Cooking with Marcella

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My mother taught me how to make spaghetti with meatballs when I was just a kid. She was Irish, but learned to make spaghetti, lasagna, and chicken parmesan to please my Italian-American father. In our house, if it was Sunday, we were eating pasta.

The dishes my mother made were definitely an Americanized version of Italian cooking served heavy on sauce and cheese. Over time, as my interest in cooking grew, I began to look for recipes, ingredients, and cooking techniques that went beyond the three basic Italian dishes I had learned at home; and so Marcella Hazen entered my life.

Marcella (she's famous enough to be known by a single name) was raised along the Adriatic coast in Cesenatico, Italy. As a young woman she studied science, earning a doctorate in biology and anticipating a life as a scientist and academic. But in 1952, she met Victor, an Italian who had returned to Italy after living many years in New York. The couple soon married and moved back to New York where Marcella, less than enthralled with American cuisine and eager to re-create the flavors of home for her new husband, began to cook.  

In her memoir, "Amarcord," she wrote that while she began as a novice in the kitchen, “cooking came to me as though it had been there all along, waiting to be expressed; it came as words come to a child when it is time for her to speak." When it comes to cooking, I think Marcella didn’t just speak – she sang!  How lucky for all of us that she traded science for the art of cooking.

My bookshelf at home, filled with Marcella Hazan's cookbooks

My bookshelf at home, filled with Marcella Hazan's cookbooks

She would go on to open cooking schools, write several cookbooks, and introduce authentic Italian flavors to American kitchens. Her cookbooks are more than a collection of recipes, they are filled with information about ingredients, cooking techniques, and insights into Italian culture. For me, she was a teacher and the inspiration to appreciate fresh and simple Italian home cooking and, eventually, to travel to Italy to experience for myself the flavors, scents, and colors of the Italy she described. In truth, I think I went to Italy the first time simply to eat. As I ate my way across northern Italy that trip, I took detailed notes about the dishes, the flavors, the pasta shapes, and the market-fresh ingredients. Then I came home and started cooking, using her recipes as a guide to re-create all those marvelous flavors. Her cookbooks have been so essential to me that I have often remarked that, should my house ever catch on fire, I would grab my copy of "The Classic Italian Cookbook" (mine is an original 1973 version) on my way out the door.

Many of my family’s favorite dishes come directly from her cookbooks – Bucatini all'Amatriciana, a pan-roasted chicken with white wine and rosemary, penne pasta with spinach and ricotta, Bucatini all’Alfredo (for years my son refused to order this in a restaurant saying mine – make that Marcella’s – was better), a sautéed chicken breast fragrant with lemon and butter, zucchini frittata (my go-to company brunch dish), a simple potato soup with carrot and celery, and springtime asparagus and prosciutto bundles. Che buono!

Because it is summer here in the states, I've been in the mood to grill. When that mood strikes, it's Marcella’s Pollo alla Diavola that I'm most likely to prepare. I use her basic marinade - just lemon juice, olive oil, and lots of coarsely ground black pepper on bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs - to grill what is surely the best grilled chicken in the world. Grazie Marcella!   

-post by JMB

Pollo alla Diavola or, as I call it, Marcella's chicken.

Pollo alla Diavola or, as I call it, Marcella's chicken.