"Italian food is simple food, but it's not necessarily easy to make ." -- Marcella Hazan
"Our objective is to help you form taste memories to take home, to give you a frame of reference to the tastes of real Italian food ." -- Victor Hazan
What should a cooking school accomplish? Most provide written recipes students reproduce to entertain family or friends. A few offer stove-side guidance to lead the student through the crawling stage toward self-sufficiency at the range.
At her school in the Milano Exceisior Hotel here. Marcella Hazan rather defiantly does neither.
Instead she and her husband Victor present the food, wines and cooking of Italy for what they are, vital and important facets of the culture of that nation. They bring as much respect to their subjects as art historians bring to the Italian masters in the country's museums. Their approach is, to use a sacred word, intellectual.
Marcella Hazan wants her students to understand the techniques involved in creating a dish and resolutely refuses to become bogged down with specific measurements. Students watch, do part of the preparation work and practice various techniques such as pounding veal.and practice various techniques such They are free to stir and begged to taste.
Victor Hazan talks of wine in scholarly, sometimes poetic tones. But he's not pompous and scarcely one-dimensional. His wine lectures, given during breaks in the cooking and during meals, are always linked to commentary on one or more of Italy's multitude of regional cheeses and breads, as well as antipasti products such as proscuitto and salami.
The Hazans roamed Italy for years as Marcella did the research that led to her superb books, "The Classic Italian Cook Book" and "More Classic Italian Cooking," both published by Knopf. Few, if any, authors writing in Italian -- much less English -- can match the scope of their knowledge of regional dishes and winemakers.
To a much greater degree than France, contemporary Italy clings to its regional and even local dishes. But customs are being eroded and supermarkets are not unknown. Yet fresh, seasonal foods still determine the daily menu of most Italian families. So the Hazans refuse to stay in the hotel and merely shuffle and deal out recipes. They lead their students to the Bologna market, to a factory where parmesan cheese is made, to a vineyard. They want the students awash with the experience of the country.
Sadly, not everyone who can afford the stiff price of admission fully appreciates what is being presented.
Late one afternoon the students were taken into the country to tour a small vineyard. A tasting and "country supper" were to follow. The vista from the winery at sunset was memorable, but several students were more concerned with the mud on their shoes. Drinking several wines on the spot where they were made while in conversation with the winemaker was a rare opportunity. Victor Hazan had advised the group that the wines were of variable quality, but at least one student was heard to grumble that he didn't find "anything great about these wines." The meal included spiedini (brochets) of meats and sausage and a gem of regional cooking called tigelle. These are small biscuits, cooked on a special grill, that are stuffed while hot with a mixture of lard, garlic and rosemary. "How can I serve this at a dinner party?" asked a woman from Kansas City.
She could, of course, though she might need a new set of friends to appreciate such rustic fare. But what the Hazans hope is that the blend of setting, food, wine and music (a quartet of local musicains who play for harvest feasts was on hand) will make such a question academic, at least for one evening.
In this they are, of course, guilty of the sins of pride in the extensive and detailed planning that goes into the program they have organized and unrelenting optimism that the students share their sensitivity.
The instruction kitchen at the Milano Excelsior is beautiful, spacious and well designed with first-class equipment. In New York, Marcella Hazan's classes are limited to five or six students. Here there are at least 20 and she is less able to give individual attention to each of them. But the opportunities for self-help are all around. There is a much greater variety of food and Victor Hazan's presentations are a bonus unmatched in New York.
Bologna and the surrounding region have long been celebrated as perhaps the best area of eating in all of Italy. Marcella Hazan, who grew up nearby, draws fully on the region's bounty, but is careful to present recipes and even breads from other regions as well.
There are so many misconceptions," she told her students. "We don't use lots of herbs and almost never add lots of garlic to the food we cook. A single seasoning is often enough, rosemary with the roast, sage with game. We seldom bury our food in a sauce, like the French. Italian food is simple, but not easy to prepare. There are few ingredients, but they must be very fresh or of very good quality, and they can take some time to prepare. If you do go wrong, the dish probably is all wrong."
A case in point is the preparation of Naples-style pepper sauce for pasta "In the Italian home, the type of pasta follows the sauce that's used. The cook plans her shopping with the sauce in mind. With cream sauces ridged pasta is used; with oil, flat pasta. If the sauce is chunky with pieces of meat or vegetables, the pasta usually will be round."
So a quantity of green peppers was cut up and set to stew in olive oil after a few cloves of garlic had been lightly browned in the same oil and discarded. Nothing to it. When the peppers were quite soft they were set aside. The pasta was cooked in salted water (only to the al dente stage). Once ready, it was drained and poured into a bowl. Immediately the lukewarm peppers and their oil were added, plus some whole fresh basil leaves, a little melted butter and a generous handful of freshly grated cheese. Toss and serve.
Victor Hazan poured some Lacrima Christi del Vesuvio of the 1976 vintage and contentment reigned. Veal, cardoons and a desert of chestnuts poache in red wine followed, along with appropriate wines.
However imperfect the Hazan's approach, and they are well aware of various objections, this school is a true reflection of the personalities of the two talented people who have brought it to life.
(For information on Marcella Hazau's classes in Bolonga and New York City, write to her at 155 e. 76th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021. The recipes that follow, all used in her classes, are from "More Classic Italian Cooking.") TONNARELLI CON I FUNGHI (Square Noodles with Mushroom Sauce) (4 to 6 servings) 1/2 of a six-eighths-ounce package of imported dried boletus mushrooms, or if loose, about 1/2 ounce or less 1 pound fresh, firm mushrooms 1/2 cup chopped onion 1 stick butter Salt Freshly ground black pepper Tonnarelli made with 3 eggs and 1 3/4 cups hard-wheat (durum) flour, or 1 -pound package spaghetti 3 tablespoons parsley chopped fine 1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus additional for the table
Soak the dried mushrooms in 1 cup lukewarm water for at least 30 minutes. Gently remove the mushrooms without stirring up the water and rinse them repeatedly under cold running water. Chop them very fine and set aside. Filter through paper towel the water in which the mushrooms soaked. Set aside.
