October Cook the Books! Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking Review and Wrap-up!

Fact: I had to leave the house on Tuesday to write and post our November Cook the Books selection because I can’t focus on much of anything.  My decision-making ability of late is also questionable. For example, instead of heading over to Alki Beach to watch the passing Orcas frolic, I hunkered down at a coffee shop to write on what turned out the best day to see them. Silliness, right?

grow and resist looking for orca whales puget sound

whale watcher?

The next day I was determined to see the whales if the made it back down to West Seattle. This meant, instead of doing an October Wrap-Up on Wednesday, I constantly refreshed screens and checked their progress on Orca Network and my n’hood blog.  This would all be well and good, if I was writing in the midst of the whale-obsessing. However, what I really did was wander around putzing with one thing after the next and accomplishing absolutely nothing.  I did rescue a stunned robin that thunked into our living room window. If you are a fellow bird-geek, you will understand there was a lot of distracting robin-watching and robin-petting to do. All in all, this meant very little writing occurred. I did however, see the Orcas and the robin flew up to my shoulder and landed (!!!) before flying away, so I’m still calling the day a win.

grow and resist cook the books puget sound

Seattle can be pretty great

Anyway. October. Cook the Books. Marcella Hazan. I really want to clap it out for Marcella. She is a legend for a reason and if you are following along but haven’t yet cooked from one of her cookbooks, make it your next cookbook purchase, download, or borrow.  Her reputation for producing cookbooks and recipes that are classic and perfect proved true.

grow and resist cook the books marcella hazan

Not too shabby, eh?

The Cooking:

Essentials is an enormous cookbook of  650+ pages. I knew I couldn’t get through the bulk of  her (very extensive list of) most requested and recommended recipes, but I wanted to make sure I tried out a few of the classics. I did, even if photographic evidence would seem otherwise. It rarely crosses my mind to photograph anything except for the Babylady. I’ll get better. I think.

  • Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter (p.152) The classic, seen-everywhere-on-the-internet version of basic red sauce. And, with good reason. It is simple. Foolproof. Pleasing. I think we all would have enjoyed it with a bit of garlic even better, but it is pretty great as written.
  • Roast Chicken with Lemons (p.326) A great roast chicken starts with a great chicken. No, no, not one my chickens. I am one of those urban farmers that won’t eat my own chickens. Don’t go hating on me. As a result of having chickens for eggs, I’ve developed a lot of chicken-eating issues. A story for another time. Let’s just say, if you are going to eat chicken, go for an organic, pastured, happy, hippie chicken. It really will taste light-years better. And if you think about all that goes on in chicken farming, it might be the only way you can stomach it at all. Ok, so maybe this isn’t the place to talk about all that. Again, another time. So, how did our organic, pastured, happy, hippie chicken taste  roasted in the classic and simple Marcella way (just 2 lemons)?  We all loved it! Gorgeous and tender, with wonderful subtle lemon drippings.
  • Minestrone alla Romagnola (p. 84) I love minestrone and this version is simple and perfect. Next time around I’ll use a titch less oil.
  • Bolognese Meat Sauce (p. 203) with Tagliatelle (p. 136) Hands down the best bolognese I have eaten ever. I will make it again and again and exactly as written.
  • Roast Pork with Vinegar and Bay Leaves (p. 419) The pork roast was seared in butter and oil and then slow cooked with vinegar, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Her tastiest, and most memorable, recipes are so simple. And so perfect. True confessions: I used a slow cooker instead of stove top. I know. I know. Marcella probably flipped in her grave. I was gone all day and had company coming over shortly after I got home and I didn’t really have a choice if I was going to pull dinner off. And you know what? I would do it again.  It was fantastic and fell apart like pulled pork (which is probably cooked too far for Marcella-approval, but also I think fall-apart pulled pork at pork at it’s very best).
  • Pork Loin Braised in Milk, Bolognese Style (p.417) Another Marcella classic with good reason. It was absolutely amazing. Tender, rich, and simple. I can’t wait to make it again (and again).  And, based on the success of the pork and vinegar in the slow cooker, I am going to try this and see how it goes. It may not work. I am certain she wouldn’t approve. But, I’m going to go for it. 
  • Pasta, in various forms, with machine (p. 130+) Marcella states that combining the flour and eggs by hand is the sensible way to make the dough. I will defer to her on that matter, as I am sure she is 100% correct. And, I don’t like mixing dough by hand. I detest bits of dough sticking wet to my hands. Someday I’ll give it a try, but in the meantime I found that the Kitchenaid + dough hook worked perfectly fine. And if the mixer is mixing, it should just go ahead and knead too, right? Right? I thought so. No judging.  I made enough pasta this month to finally feel comfortable in using my machine without thinking too much.  I still make an enormous mess and end with a floor covered with flour (especially with the help of the Babylady), but the pasta? It is good! I got a lot better at realizing when a section had gotten too long and I should cut it to avoid disaster on the next narrowing. I also figured out that thinner isn’t necessarily better. Rolling too thin nearly destroyed my ravioli attempt.

