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It had been a while since I’d had pasta. An almost daily staple in my diet for most of my life, I pretty much stopped making it when I became more adventurous in the kitchen. A year ago I promised myself to really learn how to cook.  Not just a handful of dishes which I’d learn to cook to perfection but a wide repertoire culled from a variety of cuisines around the globe. I began with French food, as I assumed that French techniques were the foundation of much of Western cuisine. I was instantly enamored with it and my love for Italian food fell by the wayside.

What you see on this blog, however, is a small sampling of what I have been cooking. I’ve been dabbling in the foods of Thailand, China, the Middle East. I love all sorts of food, but because I really wanted to learn how to cook French food, I made it the focus of my blog.

Yet lately I have missed pasta and the limitless choices it offers at dinner. I have missed gnocchi, and crespelle, and creamy risottos. By immersing myself completely in the world of cooking and food, I have come to yearn not for the standard Italian American fare that was a staple in my diet for so many years but the real stuff, the authentic tastes specific to the various regions of Italy and almost unknown outside them.

Enter The Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian Cooking. This book is considered a classic for its truly authentic recipes and exploration of the regions of Italy, which each have their own culinary dialect. Though I have a collection of books on Italian cooking, this is the book I now turn to when I feel like cooking Italian. If I could only have one book on this simple yet wonderful cuisine, this would be the one.

This recipe is by no means complicated, but it is one of my favorites when I want the soothing comfort of a creamy pasta. I like to serve the sauce over a broader noodle like pappardelle or fettuccine

Mushroom, Ham, and Cream Sauce

Adapted from the Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Serves 6-8 people

Ingredients:

3/4 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons shallot or onion, chopped fine

salt

freshly ground black pepper

6 ounces boiled unsmoked ham, cut into narrow julienne strips

6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

For tossing the pasta:

2 tablespoons butter

6 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Directions:

1) Put the shallot in a large skillet with butter and cook over medium heat until it becomes golden. Turn up the heat to high and add mushrooms. Do not crowd the pan; cook in batches if necessary. Cook the mushrooms until they have soaked up all the butter. Turn the heat down to low and add salt and pepper. Turn mushrooms over 2 or 3 times.

2) As soon as the mushrooms release their liquid, turn the heat up high and boil the liquid away, stirring frequently.

3) Turn the heat down to medium and cook the ham for about 1 minute. Add the cream and cook just long enough for it to become reduced and slightly thickened. Taste and correct salt and pepper.

4) Put the butter and cream for tossing the pasta into another pot and heat over low. When the butter melts, stir the butter and cream together. Transfer cooked pasta to the pot and toss to coat. Add half the mushroom sauce, tossing again. Add the 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, toss again and turn off heat. Pour the remainder of the mushroom sauce over the pasta and serve at once, with extra cheese on the side.

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I grew up thinking that you made bolognese sauce by frying up some ground beef and mixing it with a bottle of Ragu. Understandably, I didn’t like it very much and took to saucing my pasta with cream and a variety of freshly grated cheeses like Asiago or Pecorino Romano. Enlightenment came in the form of a trip to Bologna itself. This Northern Italian city is the capital of Emilia-Romangna–the agricultural heartland of Italy. The food I ate in Italy was familiar,of course, but kicked up a thousand notches from anything I’d ever had in an Italian restaurant back home. The pizzas were crisp and paper thin, garnished with a limited number of toppings and drizzled liberally with olive oil, which always sat on the table next to the salt and pepper and other condiments. The pastas were fresh and lightly sauced in order for the true flavor of the noodles to come shining through. Dinner could just as easily mean steak or a bean stew as it did a bowl of risotto or pasta.

Before I went to Italy I had no idea that Italian food was so varied, so regional. My repertoire of Italian food was limited to pastas, and as I was a student during my time in the country, I ate a lot of pasta indeed. I’d like to say that I spent much time cooking in the tiny kitchen I shared with several other students in the large apartment by the Arno river, but the truth is I did more than my fair share of dining in restaurants, sampling an array of dishes that stunned me with their rich flavors and simplicity. My first taste of an authentic bolognese ragu took place in a trattoria close to the university in Bologna–the oldest university in the western world. My friend Nicole and I had taken a table outside facing the square, from which we were surrounded by a jumble of the kind of dusty pink buildings that characterize this beautiful city. Nicole ordered gnocchi and I the lasagna bolognese. With this lasagna everything I thought I knew about Italian food slipped away. Were the noodles any better than noodles I’d had before? Was there a bechamel in between the layers of the dish? I cannot tell you. All I remember was that meat sauce, which seemed light yet deliciously rich at the same time. At the first bite a complex melange of flavors burst across my tongue: the smokiness of good pork, the unmistakable bite of garlic and tang of onion, other notes I could not identify. Tomato, to be sure, but not the heavy acidic tomato taste that often failed to appeal to me. Maybe it was the atmosphere that heightened the experience, but at that moment I knew that I would most likely never taste a bolognese like that again.

Bolognese sauce is often thought to be a tomato-based meat sauce, as was my misconception for many years, but a true bolognese actually has very little tomato. It is also served with tagliatelle noodles instead of spaghetti, or tucked in between the layers of the green lasagna Bologna is famous for. Tagliatelle are similar to fettuccine, and are used because a broader noodle is a preferable cradle for a thick or heavy sauce. The ingredients in the authentic bolognese have even been officially named by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina: beef, pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, tomato paste, red wine, and milk.

This is not to say there are no variations, even in Bologna. Italians often use chopped pork or veal in their famous ragu, and chicken and goose liver may be added on special occasions. The onion, carrot, and celery can be cooked in butter as well as olive oil, and enrichments such as prosciutto, mortadella, and fresh porcini mushrooms when they are in season are also popular.

After reading up on this classic sauce, I was ready to ditch the cream and make an authentic bolognese. It might not be as good as the one I had in Bologna on that summer’s day oh-so-long-ago, but it sure comes close.

Bolognese Sauce

Ingredients:

1/4 cup olive oil

4 ounces pancetta, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 large carrot, finely chopped

1 celery rib, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 pounds regular ground beef

1 1/2 cups dry white wine

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Directions:

1) In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Cook pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, and garlic until soft, about 10-15 minutes.

2) Add ground beef and cook until no longer pink. Stir in wine, milk, and tomato paste. Add salt and pepper.

3) Simmer uncovered for 1 hour, until most of the liquid is absorbed.

* I use white wine in my sauce, but purists will insist on the red. Both are lovely.

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"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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