What We're Cooking Now

What We're Cooking Now - My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz

Monday, January 27, 2014

Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is actually an amalgam of two books written by Hazan. Both books were so popular, that Essentials was created--here  she refines the earlier recipes, adds some new ones, and ends up with one mighty tome of all things Italian.  

Hazan describes Essentials in the Preface as a kitchen handbook for beginners to highly experienced cooks on the techniques and dishes of Italian cooking.  She goes on, however, in the Introduction, to describe how diverse "Italian" cooking can be.  And honestly, the first 51 pages of the book are an absolute LOVE STORY to Italy, its regions, cuisines and ingredients.  This book is steeped in true love of food, not mere infatuation.  Understanding that deep love overcame our disappointment that there are no photographs in this book. Imagine comparing a text book on sex to a glossy magazine...get the picture? :)
From Hazan, we learned that the cooking from Italy's various regions varies immensely, with as many variances as Italy's own landscape, from alps to plains to seas, from dairy zone to olive grove.  The Fundamentals chapter is magic:  read it and you will understand the concepts of flavour clearly, as if for the first time.  Never again will onion and garlic go into my pan at the same time.  And we now know that butter can be used when a more neutral flavour than olive oil is desired.  The list of Components is a handy resource on how to treat ingredients such as anchovies, and how to buy balsamic vinegar. 
Techniques and history lesson aside, however, our general consensus on this book is that it is far more of a reference guide and a history lesson, than it is a cook book that calls to you from the shelf. In general the recipes tested were good-but there were only a few stand outs that any of use will include in our repertoire. 

Perhaps the recipes themselves fall victim to 'tradition'. Perhaps because there was a limited availability of ingredients available to cooks in Italy when these traditional recipes were evolving, so many repeat themselves over and over, which contributed to our perception of overall dullness in the book.  Tomatoes, potatoes, onions, celery, carrots, porcini mushrooms, meat broth, and parmasean cheese seemed to be required in so many recipes.

The recipes are a bit dated- most recipes tested were just too heavy for everyday and just not interesting or flavourful enough for a dinner party.  We all felt weighed down by cooking this way consistently for 3 months.
This cookbook is a treatise on classic Italian cooking.  With that in mind, it should be viewed as a bit of history lesson, a trip to the museum. It's not an everyday cookbook!

Basic Homemade Meat Broth p15
Insisted that risotto could not be made with homemade chicken stock.
It called for 5 pounds of meat, and only 2 pounds could be made with bones, which seemed quite excessive and expensive for a stock.  Also didn’t call for bones to be roasted, which would have “beefed” up the flavor.  Made with about 6 pounds of bones (beef and veal bones) which I roasted—I couldn’t justify buying that much meat for stock.  Also noted that it didn’t call for cold water, as stock recipes almost always do, as it produces a clearer stock. 
It was good, but was not noticeably different than a beef stock in my opinion.

Béchamel p39
Made as a step in the lasagna.  Good, straight-forward recipe.  No issues.


Minestrone alla Romagnolo-Vegetable Soup, Romagna style p84

Blew the lid off my perception of what minestrone was-no tomatoes, no pasta. But it was a very good soup, that as she said was better the next day.

Spinach or Escarole Soup with Rice  p90 
I like that she gives options in her recipes. She uses red type to help keep the instructions clear whether you are using spinach or escarole. I don’t know why I love this soup so much. I’ve made it 4x since trying it. It ain’t going to win any beauty contests, as after the first few minutes of cooking, the beautiful, bright green spinach goes a muddy, unappealing brownish colour. But the taste is SO good!  

Minestra Tricolore-Potato Soup with Carrots and Celery p95  
It seemed so strange to me to only use 3 tablespoons each of onions, celery and carrot in this soup…especially when those ingredients feature in the title! I found the soup to be VERY fatty with both butter and vegetable oil in the base.  My first reaction to this soup was that it was just “Meh”. It did improve the next day, but I won’t be making this again.

