Marcella Hazan passed away in Florida this week. You can read her obit in the New York Times. She did for Italian food what Julia Child did for French food: she brought the real deal to cooks in the US. Italian food in the US was largely refracted through a Southern Italian lens so everyone thought that Sicilian food was all there was to Italian food before Marcella came along. Like so many cuisines, Italian cuisine is regional, varying greatly from the lagoons of Venice to the rich valleys of Emilia-Romagna to the rocky slopes of Sardinia.
I have both The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking. The recipes are simple, yet detailed, and delicious. Mrs. Hazan lived in Emilia-Romagna as a child but her books are a trip through all the regions of Italy. She has a recipe for Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style, from her home region, as well as five recipes for Polenta which she says was the “staff of life” in much of Lombardy and all of Venetia (the northeast corner of Italy), and Hothouse Lamb, Roman Style from Rome, naturally. Many Italian regional books have followed – I have a lot of them – but Mrs. Hazan was the first. And she’ll always be the greatest for me.
Later this week, really cold weather is moving in. It’s likely that Boulder will experience the first hard frost of the year. (We already had a light one last Friday night.) That means I must pick all the basil and make pesto. That’s about as Italian as you can get, isn’t it? Today, everyone knows pesto and it is well-loved in the US. But, back in 1973 when the first printing of The Classic Italian Cook Book came out, very few Americans had ever eaten or heard of pesto. It’s from a rather obscure region of Italy: Liguria. Well, not obscure anymore. The Cinque Terre, that string of five marvelous towns clinging to the steep hillsides, is in Liguria. There are lots of riffs on pesto these days: different herbs, different nuts, different seasonings. Marcella Hazan’s recipe is a departure too, as she explains in the introduction: “The old traditional recipes do not mention pine nuts or butter. But modern pesto invariably includes them, and so does this recipe.” I ate pesto in a traditional restaurant in the Cinque Terre. It did include pine nuts, but definitely not butter. And no black pepper – they were particularly adamant about no black pepper. Mrs. Hazan does not use black pepper either.
The recipe is written just as it is in the book so you can see how thorough she was describing how to make something as simple as pesto.
My notes on the recipe: I don’t need that much salt in my pesto. Half a teaspoon is enough for me. Your mileage may vary.
(Enough for about 6 servings of pasta)
2 cups fresh basil leaves (see note below)
½ cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed with a heavy knife handle and peeled
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tablespoons fresh grated Romano pecorino cheese
3 Tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature
Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt in the blender and mix at high speed. Stop from time to time and scrape the ingredients down toward the bottom of the blender cup with a rubber spatula.
When the ingredients are evenly blended, pour into a bowl and beat in the two grated cheeses by hand. (This is not much work, and it results in more interesting texture and better flavor than you get when you mix the in the cheese in the blender.) When the cheese is evenly incorporated into the other ingredients, beat in the softened butter.
Before spooning the pesto over pasta, add it to a tablespoons of the hot water in which the pasta boiled.
Note: The quantity of basil in most recipes is given in terms of whole leaves. American basil, however, varies greatly in leaf sizes. There are small, medium, and very large leaves, and they all pack differently in the measuring cup. For the sake of accurate measurement, I suggest that you tear all but the tiniest leaves into two of more small pieces. Be gentle, so as not to crush the basil. This would discolor it and waste the first, fresh droplets of juice.