The First Time I Met Marcella

September 30, 2013

All the obituaries seem to mention how prickly and uncompromising Marcella Hazan could be – and I later learned how true that was – but the first time I met her she was incredibly kind.

It was 1998, and I’d just published my first memoir, Tender at the Bone.  We’d both been invited to participate in a large cookbook signing event, and we’d been set up at the same table. Beneath the table was one carton of my book, and dozens of hers. My box remained full while hers quickly ran out. But still her fans arrived, carrying armloads of sauce-stained books, eager to see her, touch her, just bask in her presence.

Who could blame them?  This was a woman who was as important to American cooks as Julia Child, offering us an alternative to the red sauce Italian food we’d come to consider authentic.  Marcella’s food was superbly spare and completely delicious; it you followed her recipes you ended up with food that was truly Italian. And unlike Julia’s often complicated recipes, Marcella’s are simple to make and unfailingly reliable. To this day if I could have only one cookbook for the rest of my life, it would be one of hers.

But back then, sitting miserably at that table, engulfed by Marcella fans I could only think how humiliating the situation was. Engrossed in signing and talking, Marcella didn’t notice that I had no line;  hers stretched out the door. Then she looked up, and a frown crossed her face. “Go buy her book,” she ordered the woman standing in front of her. Marcella could be imperious. 

Marcella’s fans were loath to disobey her, and by the end of the evening I’d sold all my books. When the last one was gone Marcella rose and put on her coat. “You’ll see,” she said kindly, patting my arm in a farewell gesture, “it will get better.”

I think about that every time I make her famous tomato sauce. It’s the epitome of Marcella: three ingredients, 45 minutes, and a recipe for total happiness. Nothing smells better as it cooks, and no food is more comforting.

Thank you Marcella, for everything. 


Things I Love

September 27, 2013

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Have any idea what this is?

It's a faffer.  At least that's what Richard Bertinet calls this indispensable tool. Longer and narrower than a wooden spatula, it started life as a crepe spatula. But in my house it stirs the pasta when it's deep in the pot, tosses the spinach, flips the pancakes in a pinch. I lke the way it feels in my hand, and I find myself reaching for it almost every time I cook. 

I got mine in France, and they're not easy to find on this side of the Atlantic.  But here's one source.



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Today’s Surprising Find

September 26, 2013

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The last thing I expected to find in a Columbia County market was fresh local ginger. But there it was, sitting in the produce section, demanding that I take it home.
What will I do with it?  
Everybody around me seems to be getting colds, so I'll make a tisane by chopping the ginger, and steeping it in boiling water for twenty minutes. Strained and sweetened with a bit of brown sugar, it is said to make an extremely potent cure for the common cold.  It's also soothing to sore stomachs, warming when you're feeling chilly – and extrmely delicious. 
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One Amazing Thing

September 24, 2013

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This is Amazonian vanilla, which Alex Atala brought to yesterday's conference on "Seeds: Cultivating the Future of Flavor."

The conference, at Stone Barns, brought together many of the world's greatest chefs and was astonishingly instructive. As soon as I've had a moment to go through all my notes, I'll post about it.  

But here's a small taste. Alex Atala brought these extraordinary vanilla pods along, as an example of the sort of diversity found in Brazil. I put the peach there for a size comparison; they're the most enormous pods I've ever seen. The fragrance was intense – a bit of cinnamon, a bit floral, very vanilla – and I think every chef in the room wished he could get his hands on some.


Forty Hours in Manhattan

September 19, 2013

Where should Cayla eat on her 40th birthday?  She has 40 hours in New York.  Here’s my answer.

Start with breakfast at Buvette in Greenwich Village, a tiny shoebox of a place that serves very satisfying bistro food. As the day wears on the cozy room becomes very crowded, with people piling in for the fine food and great wine. But I love it best in the morning, when it’s truly a neighborhood place.

Afterward, wander over to the Lower East Side and stop in at Russ and Daughters for the city’s finest smoked salmon and fantastic bagels. Turn right as you leave and go down the street to Katz’s Delicatessen. Take a ticket and examine the generous display of meats; if you can resist a pastrami sandwich you’re a stronger person than I am. (Be sure to tip the carver and tell him you don’t like lean meat.)

Turn right again, as you’re leaving, and wander down Orchard street to Mission Chinese, for an entirely different way to experience pastrami. They turn it into a searingly hot version of a kung pao dish. (The salt cod fried rice will put the fire out.)  At dinner the line here often stretches to three hours, but lunchtime is a different story. 

If it were me I’d spend the next few hours at the Tenement Museum, restoring my appetite.  Or wandering around Little Italy, stopping in at Di Palo’s to buy a hunk of their impeccable Parmigiano. Then I’d go to Chinatown, stopping in for dumplings at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum purveyor in the city.

Dinner?  For me it would be Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria; I love their food. Some homemade salume to start, then a salad (somehow theirs always tastes better than anyone else’s), a plate of spaghetti cacio e pepe and finally the spectacularly rich rib eye.

The next day you might want to stay above 14th Street. If that’s the case, I’d suggest, breakfast at Maialino (porchetta and fried egg sandwich), then a wander through Eataly.  I’d stare at the gorgeous display of meat at the butcher, appreciate the produce, and perhaps have a tiny bite at Il Pesce, the wonderful fish bar. For lunch I’d opt for the prix fixe lunch at either Nougatine at Jean Georges or Del Posto; they’re the two best deals in New York. Fabulous food in fantastic settings – for under $40. Finally, I’d have a farewell drink at Michael Lomonaco’s Center Bar, look out at the view and toast the city. 

One more thing.  If you’re not a plan-ahead person: many of the best restaurants in New York offer no-reservations bar menus, which are the best way to get a taste of greatness at a reasonable price. The Salon at Per Se offers a wonderful a la carete menu, as does the bar at Eleven Madison Park. The new bar at Le Bernardin is also a no-reservations opportunity to experience truly superb food. For something less formal (and much less expensive), consider the bar at Gramercy Tavern; you can simply walk in and share a meal with someone you love in one of the most appealing rooms in Manhattan.