Marcella Hazan, who died yesterday at the age of 89, has been an integral part of my life for decades. Her classic texts on Italian cooking taught me how to use fresh ingredients simply, so that their essential nature is never lost in the cooking or in elaborately concocted sauces. Her style of cooking was a perfect fit with a life lived in Vermont, where market farming and my own home garden provided the inspiration and ingredients for most of our meals, and then in Montreal, where the French and mixed-ethnic population, and high culinary standards, mean that top-quality ingredients are always available.
From Marcella, I learned to make the simplest, fastest, and best tomato sauce -- which we prepare from fresh Italian tomatoes at least twice a month and use on everything from pasta to pizza. I've made many of her other pasta sauces, her risottos, her wonderful vegetable recipes, her meat, chicken and fish dishes, her rosemary-studded foccacia, her cakes: her "farm wife's pear tarte," made from hard Rocha pears and almonds, is one of my all-time favorites, full of freshness and simplicity.
Like all the best cookbook authors, she was a teacher, and her voice, which comes through so clearly in her books, always impressed me; I felt she knew exactly what she was talking about and it made me want to follow her instructions to the letter,and even more, to learn her techniques. She didn't just write recipes, she explained the nature of each particular food, whether it was a grain of arborio rice or a perfect eggplant: that was what I appreciated, and what I wanted to know.
When I think of her now, it's in a black-and-white photograph -- not the one above, though I like that too -- from the flyleaf of one of those books. She's standing with her husband, along a canal in Venice, where they were living at the time. The couple appears sophisticated, urban, yet also relaxed, and most of all happy and in love: Victor, the handsome, elegant businessman, who came home every single day to share lunch with his wife; Marcella, the cook and author, looking comfortable, kind, and welcoming, as if we, the readers, were accepting that luncheon invitation too. A part of me, I think, wanted to be them, and in some ways I realize today that I probably absorbed something from that photograph into my own life.
Grazie, Marcella: you'll always live on in my kitchen; thank you so much for your love of food, and for everything you've taught me.