Marcella Hazan passed 3 years ago, but her flame still burns bright. The legendary Italian author of groundbreaking cookbooks like “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” still inspires awe from food-world luminaries like Mark Bittman (“She taught me how to cook and think like an Italian home cook”), Jacques Pépin (“What was admirable about Marcella was her honesty about cooking. She created simple, high quality, delicious dishes without fuss or superfluous embellishment.”), and Mitchell Davis (“Decades after I first picked up one of Marcella’s cookbooks, after countless visits to Italy, I am always amazed that when I am looking for the definitive recipe for an Italian dish I crave, she’s got it.”).
Her final book, “Ingredienti” co-authored with her husband Victor, was just published by Simon & Schuster. But Ingredienti is no cookbook. Instead of recipes, it’s a collection of opinionated insights on everything from Parmigiano-Reggiano to zucchini.
And that got me thinking. Even more than her recipes for creamy polenta or Bolognese sauce, it’s Marcella’s tips, warnings, and observations that have stayed with me, seeping into how I cook every day. Below are just a sampling. Read these and pick up Ingredienti for one last helping of Marcella’s wisdom.
1. ALWAYS START COOKING ONION (OR GARLIC) IN A COLD PAN.
Sure, everyone loves the sizzle that happens when you throw chopped onions or minced garlic into a pan of hot oil. But Marcella taught me that starting those aromatics in a cold pan means they cook up more gently and gradually, creating luscious, tender onions and light-gold garlic that never tastes overwhelming or acrid.
2. PEEL YOUR RED PEPPERS. EVEN IF YOU DON’T WANT TO.
It sounds fussy, I know. But Marcella was never a fussy cook. So since she insisted that peeling red peppers made a difference, I gave it a try. The result? Sauteed peppers with a silkiness that rivaled that of roasted peppers—and no annoying bits of pepper skin caught between your teeth, either.
3. TOMATO SAUCE CAN BE THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD.
It doesn’t make sense when you read the recipe. How can a can of tomatoes, a halved onion, and a few tablespoons of butter, simmered together in a pot, become one of the best tomato sauces ever conceived? We definitely saw plenty of that skepticism when we shared a video of the recipe. But rest assured, Marcella’s recipe works wonders, especially on the laziest weeknights.
4. ONE LITTLE BAY LEAF CAN DO IT ALL.
In countless braises, Marcella uses a base of onions, celery, and carrot, along with a bay leaf or two, as the main seasoning for the dish. Without the distraction of other herbs or strong spices, bay leaf gets a chance to shine, providing a delicate base-note of flavor that’s surprisingly addictive. Now I throw in a bay leaf whenever I’m making a long-simmered sauce or stew—and I leave the other seasonings out.
5. TOSS YOUR HOT PASTA WITH PARM.
Everyone knows that most Italian pastas can benefit from a topping of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. But Marcella recommended tossing hot, freshly drained pasta with a few spoonfuls of Parm before tossing it with the sauce. The result? The cheese melts instantly on the hot noodles, infusing them with a whole new layer of flavor.
6. PLAIN-JANE CELERY DESERVES YOUR LOVE.
Everyone knows that celery has an eternal place in the “trinity” of aromatics, along with onion and carrot. But Marcella took that love further, sharing several recipes that showcase the salty, vegetal flavor of celery itself. Now, whenever I have a half-used bunch of celery in the fridge, I chop up a couple stalks (along with every last celery leaf in the bunch), saute it with some chopped onion, add a can of tomatoes, and cook up a tomato sauce with a mysteriously addictive something “extra.”
7. RESIST THE URGE TO UNDERCOOK YOUR VEGETABLES.
Forget about pasta. For years, “al dente” was also the most fashionable and “correct” way to cook vegetables, too. But Marcella knew better. She lamented the grassy, crunchy blandness of undercooked vegetables, and reminded me that they only really taste like themselves when they’re cooked enough. Now, I aim for the happy medium between crunch and mush.
