When I once asked the late Italian cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan what she felt was the most important thing in cooking, that was her immediate and emphatic answer.
Marcella died four years ago today, just a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday. When I reflect on her life as a teacher and sum what she taught us, it all comes down to that: Taste.
It may seem obvious and simplistic, but it’s all too often overlooked in our age of so-called culinary cleverness. It’s far too easy to get carried away with being “creative,” or with taking too much to heart the notion that we “eat first with our eyes,” and lose sight of the single most important thing: that moment when we lift our forks and the food meets with our tongues. Read More
Recipes and Stories
If you’ve been following my recipes and stories page or my author’s page on Facebook for any time at all, you know that Italy, its people, and its many lovely cuisines have as large a chunk of my heart as my native South, fellow Southerners, and our many lovely cuisines. And this week, that part of my heart has been aching.
By now, most everyone has heard that in the early hours of Wednesday, August 24, central Italy was hit by a major earthquake of 6.2 magnitude, followed by a series of aftershocks that were still rattling the region as late as Friday. Read More
We Americans seem to have become terrified of silence. We’ve deliberately surrounded ourselves with noise: whether it’s our own radios, sound systems, and televisions, or the ones in our stores, waiting rooms, and offices, there’s an unending soundtrack to our lives, numbingly underscored by a monotonous rhythmic thump.
Even when those other noises are missing (and, all too often, even when they’re not), we’re talking. Non-stop. Count on it: in any moment where complete silence is the order—a religious service, a funeral, the quiet contemplation of nature or art, that silence is always, always interrupted by the sharp hiss of a whisper.
Our need to fill the void permeates nearly everything we do, but it’s most troubling manifestation is in our kitchens. Read More
30 January 2015: Simplicity in the Cold Season
A few days ago, I reflected on how the simple act of peeling and eating a perfectly ripe Clementine orange recalled the fact that the principles of good cooking and satisfying eating are founded less on creativity than on the virtues of balance, simplicity, and restraint.
That wasn’t to suggest that there’s no room for creativity in the kitchen; Read More
What we don’t add to the pot, Marcella Hazan frequently reminded us, is equally as important as what we do. While under-seasoning can make a dish fall short of its potential, it’s a failing that can still be corrected; there’s rarely any hope for a dish that has been over-seasoned or buried under a confusion of other flavors. Read More
One is always learning: a couple of weeks ago, supper was something I’d made hundreds of times—pork tenderloin pan-roasted with garlic, rosemary, and white wine. That lean little cut is great for two people on a busy work night: it has very little waste, is just enough for us to have two meals from it, cooks quickly, and, as its name implies, is always tender, even when it’s accidentally overcooked. Read More
My mother’s wedding china still stands as it did in my youth, in neat stacks in her dining room hutch. Rimmed in gold and sporting a pair of pink-tinged gardenia blossoms at its center, it was old-fashioned, feminine, and just plain “girly.” Yet it was the very essence of elegance and sophistication to my child’s mind. Read More
Marcella Hazan’s husband, Victor, recently reminded us that his late wife liked to say, “If I could persuade someone to cook for six months without a single herb or spice, I’d have a chance to make a cook out of her.” Read More
Forgive me for sounding irritable, but it can’t be helped: I sound irritated because I am. The title alone was enough to annoy, but the recipes themselves—well! Read More
Aptly calling the result “an acute case of culinary vandalism,” Sa. Hazan took the opportunity to remind us that cooking is a craft, and within that craft, a little creativity—like spice—goes a very long way and should never be allowed to take over and run amok.
“We should be spending our time as cooks,” she concluded, “in understanding, practicing, perfecting, and respecting a craft that is essential to our survival. We ought not to be distracted by trends, lured by fashion, obsessed by the pursuit of originality. These are not directly linked to the pleasure that well-crafted food brings.”
This came sharply home a day or two later, when I was putting together my contribution for a potluck party, a dish of baked pasta that was in my childhood simply called macaroni pie. Beneath its euphemistic name, when properly executed this Southern classic follows in the best tradition of Italian baked pasta: all it requires is good macaroni, the best cheese that can be had, and a little care with the craft.
The macaroni was good-quality Italian pasta, the cheese, a Vermont cheddar that, while it would have fallen far short of my grandfather’s standards, was still nothing to sneeze at. And there was a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand to make up for its minor shortcomings. Yet, suddenly, making it the usual way seemed unimpressively simple. Maybe if I added little cubes of browned bacon, with perhaps a couple of onions caramelized in the bacon fat, and some sage . . . or rosemary . . .
I got as far as opening the refrigerator door, but before my hand laid hold of the bacon, almost as if she had actually been there, watching and reading my thoughts, Marcella’s voice came sharply to my mind's ear: stop fooling around and just make it properly. Yes, ma’am.
The dish came back home scraped so clean that it barely needed washing.
In parts of the South, a simple egg and milk custard replaces the cream that’s used here (about 2-3 eggs, depending on size, for the same volume of milk). In other places, the binder is bechamel, just as it is in Italy. My grandfather’s version, following an old North Georgia tradition that had English roots, was plain milk, with saltine crackers distributed among the macaroni as a thickener.
