Marcella Hazan did for Italian cooking what Elizabeth David did for French cuisine. Both famous food writers introduced readers to tips, techniques and pitfalls of everyday dishes. In Hazan’s case, she often contradicted famous chefs with her experience as a home cook, and five years after her death, her books remain popular.
The basis of good Italian food is the freshness of ingredients, whereas classic French dishes are usually based on elaborate sauces. Hazan taught us that more often than not, simplicity is preferable to complex techniques and a surfeit of ingredients. The other day, for example, I made myself a solitary lunch by chopping up some duck leftover from dinner for a pasta sauce. I sautéed some sliced garlic, crushed red chillies and a couple of tinned anchovies. The duck went into the pan as I boiled the pasta that was allowed to cook until just done. After draining the tagliatelle, I tossed it into the pan with the duck, grated some parmesan cheese over it, together with a little salt and freshly-ground pepper.
While the dish was delicious, I later reflected on Hazan’s advice to keep things simple: did I really need the anchovies and crushed red chillies? Although the ingredients did supply depth of flavour and a bit of zing, did they not distract from the duck?
Simple and fewer ingredients can combine to give a rich flavour
Amazingly, one of Hazan’s most famous recipes for a pasta sauce is also the simplest you’ll ever encounter anywhere. She has deconstructed the basic tomato sauce — the fundamental of the Italian kitchen — into its essentials and presented us with a timeless dish that is sublime in its simplicity. You place a tin of chopped tomatoes into a pan, together with a generous couple of knobs of butter (yes, butter, not olive oil) and a halved onion. Bring the ingredients to a simmer and let them cook for around 45 minutes. Then throw out the onion, add salt and pepper — and that’s it.
Hazan’s point here is that you only need the onion for the flavour, so you don’t have to chop it into the sauce. And butter adds a velvety smoothness to the dish. Oh yes, elsewhere she suggests that instead of grating the parmesan on the finished pasta after you have poured the sauce on top, you should put the cheese on the pasta as soon as you have drained it as this will melt it and integrate more fully into the dish.
Another technique I have learned from Hazan is that instead of heating the oil before sautéing the onion and garlic, she suggests we start with a cold pan as this will prevent the ingredients from overcooking and becoming acrid. But I do miss the sizzle of the onions and garlic in hot oil.
The media in the UK is full of news about a heat wave as the temperature hits the high 20s. I laugh, thinking of the searing heat back home in Pakistan at this time of the year. Nevertheless, people look for cold dishes to serve at parties and, last night, we had five guests for dinner. The lady wife bought a large side of salmon that was roasted in the oven with several herbs, and was accompanied by large green, red and orange peppers (capsicums) that had also been baked in the oven until tender. Both were served cold on a garden table and were much appreciated (and demolished).
Every summer I’m away, I miss the mango season. The fruit imported from the subcontinent are barely acceptable as they have been picked early, and then sit in storage before being sold. They thus tend to have little flavour or scent. But on a recent visit, my son Shakir brought us some delicious Anwar Ratol and Sindhri mangoes from Karachi to remind me of what I’m missing.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 8th, 2018