“There is no such thing as Italian ‘haute cuisine’ there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking. All roads lead to the home, to ‘la cucina de casa’ – the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking.” ~ Marcella Hazan
Grandma Rosemarie as a baby
Some of my very fondest memories of my Grandma Rosemarie center around cooking. While growing up and spending summers at the lake with Grandma and Grandad, the most important question of the day was always, “What’s for dinner?” And it was usually asked at the breakfast table.
It was not that we particularly cared what we were eating, but it was that by figuring out what she was planning on making, we knew when to come up from the lake to help. We did not want to miss a minute of it.
The house, and our family, revolved around the kitchen and the large gathering table my grandparents had built to accommodate their 5 boys and all of their grandchildren. While Grandma cut tomatoes and basil for bruschetta, a gaggle of cousins brushed ciabatta bread with olive oil, Grandad would put on music, and one of the aunts would be arranging fresh flowers from Grandma’s garden to place on the table.
Despite all the hub-bub, Grandma was always patient. Everyone had a job, and nothing was rushed. While the pasta would cook, the smell of marinara sauce would float through the air and mingle with the laughs and conversations that filled the room. This has always been the image I conjure up when I think of family.
I don’t remember seeing Grandma use many cookbooks. However, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is one that I distinctly remember on her shelf. This comes as no surprise as a wonderful piece in the New York Times last Sunday after Hazan’s death summed it this way, “Mrs. Hazan embraced simplicity, precision and balance in her cooking.” This is what I remember about Grandma’s cooking.
My brother gave me my own this past Christmas. With law school, moving, the bar exam, and starting a job, it was still in a box with all my other cookbooks. However, after reading the NYT piece and seeing the weather here in Cincinnati called for rain, what better way to warm up an otherwise dreary Sunday than in the kitchen.
In Hazan’s own words, “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is meant to be used as a kitchen handbook, the basic manual for cooks of every level.” I have been dying to make a good bolognese sauce from scratch for years, so I decided to make Hazan’s ragu, a dish she was known for. I couldn’t help by smile as I was making the ingredient list and saw it called for nutmeg, a hint of which you could always taste in Grandma’s sauce.
Rosemarie as a baby with her older sister
From the very first recipe, I could already tell this book was going to be a staple in my kitchen. Hazan’s recommendations throughout the book and effortless prose make me feel like I was right back in my Grandma’s kitchen. Nothing is rushed, everything has a purpose, and you are always welcome. As I read through Hazan’s pointers before the bolognese recipe, I almost felt as if my Grandma was right there beside me making sure everything turned out just right.
- Make sure the meat is not from too lean of a cut.
- Be sure to add salt immediately when sauteing the meat because this will extract the juices.
- Cook, uncovered, at the merest simmer for a long, long time; no less than 3 hours is necessary; more is better.
To me, this last one is key. It says, calm down, have a glass of wine, converse with family and friends, and do it right. This recipe is perfect for a lazy Sunday. A perfect dish to make for a family dinner or like I did, for a night in on a rainy Sunday with the Husband. It is comfortable, warm, and welcoming. Just like I remember Grandma Rosemarie.
Bolognese Meat Sauce
Originally from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and some ingredients adapted/multiplied by Leite’s Culinaria (a fabulously mouthwatering blog that you must read if you do not already)
- 2 Tbs. vegetable oil
- 6 Tbs. unsalted butter, plus 2 Tbs. for tossing the pasta
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 1/3 cup chopped celery
- 1 1/3 cup chopped carrots
- 1 1/2 pound ground chuck beef*
- Black Pepper
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
- 2 cups dry white wine (I used sauvignon blanc)
- 3 cups canned imported Italian tomatoes, crushed, with their juices
- pasta (I used cheese tortellini)
- Put oil, butter, and onion into the pot over medium heat.
- Cook and stir the onion until it becomes translucent, and then add the celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring to make sure the vegetables are coated.
- Add the meat, a large pinch of salt, and pepper. Break up the meat with a wooden spoon and cook until the beef has lost its red color.
- Add the milk and simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. About 1 hour.
- Add nutmeg and stir.
- Add the wine and let it simmer until it is evaporated. About 1.25 hours.
- Add the tomatoes and stir to makes sure all the ingredients are coated well. When the tomatoes begin to bubble, turn the heat down so that the sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through to the surface. (Honestly, Hazan’s words just make me hungry).
- Cook uncovered for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time.
- If the sauce begins to dry out and the fat separates from the meat, add 1/2 cup of water whenever necessary to keep it from sticking.
- At the end, make sure that no water is left and the fat must separate from the sauce.
- Season to taste.
- Toss with cooked drained pasta, adding the remaining 2 Tbs. of butter.
*Hazan recommends a variation of the sauce that uses pork, an important part of Bologna’s culture and cuisine. She recommends 1 part ground pork for every 2 parts beef. David from Leite’s Culinaria did 1/2 pound each of ground chuck, ground pork, and ground veal. This is key.
Don’t make the mistake I did. I could not find ground pork at the grocery so I just went with ground beef (since I did not know the difference between ground beef and ground chuck). Newbie mistake. Next time I will either get chuck since it is fattier, more flavorful, and tastier. Or, I’ll head down to the butcher. Since you’re spending the time cooking it, make sure you get good meat. It is the foundation. And as the queen of Italian cooking says, “Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom…a foundation of flavor supports, lifts, points up the principal ingredients.” Aka…get good meat.