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The Essential Italian Cookbook
on December 29, 2003
Marcella Hazan is to Italian what Julia Child is to French: The person who introduced American cooks to a cuisine, and in so doing changed how we ate. This book is essential: both essential to anyone who wants to cook authentic Italian, and essentially Marcella.
This book has many virtues. It's very thorough -- a comprehensive survey of the various courses and food groups. There are dedicated chapters for pasta and risotto, for example, where many books treat those together. And in addition to the obvious meats, such as veal, lamb, beef, pork, etc., she also tackles subjects such as rabbit and variety meats. (Use Amazon's "Look inside" feature to see the table of contents.)
Another virtue is the trouble she takes to explain ingredients, be they classic italian ingredients or simply the italian perspective on something. After reading through the Fundamentals chapter, you'll never shop for italian-style ingredients quite the same way ever again. In short, very accessible paragraphs, she goes through the history, regional origins, and uses for the major herbs, cheeses, meats, etc. She covers what to look for when buying an ingredient -- what's fresh, what packaging makes for the best product.
The recipies are very workable and give generally excellent results. The techniques are accessible to anyone who can saute on a stovetop -- anyone who's beyond the stage of rank beginner. The instructions are very clear and strike the right balance, with enough information to give clarity without drowning the reader in detail. (There are few things more infuriating than standing over a cookbook, dripping spoon in hand, reading through War and Peace to figure out what to do next.)
Last, but not least, the results are delicious, with subtle flavors that will please you and yours. Two of my favorites will give you a taste. The Pasta with Peas, Bacon, and Ricotta combines very simple ingredients -- pancetta, mild, smooth, ricotta cheese, parmesan, and fresh peas, into a sublime dish that you can throw together for summer dinners in half an hour from start to finish. On the other hand, the Stewed Pork with Porcini Mushrooms and Juniper makes a wonderful winter meal, as the wild tastes of the porcini and the bite of juniper berries combine wonderfully to flavor the pork. This is one I catch my husband eating cold out of the fridge late at night!
Important note: This edition is not a brand-new book. Instead, it combines two previous books, The Classic Italian Cook Book (1973) and More Classic Italian Cooking (1976), into one volume. There are a couple dozen new recipies, and the older recipies are updated to reduce fats. If you own those, you may want this one. If you are new to Marcella and are accumulating her books, this one book enables you to skip the two older ones.