before washing my hands. It was just that good. (And it was excellent over the ice cream.)

eggplant patties with tomato and onionNext, I made the “Eggplant Patties with Parsley, Garlic, and Parmesan; Variation 1 with Onions and Tomatoes” (pg. 499)

I adore eggplant, so when I was in the produce aisle and saw a beautiful one sitting there, I bought it without any clear idea of what it would become. I just couldn’t pass it up!

As much as I love eggplant, my husband? Not so much. He doesn’t outright hate it, but he’s never enthusiastic about it. So I decided to go with these patties, where the eggplant was first roasted whole, thus bringing out that lovely sweetness it has.

The flavor of these patties were great, but I had a bit of an issue with their construction. My mix was very soft and I had a hard time keeping them together. I’m wondering if, perhaps, I roasted my eggplant too much. It was very soft when it came out of the oven, and had more of purée texture than a dice when all was said and done. I had to double the breadcrumbs to keep them together, but luckily that did not adversely affect their flavor.

They were delicious plain but again, as Phil is picky about eggplant, I made the onion and tomato variation to spoon over the top of them too.

Simple but very good.

rosemary garlic roasted chickenKnowing I’m not great with getting into the kitchen on a weekday night after work, I decided to take some initiative one night when I was feeling particularly energetic and roast a big chicken, to re-purpose through the week in various meals. I used the “Oven Roasted Chicken with Garlic and Rosemary” (pg. 328).

This was another lovely bird; very moist and fragrant with the scents of garlic and rosemary. It smelled like garlicky heaven in that oven when this bird was roasting, and it was hard not to pick too many bits off it as I prepared it to go in various containers. (We did eat the skin off the breast through. No sense in letting that deliciousness go to waste.)

It made a great filling for quesadillas one night, and was equally tasty as a component in a quick chicken soup another night.

Even better though, is that this guy helped me get over my meh feelings about rosemary–I quite enjoyed its woodsy flavor on this chicken! I even found myself unable to resist a lovely, fragrant bunch of rosemary at the farmer’s market the next weekend. Not sure what I’ll make with it, but I just had to have it!

Lentil SoupWhen the weather turned chilly and dreary, I felt the need to make a hearty pot of soup. I turned to “Lentil Soup” (pg. 99)

Mmm, this was perfect! Thick, rich, and packed with flavor. I think brothy lentil soups are an abomination, so I was very pleased with the consistency of this one.

I liked this version much better than the one I had tried previously (with the pasta and bacon). Maybe it was the thicker, more tomato-y base that appeals to me? Maybe it was the pancetta? (I had searched high and low for that damn pork. Verdict? The Coles are most definitely fans.) Who knows. Whatever the case, my husband and I both enjoyed this one thoroughly.

Nothing else to say but yum, really.

meatballs with tomatoNext up were the “Meatballs with Tomatoes” (pg. 399)

These smelled delicious while they were cooking, but it felt really weird to make Marcella’s recipe instead of my grandmother’s… Especially since grandma looking on while I prepped them.

The end result was tasty but not as good as grandma’s. I think, more than the texture than the taste that we didn’t like–they were a bit on the dense side. My grandmother always mixes milk soaked breadcrumbs into the mixture on hers (as opposed to using milk soaked fresh bread in the mix and then just rolling the outside them in dry crumbs). Since I learned to make meatballs from her, that’s how I’ve always done it too. I think that makes grandma’s version turn out much lighter tasting, if that makes any sense. Of course, it may have been user error. I might not have mixed Marcella’s milk soaked bread into the meat enough; it didn’t seem to distribute as well as I’d like.

Anyhow, Marcella’s were by no means bad. We just thought they were a bit dense and that they tasted a but beefier than we normally like (which is odd coming from two red meat lovers). We ate the leftovers the next night as meatball parm heroes (which I liked better than the original night, when we ate it with some pasta and the following dish), but I don’t think I’ll make them again.

Braised FennelAlong with the meatballs, we tried a new vegetable: “Braised Finocchio with Olive Oil” (pg. 593)

To preface this, I loathe fennel seeds. Can’t stand them; they’re horribly bitter and acrid tasting to me, and–frankly–ruin any dish they’re in. That is probably why, for the longest time, I wouldn’t eat Italian sausage. I also am not a fan of licorice, so I always assumed the fresh version would be just as unpalatable to me.

A friend convinced me to give the fresh vegetable a try, promising that the licorice-y flavor mellows out as it cooks and has none of the bitterness I find in the seeds. So, when I saw some really good looking (heads? bulbs?) of fennel at the farmer’s market one Sunday, I decided it was time to give it a try.

It was a surprise hit (sort of)!

I tasted some of it raw and was a bit put off; it was a bit too strong for my liking. However, the taste is so different once it cooks down! My friend was right; the licorice taste really mellows out and the overall taste of the soft, creamy cooked slices kind of reminded me of artichoke. I really liked it!

So, I loved it; it was a hit with me. My mother also liked it, and my grandma ate a pile of it. Unfortunately it wasn’t such a success with the male portion of the household. My father had to be forced to eat a dime-sized bite (and wasn’t pleased in doing so) and my husband ate most of a courtesy serving but obviously wasn’t thrilled with it. Oh well; can’t please everyone.

rosemary focacciaA week later, I found myself up early on a Saturday morning with the urge to knead something, so I made “Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary” (pg. 620)

For whatever reason, I am a terrible dessert baker but pretty darn good at making bread. I’ve always attested this to the fact that I don’t like sweets but do love bread. Especially fresh bread, like this focaccia straight from the oven. The house being filled with the scent of it as it baked on a chilly Saturday morning was just a bonus. Mmmm…

This was another really simple recipe that came together quick and was much less messy than I had feared. Maybe its the olive oil in the dough, but I found it sticking to things less than other breads I have made, and–in general–just making a less of a floury mess than usual.

