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Video: Teaching classic Italian cooking

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updated 10/7/2008 11:08:53 AM ET 2008-10-07T15:08:53

Marcella Hazan has spread her expertise in Italian cooking around the globe. She has received virtually every possible culinary award and has taught classes everywhere from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Cipriani in Venice to Hong Kong's top hotel. In her memoir, "Amarcord," which means "I remember," Hazan shares the story of how she went from being a science teacher in Italy to bringing the art of Italian cooking to America. An excerpt.

A funny thing happened: 1973-1975
In the fall of the year my book was published, I was invited to do a demonstration on the Joyce Brothers television show. The producer looked through the cookbook and chose a recipe for striped bass stuffed with several kinds of shellfish and baked sealed in foil. I had five minutes in which to bone the fish; stuff it with clams, mussels, oysters, and shrimp; wrap it in foil; remove from the oven a similar fish previously prepared and already cooked; unwrap it and slice it, all the while chatting with Dr. Brothers, who was expected to drop in a plug for my book. Just to bone the fish would have taken me twenty minutes, so I boned it at home; then I put the bone back in its place and closed the fish over it. When I was on camera I opened up the fish, I went through the motions of running a knife under the bone, and presto! Off came the whole bone in just seconds.

There was another guest cooking, Enzo Stuarti, a Mario Lanza–style tenor who was going to cook spaghetti. The precooked spaghetti was in a pot of still-boiling water. The pot had a perforated insert for draining cooked pasta, a metal basket that Stuarti lifted and carried past me with scalding water still dripping from it. He let it drip all over my feet. It was my first time on television, but it became the last time that I allowed a producer to choose what I was to demonstrate, and the last time I shared a cooking segment with anyone else.

Like others who have been nurtured by the settled life of a small town, I have never felt a strong urge to expand my habitat. I am not a self-promoter, but New York is a bellows that can fan great flames from small sparks. In the year that my cookbook was published, I was invited to dinners and parties, and in a few months, I had met nearly everyone in, or at the margins of, the city’s food world. I immediately felt strong empathy for and from James Beard. I was startled at first by the open-air shower that he had in the back of his house on West Twelfth Street, but I soon understood that it wasn’t crude exhibitionism; it was a manifestation of his natural candor, of his aversion to cover-ups. I was amazed by what he knew and remembered. He was my living encyclopedia: Whenever I had a question, he had the answer. He had a sonorous voice that he used as a foil for the mischief in his eyes. His laugh was magnificent, rising from deep within his capacious belly. An example of it still rings in my memory’s ears. Sometime after we had become friends, we were both giving cooking classes in Italy, Jim at the Gritti Palace in Venice and I at my school in Bologna. Jim was always collecting recipes for a syndicated column that he wrote. He phoned me in Bologna to ask a question about an ingredient.

“Marcella!” said the booming voice. “I came across a recipe in an Italian magazine that I would like to use, it’s for shrimp with a beautiful pink sauce, and it sounds delicious, but it’s driving me nuts.”

“What’s the problem?”

“There is a mysterious ingredient in it that has to be essential to the pink sauce because nothing else in the list has that color. I have looked it up everywhere, but there is no description of it in any of the sources. I hope you can help me out.”

“I hope so too. What is it?”

“Rubra.”

“Oh, sure, Jim, it’s ketchup.”

“Ketchup?”

“That’s right. Rubra is the best-known Italian brand of ketchup.”

Ho, ho, ho, the big laugh came rolling over the phone line, over and over, such a happy laugh, as though he had just heard the funniest joke in the world.

Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi, both Hungarians and both executives at Restaurant Associates, became the new operators of the Four Seasons and the Forum of the Twelve Caesars restaurants when their company divested itself of those two properties. Paul was very Old World, wearing well-tailored conservative three-piece suits, the vest, crossed by a gold watch chain, resting on a prosperous paunch. He spoke English with a suave accent and had an air of great connoisseurship, looking both paternal and shrewd. When he found out that I came from Cesenatico, he said, “I know it well. When I was young I played on a professional Italian soccer team, and we trained near there.” He was the only person I had met in New York who had heard of and been in my hometown. Tom was jet-settish, fashionable, and briskly entrepreneurial. Both became generous friends, but I got to see more of Tom, perhaps because he was more likely to be away from the restaurant than Paul.

