The great cookery writer and mother of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan, died last Sunday, 29 September, at the age of 89. As I’ve written before (click here), I regularly made a Ragu – Bolognese sauce – on Fridays and tonight I decided to follow Marcella’s recipe in her The Classic Italian Cookbook carefully as a tribute to her.
My ragu making began in earnest when my kids were teenagers as it was an excellent dish to prepare early in the day and allow them to eat a good meal before heading out into the evening with friends, while we could have ours more leisurely later on. Now I make it in bulk and freeze single portions that can be pulled out of the freezer just for me or a few to make, perhaps, a lasagne for more people. As always happens when you make a dish a lot, my ragu recipe has veered a little from Marcella’s original as I’ve thrown things together quickly in my own way. However, tonight, I wanted to go back to Marcella’s way, hence the careful following of her recipe.
The first edition of The Classic Italian Cookbook (one of my own choices in my Top Ten Cookbooks series) was published in l973; my paperback edition was published in l981. I’m not sure exactly when I bought it but I do know that Marcella Hazan has been a major influence in my understanding and love of Italian cooking. Italy’s food, she writes in the book, ‘is twice blessed because it is the product of two arts, the art of cooking and the art of eating’. This sums up the Italian eating experience: it’s about passion for food, happiness and sharing. I first came to real Italian cooking by way of Elizabeth David and her Italian Food but Marcella’s book I found a good deal more accessible. There are so many favourites in the book apart from the ragu: French Beans with Peppers and Tomatoes, for instance. The book has been my Italian cookery bible and you will find many references to it on this blog, for instance when I made Risotto alla Milanese and Melanzane alla Parmigiana.
Over the last couple of years I’ve followed Marcella’s Facebook page and was delighted to see her posting wonderful snippets of advice and strongly held opinions on food until just a day or two before she died. Since last Sunday there has been a huge outpouring of love and respect for this great writer and cook. What is certain is that she will live on in our kitchens for a very long time to come. I can’t imagine cooking any classic Italian dish without seeking Marcella’s advice and the book remains one of my all-time favourites and one of my most used cookbooks.
I so much wanted to do this Marcella’s way that I actually measured things out! Two tablespoons each of chopped onion, celery and carrot. The onion is sautéed in 40g butter and 3 tablespoons of olive oil. This was much more ‘liquid’ than I’ve used in a long time but contributed noticeably to the wonderful rich final flavour. Once the onion is just translucent add the celery and carrot and cook gently for a couple minutes more.
Now add 350g lean minced beef, crumbling it in with a fork. Add some salt and cook until the meat has only just lost its raw red colour. Marcella talks of not cooking the meat too much at this stage, ‘or it will lose its delicacy’. Now, with the heat at medium high, add 250ml white wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine has evaporated.
Next add 8 tablespoons of milk and a good grating of nutmeg. The milk, Marcella tells us, must be added before the tomatoes to keep the meat creamier and more sweet. Once the milk has evaporated add a 400g tin of chopped tomatoes. Stir well and bring to a bubble and then turn the heat down to the lowest you can manage so there is just the occasional bubble. Now you should cook it, uncovered, for a ‘minimum of 3 1/2 to 4 hours, she says, checking seasoning. I have to confess I’ve never managed that long! Very possibly because I just can’t get the temperature low enough on my cooker but tonight because I started too late to wait that long! I was getting hungry. However, the point is, cook it for a long, long time. This isn’t an instant dish: you have to give it time and love.
Marcella talks of serving ragu with tagliatelle – ‘a marriage made in heaven’. Unfortunately I didn’t have any – though I did walk down to the local Tesco Express to try to get some … they actually stock the excellent De Cecco make there. So instead I opted for linguine rather than spaghetti for its flatter shape. Once cooked, the ragu should be thick and luscious, clinging to the the pasta beautifully. This recipe is for 6 portions. Marcella disapproved of our tendency to over-sauce pasta, so we’re not talking huge ‘man-sized’ portions here. Once your pasta is cooked, drained and returned to the pan, spoon over some ragu and carefully mix in and then transfer to a serving dish. Now grate over a little Parmigiana.
It really was very good and worth the extra time I spent preparing it. The extra butter and oil at the beginning added a richness; the milk really did make the meat wonderfully sweet and tender. And because it’s so rich, you wouldn’t want a huge portion so in that respect it’s natural to go the Italian way and not over-sauce. I don’t think I shall ever be able to make ragu without thinking of Marcella Hazan – as hers is the only recipe I’ve ever seriously followed – and I’m quite certain her book will remain a firm favourite when cooking Italian in my kitchen … probably for as long as I’m cooking … I certainly hope that when I’m nearly 90 as she was, I’ll still be cooking good Italian food too.