Ingredienti: Marcella's Guide to the Market
This charming little ode to the ingredients used in the Italian cooking of Marcella Hazan in a sense is as important to cooking as any of her cookbooks. Marcella Hazan was first and foremost a gastronome, meaning she was someone who thought philosophically about her cooking. She had an appreciation for the ingredients of her cooking that went far beyond an ingredient-driven style. She drove those ingredients to perform their tricks rather than let the ingredients dictate to her. This is a subtle and often misunderstood distinction, the distinction between ingredient-driven cuisine and culture-driven cuisine.
Marcella Hazan was a culture-driven gastronome. She was concerned with cuisine, a particular way of cooking founded upon her cultural mentality and instincts. A combination of her notes and brought to fruition posthumously with commentary by her husband and collaborator Victor Hazan, Ingredienti is just that: the ingredients used in cooking. In reading this book you will come away with the real insight to the secret of cooking—and ironically it’s not technique or ingredients. In a word, it’s love.
You will be reminded of those pearls of wisdom that Marcella imparted to her students and readers such as “don’t think so much about what else you can put into a recipe. What you keep out is just as important as what you put in.”
There are many Marcella aphorisms worthy of being remembered by every cook such as “looking for ingredients should be more deliberate than dropping them into your basket and checking them off a shopping list.” Follow her advice as you read the book: “Think of this book as a collection of portraits.”
Here’s a typical comment: “don’t take potatoes for granted.” We all do, and she’s right—don’t take them for granted. On stinging nettles: “Why cook them?” That might make you laugh, but she’s right to ask. And the answer is just as simple: Because they taste good.
The chapters are grouped in categories so that one can really just open anywhere and start reading. The chapter “Produce” covers 33 vegetables. The chapter “Essential Pantry” explores pasta, rice, olive oil, the two most important cheeses used in Italian cooking, parmigiana and pecorino, oil-packed tuna, anchovies, tomato taste and more. “Salumi,” or what we call cold cuts in English, covers prosciutto, pancetta, and some other essentials.
The first produce entry on artichokes offers sensible advice and maybe you already know all this but it is still charming to read. Simplicity rules: “The tastiest thing you can do with asparagus is to gratinée it.” You will be pleased to read that Marcella advises against the popular modern snobbery advice of not skinning fava beans. She says “If they [the fava] are mature [as all are in American markets], the size of the first phalanx of a thumb, the raw skin will be chewy and bitter and should be eliminated by blanching the beans.” You can leave the skin on, she again advises, if the beans are young, about the size of the pinky nail.
Marcella reminds us that the Italians would never popularize a single vegetable—like kale—to the point that it would become a fad. Italians are not ingredient-driven: They use all the ingredients available to them. Yet again (she has probably said this a thousand times to Americans) fresh pasta is not better than dry pasta; it’s different and used for different purposes. There is a lot of misunderstanding and silliness about Italian cuisine in America and Marcella has spent nearly her whole life as a cookbook author and cooking teacher to correcting misconceptions and educating Americans. For this reason, this book is essential whether you are a novice or an experienced cook.
Ingredienti is not meant to be encyclopedic nor definitive in any way. It is a personal memory of a woman and her husband who influenced Italian cooking in America greatly. In an era when cooks seek recipes—the easier and quicker the better—it is very refreshing to read a book like Marcella’s Ingredienti that has no recipes but rather approaches cooking from the ingredient side rather than the formula side to provide common sense in a simple manner that in the end will serve every cook well.