8. THE OVEN IS THE BEST WAY TO COOK FISH.
Searing fish fillets in a pan always intimidated me. But it wasn’t until I started trying Marcella’s seafood recipes that I realized how many of them rely on baking rather than pan-searing. Now, instead of stressing about whether my fish fillets will stick, I rest easy, knowing they’re baking to perfect tenderness in the oven, usually alongside something equally delicious.
9. GOOD CANNED TUNA IS BETTER THAN FRESH.
Before Marcella, I thought that canned tuna was in my rearview mirror. I was haunted by way too many tuna-sandwich school lunches. But Hazan taught me to seek out oil-packed solid tuna, which is as different from the soggy chunk light stuff as whipped cream is from fat-free non-dairy creamer. Whether folded into pastas, tossed into bean salads, or tucked into sandwiches, “good” canned tuna is so superior to fresh that it almost seems like an absurd cosmic joke.
10. ENOUGH WITH THE GARLIC, ALREADY
TV chefs like Emeril used to throw extra garlic into their dishes, to the delight of their live audiences. But Marcella cooked to please herself and her family, and she understood what you can’t taste through the screen: that garlic should be a base note, not the dominant flavor, in a dish. She also knew that minced garlic tastes stronger than sliced garlic, and whole cooked garlic cloves are mildest of all. Follow that rule, and you can nail ideal garlic intensity with ease.
11. PAIR PASTA WITH THE RIGHT SAUCE.
Chunky sauces want short, stubby pasta shapes (ideally with crevices where those chunky ingredients can nestle), while smooth and creamy sauces are built for long strands. Marcella’s simple insight, crystallized from centuries of Italian cooking practice, means even if I don’t have the pasta that a recipe calls for on hand, I can easily substitute another.
12. “ITALIAN SAUSAGE” ISN’T ITALIAN.
Yes, it’s true—Marcella’s disdain for Italian sausage was palpable. Whenever she called for sausage meat for a sauce or stuffing, she’d specify plain, unflavored sausage meat rather than the kind riddled with chile flakes and fennel seeds. If the recipe needed those additional flavorings, she’d damn well add them herself. Italian sausage tends to clobber the other ingredients with their flavor; Marcella was all about balance.
13. MELLOW OUT RAW ONION WITH A SOAK.
Raw onions are delicious—in sandwiches, stirred into bean salads, tossed on top of grilled meats. But their aggressive punch can be a little too much sometimes. Just one little trick I learned from Marcella makes all the difference. Soak those onion slices in cold water for 5-10 minutes, and then gently squeeze the onions to release their milky liquid. Boom: Now you have mellowed raw onions that will play nicely with others.
14. DON’T RELY ON PASTA WATER TOO MUCH.
These days, it’s common to recommend that you sling a ladle of pasta water into your pasta to help thicken it up and add restaurant-style body to your sauce. But Marcella, ever the champion of home cooking over chef-style tricks, resisted the trend. A well-made sauce shouldn’t need any thickener, she pointed out, and adding starchy water can literally water down the fresh, vibrant flavor of your sauce.
15. INSTEAD, COOK YOUR SAUCE UNTIL THE MAGIC MOMENT.
Instead of adding pasta water, Marcella was always an advocate for cooking your sauce until its concentrated savoriness was revealed. But how do you know if your sauce is done? Don’t watch the clock. Instead, do what Marcella suggested, and look for the moment when the oil or fat begins to float free of the sauce, concentrating in streaks or pools on its surface.
16. SOMETIMES, IT ONLY TAKES THREE INGREDIENTS TO MAKE AN UNFORGETTABLE RECIPE.
Unlike many restaurant chefs, Marcella had no need to embellish her dishes. In fact, some of her most famous recipes, like her tomato sauce, chicken with two lemons, and this milk-braised pork were radical in their simplicity. She continues to remind me that the best cooking is home cooking, and the best home cooking is simple.
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