Tom had dinner with us at home and loved what I cooked. He offered to give my cookbook a boost by hosting a fortnight at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars restaurant based on my recipes. For $25, one could have an antipasto, a first course, a second course, salad, and dessert, choosing from a menu of nineteen dishes. One of the two fish dishes offered was the stuffed striped bass I had demonstrated on television. Three Italian wines were included. The event was to run from November 11 through November 23, but it was so successful that they held it over until December 7.

I was there every evening to talk to guests. One evening Tom told me to expect Danny Kaye, who was coming with his daughter Dena. Danny left me no opportunity to talk to anyone else that evening. I learned that cooking was one of his great loves. He had others, of course, including piloting airplanes and dabbling in a variety of medical subjects, but he was obviously an extremely well-informed and deeply committed cook. I discovered too that, aside from Italian cooking, we had another culinary passion in common, Chinese food. Danny described the special Chinese kitchen he had built in his Beverly Hills house. He had gas burners with several concentric rings able to reach such high temperatures that, to make getting close to them tolerable, he had had to install a steel trough in front of the stove with a stream of ice water circulating through it. “Do you know how the Chinese make chicken lollipops?” he asked me. “Come into the kitchen and I’ll show you.” If you are Danny Kaye, you can walk into a restaurant’s busy kitchen unannounced and ask someone to give you a chicken thigh and a knife. He loosened the skin at the knob end of the bone, scraped the flesh upward to leave the bone clean, and turned the skin inside out over the thick part of the drumstick. “There! You now have a chicken lollipop ready for frying. Let me know if you come to California,” Danny said. “I’ll make you a Chinese dinner.”

As it happened, I had already accepted an invitation to teach in the Napa Valley wine country in the spring of the following year. The courses were organized by Michael James, a long-haired, delicate-looking young man with a thin mustache, and his friend and associate, Billy Cross. Michael had been a student of Julia Child’s old partner, Simone Beck, known to all as Simca. Simca was to launch the event, followed by Jacques Pépin, and I was to conclude it with a three-week stint.

The venue for the courses was a Victorian villa, but my accommodations were in an adjacent cottage. Students could sign up for a two-day or three-day course or for a full week. Evenings were free. I was puzzled to find that Michael and Billy, who did all the marketing, would come back with quantities of ingredients much greater than I had requested. “Why so much food?” I asked Michael. “There is going to be a lot left over.” “Don’t worry about it, Marcella; we don’t want the students to think we are skimping.” I was not too happy about it because I hate leftovers and try to avoid them. I have never had a microwave in my kitchens. Few are the dishes that taste as good reheated as they do when freshly cooked. Cold or warmed-over pasta, for example, is unspeakable. On our first Saturday evening, Michael asked me to join them for dinner in the villa. When I walked in, I discovered the reason for the large quantities of food I had cooked. All the dishes from my classes had been resuscitated, and friends of Michael and Billy were feasting on them. The room was filled with young men and votive candles, and I felt extremely uncomfortable. As soon as I could, I grabbed a piece of bread and some cheese and fled to my room.

One of our students was Dagmar Sullivan, whose grandfather, Georges de Latour, had founded Beaulieu Vineyard. On Monday morning, she asked me how I had spent the weekend. “In my room,” I said. “What a pity,” she said. “We have to do something about that.” She alerted everyone in the Valley, and from that moment, I was never alone for dinner in the evening. No one is more hospitable than wine people, and I enjoyed the company, the food, and the wines at table with the Heitzes, the Jaegers, the Mondavis, with Dagmar and her amusing husband,Walter, of course, and with many others whose names have now slipped away beyond recall.