It came out perfect; cripsy on the bottom but still soft inside, with a nice chew. The rosemary and oil on the top of the bread was amazing and half of the loaf might have been gone by the next morning…

sauce with pancetta and rosemaryAlong with the focaccia, I tried another of Marcella’s red sauces: “Tomato Sauce with Olive Oil and Chopped Vegetables, variation with Rosemary and Pancetta” (pg. 154)

I liked how fresh this sauce tasted, with the heavy infusion of veggies in the base, but my husband wasn’t as sold on it. (He’s been spoiled by her Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter; now a sauce lacking a hefty amount of butter makes him pout). He also isn’t too fond of rosemary, so I think that added to his displeasure. Adding the pancetta made him a bit more enthusiastic; we are becoming big fans of those magical piggie bits!

I may have gone a little too rough on the chop during prep when I made this sauce. My veggie bits weren’t as tender as we like by the end of the cook time and, truth be told, we’re really not huge fans of chunky sauces. The original flavor was okay, but I wanted to make it a bit more palatable for both of us. So, I took the immersion blender to it and whirred it up into a more cohesive, creamier sauce, and then let it simmer very low for an extra half hour.

Fantastic results with those two changes. The rosemary flavor was mellowed and much more integrated as a background note (instead of a bracing bite here and there). The sweetness of the carrots and onions still came through, with just a hint of that woodsy-ness from the rosemary. Perfect. We found it very tasty and will be making this one again, with those variations.

potato soup with smothered onionsThe last recipe for this update was “Potato Soup with Smothered Onions” (pg. 96)

The weather has turned chilly and dreary in New Jersey, which means more and more soups will be coming out of my kitchen.

This one was yummy, carby goodness! Again, this was one of those stupid easy recipe that took very little effort and, bonus; we already had everything already on hand in the pantry.

Marcella might be turning over in her grave at this, but we served this up “loaded” (aka fattie style) with grated cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon, and (for me) a dollop of sour cream. Heavenly! I will definitely be keeping this one on the winter soup roster.

Verdict…Sort of?

Marcella has quickly ascended to the status of Patron Saint of the Cole Kitchen.

I really am amazed how each and every recipe I try is consistently delicious. It has gotten to the point where I can tell my husband–a terribly picky eater–that the meal’s recipe is “from the book” and he instantly gets excited for it, no matter what it is. I can’t tell you how much I’m loving not getting the immediate hesitancy and the question of “What’s in it?” Essentials of Classic Italian cooking has gotten him to try things he always loathed (especially dairy!) not only without complaint but more often than not going back for seconds of something I had originally thought was an “iffy Phil dish.” I love that he is enjoying this cook through as much as I am, and that he has found ways in which he likes those “evil ingredients” I formerly had to abstain from using in my cooking.

This food is that good, folks; it wins over picky eaters. While I was never what one could call picky, I too am enjoying damn near every dish and I can’t wait to continue on trying new things from it.

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

  1. Jenny

    I’m really enjoying these cooking posts, please continue to share! I am definitely picking this book up for myself and as an Xmas gift! As a snooty Italian who hates any italian food that wasn’t made by my family, these all look utterly amazing!

    • Thank you, it makes me so happy to hear that you are enjoying my cooking posts! I have such a great time writing them, but I wasn’t sure how people were receiving them, given that this is a beauty blog. 🙂

      I highly suggest Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking to everyone these days. Not only are the recipes fantastic, but I feel I’ve learned a lot from the little tidbits of cooking advice Marcella sprinkled throughout the book. Learning her how’s and why’s in the kitchen has made me a better cook… And it helps that her recipes are stellar!

  2. I’m really pleased to see there are some others trying to cook through this book! I’ve been doing it solo for awhile. I’m up to #71 (picking and choosing as the mood and need dictates and blogging about it – among other things). The pork chops with porcini mushrooms made me stop, after tasting in the kitchen, and exclaim ‘Oh my goodness!’ I’ve never had that enthusiastic a response from myself while standing alone in my kitchen! My guests were silent as they ate, and one then asked if it would be rude to lick her plate. I heartily concur that this is the most consistently tasty, work-every-time, cookbook I know.

    • I will not lie; there have been moments when I licked the plate too!

      I have never had such consistently good results from a single cookbook before. I keep waiting for a dish to be a flop but so far so good–it always leaves me combing the pages, wondering what I should try next.

      • I too keep searching through the recipes and there are so many! One of the things I find fascinating is cooking without photos and therefore no real idea of what the end product will look like. I enjoy the surprise.

      • I am enjoying that too, which surprised me. I usually like my cookbooks to have pictures so I can get an idea of how its shaping up as I make the recipe, but this book has proven that you don’t need fancy photos at all. I’ve come to like see how my dishes turn out when compared to my friends’ versions, but it feels much more … personal? I don’t know if that’s the word I’m looking for (not enough caffeine to power the brain yet this morning), but it fits! :-p

  3. I agree that it feels more personal! I think everyone’s cooking and results will differ because the serving and eating of the dish, the people gathered with you to eat, the mood you’re in when you cook it, all add to the flavour and impact of the meal.

    I have often cross-checked the pictures on the following blog link – but I try to only do it after I’ve cooked the dish myself. It’s interesting to see what has appealed to others and what their dish turns out like. They also had the great privilege of having Marcella comment on their posts as she was still alive then. http://www.slowtrav.com/blog/pomodori_e_vino/

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