But however they’re bound together, the critical ingredients here are pasta and cheese: at the risk of being tediously redundant, so long as those two things are first rate, they don’t need help, and if they aren’t good, or if you’re a bit careless with the execution, the dish doesn’t have a prayer no matter what you add—and that’s all there is to it.
1 pound elbow macaroni
3 cups heavy cream
12 ounces (¾ pound) well-aged extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
½ cup (about 2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, toss in a small handful of salt, stir, and then slowly add the macaroni, stirring. Let it come back to a boil, adjust the temperature to a steady but not rapid boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile, butter a 2-to-3-quart casserole. Just before draining the pasta, take up and reserve about a quarter of a cup of the starchy cooking liquid.
2. Drain the pasta and turn it into the casserole. Add a few spoonfuls of the reserved cooking liquid (just enough to make it seem glossy and moist—you may not need it all), the cream, and toss until the pasta is coated. Add most of the cheddar, holding back about half a cup, half the Parmigiano, and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. Quickly toss until the cheese is evenly distributed. Smooth the top and sprinkle the remaining cheeses over it. Generously grind pepper over it and bake in the center of the oven until bubbly in the middle and golden brown. Let rest 5-10 minutes before serving. Read More
One of the things I miss the most about living away from my family is my mother’s garden, especially at this time of year, when almost everything is coming in at once. There are tomatoes gathered only after they’re ripened to perfection, and green beans, squash, and okra, all of which are best when picked while young and a little immature.
There are compensations to living here in Savannah, of course: here it’s peak shrimp season, and thankfully there’s now a growing local farmer’s market whose vendors share my mother’s care with produce. This past weekend, one of my favorite farmers had okra no bigger than my thumb, gathered just the evening before. It was so beautiful and perfect that it was hard not to buy more than we could eat over the weekend.
There’s nothing else to do with okra like that but let it shine on its own, something that’s rarely allowed to happen. It’s a pity, really, because young, tender okra possesses a wonderful, refreshing flavor that is easy on digestion (and souls) wearied by summer’s dead heat. It’s a quality Mary Randolph clearly understood when she gave us:
Gumbs—A West India Dish.
Gather young pods of ocra, wash them clean, and put them in a pan with a little water, salt and pepper, stew them till tender, and serve them with melted butter. They are very nutricious and easy of digestion.
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824 *
Mrs. Randolph’s melted butter was prepared in a pan continuously shaken over a larger basin of simmering water. Barely melted to the consistency of a beurre blanc, it was used to finish just about every vegetable that went to her table.
Cooking is never static, even for historians. Whenever we take a recipe into our own kitchen, we adapt it to suit our tastes and cooking habits. While working on her definitive commentary on Mrs. Randolph’s work, my mentor Karen Hess did just that with this lovely recipe. Since she and her husband, John, once lived in Egypt, there’s a distinct hint of the Middle East in her version with its garlic and splash of fruity olive oil. Sometimes she made it with butter, but she once told me “we like it best served the next day, at room temperature, and for that, of course, olive oil is best.” Indeed.
Whenever she offered it cold, there were always thick wedges of lemon on hand.
1½ pounds very fresh okra pods no more than 2 inches long
1-2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Lemon wedges (optional)
1. Wash the okra under cold running water, gently rubbing to remove fuzz. Trim the cap or stem end but leave the pods whole.
2. Put the okra in a heavy, lidded skillet that will hold it in one layer. Add a splash (about a quarter of a cup) of water, the garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, a liberal pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Cover and put it over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, until the okra are tender but still bright green, shaking the pan occasionally to help the okra cook evenly. Don’t let the liquid evaporate completely; add a spoonful or so as needed to keep the moisture from drying completely.
3. Pour the okra and any “sauce” that remains into a shallow serving bowl, remove and discard the garlic, drizzle it with fresh oil, toss to coat with sauce, and serve warm or at room temperature, passing lemon separately, if liked.
When we’re having it cold, I deviate very little from Karen, but when it will be eaten straight from the pan, my own version is equally eclectic, influenced not only by Karen, but also my mother and another mentor, Marcella Hazan.
To serve four, you’ll need all the ingredients for Karen’s Okra, using only one clove of garlic and substituting for the oil the best butter that can be had. Again, wash the pods under cold running water, gently rubbing to remove the fuzz, and trim the cap or stem end, leaving them whole. Crush, peel, and mince the garlic fine.
Put the okra in a heavy, lidded skillet that will hold it in one layer. Add about a quarter of a cup of water, the garlic, a liberal pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper, and a generous lump of butter. Cook it following Karen’s method, shaking the pan occasionally and adding a spoonful or so of water as needed. Off the heat, add another pat or so of butter and shake the pan until the okra is coated. Serve warm.
* No one is really sure, by the way, how okra, the seedpod of an African hibiscus, migrated from Africa to our continent, but it turns up in the Americas wherever there are Africans in the kitchen, from Virginia to the West Indies all the way to Brazil. And Mrs. Randolph’s name for her recipe, while by no means definitive documentation, is suggestive of the route it may have taken into our hemisphere. Read More