Sunday, November 3, 2013

In praise of Marcella - and North Carolina shrimp

© MCT
Like most anyone who enjoys reading and cooking from an especially well-written cookbook, I was saddened by the recent passing of Marcella Hazan. She introduced countless home cooks – who felt themselves to be on a first-name basis with this legend – to the essential flavors of her beloved Italy, often with simple recipes that yielded surprisingly complex flavors.

I’ve read many of the tributes published by leading newspapers and culinary publications, as well as the chefs whose careers were informed by her groundbreaking work. When Cathy Barrow launched an effort to celebrate Marcella’s life on Oct. 26 with a virtual dinner party called Dinner with Marcella, I was in.
Marcella’s confident voice resonates in her many cookbooks, which have endured decades of competition to serve as bona fide touchstones. She conjures the Amalfi coast of her youth and the abundance of local resources with captivating charm and the warmth of a generous grandma sharing lessons in the kitchen.

I heard that voice myself once when, in an undisputed high point of my life, she responded via Facebook to a story I wrote about making her cantaloupe pasta sauce. Her Aug. 11, 2010, comment made it clear that she had browsed this then-new blog:
Thank you, my dear. You write so well. I enjoyed reading your blog and I am very glad the cantaloupe sauce worked for you. I have feelings similar to yours about some aspects of fennel. I loathe it in sausages, which compels me to look for butchers who will make them fennel-free as we do in Italy. On the other hand I adore it sliced very thin, blanched, breaded and fried, or baked with butter and parmesan until it is brown on top. I understand, however, that there is no chance of my converting you. There are insurmountable obstacles for all of us in our gustatory travels.
Warm regards,
Marcella


Her prickly side was, perhaps, equally famous. With a stern “in my opinion,” Marcella dismissed most American ingredients as lesser in quality to those of her beloved Italy. Sometimes, as with “American sole … [which] really isn’t sole, it is flounder,” she considers available substitutes downright deceptive. “The best one can do with flounder is to take the edge off its awkwardness through the graces of a seductive sauce,” she wrote in The Classic Italian Cook Book (Knopf, 1978).
I heard from that Marcella once, too. I had been following posts from a group of bloggers who were cooking their way through her books. When I commented that I do not care for candied citron, she replied with unrestrained scorn that Americans have no idea what real candied citron tastes like.

I had to admit she was right; a morsel of Italian candied citron has never passed my lips. That said, I know what candied American citrus tastes like and I dislike it just as I do the finest quality marmalade.
Marcella similarly disliked American shrimp, even though it is somewhat endearing when she called them shrimps. In the introduction to Classic Italian’s I Secondi (second courses) chapter, she observed: “But while green beans, chickens and even veal may give roughly the same results here that they do in Italy, there is very little in American waters that resembles Italian fish. Not one of our species of shellfish coincides with an Italian one.”

In the headnote to Spiedini di gameri dell’Adraitico (Shrimp Brochettes, Adriatic Style), she take this claim a step further: “I have tasted many versions of this very simple dish in seafood and Italian restaurants here, but I have never come across any that recall the delicate balance of flavors and the juicy texture of the shrimps that fisherman cook all along the Adriatic.”

OK, Marcella. Game on. I have not enjoyed the shrimp of the Adriatic – which no doubt taste even more divine when eaten in that beautiful setting – but I have great confidence in the plump, flavorful shrimp of the North Carolina coast.

Despite three pages of directions and an illustration, the Shrimp Brochettes recipe appealed to me for its simplicity. Also, we had recently eaten excellent shrimp both locally and in South Carolina while on vacation.
Tim purchased beautiful shrimp from his favorite market that had been driven inland from the coast early that morning. I shelled and deveined them just before lightly coating in a “protective covering” of olive and vegetable oils, fine bread crumbs, garlic, basil and salt. (Her recipe calls for parsley, but I trusted I would be forgiven for using a few leaves of our still-performing basil plant.)

After a 20-minute marinade, I started the broiler to preheat. I followed her precise instructions to thread the shrimp through three points of each curl to ensure that they don’t slip when turner the skewers.

The shrimp cooked quickly, just as she said they would, and not a single one dared to slip. Served atop Isreali couscous cooked risotto-style with chicken broth, Graham pronounced the result the best shrimp dish he ever tasted. The delicate flavor was even better with the wedge of lemon Marcella recommended.

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