Pasta e Fagioli-Pasta and Bean Soup pg 102

This, it turns out, is more what we have come to know as a minestrone. I love that Marcella gives you options on what type of bean to use (fresh, dried, canned). I had fully intended to make my own pasta to add to the soup as per her suggestion, but I just ran out of time. My people really liked it—even the next day once the pasta had soaked up all of the soup and it was more stew-like. Personally, I found it a bit ‘porky’ so wouldn’t use the pork chop again. Maybe a ham bone next time.

Chick Pea Soup (p112) and Version with Pasta (p114)

This soup and the pasta version are remarkably easy to make.  I cooked my own chickpeas as recommended on page 13 and they were flavourful and much better than canned in my view.  I used pre-made macaroni noodles.  Overall, the taste was rich and, to me, a bit heavy.  Four servings includes:  1/3 c olive oil, 1 tbsp butter and 2 tbsp parmesan.  In addition, Marcella suggests adding more liquid if required while the pasta is cooking.  I added two times the suggested liquid, and my son still said - where's the broth, I thought we were having soup.  As with every recipe tried, there is no suggestion as to how much salt to use.  I'm fine with that, but it wouldn't be good for a new cook.  My family enjoyed it, but I don't think I'll make it again as the taste is just a bit too heavy for us.





Fresh Pasta p128
Made the green pasta for the green lasagna.  Thought the directions on pg. 133 were poor, and had I never made fresh pasta before, I think I would have been lost.  For example, it didn’t describe settings on the machine, and I found that it started to rip beyond the 6th setting.  In the end, was good in the lasagna, but were not attractive noodles.  I’ve had better success following recipes like in Gwyneth Paltrow’s first cookbook or instructions provided in Fine Cooking magazine.  

Bonnie:  I just had to make this because it seemed so insanely simple and strange. I must admit, it was a fabulous tomato sauce and has now become a staple in our home.

Kristi:  Very good and incredibly easy!  Agree that this sauce would be the perfect accompaniment to potato gnocchi.  I found it difficult to resist additions such as garlic, basic, chili flakes, and a bay leaf.  A lesson in simplicity.

Deb:  This recipe is all over the internet and a Marcella basic.  It is very easy to make and very tasty.  I'd never have thought of using butter with tomatoes, but it works.  It's amazing. I like that it can be frozen.  One small glitch though.  The recipe calls for 2 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes and 5 tablespoons of butter.  By my reckoning, this is approximately 2/3 of a 28oz tin, so I halved again the recipe again and added 8 tablespoons butter with the full tin.  Most of the internet versions of this recipe, however, recommend using a full 28 oz tin of tomatoes and the recommended 5 tablespoons of butter.  In the interest of calories, I'll try this next time.  

Sandra: love it!  So did everyone.  Easy and satisfying.  It made a nice hostess gift at Christmas. 

Butter and Rosemary Sauce p169
My daughter picked this sauce for us to make one weeknight.  It was easy and surprisingly tasty.  In the short cooking time, the butter is wonderfully infused with the rosemary flavour, and the bouillon cube adds a savoury depth to the taste.  We served it over spaghetti, cooked as recommended on page 126/7.  From Marcella I have learned when to add the salt to the pasta cooking water (after it has come to a boil) and how much salt to add (1 1/2 tbsp per pound of pasta - much more than I usually add).  My pasta is the better for it.

Broccoli and Anchovy Sauce p173
I wanted to love this sauce.  I love all of the ingredients, and I was excited to melt those anchovies and enjoy their taste in the pasta dish.  Sadly, however, the anchovies get totally lost when tossed with the pasta.  The method of the recipe worked well but involved several steps:  boiling the broccoli then melting the anchovies in oil over a double boiler then cooking the broccoli with the anchovy oil and finally tossing with cooked pasta.  I used 1 pound of pasta as earlier in the book Marcella advises 1 to 1 1/2 pounds dried pasta for 6 servings and this recipe called for six servings.  There was much too much pasta.

