I feel a certain kinship with Giuliano Hazan.
I do not have a famous cookbook author for a mother. But Marcella Hazan and my mom are contemporaries, both born and raised in pre-World War II Italy. And while Marcella Hazan is from Emilia-Romagna and my mother from Abruzzo, both grew up in communities along the Adriatic coast. These parallels may be why I have always seen similarities in the way they cook.
It may also be why Giuliano Hazan’s recipes feel so wonderfully familiar to me. As much as I enjoy experimenting with all types of cuisine, I also relish the feeling of making something that to me says “home” and that I know I’m going to love. That’s what it’s like when I open one of Hazan’s books to choose a recipe.
There are many such recipes in his new book, Hazan Family Favorites: Beloved Italian Recipes (Stewart, Taboori & Chang), from the Swiss Chard Tortelloni with Tomato Sauce to Nonna Mary’s Ciambella. My heart skipped when I saw the recipe for Insalata Russa (Russian Salad), a molded salad of diced vegetables and shrimp bound together with homemade mayonnaise. Elsa, one of my mother’s older sisters, was a master at Insalata Russa, but she passed away quite a few years ago without having written down her recipe, so it makes me happy to know I have this one.
I recently talked to Giuliano Hazan about recipes familiar and surprising, his new book, other projects, and the career he almost had:
DM: Most people, myself included, think of you as cento-per-cento Italiano, but your background is actually quite eclectic and fascinating ~ and includes delicious culinary traditions.
GH: People think of my mother as being only from Italy, but her grandfather—my great-grandfather—had moved to Egypt, where he had a cigarette factory. My grandmother was born in Beirut and the family lived in Cairo for quite awhile. When my grandmother was young, she and her sisters went to Italy on vacation and they somehow ended in Cesenatico (along the coast of Emilia-Romagna). She met my grandfather and ended up staying. On my father’s side, my grandparents were Sephardic Jews, born in Turkey—though they can trace the family back to Spain at the time of the Inquisition. After my grandparents got married they moved to Italy and ended up in Cesena, about 9 miles from Cesenatico. When my father was eight his family moved to New York and he grew up in America from that point through college. But he always missed Italy. He went back and met my mother.
From my mother’s side the food was influenced from the time that my grandmother spent in Egypt. Dishes like the cabbage rolls were defininetly something that she brought back. And then on my father’s side there were Sephardic traditions slightly blended with Italian influences. It was kind of an interesting intersection of culinary traditions.
DM: Hazan Family Favorites has some of those blended recipes, including the cabbage rolls, Italian latkes, and baklava. There are also recipes that you recreated from a 56-year-old notebook of your mom’s in which she had written down her mother’s recipes. What prompted you to go back through these materials and write this book?
GH: The truth is that it was really kind of born out of a subway ride with my agent, talking about what I should do next. He said, you know, maybe you should think about doing something that is connected to your family because people are interested in that. The more I thought about it, the more the idea resonated. And the more I worked on it the more I enjoyed doing it, and the more interesting it was to try and remember older recipes and find recipes in my mother’s notebook that my grandmother used to make.
Recreating those recipes from that notebook brought back memories of some of those dishes that I hadn’t had in a long time. Those latkes are actually fritters that were in the notebook. My grandmother made them with grated potatoes and grated onions. When I married Lael, we started making latkes every year. And when I was looking at my grandmother’s recipe I realized it was almost exactly the same thing.
DM: Did you expect to end up in the world of cooking and teaching?
GH: Well, I like to eat. When I left home I was hungry. I realized I was going to have to cook for myself. My mother’s school in Bologna started when I was 17. I helped out with that from the very beginning so I was absorbing the way to run a cooking school, and to teach. But my first interest was really theater. After college I went to a professional theater school in Providence, Rhode Island. When I finished my 2-year program there I was doing local theater, mostly touring company stuff. And I was not bringing in much money, so I started doing cooking classes on the side. That became bigger and and so I started doing more and more tof that and less of traditional theater. In a sense teaching is theater, right?
DM: How is your cooking different from your mother’s?
GH: Everybody asks me that but I still haven’t come up with a good answer. It’s very closely connected to the way my mother cooks but we’re different people so ineveitably things are different. In terms of the style and the simple clean genuine flavors, that is something that always appealed to me and so I haven’t really changed that as far as an approach. People have said I have the American sense of organization applied to the spontaneity of Italian cooking. So I think there isn’t really a huge differece but, inevitably, there are imperceptible differences.
