Catching up with Victor Hazan, dear husband of the late great cook
“Marcella didn’t have to study a subject. She didn’t have to master it. She knew. She would hear somebody describing a dish, she would pick up the names of two or three ingredients, she’d come home and make that dish, probably better than the one the person described. There was something about her, a genius for ingredients. It was not pedagogical — it was exhibiting mastery.”
I first met Marcella and Victor Hazan when — as a not yet established and relatively young food writer — I reached out to them because, at the time, there was no source for learning how to cook Italian food at home that came anywhere close to Marcella’s first two books.
(These two books were later combined into a kind of Marcella’s Greatest Hits, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is now being re-released for its 30th anniversary — and Kate and I interviewed Victor on this week’s episode of Food with Mark Bittman to celebrate that. More below.)
I was an unabashed fan of Marcella, and although there is now competition that really didn’t exist in English back 20 or 30 years ago, the book remains valuable — really valuable.
I cooked with Marcella in the ‘80s, again in the ‘90s — in Venice, no less — and, finally, at her home in Florida, just days before she died. In fact, as Victor told me, I was the last outsider — that is, non-family member — to cook with her.
That all said — and clearly, she was the star of the show — it was Victor with whom I bonded, and with whom I remain friends. Born about the same time as my father, Victor is not exactly a father figure to me, but he is an older man with whom I have a few important things in common, and whom I adore. I think you’ll see why in this week’s interview. He’s a star in his own right.
Please listen, subscribe, and review. The recipes featured in today’s episode encompass one of the lasagnas Victor references. It’s pesto with ricotta as well as pesto ricotta lasagna. We did not include the section on how to make dough by hand as the dough section 20 pages — and definitely worth reading and practicing (this is where we urge you to buy this book). It’s a project for sure, but one that’s worth it.
Thank you, as always. — Mark
Lasagne With Ricotta Pesto
For 6 servings
On the Italian Riviera they make a flat pasta that is much broader than the broadest noodles, but a little smaller than the classic lasagne of Bologna. Unlike Bolognese lasagne, it is only boiled rather than blanched and baked. In the Genoese dialect it is called piccagge which means napkin or dishcloth. Piccagge is almost invariably served with ricotta pesto, making it one of the lightest and freshest pasta dishes.
Homemade yellow pasta dough — see attached for the hand-rolled method, using 3 large eggs and approximately 1 2/3 cups unbleached flour.
Pesto with ricotta produced with the recipe attached
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese at the table.
1. Make yellow pasta dough either by hand (see page 134 in the book). Cut the dough into rectangular strips about 3 1/2 inches wide and 5 inches long. spread them out on a counter lined with clean, dry cloth towels.
2. Make the ricotta pesto (see below)
3. Bring 4 to 5 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. As the water returns to a boil, put in half the pasta.
4. As soon as the first batch of pasta is done al dente, retrieve it with a colander spoon or skimmer and spread it out on a warm serving platter. Take a spoonful of hot water from the pasta pot and use it to thin out the pesto. Spread half the pesto over the pasta in the platter.
5. Drop the remaining pasta into the pot, drain it when done, spread it on the platter over the previous layer of pasta, cover with the remaining pesto, and serve it at once with the grated parmesan on the side.
Note: If the pasta is very fresh, you can cook it in two batches as suggested above because it will cook so quickly that the first batch will not have had time to get cold by the time the second batch is done. If it is on the dry side, it will take longer to cook, so you must do the two batches simultaneously in two separate pots.
Pesto With Ricotta
The slightly sour milky flavor of ricotta brings lightness and vivacity to pesto. To the ingredients in the basic food processor recipe below, add 3 tablespoons of fresh ricotta and reduce the amount of butter to 2 tablespoons. As in the basic recipe, mix the grated cheese, the ricotta, and the butter into the processed ingredients by hand in another bowl. Serves 6.
Pesto by the Food Processor Method
For 6 servings
For the processor
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before putting into the processor
For completion by hand
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/2 pounds pasta
1. Briefly soak and wash the basil in cold water, and gently pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels.
2. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic, and an ample pinch of salt in the processor bowl, and process to a uniform creamy consistency.
3. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the two grated cheeses by hand. It is worth the slight effort to do it by hand to obtain the notably superior texture it produces. When the cheese has been evenly amalgamated with the other ingredients, mix in the softened butter, distributing it uniformly into the sauce.
4. When spooning the pesto over pasta, dilute it slightly with a tablespoon or two of hot water in which the pasta is cooked.