Tuna Sauce with Tomatoes and Garlic p180

Hello Italian tuna casserole!  This recipe was very easy and appealed to the entire family.  Low fat it's not;  it was tough adding 1 tbsp butter to a sauce that already had 4 tbsp oil.  But the result was flavourful and comforting.  It's simple, weeknight fare.


Butter and Sage Sauce p192
Used as an accompaniment to potato gnocchi.  Incredibly simple and good, but not memorable.

Gorgonzola Sauce p194

This sauce is This Sauce is excellent.  I mean, what's not to like:  Gorgonzola, cream and butter!  The technique is very simple and it is quick to whip up.  It makes a lot of sauce though, much more than required for 1 1/4 pounds of pasta.  And for the calories, I'm not likely to make it often.  I omitted the cream once and it was just as good.  The technique also works for other soft cheeses, including flavoured cream cheeses.

Carbonara Sauce p 202
Bonnie:  Oh…My…Gud. Off the charts delish. Please avoid if you have a cholesterol problem.

Sandra: My husband made it and loved it.  I didn’t get a try.  He ate the WHOLE thing.

Bolognese Meat Sauce p203
Bonnie:  I managed to coerce my husband into making this sauce…and it was fabulous. Again, it has now become the defacto meat sauce recipe in our home. We did find the fact that there was no garlic in the sauce a bit surprising…and sorry Mrs. Hazan…but we like our garlic so we add it in now. Also surprising was the addition of milk and WHITE wine. But the results speak for themselves.

Kristi:  very good, but very time consuming.  You need to be home for a full afternoon to make this.  It was an interesting technique with adding milk (to tenderize) followed by the addition of white wine (would have thought that red wine would have been a better choice).  I can’t say that I noticed that the meat was more tender from the milk, but it was good, if not a little flat.  The second time, I added garlic and a bay leaf.  I think I would have added chili flakes if made again.  You must double the recipe if you’re going to commit to spending this much time on the sauce (about 4 hours), and this will still only yield about 2 Lts.

Baked Green Lasagna with Meat Sauce p215

Very good, but one of the most time consuming recipe in the book.  In addition to spending about 4 hours to make the meat sauce (another day, another process), you must make the béchamel, and the fresh pasta (as well as a separate pan to cook the spinach).  It’s about a 6+ hour process, and will use virtually every pot in your kitchen.

I do agree that lasagna must be made with fresh pasta as it is an entirely different dish than with ready-made pasta, and worth the effort.  But I’ve had better success with other lasagna recipes that produced a more memorable dish. 

My complaint with this recipe is that she suggests that you assemble the lasagna and refrigerate, and then bake for 15 minutes when ready to serve.  She insists that you not cook it longer than this, but also does not instruct that you should have the dish come to room temperature first.  After 15 minutes of baking, the dish was still cold.  So after all of this effort, I had to microwave the dish to heat it up enough to serve.

Risotto with Parmesan Cheese p244
Good.  Incredibly simple, and again, a lesson in simplicity.  But I am getting tired of this lesson.  Her risotto does not call for wine, or garlic, or fresh herbs or even pepper.  Think this recipe would have been better with all of the above.  And I can’t say that I noticed a difference with the homemade meat broth than the homemade chicken stock that I normally would have used.

Gnocchi p260

I was very interested in attempting this as I’ve wanted to learn how to make gnocchi for some time. I found her instructions to be lacking. For example, I found her description on teh type of potato needed confusing and she didn't give instructions for approximate times to cook a whole potato. I ended up watching YouTube videos on how to make this! I had to search high and low for an old fashion food mill, and after spending $60 on this gadget, I found it difficult to use. I wish that I had spent my money on a ricer instead as I think it would be been easier to use. I struggles to roll the dough as she described. She is also against using an egg in her dough, which I suspect would have made the dough easier to handle.  In the end, they were quite bland little dumplings. For the amount of effort, I didn't think this was worth it. Given that it was my first time, I will try again, but I will use another cook's instructions and recipe.

