If you have one Italian cookbook or a hundred, you still need this book!
It belongs to an elite class of cookbooks which explain how and why techniques we have seen on dozens of `Molto Mario' and `Naked Chef' and `Ciao Italia' shows for years, and explains them in terms which are easy to understand, practical to apply to new recipes, and make it easier to successfully improvise in cooking.
Marcella Hazan has long been the first among the leading writer / educators of general Italian cuisine such as Lydia Bastianich and Giuliano Bugialli plus the great regional specialists such as Lynn Rosetto Kaspar and baking specialists such as Carole Field. And, she has been doing it for close to 30 years, long before the current crop of excellent advocates of genuine regional Italian cooking.
This legion of writers have produced mountains of books on the cooking of great Italian restaurants, whole mountain ranges of books on cooking from the various regions of Italy, both individually and collectively, and whole libraries of great books on Italian influenced cuisine from transplanted Italiophiles such as Jamie Oliver and Rose Gray and Ruth Rodgers. And yet, very few of these books have explained much of Italian cooking with an analytical eye honed by decades of practice. The only book on cooking which comes close to this enormously revealing work is Paul Bertolli's book `Cooking by Hand'. And, even this excellent book suffers in comparison in that it overlays common sense techniques with the obsessions of a professional chef which a home cook will typically find much to extreme to embrace with an equal vigor.
This, Ms. Hazan succeeds not only in turning an analytical eye on everyday cooking techniques, but she also presents her observations with a simplicity which even the most casual cook of pasta and sauces can appreciate.
The first sign that I was dealing with a very important book was when I began reading Ms. Hazan's discussion of `insaporire', an Italian culinary term which Hazan believes has no easy English translation, yet an understanding of this term explains the technique, `arrosolare' behind thousands of different Italian inspired recipes. `arrosolare' is the technique whereby an ingredient is sautéed with just the right amount of heat for just the right amount of time to reach a state of `insaporire' where just the right taste has been coaxed from the food. An important aspect of this state and technique is that they are best done to individual ingredients that are then combined in a dish after each as been brought to the perfect state of tastiness. The simplest example of this is the very common technique of heating garlic in a fat to just slightly brown, when the garlic is either removed from the fat or the temperature of the pan is lowered by adding another ingredient, usually onions. The technique for making risotto is offered as another prime example of `insaporire', in that rice is added to the base ingredients of oil and savory flavorings only when the base tastes have been fully developed.
Proper heat level and `doneness' are also discussed in connection with `insaporire', as the former is the best means to reach this state, and the latter means that we have attained this most desirable state. On heat, Ms. Hazan's advice is one of the very few times when an important authority has disagreed with my culinary hero, Mario Batali. Mario constantly cites the use of a very high heat. Marcella is much more prudent in warning us to use `no less and no more heat than you need'. On doneness, Marcella gives us a simple tip on sauces that I have failed to find in over 300 cookbooks. That is, when a sauce started by sautéing ingredients with water on an oil base demonstrates that all the water has evaporated and the remaining liquid is only the oil, you are done. She offers two simple, easily observed methods for detecting this state. Another basic technique I have seen nowhere else is the suggestion to use high walled saucepans for long cooking sauces and low walled sautee pans for fast cooking sauces.
I have read a dozen or more discussions of techniques for making fresh pasta, yet none are quite as good as the one given in this book in its simplicity, authenticity, and genuineness in encouraging one to take up the effort with full confidence that you will produce a successful product. The fresh pasta discussion is supplemented by a brief geography and history of pasta in Italy with a rather droll take on that hoary old Marco Polo story of the way in which macaroni arrived in Italy from China. She explains why good dried pasta products are good, based on the way they are made by automated, yet still artisinally based methods.
Mario constantly praises the Italian practice of using a simple `brodo' in contrast to elaborate French stocks, yet neither Mario nor any other writer on Italian cuisine has shown me a recipe which produces something which is really different from a classic French stock. Marcella Hazan not only clearly explains the difference between the Italian brodo and the French stock, but gives a recipe for brodo which looks quite different from a recipe by Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, or the CIA.
All of this just scratches the surface of the wealth of cooking wisdom in this book. Just as when I read a Rogers and Gray book of River Café recipes for the first time, I am distressed that I have not paid attention to Ms. Hazan's works sooner. At the average cookbook list price of $35, the 78 page chapter `At Master Class' alone is worth this price. On top of this remarkable essay, we get chapters on all the classic Italian dishes.
This is easily one of the ten most useful cookbooks out of the 300 some volumes I have reviewed.