    Starting her young. Kids love making pasta!

    Starting her young. Kids love to make pasta!

I tried out a lot of sides, vegetables, and other assorted dishes as well.  The vegetable sides were all basic, yet so much better than it seemed like they should have been. I don’t know. I really, really loved the braised and sautéed vegetables. A lot.

  • Marinated Carrot Sticks (p. 56) I don’t think I’d had marinated carrots before giving the recipe a try.  They were a really nice do-ahead item to have ready. The carrots were partly cooked then mixed with garlic, oregano, some red wine vinegar and topped with olive oil. That is it.  It was nice to have along side a mix of other things (cheese, crackers, pickled items, and nuts in that case) for pre-dinner snacking for the guests and other family when I kicked them out of the kitchen. =)
  • Butter and Sage Sauce  (p. 192) with Tortelli/Ravioli Stuffed with Parsley and Ricotta (p. 210 & 140) Another of our favorites this month. As I mentioned above, I started rolling the pasta a bit thin, so some of them fell ripped open, but I think I’ve got it now. The filling was fantastic and we’ll be making it again and again. I loved the sauce because it not only tasted great, but only took only minutes and used sage from the garden. The Ladyfriend always prefers a red sauce, so we’ll try it that way next time.

    grow and resist cook the books marcella hazan

    ravioli in the making

  • Risotto with Bolognese Meat Sauce (p. 256) I made a double batch of the bolognese when I made it and chose to use the extras for risotto and I’m sad, sad, sad that I did.  It was the only truly unsatisfactory thing I made all month. Visually unappealing and we found the combination just off. It was a meal of heaviness without anything particularly tasty about it, which is strange because risotto is great. I already told you the Bolognese was great. But together? Not so much.
  • Sautéed Green Beans with Parmesan Cheese (p.472) Amazing what  a bit of butter and parmesan can do!
  • Sautéed Broccoli with Olive Oil and Garlic (p.477)  This would have been perfect, had I not cooked the crap out of the broccoli. I got sidetracked and it got way overcooked. And yet, it was gobbled up by all of us. I really liked the parsley addition. It was just a bit, but made ordinary broccoli taste somehow special.
  • Smothered Cabbage, Venetian Style (p. 479) A bit of a mishap here. I missed the part of the directions that said it needed at least 1.5 hours to cook until it was nearly serving time. In a rush, I pulled out the pressure cooker and got it cooked, but I don’t think it was nearly as good as it could have/would have been had I done it the long way.  Next time!
  • Braised Carrots with Parmesan Cheese (p.480) Everyone loved the sweet, buttery carrot nuggets. They were magic carrots, I swear. I want them again and again.
  • Celery and Potatoes Braised in Olive Oil and Lemon Juice (p.487) One of my favorites from the book. After my experience braising celery back in May with Tender/Nigel Slater it has been on my mind. Braising it with lemon juice and olive oil was perfect. I can’t describe it adequately, but the tender celery with lemon hasn’t left my mind since. Again, simple and perfect. 
  • Eggplant Cubes, Al Funghetto (p.497) Al funghetto basically means cooked in the way of how mushrooms were traditionally cooked. The eggplant needs to steep for awhile at first, then is sautéed with garlic, olive oil, and parsley. It enjoyed it and it made me wish I would have tried more of her eggplant recipes (particularly the eggplant parmesan and eggplant patties).