Crespelle p267
I thought these were terrific!  I was very skeptical that the recipe did not call for the batter to rest at all.  But I was surprised that the batter was so easy to work with.  It created very good results, which were somewhat egg-ier than a typical crepe.  I thought they were terrific for breakfast.  

I also thought this was a great example of an economical recipe.  With two eggs and a cup of flour, you could essentially feed a family of four.  And a great way to use up leftovers with a filling of your choice.







Baked Polenta with Bolognese Meat Sauce p277 

Well, I chose to make the polenta by her old school method which includes 45 minutes of stirring. This along with the focaccia and pizza making has significantly contributed to my muscle development in my arms J This is a time consuming, difficult job…and polenta, at the end of the day…is still just polenta. It’s really just a medium for whatever sauce you serve on it. I must say, I liked using the cold and firm polenta as the ‘noodle’ in this lasagna like preparation. Here’s the bottom line though-you could serve the Bolognese meat sauce on a bowl of tennis shoe laces and it would be amazing. So do you really need to stir corn meal for 45 minutes? Nope. Just boil up some plain old pasta and enjoy the sauce.


For both recipes I tried, I used the “oven method” and we were just not at all impressed.  Overall, I would not go back to any of these recipes for a fritatta.   I just did not like the lack of volume and the flavour was just not there.

Frittata with Cheese p279

Boring!  And really flat

Frittata with Tomato, Onion and Basil  p281

Also really flat and way, way too much onion for our family likes

We did not like the texture due to the onion

Frittata with Pan-Fried Onions and Potatoes p284

I had excellent results!  I used a 10 inch cast iron pan and made on the stove-top/ broiler method, and ended up with a delicious result.  That said, she didn’t provide much guidance on how long it would take to cook, so you have to rely on experience.




Baked Bluefish Fillets with Potatoes, Garlic, and Olive Oil, Genoese Style p306
Well, the biggest problem with this recipe is that we cannot get Bluefish here. My fish monger had never even heard of it.  After doing an online search:
Bluefish are widely distributed around the world in tropical and subtropical waters. They are found in pelagic waters on much of the continental shelves along eastern America (though not between south Florida and northern South America), Africa, the Mediterranean and Black Seas (and during migration in between), Southeast Asia, and Australia.
Not something we can access here in Toronto, nor I suspect, in much of North America. I substituted halibut at the fish monger’s advice. This recipe was so very easy, and so very delicious that we have made it a few times since. 


Oven Roasted Chicken Garlic and Rosemary p 328 

This was really quick and easy to prep and stick in the oven.  The aroma of the rosemary in the first 30 minutes of roasting was divine.  Smelled very garlicy when carving the chicken but in a good way.

The roast chicken was moist and tender.  The jus, was beautiful in colour and taste.

Chicken Fricassee with Porcini Mushrooms, White Wine and Tomatoes p332

Really good – solid good.   Cutting up the chicken was a really big chore.  Maybe my knife is not sharp enough.  I had to get my husband to do it.  In future I will just buy chicken pieces.

Pan-Roasted Chicken with Rosemary, Garlic and White Wine p329
Fine, but didn’t like cooking with this much fat.  I did like how the rosemary flavor was subtly infused, but was not overpowering.

Pot Roast of Beef Braised in Red wine p393 

So awesome!

Beef Tenderloin with Red Wine p397

Very good, but found the timing was  little off.  “1 minute” was too way too short a time to cook it.   We had to return it to the pan to cook it a little longer to get medium rare.

Meatballs with Tomatoes p399

Kristi:  Fine, but again did not like cooking with this much fat.  Found that the meatballs did not hold together that well.  One of my least favourite meatball recipes, although I did find the break soaked in hot milk to be an interesting technique. (But perhaps a waste of dishes.)

Sandra:  Very authentic flavour – so simple.
Did not like the amount of oil for the meatballs.   Would make this again and reduce the oil.

