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THE HOME COOK

How to Feed an Italian: Herbs, Herbs, Herbs

August 02, 1990|MARION CUNNINGHAM

This is a true story about Irma Goodrich Mazza, who was raised in Berkeley, Calif., early in the century, and became a fine cook and cookbook author because she fell in love.

I will let her tell her story in her own words. This is from the introduction to her first cookbook, "Herbs for the Kitchen" (which has been reprinted by Little, Brown): "Once there was a girl who had lived all the years of her life in an American home, with its many attendant blessings. She took food and its taste for granted, thinking it a subject of little scope when she married. Her husband was Italian. At mealtimes he upset her terribly with his notions about what to eat.

"He ate lettuce by the bowlful, with French dressing. He refused boiled vegetables 'seasoned' with butter, salt and pepper, saying they were flat. He adored onions and averred that garlic was a part of the equipment of all fine cooks.

"He clamored for the flavor of herbs in his food, and urged his wife to grow them herself, though the family estate was no more than a narrow box outside the kitchen window. He brought home a gallon of olive oil, when the marriage certificate was only a few days old. When his lavishness was questioned he expressed an opinion that olive oil was the lubricant of the gods.

"When she gave him creamed macaroni they had their first quarrel, and he said that presenting him with such a dish was practically equivalent to trying to poison him.

"What was a girl to do? Of course, it was hard on her, having her complacent notions about food knocked in the head by a husband who yearned after chicken hunter style and spaghetti alla Mariania, but she wasn't too old or too stubborn to learn. She turned over a new leaf. But her husband also made concessions. While she admitted to loveliness of onions, garlic, olive oil and herb seasonings, he conceded that one does not have to eat elaborately to eat well. He even granted that butter has a place in cooking, and that all food should not always be highly seasoned. Really, the new leaf was theirs, not just hers. She has taken that new leaf she and her husband turned over, added all the other leaves into which it developed, and bound them into this book."

Reading this, how could I help becoming a fan? We also became friends during the last years of her life. Irma was a joy to talk with: her sense and sensitivity about food was inspiring. (Her second book, "Accent on Seasoning" is also a wonderful cookbook.)

Chicken and Potatoes is a good rustic, Italian dish. The chicken and potatoes slowly brown and cook (this dish takes 25 minutes to cook) and just before serving, freshly chopped rosemary, parsley and garlic are strewn and tossed over all, giving a bloom to the whole.

Summer berries are available all over the place, and the simplest way to serve them is to make Berry Sandwiches. It is essential to have a good, fresh, loaf of white bread. Each person might have a half of a raspberry and a half of a strawberry or blackberry sandwich. Assemble the sandwiches just before serving.

CHICKEN AND POTATOES

3 pounds chicken, cut into serving pieces

3 large Russett potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes

Salt, pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley (Italian flat-leaf if tender)

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh rosemary

Lightly season chicken chicken pieces and potatoes with salt and pepper.

Heat olive oil in large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add chicken and potatoes and cook until golden brown on all sides, turning pieces frequently. Cover and lower heat and cook 10 minutes longer or until chicken is done.

Remove from heat and place in large serving bowl. Sprinkle with garlic, parsley and rosemary, tossing to distribute. Serve hot. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Don't chop herbs and garlic in food processor. Chop by hand so they don't get soggy and wet.

BERRY SANDWICHES

4 cups berries (strawberries, blackberries and raspberries or any combination)

Sugar

8 slices fresh white bread, crusts removed

1 cup whipping cream, whipped and lightly sweetened

Hull and slice strawberries, clean other berry varieties. Lightly sweeten berries with sugar to taste. Drain and reserve berry juice. For each sandwich, spread 1 cup berries over 1 slice bread. Cover with top bread slice.

Neatly spread tops and sides of sandwiches with whipped cream. Garnish tops with little swirl of berry juice. Slice each sandwich diagonally and place 2 halves on each serving plate. Makes 4 servings.

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