  • Braised Finocchio (Fennel) with Olive Oil (p.503) Do you like fennel? It is one of those love/hate things for sure. I happen to love it. Especially pickled. Swoon. I hadn’t ever cooked it before, but this ended up being another favorite of mine from the book. Braised fennel tastes entirely different to me than raw fennel. Somehow less fennel-y and more, I am not sure, earthier? More rustic? I don’t know, but if you even sort of like fennel, give this a try!
  • Sautéed Mushrooms with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Parsley (p.509) We made the mushrooms twice this month because they rocked. For some reason, my cooked mushrooms are always hit and miss. They were always ok, but never amazing. With Marcella’s instructions, the mushrooms retained  a great texture. Her method was to heat oil, then add mushrooms and turn to high.When the oil is soaked up, season and turn to low until they release their juices, then return again to high while the juices boil off.  Is that how all people sauté their mushrooms? I am not sure, I certainly hadn’t, but it resulted in perfect mushrooms both times.
  • Baked Red Beets (p. 558) & Beet Tops Salad (p. 559) I adore beets and they were great, but also not really a recipe to my mind. More of a suggestion. Roast beets and add some olive oil and red wine vinegar. And boil greens, then add olive oil and lemon juice. Good, but not earth-shattering. However, a cookbook of this scope includes the full realm of the things eaten at a meal, not just the more complicated items. I think it inspires you to think about options and the full meal when flipping through the book.
  • Shredded Carrot Salad with Arugula (p.549) Nothing to this salad at all really. Except a bit of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and the shredded carrots and arugula. It was nothing special, but also nice to have with a heavier meal.
  • A Farm Wife’s Fresh Pear Tart (p. 589) We used bosc pears and it was a winner. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked it because it didn’t taste very sweet. But then I decided that was what I loved most about it. It was a mellow, seasonal, not overly sweet, rustic, easy cake-like tart. Our lovely friends brought a fantastic bottle of Vin Santo (Italian dessert wine) that we opened and it sort of blew my mind how great it was. I think it might make any dessert taste better. I loved the wine. So much.
  • Italian Chocolate Mousse (p. 599) Mmm, mousse. The recipe was very similar in technique to the method in Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table (January’s selection) and turned out as wonderfully. Marcella’s version adds rum and espresso that I loved.

    grow and resist cook the books marcella hazan

    vin santo and pear tart

The Review:

Recipe/writing style:

  • Did the recipes taste good? Oh my goodness, yes. So good.
  • Would I use it again? Yes, I am not ready to move on actually.
  • Is it reliable? Yes!
  • Does it use real food? Yes
  • Can I replicate the recipes and are the results worth the effort? Marcella really spelled out each step in her recipes and, as a result, the recipes come out great. The results were worth it. For the most part, none of the recipes are difficult. Many do need a quite a bit of chopping (which I love) and some attention paid along the way, but the techniques themselves are not hard at all.  I think she did a great job describing all the steps along the way and would make anyone a better home cook.

I love Marcella’s bossiness. She declared “Outside of spinach, no other coloring can be recommended as an alternative to basic yellow pasta. Other substances have no flavor, and therefore have no gastronomic interest. Of, if they do contribute flavor, such as that of the deplorable black pasta whose dough is tinted with squid ink, its taste is not fresh. Pasta does not need to be dressed up, except in the colors and aromas of its sauce.”   She didn’t mince words!