DM: I want to ask you about fish. Like you, I spent my summers growing up on the Adriatic coast and I love fish. But other than shrimp and salmon, Americans seem a bit cautious about fish and seafood. Your books always include a nice variety of fish and seafood dishes. Talk about what you like about cooking with fish and how it figures into your heritage?
GH: I think it’s true that people are a little intimidated by fish and seafood. But in Italy you don’t have to go too far to find the sea, and so fish does play a very important role in the Italian diet. Most fish dishes are pretty quick and fairly simple to prepare. That to me is a big advantage. It’s not like a stew or a pan roast of meat that you kind of have to plan ahead for. So, while people may have the impression that cooking fish is complicated it is actually really easy.
DM: In addition to writing cookbooks and teaching you’ve been involved in a number of other projects. You have a new iPad app, and you are involved in a Kickstarter campaign. Tell us about that.
GH: My most successful book is my first book, The Classic Pasta Cookbook. But it’s out of print now. When I found out about the new iBook platform that Apple came out with, I realized this would be a perfect way to reissue it. So it will be an enhanced version of that first book. Every recipe will be photographed and it will include some video for techniques such as chopping and peeling and making homemade pasta. The project is a collaboration but we still have hard costs, so that’s what we’re using Kickstarter for. It’s kind of neat. It makes me think of Renaissance times when artists had sponsors.
DM: Grazie, Giuliano. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Photo by Joseph De Leo
Cold Minestrone with Rice
from Hazan Family Favorites, by Giuliano Hazan
I had a tough time deciding which recipe to feature from Giuliano’s book. In the end I settled on Cold Minestrone with Rice, for a couple of reasons. First, I am a soup fanatic, no matter the season. Second, it is an excellent example of the “simple, clean, genuine” style of cooking that Giuliano talks about above and which is so familiar to me. What I especially like about this soup is that it simmers for a long time, so that the vegetables get soft and silky and mingle together. Although the title says “cold” the soup is actually served at room temperature, which is the way Italians serve many dishes in summer.
For the minestrone:
1/2 medium yellow onion
2 medium carrots
2 celery stalks
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 ounces Savoy cabbage
4 ounces green beans
12 ounces boiling potatoes (such as Yukon Gold)
12 ounces zucchini
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups homemade meat broth, or 1/2 beef and 1/2 chicken bouillon cube
A rind of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)
1 1/2 cups canned cannellini beans, drained
Peel and finely chop the onions. Peel and cut the carrots int 1/4-inch dice. Peel the backs of the celery stalks and cut into 1/4-inch dice. Put hte onion, carrots, celery, olive oil, and butter in a 6-quart soup pot and place over medium-high heat. Saute until the onion turns a golden color and the carrots and celery just begin to brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
While the vegetables are sauteing, finely shred the cabbage. Trim both ends of the green beans and dice them. Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Trim both ends of the zucchini and cut into 1/2-inch dice.
When the onions, carrots, and celery are ready, add the cabbage, season lightly with salt, and cook until the cabbage is wilted, about 5 minutes. Add the green beans, potatoes, and zucchini. Season with salt and pepper, and add the broth or the bouillon cube and 4 cups water and the Parmigiano-Reggiano rind, if using [I happened to have homemade broth in my freezer so that's what I used; there is a recipe for homemade broth in Hazan's cookbook]. Once the soup begins to boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, covered, for 2 1/2 hours.
Add the cannellini beans and cook for another 20 minutes. [At this point the soup can be served hot or at room temperature, or used for the cold minestrone with rice.]
For the Cold Minestrone with Rice:
3 cups Minestrone (from the above recipe)
3 cups water
3/4 cup Italian rice (Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, or Arborio)
12 to 14 fresh basil leaves
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
Put the minestrone and the water in a 4- to 5-quart pot over high heat. Once the soup is boiling, add the rice, stir well, and reduce the heat to medium. Cook, covered, until the rice s al dente, about 15 minutes. After the rice has cooked for 10 minutes, coarsely shred the basil leaves and add them to the soup.
When the rice is done [I actually cooked mine a little longer that 15 minutes], ladle the soup into bowls and allow to cool completely. Serve at room temperature and drizzle about 1 teaspoon of olive oil over each serving.
Note: You can prepare this ahead of time and refrigerate. Take the bowls out of the refrigerator 1 hour before serving to allow to come to room temperature.