Another of my students at the villa was a tall, blond, robust cooking teacher from San Francisco, Loni Kuhn. Soon after, when I opened a cooking school in Bologna, Loni was one of the first to attend. She invited me to come to San Francisco in the winter to give classes at her school, which I did for many years. I became then as much at home in San Francisco as I was in New York. For the entire time that I was there, Jim Nassikas, the general manager of the Stanford Court hotel, generously made available the suite that was always reserved for James Beard when he came to town. Nassikas used to joke that he carried cigarette butts in his pocket that he distributed in odd corners of the hallways to see how long it would take the staff to sweep them away. It was only a slight exaggeration, and I can’t even be sure that it wasn’t true. I have never known a more immaculate hotel than the Stanford Court of those early Jim Nassikas years. Jim liked to cook, but I was never able to persuade him that you can’t make a true risotto unless you stir it. Video: Teaching classic Italian cooking (on this page)

Victor and I made a great many friends in California, and one of those whose company I most enjoyed was Jeremiah Tower. He had charm, good looks, and the poise of a gentleman. He was no longer cooking at Chez Panisse, but he used to take us for lunch to the café upstairs, driving us there in a marvelous car whose interior glowed with more polished wood than I had ever seen inside an automobile. We talked a lot about cooking, of course, and although the places we had come from, Australia and Italy, were so distant from each other, our feelings about food had the same origin. We had a kindred devotion to taste, taste free of affectation, taste that was clear, bold, and simple, taste that wanted only to be good. The meals that Jeremiah cooked for us at the places he subsequently opened, the Santa Fe Café and Stars, were the most delectable seafood feasts I have ever had in America, comparable with the best that I have ever had in Italy or in Asia. He eventually left San Francisco; he was in Hong Kong for a while, and in New York, but after the publication of his idol-smashing memoir in 2003, I lost his tracks. Sometimes in my daydreams, Jeremiah and I are as young as we were then, and I am still licking my fingers over his crab, lobster, and shrimp.

I had finished my third week of teaching for Michael at the Napa Valley villa, and I was packing to leave for New York, looking forward to being with Victor again, when I got a telephone call. It was Danny Kaye. “I am in Seattle. Tonight I am conducting the Seattle Symphony; tomorrow morning early I am returning to Los Angeles.” He then gave me the number and time of a flight that I was to take from San Francisco to Los Angeles. “You will land not too long after me,” he said. “I’ll wait for you at the gate, we’ll go marketing, and in the evening I’ll make dinner.” “But Danny, I already have a ticket for New York and Victor is expecting me.” I don’t think he even heard. “Look for me at the gate,” he said. “I’ll be there waiting.” And he hung up. When I called Victor, he said, “You don’t want to stand him up. Go, you’ll have a good time.”

As I came off the plane, I had no trouble spotting Danny under his soft-brimmed hat with an outsize crocodile logo. He drove us home, where I was given just enough time to put my bag down and use the bathroom. Before heading for the farmer’s market, he leafed through the book of menus he had served. “To jog my memory,” he said. When we returned, he showed me his kitchens, one for Western cooking, one for Chinese. The stove of the latter was as he had described when we had talked in New York; when the burners were at their maximum setting, the gas came on like a blast from a jet engine.

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Of the people at table, I remember Danny’s wife, Sylvia Fine, a funny lady; the actor Roddy McDowall; and Olive Behrendt, a patron of the Los Angeles Symphony. I would see a lot of Olive in later years in Venice. She had passed the city’s tough skipper’s exam and piloted her own motorboat through the baffling shallows of the lagoon. A heart attack eventually landed her in Venice’s hospital, where she died alone and neglected in a common ward. There were others, but I have forgotten who they were and there is no one left alive from that evening whom I could ask.

Danny never came to the table. He cooked a dish that his Chinese assistant served to us, and while we were eating, he sat in a pantry pulling hard on his pipe. When the assistant told him we had finished, he prepared another dish, and again he retired, through to the end of dinner. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask him when and what he ate, but Danny didn’t respond gently to interrogation. My memories of food are some of my sharpest, and they go back to the earliest moments of my conscious life, yet while I recall being happy at Danny’s dinner, I don’t remember a single dish I had. It had been a long, restless, and anomalous day whose happenings, at its end, had become hazy.