There is a lot of must, right away, that instant, etc  In fact, she tells us that “once the pasta is sauced, serve it promptly, inviting your guests and family to put off talking and start eating.”  Shut it peeps, pasta is on! Marcella meant business! There is a time for talking and a time for eating! I like to envision an elderly, badass woman in the kitchen telling it like it is and I love it.

One think I will note, especially for any of you that don’t tend to read your recipes very thoroughly (ahem, *gives self the beady eye*), you will really want to do what you can to focus while you are reading the recipe through a few times. Her instructions are lengthy and wordy, and while I appreciate the information and it was helpful, my mind tends to wander off and I miss instructions, (rather key timing things such as cook for 1.5-2 hours), until was too late. My mind is so scattered lately that I don’t make it through many paragraphs, particularly instructions, without spacing out. At one point, with company over, I was trying to braise or sauté 4 things at once and get the timing and directions sorted out. While drinking Manhattans. I finally had to have my friend read it and tell me what to do because I could not focus enough to retain the words. As a note, trying to braise or sauté 4 things that need to be served immediately upon finishing at the same time is not necessarily an endorsed method by anyone really. Especially while drinking Manhattans and laughing with friends. But, somehow, I pulled it off.

I finally remedied this by underlining key timing and such as if I was studying for a test so I the key bits would stand out and hopefully grab my attention.  Just a tip in case you have a wandering mind or have 8 things happening around you at any one time.

The Participants:

We had fewer participants this month than usual, but those that played along and got a post up cooked a lot!

Angela & JK at Tea Time Adventures both realized that cooking an Italian meal for a small group is hard when you want to try a lot of selections! So, why not make it a feast and invite a bunch of friends?  I agree!  As far as planning, they discovered the menu plans near the end of the book and built their menu from the bottom up, based on the dessert JK wanted to make. Following the Rustic Menu, II they served up: Piadina- Flat Griddle Bread (p 641) with Sauteed Mixed Greens with Olive Oil and Garlic (p 505), Pork Sausages with Smothered Onions and Tomatoes (p 429), Shredded Carrot Salad (p 549), Baked Red Beets (p 558), and the Ciambella–Grandmothers Pastry Ring (p 592)- served with Limoncello. Plus, they added: Polenta (p 274 using butter and aged gouda), Orange and Cucumber Salad (p 552), and Banana and Rum Gelato (p 611). They subbed in wheat flour in the piadina, switched up the greens in the sautéed mixed greens, and added a chocolate-wine sauce to the dessert– all changes they enjoyed. Assorted drinks were served, members of their group declared it the best Italian meal they had tasted, and it sounds like a good time was had by all!  Well done! 

Aimée at Homemade Trade tried out the Tomato, Onion and Basil Frittata (p 281) and substituted cherry tomatoes, broccoli, kale, along with fresh sage and thyme.  She made the classic, and perfect for fall, Minestrone alla Romagnola (p 84-6). I agree, simple ingredients=magic, in this case. Aimée also made: Pan-Roasted Potatoes with Anchovies, Genoa style (p.524)Foccaccia with Rosemary (p. 620), and Eggplant Parmesan (p.494).  I can’t believe I didn’t make foccaccia or eggplant parmesan, so I’m glad you did.  Good tip on the sea salt on top of the foccaccia! Yours looked amazing.  She declares her favorite thing about the cookbook is that she didn’t want to stop cooking from it. You nailed it!  The sign of a perfect cookbook and I totally agree. I am still pouring over it.

Oh, and as an aside, if you are a cooking legend, you probably do not want Aimée embarking on a cooking project focusing on your work. As she noted, not only did Marcella pass away, and the beginning of this month’s Cook the Books,  but cookbook author Marion Cunningham died during the same time that Aimee was exploring The Breakfast Book last year. Eeegads, that certainly isn’t a good track record! And, yet, what better way could there be to pay homage to such influence that to cook on with gusto?

