Ciao'd while watching the Golden Globes. And the rain.
I never had the pleasure-slash-privilege of meeting Marcella Hazan, yet I can attest to her companionship in my kitchen for 25-plus years. I came upon her first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook, when I was living in Spain, of all places, and interning at an Italian restaurant, of all places. I spent a lot of time at Alambique in Madrid, the cooking school and cookware store owned by my friend, Clara Maria Amezua de Llamas. One day I was helping unpack a shipment of books, and the cookbook revealed itself in all its Italian glory. And it was written in English!
Having grown up in an Italian family, I was well aware that Italian cooking rose above the red sauce and canned Parmesan impressions that much of America harbored during my childhood. I was, however, held culinary hostage in Puglia, my family’s ancestral home. Marcella redefined Italian cooking as a cuisine of regions rather than a country. From the mild and pleasant Ligurian coast where “ flowers abound, the olive begins to flourish, and the fragrance of fresh herbs invades nearly every dish” to hot and dry Naples where “the colors of the vegetables are intense and violent, the pastas are so pungent that they often need no topping of cheese,” The Classic Italian Cookbook lauded Italy as a sum of its #dolcevitadelish parts.
Marcella not only hoisted the spoon (and fork and knife) in honor of Italian cooking but she celebrated its essence, too: Quality ingredients + simple preparation = brilliance. That formula is easier said than dunked but with Marcella at your elbow, the layup is easier. Her straightforward, clear recipes and spot-on tips, observations, and advice make Italian cooking, well, easy. She was, and eternally will be, a gifted teacher.
I’ve always been attracted to friendships with women who are feisty, outspoken and opinionated. Marcella did not disappoint. When I watched her on television, her deep, raspy voice made the cat jump. She did not suffer fools gladly. Patience was not her virtue. She reminded me of my aunts. Like Marcella, they smoked, enjoyed a nip here and there, and if they ruled a question stupid (they were usually right), they flicked a finger at your head or rapped your hand with a spoon.
When I have a question about or a craving for a specific Italian dish, I go to Marcella. When I want to be inspired, I turn to Marcella. Were I to share a shot of whiskey with someone, it would be Marcella. And so it’s #marcellamonday on my Ciao Donata blog.
Let’s begin with fish. The sea presents a daunting conundrum for many cooks. Whether it’s fear of (over)cooking or the “aroma” it can leave behind, fish is more often left to the domain of restaurant chefs than prepared at home. But, no! With Marcella, you can cook your fish and eat it deliciously, too.
This recipe for Fillet of Sole with Piquant Tomato Sauce from The Classic Italian Cookbook begins with an opinion (natch). " I am not very fond of American sole, and the reason is that it isn't really sole, it's flounder." Marcella goes on to malign the taste and texture of "our" sole, yet she comes through with a recipe that features a tangy tomato sauce with capers and, "if you are partial to sole, you'll find it works quite well." And it does. Natch.
FILLET OF SOLE WITH PIQUANT TOMATO SAUCE
Marcella insists upon Adriatic grey sole for this recipe but, unfortunately, it's not available to us in the US. Though Marcella would harumph, I used Dover sole and the result was #dolcevitadelish. This is a simple, straightforward recipe that delivers a spectacular result.
2/3 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons very tiny capers, or larger capers, roughly chopped
1 cup canned Italian tomatoes, cut up, with their juice
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper, about 6 twists of the mill
2 pounds fresh sole fillets
Put the sliced onion in a skillet with the olive oil and cook over medium heat until soft and pale gold in color. Add the garlic, and when it has colored lightly add the oregano and capers, stirring once or twice. Add the cut-up tomatoes and their juice, salt, and pepper. Stir well and cook at a steady simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the tomatoes and the oil separate.
Preheat the oven to 450F.
Rinse the fish fillets in cold water and blot dry. The fillets are going to be arranged in a single layer in a baking dish, folded over end to end and slightly overlapping. Choose a bake-and-serve dish just large enough for the job, and smear the bottom with about a tablespoon of the tomato sauce. Dip each fillet on both sides in the sauce in the skillet, then fold it and arrange it in the baking dish as directed above. Pour the remaining sauce over the fillets, and place the dish in the uppermost level of the oven. Cook for no more than 5 to 8 minutes, depending upon the thickness of the fillets. (Don't overcook, or the fish will become dry.)
When you remove the dish from the oven you may find that the fish has thrown off liquid, thinning out the sauce. If this happens, tilt the dish and spoon all the sauce and liquid into a small pan. Boil it rapidly until it is sufficiently concentrated, then pour it back over the fish. Serve immediately.
This recipe has been reproduced in its entirety from Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook. "Adapting" it would not do it justice. You can find The Classic Italian Cookbook and other cookbooks by Marcella Hazan here.