Italian food writers?
What do Marcella Hazan, Antonio Carluccio, and Anna del Conte all have in common? All of them are native born Italians, who dedicated their lives to the promotion of Italian food in Anglo-saxon countries. Yet they remain almost completely unknown in Italy. This is particularly ironic in the case of Carluccio. He was the mentor of Gennaro Contaldo—also Italian born and unknown—who was the mentor of British-born Jamie Oliver who is a household name in Italy.
Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce
Although, having grown up in the UK, I am familiar with the late great Carluccio, and to a lesser extent del Conte, I have managed to remain relatively ignorant about Marcella Hazan. However, her name keeps coming up in many conversations I have with readers and friends in the US, especially in relation to her tomato sauce recipe. I’ve heard it described in the best and the worst terms by Americans and Italian-Americans alike, and so my curiosity led me to do some research and check it out.
All about Hazan
Hazan herself seems to be a bit of a contradiction. Born and bread in Cesenatico, one of my favourite towns in Emilia-Romagna, it appears that Hazan didn’t learn to cook until, newly married to New York Italian Victor Hazan, she found herself on the other side of the world missing the dishes she was familiar with from home. So she armed herself with a copy of Ada Boni’s 1929 cookbook Il talismano della felicità and promptly began to recreate the tastes she remembered from home. This led to an authentic tasting, if not slightly weird (from a technical point of view) way of cooking which she then imparted to her US audience.
The recipe for tomato sauce is, from this point of view, typical Hazan. The basic technique, including cooking time, are very similar to the recipe for tomato sauce in the book which is considered by modern Italians to be their cooking bible, Il cucchiaio d’argento (1950). While, the ‘Silver Spoon’ recipe calls for sugar, basil, garlic, olive oil, and salt to accompany tinned tomatoes, Hazan’s reduces this to the slightly eccentric butter, onion, and salt.
Butter is, or was in Hazan’s day, a key ingredient of northern-Italian cooking, particularly that of her native Emilia-Romagna. And in this recipe, it sort of makes sense. The Silver Spoon adds sugar to reduce the acidity of the tomatoes; Hazan uses dairy. This is very much in keeping with the practice of adding milk or cream to one’s ragù for the same purpose.
The second rather unusual part of the recipe is adding a whole onion, chopped in two, to the sauce which is removed and thrown away before serving. Doing this with garlic, is a very common technique in Italy. Despite our reputation abroad, Italians tend not to like a very strong garlic flavour, and are often of the opinion that eating it gives you indigestion. Although some people say the same about onion, I’ve never seen or heard of it being used in this way.
Both the Silver Spoon and Hazan call for tinned tomatoes rather than fresh. This is not unusual and there’s nothing wrong with it. Italians have, for centuries, preserved tomatoes for use in the winter either through making passata, or by peeling them and storing them in jars. Tinned tomatoes is the modern version of this and Italians do use them widely. (Preserving them in this way also tends to augment the flavour.)
Making the sauce
I recently made Hazan’s sauce, following the recipe to the letter and restraining myself from doing what I would naturally do, to see how it would work out. Firstly, I found the cooking time a little too long. I think 30 minutes, rather than 45 would have sufficed. Towards the end of the cooking, you had to watch it like a hawk to stop it sticking to the bottom of the pan. (I would have added a little water at this point but, as I said, I didn’t want to change anything.) The resulting sauce was very think and almost like tomato concentrate.
My main impression however, was that it was a bit bland. It lacked the depth of flavour that adding garlic, or even a soffrito of onion would have given it. In my opinion, the onion added nothing to the flavour. (I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away however, and it was a joy to eat on its own.) The flavour was very smooth, and the butter did its job in removing the acidity without making the sauce creamy. It was still very much a tomato sauce.
I ate this sauce with fusilli, in my opinion, one of the best pastas to eat with tomato sauce as the grooves become literally impregnated with it making each bite a flavour bomb. As is Hazan’s reputation, it tasted authentic with the caveats I made above. It’s not going to replace my usual way of making tomato sauce however.
Try it at home
You can find a link to the recipe here. Converting it for a European audience I would use 2 cans of tomatoes (800g total) and 75g unsalted butter.