Too much has been written about achieving balance and finding happiness and managing work life and home life with ease. Most of it is next to useless. My personal hero in the happy-balance sweepstakes hasn’t run a corporation or a university. She never acted or blogged or launched a movement.
She wrote a cookbook.
Actually, Marcella Hazan, the Italian-born homemaker-turned-cooking-teacher who died this week at 89, wrote several cookbooks. I only own one of them: “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” first published in 1973, and given to me as a wedding present in 1999. At the time, I wasn’t much of a cook, but I tried. I found complicated “lite” recipes in magazines and spent a small fortune on supermarket spices. I made various semisuccessful attempts at glazing and braising, and I once made a flan that looked like SpongeBob.
Then I opened Marcella’s book — in our home, she is “Marcella,” like “Cher” — and discovered her recipe for tomato sauce. Take two cups of Italian canned tomatoes; an onion, peeled and cut in half; five tablespoons of butter (“lite,” this ain’t); and salt, in no specified amount. Put everything in the pot, set it to a slow simmer, and go about your business for the next 45 minutes.
I haven’t bought a jar of ready-made tomato sauce since. And I’ve used the book so much that it’s covered with oil stains and water marks and tiny bits of crust, and the pages have detached completely from the spine.
Marcella wasn’t a gimmicky guru, preaching some kind of simple-cooking master plan. Her mission was to teach the techniques of Italian cuisine, staying relentlessly faithful to regional methods and classic ingredients. As such, her book has plenty of complicated dishes, and her recipes — translated from Italian by her husband, Victor — read a little like admonishments. (“Pesto,” she wrote, “may have become more popular than is good for it.”) She is quite firm about how to prepare broccoli stalks and eggplant before cooking. Her Bolognese sauce is a multistep labor of love that involves a slow simmer of milk and the grating of whole nutmeg.
These are all worthwhile weekend pursuits. But what makes my weeknights work are her tomato sauce, her “aio e oio” Roman garlic and oil sauce, and her blissfully simple roast chicken with two lemons: Pierce the lemons with a fork, put them in the cavity, rub salt and pepper on the chicken, and put it in the oven.
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary this still feels in our era of foodie overload, when grocery shopping feels like triathlon training and the TV is clogged with cooking shows that preach complexity and competition. My soul hurt a little after I watched an episode of the Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen,” in which chefs pay, auction-style, to sabotage their fellow chefs, by forcing them to cook with kiddie tools or while wearing huge rubber dishwashing gloves. Via Fox’s “MasterChef Junior,” I learned that there exists a 13-year-old who can make pistachio macaroons with a vanilla bean dulce de leche filling, a fact that may or may not be good for the nation.
There is good to come from cooking shows, it’s true. One Saturday morning, my 9-year-old watched an episode of “Chopped,” a Food Network show that forces chefs to get creative with odd ingredients. Then she proceeded directly to the kitchen to make scrambled eggs.
On the other hand, something feels a little decadent and wrong about TV’s parade of lush ingredients — and about the way the kitchen has become another place for trash talk and one-upmanship, another venue for a pressure-filled race against time.
This was not Marcella’s way, or her legacy. Her dishes take the time they need. Her goal, she once said, was to bring families together over the dinner table.
And her recipes prove what it takes to cook good food at the end of the long, hard day: not the skill of Julia Child, the patience of Buddha, a pantry stocked with Whole Foods condiments, or an industrial-grade six-burner stove. Just a few basic ingredients, a sharp knife, and a good book.