I love cooking in California summer. We get the lion's share of the nations produce and vegetables, and everything seems to be coming on in and delicious. Light stove-top cuisine is the general order of the day, but other dishes occasionally wind their way into my lineup.
Marcella Hazan's Italian cookbooks have really caught my eye this year. I'll tell anyone that I'm an Asian food partisian, but Italian cuisine is one of the greats of the universe, and Hazan does it better then just about anyone. The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking belongs in any dedicated cook's bookshelf. Hazan's compilation of super-earthy Italian recipes and more esoteric delights has brought me many a happy afternoon of puttering around the kitchen. Further, her recipe descriptions have a lyrical and entertaining quality. You are not just educated on the background of the dish, but are also given little bits of information about Italian culture and people, and about Hazan's own long and exciting life. I love deeply personal cookbooks such as Hazan's. \\
The lady herself. I like this picture.
Marcella's osso-bucco is my gold standard, and I am extremely particular about my osso bucco. My mom, the ragu fan in the family, relies upon Hazan's recipe whenever she makes it. We dined at Colline-Emiliane in Rome this summer, which supposedly has the finest ragu in the city. Marcella's recipe, to our delight, tasted almost exactly the same.
I just picked up Hazan's autobiography, "Amarcord." I will have to tell you how it is.
These are bone-in pork chops braised with tomatoes and porcinis, and it's one of my favorite braise recipes. The version I do is a bit of a bastardization of Marcella's classics, I'm afraid: I've squashed a couple of her recipes together. I do not happen to have the book with me, being back in New Orleans, but I can give you the basic outline.
Get some lovely bone-in pork chops. Go organic or all natural - after my summer investigating the horrors of factory farming and industrial agricultural, I'm trying to do a little better myself on the go-organic front. And they'll taste a heck of a lot better too. Find some dried porcini mushrooms and soak them in water for a bit . You'll use them soon enough. Also acquire some baby-bella mushrooms, or white buttons, whatever you like.
Brown the chops nicely, then drop them off on another plate. Grab a bottle of good white-wine and cook it over high heat, deglazing the pan and gathering all those wonderful pork juices. Add 1/4 cup canned tomatoes (San Marzanos, please), the chopped porcini mushrooms, and the small mushrooms. Cover it up, and let it braise merrily along. About an hour should be sufficient for tender and superlatively savory pork. Serve it up and pretend you are supping in Tuscany, or wherever.
I've been known to throw some sage in there as well, but it's really up to you.
My other go-to Marcella recipe is her braised artichokes with peas. It's delightfully simple, elemental, and the perfect thing for spring or mid-summer, when the ingredients are at their best.
Here's what she says:
Braised Artichokes and Peas
For 4 to 6 persons
2 large globe artichokes or 3 to 4 medium size
2 tablespoons chopped onion
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon garlic chopped very fine
2 pounds fresh unshelled peas or 1 ten-ounce package frozen peas, thawed
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
1. Trim the artichokes of all their tough parts. As you work, rub the cut artichoke with the lemon to keep it from turning black.
2. Cut each trimmed artichoke lengthwise into 4 equal sections. Remove the soft, curling leaves with prickly tips at the base, and cut away the fuzzy "choke" beneath them. Detach the stems, but do not discard them, because they can be as good to eat as the heart if they are properly trimmed. Pare away their dark greenrind to expose the pale and tender core, then split them in half lengthwise, or if very thick, into 4 parts. Cut the artichoke sections lengthwise into wedges about 1 inch thick at their broadest point, and squeeze lemon juice over all the cut parts to protect them against discoloration.
3. Choose a heavy-bottomed or enameled cast-iron pot just large enough to accommodate all the ingredients, put in the chopped onion and olive oil, turn on the heat to medium high, cook and stir the onion until it becomes colored a very pale gold, then add the garlic. Cook the garlic until it becomes colored a light gold, then put in the artichoke wedges, 1/3 cup water, adjust heat to cook at a steady simmer, and cover the pot tightly.
4. If using fresh peas Shell them, and prepare some of the pods for cooking by stripping away their inner membrane. It's not necessary to use all or even most of the pods, but do as many as you have patience for. (The pods make a notable contribution to the sweetness of the peas and of the whole dish, but using them is an optional procedure that you can omit, if you prefer.)
5. When the artichokes have cooked for about 10 minutes, add the shelled peas and the optional pods, the chopped parsley, salt, pepper, and, if the liquid in the pot has become insufficient, 1/4 cup water. Turn the peas over thoroughly to coat them well. Cover tightly again, and continue cooking until the artichokes feel very tender at their thickest point when prodded with a fork. Taste and correct for salt. Also taste the peas to make sure they are fully cooked. While the artichokes and peas are cooking, add 2 or 3 tablespoons of water if you find that there is not enough liquid. If using fyozen pers add the thawed peas as the last step, when the artichokes are already tender or nearly so, turning them thoroughly, and letting them cook with the artichokes for 5 minutes.
6. When both vegetables are fully cooked, should you find that the juice in the pot are watery, uncover, raise the heat to high, and quickly boil then away.
The dish can be prepared any time in advance on the same day it will be served. Do not refrigerate or its flavor will be altered. Reheat gently in a covered pot, with 1 tablespoon water, if necessary. - Marcella Hazan
You should use fresh artichokes, cutting them yourself. That's what I did when I took these photos, being a good person. Now that I said that, I will admit I use the frozen artichoke hearts the vast majority of the time. I am, perhaps, a little lazy. And they taste good to me.
I am, however, a purist when it comes to English peas. I wouldn't even bother if you can't find any. There's something about an all-frozen dish that makes me look askance.
If this is done right, and it is hard to do wrong, it is delicious. English peas are sadly little-known to many Americans. Don't be among them.
Happy end-of-summer. It ain't over til' Labor Day, right? I'm heading out to New Orlean's Southern Decadence bacchanalia tonight. Oh, it's hard to be me, it is.