I purchased them in the late 80's for $6.50 a piece. I can hardly believe my good fortune - so many delicious recipes for such a small cover price. They may be the last cookbooks I purchased that were published as pocket books. They are functional - solid recipes with a few simple line drawings that illustrate difficult techniques. Produced before food stylists and photographers swelled production costs. There are no glossy photos of sweeping pastoral Italian landscapes or the etched faces of aging rural locals photographed in Italian markets. They contain none of the slick visual clichés that aid sales today. Modern readers might find their stripped down content foreign.
Marcella was the product of a time that predates the cult of the food personality. She wasn't the gorgeous nymph peering out at us from a cookbook cover, nor was she the cajoling nonna beckoning us to eat. She was often prickly with intellectual impatience and had the authority and chutzpah to challenge the likes of Mario Batali for his choice of risotto pan.
The yellowing pages of my copy of The Classic Italian Cookbook naturally fall open to page 64. There are plenty of recipes I use and love in this book - Bucantini all' Amitriciana, Gnocchi di Patate - but none more than Minestrone di Romagna.
For the uninitiated this soup is a surprise. It is not the thin tomato based parsley flecked broth often touted as authentic. That soup reflects a mundane North American influence. It's based on an idea of Italian food that hardly strays beyond beef and tomato with a pasta garnish.
Marcella's Minestrone di Romagna is reminiscent of other great Italian soups that include Pasta e Fagioli and Pappa al Pomodoro. It has character and substance. It's a tender weave of ingredients and tradition - a sensitive expression of the taste of a place - in this case, Emilia-Romagna, considered the gastronomic capital of Italy and the region where Marcella was born. This minestrone is her birthright.
The call for fat alone - 1/2-cup olive oil and 3 tablespoons butter - will stop the progress of many modern health conscious cooks. And there is little that is photogenic about it after a 3-hour simmer. It's thick and rich with a proper slick of fat resting on its surface. It's full of very soft, near deteriorating vegetables and their extraordinarily flavourful extractions. Tomato is a minor note, a bit player. She writes that it "has a mellow dense flavour that recalls no vegetable in particular but all of them at once."
Marcella adds the rind from a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano to the simmering pot. It adds another distinct flavour dimension to the vegetables and meat stock, seasoning the broth perfectly and imparting its characteristic sharp, cheesy edge. As cooking time comes to a close the rind develops a lovely caramelized aroma that signals its flavour is spent.
It's a soup that can be enjoyed immediately but like all great long cooked dishes benefits from a day's wait. Time is its great benefactor and under its influence the flavours meld more closely into a rich and complex savouriness. The starch from the potatoes and beans further thickens the broth giving it a wholesome porridge-like consistency. It becomes less a soup and more a stew.
There's no pasta nor is there any need of it. More starch would render this soup insipid. It is a pure tribute to the goodness of the vegetable world. A glorious bowl made from a simple garden cull or market haul.
Minestrone di Romagna is one of a few dishes I cook when I seek comfort. When my need for nourishment exceeds the purely physical. It's that important to me. It's what I cooked the day after Marcella passed. My simmering soup pot seemed the only fitting tribute - a simple and delicious farewell to a no-nonsense woman. I imagined countless others taking to their stoves to express a loving gratitude to a woman whose passion for her country and its cooking led us all to such delicious ends.