Roast Easter Lamb with White Wine p408

Easy to assemble and smells heavenly.  Like other meat recipes, however, I would have liked a bit more advice about what cut to buy.  "Spring lamb" means - bone in shoulder I now infer?  The ingredient list does not specify, but in the instructions it speaks of meat falling off the bone.  My lamb had no bone...  The technique worked well - searing the lamb in oil and butter then allowing to braise in white wine, rosemary and garlic for hours.  I would have liked a heads up on the fact that when the wine was added it would spatter like crazy.  My husband was disappointed because this lamb is NOT rare.  I thought it was a lovely roast. 

Spareribs with Tomatoes and Vegetables p427
Very dull.  She didn’t call for meat to be seasoned or seared before braising which I think would have enhanced the dish.  There are many much better sparerib recipes out there.  Wouldn’t make again.

Braised Pork Chops with Sage and Tomatoes, Modena Style p422

These pork chops were easy to prepare and we all enjoyed the taste.

Braised Pork Chops with Tomatoes, Cream and Porcini Mushrooms p421
Fine, but not for me.

Pork is not her specialty.

Sparerips with Tomatoes and Vegetables for Polenta p427
Gross-no browning of the ribs leads to a very bland flavour. Will never make again.

Oxtail, Vaccinara Style p446
I agreed to review the Variety Meats section of the book and this was my first encounter.  Sourcing the ingredients was the first challenge.  I assume fresh pig means not smoked.  If so, it's nigh on impossible to find here the suggested parts raw.  Oxtail itself is also no longer very popular, so it's only delivered to Bruno's or Whitehouse Meats frozen and irregularly.  Having procured the oxtail, I went with smoked pork hock.  The recipe was easy to compile, although there's no advice on technique.  For example, brown the oxtail.  And, well, it did not smell exactly delightful while simmering.  I set the dish aside for two days as Marcella said one could do.  During that time, I began her autobiography and read of the use of all parts of the animal durin the war in Italy.  I was more compelled to give the oxtail a chance.  It was a rustic and tasty dish but I don't think I'll make it again.  


Asparagus and prosciutto bundles   p468

It was the wrong time of year to be making this recipe as the asparagus were way too skinny and I ended up overcooking them.  Will give it a try again in spring.

Sautéed Green Beans with Parmesan Cheese p472

Nothing special – not a thing you need a recipe for.

Pan-Roasted Diced Potatoes p 520
I thought this was excellent, and I will use this method again to make hashbrowns.  At this stage of the trial however, I anticipated that her recipes were too dull for my liking.  So I added chorizo, a little spinach and fresh cherry tomatoes, with a little touch of grated parma cheese on top, and had excellent flavor.  The chorizo was an especially necessary addition to this recipe, and I would have added a touch of smoked paprika if making again.    

Baked Potatoes, Onion, and Tomatoes, Apulian Style p521
These baked potatoes are a welcome change from the creamy, cheesy, scalloped potatoes we often make.  The recipe is easy to put together and the oven does the work.  My only advice would be to ensure you have baking potatoes, as this recipe will not work with waxy potatoes.  That's experience talking. 

Sliced Potatoes Baked with Porcini and Fresh Cultivated Mushrooms, Riviera Style p522 
This recipe was simple to prepare with few ingredients.  It was very tasty in an earthy way.  It was quite rich.  I wasn't overwhelmed by it, but everyone in my family asked that I make it again, so I guess I will.  My only negative comment would be that like so many recipes in this book, it calls for salt but gives no indication of how much should be used.

Dressing the Salad Course p543
I wanted a plain green salad to accompany the pasta with tuna sauce.  I think the proverb Marcella quotes  as providing the formula for dressing a salad is lovely and lyrical, but provides little real guidance other than - try it until you've got it right.  Salt, olive oil and vinegar.  My first attempt involved too much salt, but otherwise, darnit, this non-recipe actually worked!  I've been dressing my salad this way ever since!  Notwithstanding Marcella's recommendation, however, I do sometimes use only balsamic vinegar rather than wine vinegar with a drop or two of balsamic. 