Karen at Prospect: The Pantry outdid herself, as usual! Karen already had well-loved copies of two earlier Marcella Hazan cookbooks: The Classic Italian Cookbook  and More Classic Italian Cooking.  She didn’t plan to get a copy of The Essentials book we were using this month, but ultimately did and it sounds like she is happy she did.  She cooked some recipes that were found in all 3 of her Hazan cookbooks, including some that were already her family favorites, but changed somewhat in Essentials.  You’ll want to check her post out for some differences between the 3 texts. Ready for it?

  • Pan-roasted Chicken with Rosemary, Garlic and White Wine (p 329 Essentials/p. 304 in Classic)
  • Baked Bluefish Fillets with Potatoes, Garlic, and Olive Oil  (Essentials p.306/Baked Bluefish with Potatoes, Genoese Style (Pages 208/ More Classic)
  • Sweet and Sour Tuna Steaks, Trapani Style ( Essentials p.302/More Classic p.221)
  • Steamed Fish between Two Plates (p 218/More Classic)
  • Penne with Ricotta and Spinach Sauce (p. 147/More Classic) I saw the version on page 162 in Essentials, but it included ham so I’m not sure if it is the same or not. What do you think?
  • Pasta and Pesto with Potatoes and Green Beans (p. 178/Essentials)
  • Bolognese Sauce (p.203 Essentials/p.127-128 in Classic)
  • Braised Pork Chops with Sage and Tomatoes, Modena Style (p.422 Essentials/p. 293 More Classic)
  • Sausages with Red Cabbage (p. 429 Essentials/ p.302 More Classic)
  • Orange and Cucumber Salad (p.552 Essentials/p. 414 More Classic)
  • Radicchio and Warm Bean Salad (p.556 Essentials/p. 415 More Classic under Endive and Cranberry Bean Salad)
  • Apples baked with Macaroons (p.603 Essentials/ 441-442 in More Classic)

Wow, right? It looks like I completely overlooked some standouts! I’ll be hitting up the Pasta and Pesto with Potatoes and Green Beans and the Baked Apples soon!  In fact, I want the apples right this minute. (I also just noticed the Chilled Black Grape Pudding on the following page…intriguing!)

So folks, that wraps up October! Coming up next is The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook introduced here.  Are you ready to get your baked goods on?

too unseasonably sunny to stay home and write

It was too unseasonably sunny to stay home and write, plus there are seals! And orcas!

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5 Responses to October Cook the Books! Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking Review and Wrap-up!

  1. Briggsy says:

    Awesome work everybody! I’m sad I couldn’t cook along with everyone this month! I need to cook this book!

  2. Julia says:

    I really don’t know how you do this all, Meg. That list of food is amazing. You guys eat so dang well. It sounds so warm and convivial at your place! I guess keeping busy with great food, and guests helps a lot right now. My fave quote: “gives self the beady eye.” I’m in that camp too, btw…; )

    • Haha, we eat our fare share of cereal dinners and go out for tacos far too often =) But, you are sweet! I wish you and your family could pop over for dinner. I would love that! I really struggled with it this month. I can’t focus on anything and her instructions are very lengthy and wordy. Good, but long. So, I had many misadventures that month due not reading. I actually spent an entire afternoon trying to select/prep 2 sides…while reading 3 recipes. None of which I could keep straight in my head. I was missing something from everything but couldn’t stop myself from starting and kept going to the store and getting the wrong items. It was so frustrating…but actually pretty funny =)

  3. Pingback: Cook the Books! December: The Homemade Pantry! | Grow & Resist

  4. Pingback: December Cook the Books! The Homemade Pantry Review and Wrap-Up! | Grow & Resist

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