This morning, Santa Maria needed to leave for her job early so I was left on my own with the kids for a few hours. After being away for the holiday, I was a little behind in the cooking. I had a pot full of black beans that needed to be finished off, along with two pounds of ground beef that would shortly go bad. The conditions, in other words, were perfectly ripe for my near hat-trick—whipping up black beans and Bolognese sauce at the same time.
Both dishes start with the same ingredients and in the same way: onion, carrot, celery, and bacon sautéed in a pan. They each have chicken stock, wine, and tomatoes. Preparing the two simultaneously is just a matter of doing more chopping, stirring, and sweating. Instead of one onion—two. Instead of two carrots—four. And so on.
Recently, I started to read Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.” Just about every guy I’ve ever met who likes to cook swears by the book. One friend nearly broke out in tears when he told me about meeting Hazan herself.
According to Hazan, what I’m doing with the Bolognese and the black beans is based on an old tradition. She starts her book with a chapter on fundamentals. Under its first heading “Where Flavor Starts,” she lists the three building blocks of taste: battuto, soffritto, and insaporire.
Battuto “comes from the verb battere, which means ‘to strike,’” she says, referring to the chopping of lard, parsley, and onion. More modern interpretations substitute olive oil for the lard, and the mix of vegetables can include garlic, celery, and carrot.
A soffritto develops when the battuto is sautéed “until the onion becomes translucent.” Hazan points out that quicker cooking ingredients like garlic should be added after the onion has softened, lest they burn or brown too much. This is what I do when making the black beans. I add the garlic last.
Insaporire is the step that follows a soffritto, and it refers to “bestowing taste.” This is what happens when I combine the beans with the sautéed vegetables. Or in the case of the Bolognese, the meat with the same. Hazan says “One can often trace the unsatisfying taste, the lameness of dishes purporting to be Italian in style, to the reluctance of some cooks to execute this step thoroughly, to their failure to give it enough time over sufficient heat, or even to their skipping it altogether.”
Hazan doesn’t offer any advice on cooking with children. With Santa Maria out of the house, I needed to tend to Nina and Pinta. For a while, Pinta was content to bounce around in her crib, but Nina wanted my company. She was flipping through the latest issue of The New Yorker, looking at the cartoons. She wanted to know what the captions said. “Daddy, can you cook and read at the same time?” she asked. I said sure, and she sat with me while I turned the battuto into a soffritto and developed the insaporire. It took some time to get through all the cartoons. I suspect Hazan would approve.