Right Now, We All Need a Little More Marcella
Italian cookbook legend Marcella Hazan preached for years about the need for radical simplicity in cooking. These days, we're all listening.
I'm camping out with my family at my father's house for the pandemic, which means more space, sure, but none of my cookbooks. This may seem like an insignificant thing to gripe about right now, but since I'm also cooking more than I ever have in my life—three meals a day plus snacks for a toddler—I've never needed my cookbooks more. Not just for recipe ideas, but for a certain kind of companionship: The trusted voice of a person who has spent a lifetime in the kitchen, paring down recipes to their essentials and guiding me with a firm, even mildly dictatorial hand. A voice of confidence and certainty and clarity, all things that are lacking in my life right now.
In other words, I really, really miss my Marcella Hazan.
Marcella's lifetime output of published recipes is legendary. And while these recipes range from the surprisingly minimalist to the ambitious and uncompromising (carta de musica, anyone?), it's the simple ones that I keep returning to. From a tomato, onion, and butter sauce that breaks all sauce-making rules to her super-simple roast chicken, Marcella had an unsung knack for defying convention to get at the heart of flavor, so her easiest recipes taste no more and no less delicious than any of her most complicated ones. (NB: That means they are very, very delicious.) The three recipes that follow are the ones I've been turning to again and again, but her books have countless more recipes that are equally rock-solid and stripped down.
The Utterly Effortless Tomato Sauce
Marcella's famous Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion has an unassuming recipe title that conceals its radical essence. One of the very first things everyone learns about making tomato sauce is that you start by sauteing chopped onion or garlic, usually in olive oil. Here, there's no chopping, no sauteing—there isn't even any olive oil. You simply combine a can of tomatoes, a halved peeled onion, a couple pats of butter, and a bit of salt and pepper in a pot and set it to simmer for 45 minutes, until, as Marcella likes to say, "the oil floats free of the sauce." The liberation that comes from knowing that you can chuck a few ingredients in a pot and attend to the rest of your life without having to mess with it can be just as soothing as mindless stirring. Marcella's sauce has saved my sanity at more dinnertimes than I can count, and feels even more necessary now that sanity is in short supply.
You can toss this sauce with pasta and shower it with parm (or another hard grating cheese) and call it a day, or use it as a building block for stuffed shells (remember stuffed shells?) and chicken parm, or as a topping for a frittata, or thinned out to enjoy as soup. Everyone knows how versatile tomato sauce is once you have some on hand—make a double batch and stash half in the freezer and you will most definitely use it.
Get the Recipe: Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter
The Roast Chicken That Never Lets You Down
Her take on Roast Chicken with Lemons is iconic. No need for pre-salting or brining. No marinades or rubs. No elaborate shopping lists or rummaging through the pantry. Just the magical alchemy that happens when heat hits a salted, lemon-stuffed chicken.
As Marcella herself put it in the headnote to the recipe:
"If this were a still life its title could be 'Chicken with Two Lemons.' That is all that there is in it. No fat to cook with, no basting to do, no stuffing to prepare, no condiments except for salt and pepper. After you put the chicken in the oven you turn it just once. The bird, with its two lemons, and the oven do all the rest."
Plenty of people have stuck a lemon into a chicken, thrown it in the oven, and eaten a perfectly serviceable roast chicken about an hour later. But though Marcella's recipe is simple, it's not simplistic. There are a few grace notes that transform this chicken into one of the juiciest, most lemony roast chickens you'll ever have the luck to taste.
First, instead of halving the lemons as most people do, you torment them by stabbing them with a skewer, over and over, before placing them in the cavity. What you risk in an unnecessary trip to the hospital, you gain in abundant lemony goodness that permeates the bird. Next, the trussing. I'm generally not one to truss, since it's so fussy and can interfere with browning. But Marcella's decidedly non-French take on trussing—just securing the cavity of the bird closed with toothpicks and tying the drumsticks together not-t00-tightly—helps turn the chicken into an oblong orb of juiciness while the bird still browns nicely.
And finally, she starts the bird roasting breast-side down, then flips it (I like to use a couple of wadded-up paper towels for this task) after the first 30 minutes to roast breast-side up for another 30, and then raises the temperature to 400F for the final 20 minutes or so of cooking. Just a couple small details that take the guesswork out of a weeknight dinner staple.
Get the Recipe: Roast Chicken With Lemons
A Meat Sauce to Stockpile in Mass Quantities
If you look up recipes for Sunday Sauce, the list of ingredients quickly becomes overwhelming: braciole, sausages, ground beef for meatballs. Marcella's Bolognese, however, is project cooking for Our Times. No triumvirate of ground veal, pork, and beef necessary—all you need is beef, plus canned tomatoes, your typical aromatics (onion, celery, carrots), white wine (I use vermouth), milk, and a combo of butter and olive oil as your cooking fats. After the initial sauteing of vegetables, you brown the meat, simmer it with milk, add a bit of wine and simmer more, then add tomatoes and set the timer. And then the party starts. For three glorious hours, your home becomes progressively homier as the scent of homemade meat sauce builds. Getting up to stir the pot every once in awhile almost feels like tending to a pet (strange, but true).
And you'll eventually have a pot of Bolognese with unlimited possibilities. I've turned it into shepherd's pie filling, topped it with macaroni and cheese, tossed it with cooked lasagna noodles and dollops of ricotta. I've made double and triple batches to stash in the freezer, where it lasts for months, a godsend on nights when you're faint from hunger and too tired to turn on the stove. Like most of Marcella's recipes, it's a rendition without a single extra ingredient, delivering comfort without demanding too much effort in return. Whether Marcella's style was driven by kindness towards fellow home cooks or a dislike of unnecessary embellishment doesn't much matter. What matters is, she's here for me—and for all of us.
Get the Recipe: Bolognese Meat Sauce