My greatest concern, whenever I wake up in the morning away from home, is where and how soon I am going to get a cup of coffee. I had been lodged in Dena’s room upstairs, and when I came out of my sleep early that morning, I wrapped a robe around me and I tiptoed quietly downstairs, headed for the kitchen. Danny was already there, blowing huge clouds of smoke from his pipe. “It’s about time you came down,” he said. “We have got a lot to do. We are going to make pasta and fegato alla veneziana” (sautéed liver and onions Venetian style). We cooked and finished lunch barely in time for me to make the flight to New York.

The next time I heard from Danny, I was teaching a class in my apartment. One of the students was Pamela Fiori, today the editor in chief of Town & Country magazine. She was then on the staff of Travel & Leisure magazine, for which she was taping the lesson.

“What are you doing?” said Danny on the phone.

“I am teaching.”

“What are you teaching?”

“I am making pasta, a roast of veal, sautéed vegetables, and marinated oranges.”

“What kind of sauce do you have on the pasta?”

I told him.

“How do you make the veal?”

“Where are you, Danny?” I asked.

“In New York.”

“Look, I am in class now and I can’t talk. If you really want to know what I am cooking, come over.”

His apartment, at the Sherry-Netherland, was not too far from ours, and in a few minutes, he was at my door. I had never had him in a class, and I was concerned that he might distract us with his routines. I shouldn’t have worried. He was quiet, attentive, and helpful. But he did get an opportunity to do an unscripted number. I was demonstrating the Italian method of cooking a roast on top of the stove. There were six students crowding around me in the kitchen, plus Danny, plus my corpulent new assistant, Maria. The wall telephone rang. He asked if he could answer it for me. “Yes, please,” I said. Pamela kept her tape recorder running and the following is a transcript of Danny’s side of that phone conversation:

Allo? Eh? Yah, mah, whosa callin?

Wha, whazza your name?

Misses Horowis? En you lika to talk to Misses Hazan?

You wanta ask a question about the cookoobook?

Ehh, today sheeza very busy now, yah, if you aska me I will be able to tell you.

Oh, in da recipe where you hava da meat sauce bolognes?

You mada da sauce?

Izza too salty?

Well, in dat case you want me to tell you what to do?

Why it waza too salty?

Eh, you puta two teaspoon of salt?

Ahah! Ehh, three-quarters pounda meat en two teaspoon salt is too mucha salt? Oh my!

I tell you whacha do, Misses Horowis. You hava ... you hava kosher salt?

Izza da big salt ... you hava dat?

Video: Teaching classic Italian cooking (on this page)

Now da next time you maka dis dish you taka four teaspoons of salt. Four! Put three teaspoons in a cuppa water and put it in de iceabox. Use half a teaspoona salt in de, in de sauce, en, iffa not too salty, putta little more salt, if not throw da water with da salt into da sink en den it will not be too salty.

Two teaspoona regular salt. I think datsa mistake. Yes. No, no in da book, izza mistake of da salt you are using. You’re using too salty salt. There are different kinds of salt, you know. You can buy salty salt and not-so-salty salt.

Iffa you go to the place and you aska, “Mister, I lika to hava some salt, but not too salty,” en den dey give dis, en den you can use two teaspoons.

It came outa nice? Ehh, you see Misses Horowis, yourra smart lady. Whatsa nice Jewish lady makin wit Italian food?

Aha! You see, mah, you not using da right salt! Kosher salt, dat izza da one, izza not too salty. Ma, if you usa no kosher salt, if you usa just kinda salt [mumbles] ... aha, aha?

It say in da recipe two teaspoons of salt? Eh, heh ... Misses Horowis, I lika to ask you a question, when you cook, you taste? Mah, when you taste, you finda izza too salty, and no usa so much!

Yeh, datsa right, you put a potato in de thing, if izza too salty, when it finishes throw outa da sauce an eata da potato.

Eheh ... eheh ... eheh ... eheh ... ahah ... ahah ... izza nice. I will teller becoz she willa be very happy to know dat you maka da sauce now.

All right. Bye bye, en tank you.

