I am more than a little amazed we actually accomplished this. What started as an impulsive suggestion has turned into one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Marcella Hazan is one of my few culinary heros. I have two copies of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. A stained and dog-eared one I've been using for years, and one I bought new when we began the project so I could send it to her for an autograph.
When the suggestion was made that we cook our way through Essentials, my immediate reaction was horror. Horror at the idea that we would be compared to a certain self-absorbed basket case who made a name for herself by stumbling through another well known cookbook.
I'm so grateful to my partners in this project. They all agreed that If we were going to do this thing, we wanted it to be about the process, not about our own personal dramas. We wanted this challenge to be an educational experience.
Most of all, we just wanted to remind as many people as we could that before there was a Food Network creating instant celebrities; before there were classically trained chefs building signature restaurants in Las Vegas; before cooking became a sport -- there was a woman who married a man who loved food. A woman who did the best she could to bring the cooking of her home country to a strange city in order to feed her husband well. And as it turned out, a woman who ended up teaching America what real and authentic Italian cooking was supposed to be. Marcella may have been knighted in Italy, but she is America's national treasure.
We set only two rules because we knew we weren't good at following them. Those two simple rules proved to be what pulled us out of our comfort zones and by doing so shaped the character of our blog.
Rule Number One: We were to follow the recipes exactly. No changes of any kind. That deceptively simple rule caused mighty consternation for a bunch of self-described "acomplished home cooks". We each trusted our own tastes and were all quite comfortable tinkering with recipes. But by following that rule, we learned a lesson about the art in cooking. It is just as much about what you don't put in a dish as what you do.
Michelanglo's David is a masterpiece - not because of the stone you see, but because of the stone you don't see. His talent was in knowing what to remove.
If Marcella tells me to peel a bell pepper before cooking, its because her talent is knowing the skin couldn't be part of the masterpiece.
Rule Number Two: - we would take the recipes in order - forced every one of us out of our comfort zones. Of the 62 recipes I was responsible for, only a handful were regular favorites I had cooked before. Some of them intimidated me. Some of them just didn't appeal. But not having a choice was very liberating.
I passed up the Risotto with Celery page in the book for years. When it ended up on my list I turned up my nose. The idea of making plain old celery the star of a risotto dish just sounded ridiculous to me. It appears my attitude was what was ridiculous. I've made it repeatedly since I was forced to on July 27th.
Another dish that I would have never cooked had it not been assigned was Frittata with Pasta. I seriously wondered if Marcella had thrown that recipe into the book to see if anyone was paying attention. But now? Well, if there was a picture in the dictionary next to the term "comfort food", it would be this!
When I discovered I had not one but three squid recipes, I considered trying to renegotiate the rule. I hated squid. In my experience, squid was deep fried, greasy rubber bands that tasted of stale oil. I made my first squid recipe, a soup with artichokes. It was tender and delicious. Next came Halibut over Squid Sauce. Quite nice. And then, one of my favorite recipes of the entire 62 weeks. Squid with Porcini Mushrooms Stuffing. This dish is now one of my food daydreams.
As it turns out, we did have to break the no switching rule. But we did it because Doug found he absolutely could not locate a key ingredient where he lived. So he and I traded back-to-back recipes and I ended up on a wonderful quest to find fresh caul for Grilled Pork Liver Wrapped in Caul.
But what was my favorite dish out of the entire 62? How could I even choose? As I sat here writing it turned out to be an easy choice. It was Red and Yellow Bell Pepper Sauce with Sausages , the dish that combined the adventure of making something that seemed impossible happen with the chance to give back to Marcella and Victor. It was the dish that sent me all over The Hill neighborhood looking for something that didn't exist until I insisted - sweet Italian pork sausage with only salt and pepper.
What do I consider to be the highlight of the last 62 weeks? That's an easy one. Dan and I had the great pleasure of meeting Marcella and Victor last January when we were graciously invited to there home for dinner. What an honor sharing a table with Victor & Marcella; enjoying a meal prepared by her hands. It was something I could never have dreamed when we began this delightful journey.
Another unexpected, yet cherished result of this project is Marcella's wonderful husband and writing partner, Victor Hazan. His old world gallantry and witty writing make it a delight to open my email and find a new note, sharing a link to yet another wonderful online source for some delicacy. They are a perfect team.
Thank you, Marcella and Victor. Thank you for allowing us to intrude on your lives for 62 weeks. Thank you for generously embracing our project. We will be forever in your debt.