Italian chef Marcella Hazan’s pasta is humble yet regal. The epitome of home cooking and truly glorious at the same time. The secret lies in the brilliantly simple tomato sauce that bears no resemblance to the classic version.
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Oh Marcella, Marcella. How dearly we love you. So simple yet so magnificent, so homey yet so spectacular. And what could be homier than pasta with tomato sauce? Though Marcella’s tomato sauce is not exactly your classic tomato sauce. But first we must tell about Marcella herself.
Marcella Hazan (1924-2013) was an Italian cook who published numerous books in English and taught Americans what Italian food really is. Her books convey the impression that she was a tough cookie who spent most of her adult life in the United States, despite never fully mastering the language. The famed chef Mario Batali said he once received a letter from her castigating him after he dared to prepare a risotto in a casserole dish on his cooking show. “Risotto is only made in a deep skillet,” Hazan imperiously informed him.
So how did “The Marcella” come about? Well, one day my friend and partner texted me as follows: “I dreamed about pasta in tomato sauce last night. As easy and as delicious as can be.” This is typical subject matter for us, whether in dreams or during sleepless nights. We talk and write about food and drink and all sorts of (culinary!) fantasies.
“Okay, we’ll make pasta with tomato sauce,” I immediately assured him. And so was born our “Marcella Hazan.” A pasta dish that pays homage to the high priestess of Italian cooking. And no, when you read the recipe, there is no mistake: This tomato sauce does not call for garlic or herbs or even olive oil. Only tomatoes, onion and quantities of butter – the amount best kept to yourself and not divulged to your guests. And a little secret – which we reveal to you here. We like our Marcella Hazan sauce with linguine, but you can use any similar type of pasta.
Although we often make fresh pasta ourselves, with this sauce, which is thick, rich and heavy, we actually prefer to use store-bought pasta that can handle the sauce well and not become limp when cooked together with the sauce in the skillet.
Pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan is the ultimate definition of “simple and delicious.” An urban legend that’s made the rounds among cooks for many years says that one of the critical tests for an Italian cook is tomato sauce. And if there were a worldwide tomato sauce competition, Marcella Hazan would be the clear favorite to win the title. Her tomato sauce is ingenious in its simplicity: concentrated tomatoes and butter – not a common combination for an Italian chef. You brew the onion flavor into it almost as you would tea, and top it off with Parmesan.
Why Parmesan and tomatoes? These two are among the richest ingredients that are part of umami, the “fifth basic taste” (umami is Japanese for “tasty”). As soon as we tasted Hazan’s sauce and realized that it brought out the ultimate umami of the tomatoes, we decided to blanch some kelp, another umami flavor extraordinaire, into the sauce as well. The result: double the pleasure.
Choosing a wine to pair with this dish is challenging. In fact, this is one of the hardest dishes to match with a wine, because the dish has two dominant elements, the first being tomatoes, which are highly acidic. The second is butter, which gives the sauce its velvety texture. These contrasting components combine to create an absolutely delectable dish, but it’s a headache trying to figure out what’s best to drink with it.
We finally discovered that we both like to choose one of the extremes and take it all the way. If we are in the mood for red wine, we’ll select a light rose with high acidity. The dish may be identified with Italy, but we feel it tastes best with a Bourgogne wine. Domaine Gerard Julien’s Cote de Nuits-Villages, for instance, which isn’t that expensive (although Bourgogne wines have unfortunately been getting more pricey in recent years). The fruity taste is refreshing, somewhere between strawberries and sour cherries. It’s an elegant and delightful wine with a tartness that goes perfectly with the dominant flavor of the tomatoes. But if you insist on staying with something Italian, then a simple Dolcetto or rustic Chianti will do the job just fine. The important thing is that the wine not be overly ripe and heavy, and that the barrel’s presence should not be felt.
If it’s white wine we crave, then we’ll go with the buttery side of the dish, and wouldn’t mind being able to sense the barrel either. We chose a Manon Clos Marie from the Pic Saint-Loup region in southern France. It’s a blend of many different local grapes: mostly white and grey Grenache, plus Clairet, Vermentino, Bourboulenc and a little Muscat. The winery is a rising star of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The wine has a pleasing mineral quality to it and a consistency that fills the palate, primarily due to the sur-lie aging process. The fruit is delicate and subtly buttery. It matches up wonderfully with the buttery aspect of the sauce, together creating a rich taste guaranteed to make one very happy.
Marcella Hazan pasta sauce
3 400-gram tins of peeled Italian tomatoes
1 medium onion
1 sheet kelp, chopped
100 gr butter
600 gr linguine
1 bunch basil
Peel the onion and cut into 2-cm slices. Heat a medium pot and place the onion in it. Sear it (in a dry pan, without oil) for a few minutes then add the peeled tomatoes and the chopped kelp. Gently season with salt and simmer on a low flame for an hour and a half until the tomatoes are very soft and the sauce thickens. Add the butter, taste and adjust for salt.
Cook the pasta according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Then add it to the pot with the sauce for half a minute, stirring. Transfer to serving dishes. Grate Parmesan on top, tear some basil leaves for garnish, and serve.