At the time of her death, Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan was working on what would become her final book, writing longhand in notebooks that her husband and collaborator, Victor, translated and transcribed. That book, “Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market,” serves as a testament to Hazan’s status as a treasure in the culinary world.
“Ingredienti” teaches the reader how to shop like Marcella Hazan. The ingredients are the most basic component of any recipe. You might be able to follow the instructions in her cookbooks, but without quality ingredients, the home cook stands little chance of faithfully replicating the recipes as intended.
“Looking for ingredients should be more deliberate than dropping them into your basket and checking them off a shopping list,” Hazan writes in the introduction. “Become familiar with them, establish a connection, and allow them to guide you to making food that you enjoy and will be pleased to share.”
The book is divided into sections entitled “Produce,” “The Essential Pantry” and “Salumi,” containing therein portraits of individual foods, ranging from artichokes, that spiny, somewhat intimidating but oh-so-delicious vegetable, to lardo, a solid piece of pure, uncooked pig fat cured with salt, garlic, herbs and spices. The result is a well-organized, fast read that is easy to reference.
Hazan provides tips on selecting items, as well as storing, preparing, and serving them. She provides detailed instructions on how to maintain a large chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and she isn’t swayed by the argument that homemade pasta is superior to factory-made.
“When matched to its most appropriate sauces, the flavors of store-bought, factory-made boxed pasta are fully as remarkable and satisfying as those of the homemade variety,” she writes, though she cautions that not every supermarket pasta is created equal when it comes to quality. Spaghetti cries out for a simple tomato sauce. Short, concave or tubular pasta are best paired with “morsels they can pull inside them,” such as sauces containing meat or vegetables.
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit for me was this one, for serving risotto: “It is a gracious gesture, when serving, for the host or hostess to shake the plate with a circular motion to spread out the risotto so that the guest can eat starting at the edges, where the risotto will be cooler, then proceeding toward the center, where its heat takes longer to abate.”
“Ingredienti” delights all the senses. Hazan – and presumably her husband, as translator – has a facility with language that adds layers of temptation, elevating what one would otherwise consider a humble object. Take, for instance, what she has to say about fava beans: “Fava’s soft, velvety pod is as fuzzy to the touch as the beans inside it are smooth.” Or, in discussing Amabito no Moshio, a Japanese salt, she writes, “No other salt has such suave manners. It disappears into the food you sprinkle it on … and flavors emerge with precision and clarity.”
Hazan does an excellent job of describing smells. For example, tomatoes “should have a decidedly earthy, almost farmyard scent,” and “marjoram’s fragrance is charming but fragile.”
She also makes rich use of similes and metaphors. The white bulb of fennel is described as being “as hard and large as a boxer’s fist,” and an onion “is the bass player in the combo of flavors that I am putting together, the rhythm section that sets and drives the pace of its fellows.”
Finally, Hazan acknowledges the difficulty of obtaining the most quality of ingredients. Unless you grow your own herbs and vegetables or have access to a well-stocked, reliable farmers market, you must visit the grocery store. And let’s face it; not all grocery stores will carry that genuine extra-virgin olive oil or imported pancetta. To help you stock your pantry and follow the advice given in her fine book, Hazan provides four pages of online resources.
You’ll discover “Ingredienti” on the new non-fiction section at the Joplin Public Library. But don’t read it while hungry, I warn you. I found myself wanting to gather ingredients from my refrigerator and pantry – pasta, garlic, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, Parmigiano-Reggiano – and throw something together to tempt my taste buds. Instead I resorted to swiping a spoonful of creamy ricotta from the already open container in the fridge, but that’ll be our little secret.