La Grande Insalata Mista-Great Mixed Raw Salad p546
Two full pages of instructions for a green salad. I just had to try it. I loved her suggestion to soak the raw onions in cold water-it really did mellow out the flavour. Skinning the tomato? NOT my favourite part. And to my taste, not essential. Her dressing? Well, there really wasn’t one. We salt the greens, then pour olive oil on top and a dash of vinegar. A whole lot of work…for an ok salad.

Warm Cauliflower Salad (p560)
I love this treatment of cauliflower, and make it all the time, but it isn't much of a recipe.  As with the salad, you are given the ingredients - salt, olive oil and red wine vinegar, and told to "season liberally" with all three.  That said, without this recipe, I would never have put those ingredients on cauliflower, and the taste is lovely.  Cooking the cauliflower as recommended on page 482 also seems to keep in the flavour of the cauliflower.

Diplomatico-A Chocolate Dessert with Rum and Coffee p577
Ready made pound cake??? Really? I had to try this one. And I was not disappointed. As Marcella mentions in the introduction to this recipe “Is there any other dessert lik Diplomatico, I wonder, that rewards such little effort with such gratifying results?”  I will make this again in the summer, when the idea of turning on your stove is just impossible to imagine.

Farm Wife’s Fresh Pear Tart p589 

Meh!    Really flat and really boring.  I opted for red Anjou pears--maybe they were not ripe enought? I didn't use the cloves either. I did use a springform pan and it worked great. 

The recipe says to make “numerous” indentations in the top of the batter, once it is in the pan.  You are supposed to put little bits of butter in each indentation.  Would have it turned out better if I made more indents?  How much is “several”?

Italian Chocolate Mousse p599 

Yum!!!  The best part was it yielded more than 6 servings.  I had 9 ample sized servings.  It seemed a little more complicated and way more bowls/dishes than I have had in the past with other mousse recipes, but the pay off was there!   For step no. 3, the recipe says to beat the cream until it stiffens “with a whisk”.  Well, I pooped out early on that and switched to handheld electric mixer.  It was also difficult to thoroughly combine melted chocolate with the yolk and sugar without the chocolate clumping a bit.  In the end it seemed like it was supposed to have little bits of chocolate grating throughout.  (Right Bonnie?)

Next time I make this, I will consider putting the mousse in glass goblets that can be placed on a plate with the macerated oranges (see below) surrounding the goblet. 

Macerated Orange Slices p605

Marcella says that these oranges bring a meal to “fragrant close”. This was so easy.  It looked impressive – fresh, pretty. and healthy.   Though it sure seemed like a lot of sugar (5 tablespoons) on 4-5 oranges.

Strawberry Gelato p610

Fun and easy. Tasty. My food processor died during this recipe, so the strawberries were not “liquefied” as much as the recipe called for and in my opinion, that was a good thing.

Focaccia with Onions, Genoese Style p618
Oh yeah. Heaven in a pan. There is nothing better. I love how she bakes in a pan ON  a pizza stone. This ensures a wonderfully crusty bottom to the focaccia. The addition of the slowly cooked and sweet onions is a masterful stroke. I did find that I baked it a few minutes less than the directions so make sure to check on yours before the timer goes off.
Variation, Focaccia with Fresh Rosemary p620
Love this one too…next time I make it, I’ll do ½ with onions and ½ with rosemary.

Basic Pizza Dough p 623
One of the highlights for me in this book!  The hand kneaded method was not difficult to make and produced perfect pizza dough.  My new go-to pizza dough recipe!  I enjoyed the Margherita topping, however was surprised that the tomatoes were prepared with no salt.  But then I realized she calls for salt to be added as you’re building the pizza—don’t forget!  Very good!

Sfinciuni-Palermo’s Stuffed Pizza p629
 A fairly complicated item-the dough is easy enough but strangely had an addition of milk in it? Not sure why as she doesn’t explain. I made mine with the “Conza di San Vito-Meat and Cheese Filling”. Sadly, after all that effort, we were all underwhelmed. My daughter summed it up best: “This is either a good meat pie with a bad crust, or a good pizza with bad toppings.”