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Cucina Svelta : Italian meals, prepared with minimum time and effort, still call for the freshest ingredients and time-honored cooking techniques.

August 11, 1988|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

There's a misconception about Italian cooking that Marcella Hazan hears all too often. To prove people are wrong when they claim it's too complicated and time-consuming, she recently donned an apron in the Times' Test Kitchen and in less than an hour prepared a four-course meal.

We've dubbed her efforts cucina svelta, literally quick cuisine, but don't confuse this cooking with the American idea of fast food from restaurant chains or frozen dinners. What we're talking about are uncomplicated Italian recipes that can be prepared quickly, but still use mostly fresh ingredients.

Who better to demonstrate the concept than Hazan, author of three books on Italian cooking and who also teaches classes in her Venice home? While at the Times, she shared some basic techniques of her native cuisine.

It's such techniques, in fact, rather than precise recipes that students learn in her classes. Hazan cooks by a sense of feel--a pinch of this, a handful of that--so her recipes are meant to serve as guidelines, not necessarily to be used verbatim. We retested them and approximated the amount of ingredients she used, but don't be afraid to vary, especially seasonings, to your own taste.

Hazan's philosophy is "never add too much of anything at first--you can always put in more." Begin with the amounts given in her recipes, or a little less, and go from there. Another of her axioms is "what you leave out is just as important as what you put in." Don't detract from the purity of a dish by adding too many ingredients. Simplicity allows flavors to be distinctive.

While preparing the Eggplant, Peppers and Cucumber Spread, Hazan stressed that the eggplant pulp should be chopped by hand, not in a food processor. After draining, she added the olive oil at the same time as the garlic. This is important, because the oil helps distribute the garlic more evenly. If the spread is not going to be used immediately, wait and add the salt just before serving since it will draw moisture from the eggplant.

Those who have been to Italy will probably recognize the technique Hazan uses to prepare her Artichoke Flowers. In Italy, the markets have the vegetables already cleaned and held in acidic water. This method pares off all the woody elements and leaves just the essence of the artichoke (please see step-by-step photographs above). The recipe also utilizes the stem, traditionally discarded by American cooks.

When cooking pasta, be sure to use plenty of water and add the salt after it comes to a boil and just before dropping in the pasta, advises Hazan. After cooking al dente , drain off all but a small amount of the cooking water.

Add this last bit of water to the warm bowl that already contains the olive oil, garlic and chopped chiles along with the pasta. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, then gently lift the pasta to distribute the flavorings and add more olive oil to taste.

The garlic cloves are used for flavor and are not meant to be eaten. "You may want to remove them before serving," Hazan said. "I've had guests that don't understand and eat them."

American versions of Italian food are often too garlicky, according to Hazan. "You want the perfume of garlic, to know it's there, but it shouldn't be overpowering."

She also warned that overcooking garlic gives it an acid flavor.

The fresh-berry dessert Hazan prepared was simplicity itself and prepared entirely to taste. Any fresh berries may be used, which points up another of Hazan's philosophies.

"I chafe at shopping lists. What is the point of insisting you are going to make fegato all veneziana if the liver you find is dark and gristly and makes you think of steer rather than calf? Or why decide you want to do the striped bass with artichokes until you've seen the artichokes?

"The market is the place where the idea of a meal best takes place, as our eyes are caught by the good things of the day. No one loves cooking who is immune to the sudden enticement of perfect green beans. When I find firm young zucchini, or bosomy eggplants, taut, glossy and unblemished, or ripe local tomatoes, I start to cook right there, in my mind."

Hazan's four recipes can be used to create a light summer dinner, or a second course of meat, poultry or fish may be added for a more substantial meal.

EGGPLANT, PEPPERS AND CUCUMBER SPREAD

Melanzana da Spalmare, Con Peperoni e Cetrioli

1 medium eggplant

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped English cucumber

1 tablespoon finely chopped sweet red pepper

1 tablespoon finely chopped yellow pepper

1 tablespoon minced Italian parsley

Salt, pepper

Lemon juice

Thinly toasted bread rounds, melba toast or crackers

Roast eggplant over flame until very soft, about 15 minutes, turning periodically and being careful not to break skin. Remove to baking sheet and set aside to cool.

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