I laughed along with the others while wondering if it was my accent that Danny was mimicking. “Is that how I sound to others?” I thought. It is true that sometimes people misunderstood me, but I am not sure the fault was always mine. I was teaching a dessert, and when I asked a student to separate two eggs that had been put on the table, she just moved them apart. “Is it me or is it her?” I asked myself. “Isn’t ‘separate’ the correct word?” When your grip on a language is uncertain, it is easy to think that you are the one who has slipped.

I had a call one morning from a woman at Giuliano’s school who said she was organizing an event for parents and children.

“There is going to be a buffet,” she said, “and I was hoping that you could contribute a dish.”

“Certainly,” I said.

“Could you bring some Swedish meatballs?”

“Oh, I don’t know what they are.”

“Can you make a tuna casserole?”

“I am afraid not.”

“How about a chicken casserole?”

“I don’t even know what you mean by ‘casserole.’?”

“Well, all right,” she said, sounding somewhat cross. “Can you contribute a dozen bottles of Coke?”

“Certainly.”

“Can you bring them next Thursday evening?”

“I’ll have to send them with someone, because on Thursday evening I have a cooking class.”

“Of course, I understand. I hope you are making progress.”

On another occasion, I was giving a demonstration class at Boston University with a small tasting. The tasting portions were small, but the audience was large. I had a lot of cooking to do and a lot of prepping. It was my custom, in such circumstances, to cook everything in full view of the audience, but to complete all but a small part of the prepping backstage in advance, keeping the lesson within reasonable time limits. That evening in Boston I was doing a fish stew with squid, and I had earlier held back just enough squid to use for the prepping demonstration. I had put it away in the refrigerator in a steel bowl filled with cold water. As I was getting ready to start, one of the assistants asked me whether she was to leave the squid in the refrigerator. “No,” I said. “Keep it outside.” When the moment came to show how to prep squid, I asked the assistant to bring me the bowl. I was surprised to see her leave the auditorium, but she returned quickly.

“It’s gone!” she cried.

“What’s gone?” I asked.

“The squid. I put it where you told me, and it’s gone, it’s not there anymore.”

“Where did you put it?”

“Where you told me, outside.”

“Where outside?”

“In the parking lot.”

It didn’t seem possible. “In the parking lot? Why the parking lot?”

“Well, Marcella, you said outside, and ‘outside’ means outside of the building, which is where the parking lot is.”

Victor and I hardly ever speak anything but Italian to each other. Somehow, one day, when we were discussing what I was going to teach the next day, I slipped into the language of the lesson, and I said at one point, “I am going to show them how to screw the shrimp.”

“Say that again,” Victor said.

I repeated the words.

“And you have been saying it all this time?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“And no one has ever made a comment?”

“No, why, what’s wrong with it?”

I never tried to use the word “skewer” again. I showed students how to make a brochette of shrimp.

The classes had begun to attract an ever more interesting group of students. A few were professionals, sometimes even too professional. Gael Greene arrived to take a pasta class equipped with a formidable array of knives. “You don’t need knives for pasta, Gael,” I said. “You need good hands and a rolling pin.” Men began to come to the classes. Jamie Niven, Ronald Lauder, Michael Thomas were among the ones I remember. Ronald was the most carefully dressed man I have ever had in class, or that I have ever known, perhaps. He was often going to or coming from a formal event, and then he would come in his dinner jacket. In one class, I had both James Beard and Joel Grey, colossal Jim and doll-like Joel, working side by side. Italian cooking was catching on with a rush, but the markets that were essential to it were missing still. Every time I started a lesson I would think, “If only I could have gone with the students to a real Italian market this morning, if only they could see what our vegetables are like, our fish, our tiny lambs; if only we had quality olive oil to cook with, and eggs with sunset-red yolks for our pasta.” The only way to do it would have been to take the class to Italy. And then, it seemed so obvious: Of course, I must take the class to Italy. I discussed it with Victor. He was always ready to consider any plan that would involve going to Italy. He said, “Yes, yes, yes! Go to Italy, go this summer, and see how it can be done.”

Excerpted from "Amarcord." Copyright (c) 2008 by Marcella Hazan. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Group.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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