Marcella's philosophy

April 14, 1991|By Sam Gugino | Sam Gugino,Knight-Ridder News Service

CARMEL, CALIFORNIA — Carmel, Calif. Marcella Hazan, slumped in a chair in the lobby of the famed Highlands Inn, is tired.

And with good reason. After a fitful night ("The wind kept me up"), she gave an hourlong cooking demonstration, oversaw lunch preparation and tried to be cheery for a long line of admirers who wanted one of her three books autographed.

And it's only 4 p.m.

Niki Singer, Ms. Hazan's publicist, tries to explain that cooking artichoke risotto for 100 people at lunch would make anyone tired.

"Not 100, 130!" Ms. Hazan corrects her. "Plus the 10 in the kitchen who wanted a taste."

When you're making risotto for the masses, every dish counts.

"It was crazy to think we could do risotto for 130 people," Ms. Hazan moans in disbelief.

That's what happens when you break one of your own rules -- the one that says risotto should be made only in small quantities and eaten immediately.

Notwithstanding the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do aspect of risotto making, Ms. Hazan had imparted her culinary pearls to amateurs and professionals alike at a morning demonstration as part of the recent Masters of Food and Wine.

Bowing to artichoke season, she chose a dish made with the prickly vegetable that's one of her favorites. Brian Whitmer, Highlands Inn chef, had cut a few gigantic globes that morning.

With the patience of a saint, Ms. Hazan snapped back the leaves on an artichoke, exposing the edible lower portion. Then she peeled the stem, sliced off the top and scooped out the choke, leaving the vegetable about half its former size.

"In Italy, we have so many different varieties of artichokes," Ms. Hazan says. "Most of them have more intense flavor than California artichokes. The ones from Castroville are very much like Roman mammola artichokes."

Based in Venice, Italy, Ms. Hazan makes few visits to the West Coast. So attendees lined up early for her seminar and listened in rapt attention as if she were giving sure-fire ways to make a million in real estate in 30 days.

If there is one person who symbolizes the essence of Italian food at its best, it is Marcella Hazan. Her first book, "The Classic Italian Cookbook" (Alfred A. Knopf, 1973), remains the definitive text on Italian cooking and eating. Julia Child said of her, "She is my mentor in all things Italian." James Beard traveled to Italy to learn from her. ("I remember he was wearing a gondolier's shirt and by the time he finished eating lunch, he had food all over it. The man ate with a passion.")

Most of Ms. Hazan's teaching is done in her home kitchen. She takes only six students, who gladly pay the $1,750 for five sessions that last up to five hours each. Her husband Victor, an authority on Italian wine, chips in too.

When it comes to cooking, Marcella Hazan practices the KISS method -- Keep It Simple, Signora -- with a vengeance. Simple ingredients, prepared and presented simply. But oh, what ingredients!

Ms. Hazan needs only one cheese in her life, but it has to be Parmigiano-Reggiano. And not just any Parmigiano-Reggiano (you thought there was just one, huh?). Rocca brand is the one Ms. Hazan insists on.

"You don't need three or four olive oils in your kitchen, just one. But it has to be a good one," she says.

Ms. Hazan's one and only olive oil is from the Lake Garda region in Northern Italy. She prefers its mild flavor to Tuscan oils that can leave an unwanted peppery kick in the back of your throat.

This is not to say Ms. Hazan is picky about everything. Some ingredients of, shall we say, lesser importance, can be fudged. Butter?

"Italians have very few sauces where butter is the key ingredient. So it doesn't matter much if it's salted or not. Better to have good salted butter than bad sweet butter," she says.

According to Ms. Hazan, the availability of authentic ingredients has been the primary reason Italian cooking has gotten better and more popular in this country.

"When I first started cooking professionally in New York in 1969, you could only get fennel and artichokes in Little Italy. And now when I mention pancetta, people know what I'm talking about," she says.

But true Italian cooking in America still has a long way to go, Ms. Hazan says. The biggest problem is that chefs try to get too fancy, often ruining the simple taste of their ingredients.

"I think California chefs are fine, but I'm a little afraid when they mix Italian with some type of nouvelle or California cuisine. The result is food that wears the uniform of Italian cuisine but is not Italian," she says.

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