Where Flavour Starts
Having just gotten my hot little hands on a copy of Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking from my local library, I’ve found myself thrilled from page one with the information contained within. The first nugget of information that I gathered that is worth sharing is that this book is a combination of two earlier books Hazan published including The Classic Italian Cookbook which is the feature book for this month.
The second gem that has stood out for me is Hazan’s explanation of the fundamentals of Italian Cooking and in particular the structure from which Italian food is built. I think I’d been taught these basics from my Mum when I first started cooking but reading about them clarified my understanding of them and I thought it was worth sharing with you all.
” Flavour, in Italian dishes, builds up from the bottom…a foundation of flavour supports, lifts, and points up the principle ingredients.”
The structure of this foundation is simple and fundamental to the flavour that you create in most savoury Italian foods that you make.
This first step is to describe the finely cut mixture of ingredients that is produced by “striking” them on a cutting board with a chopping knife. The three key ingredients of the Battuto is parsley, onion and lard. Occasionally garlic, celery or carrot may be included. These days lard has been replaced with butter or olive oil although the principle still remains the same. This trio is the base of most soups, risotto, pasta sauces, vegetable and meat dishes.
So once you have struck this magical trio against your chopping board what happens next? Soffritto is the magical step of slow cooking your onion over a low-medium heat in the lard/oil or butter until the onion is translucent and turns a pale gold colour. It is almost always recommended that you cook your onion before adding the garlic. The garlic cooks quicker and when it browns it will start to turn bitter which will leave a bad taste in your mouth with the final dish. It is best to add the garlic as the onion is turning clear so that it will be ready at the same time as your onion. Finally you add your parsley before then adding the remaining ingredients. If you will be using pancetta as part of the recipe then it may be cooked at the time of the onion to reduce the amount of fat that is required in the recipe.
” An imperfectly executed soffritto will impair the flavour of a dish no matter how carefully all the succeeding steps are carried out. “
This step is for “bestowing taste”. At this point if you were making a pasta sauce or risotto you would add your vegetables or meat. At this stage you turn the heat up and briskly cook your ingredients together to coast the vegetables or meat with the beautifully cooked onion flavours. From there the dish has its foundation and can be completed as is intended. I do add my parsley at the end to give the dish a fresh lift to your palate.
It is only when I read this description that I identified, as was pointed out by Hazan, just how many of the Italian recipes that I create are started with these simple three steps. In fact I cook so many of my dishes using this method purely based on experience when it is perhaps not the originally intended process for the recipe. If I learn nothing else about Italian cooking then I think this is the essential steps to know and a great foundation to share with anyone just learning to cook.
Happy Cooking and Happy Reading,
* all information sourced from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan.
*photographs are my own unless otherwise noted.