Rapidly rinse the fresh mushrooms in cold running water and dry with a towel. Shred very fine. You can do the shredding in the food processor, using the disk with the grating and shredding holes.
Put the onion and half the butter into a saute pan and turn on the heat to medium. When the onion becomes colored a rich gold put in the reconstituted dried mushrooms and their filtered water. Cook until the water boils away completely.
Add the shredded fresh mushrooms, salt and pepper, and cover the pan. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes. This may seem a lot longer than you would ordinarily cook mushrooms, but it is necessary in order to concentrate their flavor and help them acquire that elusive boletus taste. If at the end of this time there is some liquid in the pan, uncover and boil the liquid away over higher heat. Then turn off heat.
Cook the pasta in 3 to 4 quarts salted boiling water. Drain when it is done al dente , firm to the bite. Toss immediately with the mushroom sauce, the rest of the butter, the parsley and the parmesan. Serve with additional grated cheese on the side. COSTICINE DI MAIALE ALLA TREVIGIANA (Pan Roasted Spareribs) (4 servings) 1/2 cup vegetable oil 3-pound rack of spareribs, cut into single ribs 3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced very thin 2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage, or 2 teaspoons chopped dried whole sage leaves 1 cup dry white wine Salt Freshly ground black pepper
Choose a saute pan large enough to accommodate later all the spareribs without crowding. Put in the oil and turn the heat on to medium high. When the oil is hot put in the spareribs and brown them on all sides. Add the garlic and the sage. When the garlic becomes lightly colored, add the wine, raise the heat, and let the wine bubble away for a few seconds. Turn the heat down to moderate, add salt and a liberal sprinking of pepper and cover the pan. Cook for about 40 minutes, truning the ribs from time to time, until the fleshiest part of the ribs is tender. When done, transfer the spareribs to a warm platter. Tilt the pan and remove about 1/3 of the fat. Leave more fat than you usually would when degreasing because you will need it to season the polenta or mashed potatoes which should accompany the spareribs. Add 1/2 cup water, turn the heat on to high and scrape loose the cooking residues from the bottom of the pan while boiling away the liquid. You should end up with a dark, dense sauce. Pour it through a strainer over the spareribs. Serve at once with mashed potatoes. POLLO IN UMIDO COL CAVOLO NERO (Chicken Fricassee with Red Cabbage) (4 servings) 1 1/2 medium yellow onions, sliced thin, about 1 cup 1/3 cup olive oil 2 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered 1 pound or more red cabbage, shredded very fine, about 4 cups 1 frying chicken, about 2 1/2 pounds, cut into 8 pieces 1/2 cup good red wine Salt Freshly ground black pepper
Choose a suate pan broad enough to contain later all the chicken pieces in a single layer. Put in the sliced onion, the olive oil and the garlic and suate over medium heat until the garlic turns a rich deep gold. Add the shredded cabbage and cook, uncovered, always at medium heat, for 6 to 7 minutes. Stir it throughly once or twice. Put in the chicken pieces, sliding them under the cabbage so they will rest, skin down, in a single layer on the bottom of the pan. Add the wine, salt and a liberal amount of pepper; cover the pan and continue to cook at medium heat. To balance the natural sweetness of the cabbage add salt a little more freely than you would ordinarily. From time to time, turn the chicken pieces over and stir the contents of the pan. The chicken will be done in 40 to 45 minutes, or when tender at the pricking of a fork. The cabbage will no longer be reconizable as such. It will be much reduced and will have the consistency of thick, pulpy sauce. CASTAGNE ALLA ROMAGNOLA COL VINO ROSSO (Chestnuts Boiled in Red Wine) (4 servings)
Chestnuts boiled in wine are a country dish from my particular part of the of the country, Emilia-Romagna. It is fitting that the chestnut season is in winter because this is a very warming dish to have, late on a cold evening, sitting by the fire, in the company of friends and a bottle of young, rough red wine. I remember my father cautioning us that the combination of chestnuts and wine would make us giddy. Although there is nothing about a chestnuts that makes wine more inebriating, there is no question that a bite of one leads irresistibly to a sip of the other. And wine calls for more chestnuts. And so on. Fair warning.
The only problem a chestnut ever gives anyone is peeling it. My family's old method of slitting the chestnuts before cooking is the best solution I have found to this problem. It's a horizontal slit that splits the shell around the middle for about 2/3 of the circumfrience of the chestnut. Here is how it is done. Start the cut on the flat side of the nut, just before before the edge. Come around, slitting the shell on the bulging belly side of the nut, and continue the cut just past the other edge and over into the flat side. When cooked, the shell and pesky inner skin will lift away without too much trouble. 1 pound fresh chestnuts (look for the larger, heavier chestnuts with glossy shells) 1 cup dry, full-bodied red wine Salt 2 bay leaves
Rinse the chestnuts in cold water then pat dry. Slite the shells as directed in the introductory paragraph above. Do not cut into the meat. Put the chestnuts, wine, a tiny pinch of salt and the bay leaves into a pot with just enough water to cover. Cover the pot, and turn on the heat to medium. After 1 hour, uncover the pot and allow all but 1 or 2 tablespoonfuls liquid to evaporate. Serve at once, preferably from the pot, or in a warm bowl.