I know that most people might not immediately associate sauerkraut with Italy – but that’s only because they have never been to the North-Eastern regions! For example, sauerkrauts are actually the main ingredient in Trieste’s signature soup, the Jota (pronounced yota, from the Latin term for soup). Trieste is the largest Italian port city on the Adriatic and was for a long time the trade crossroads between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Western Europe. It also boasts a rich and fascinating Jewish history. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Jews fleeing from German lands settled here to make a living as moneylenders, bankers, and merchants. Even women practiced money-lending in Trieste, an unusual custom at the time. More Jews arrived in the following centuries from Spain and the Ottoman Empire, and finally in the late 18th century from Corfu. Trieste in general, and Jewish Trieste in particular, was cosmopolitan and cultured, and the local dishes give us a little taste of such flair . James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for 16 years and at one point fell in love with his Jewish Triestine student Amalia Popper, would probably agree.
My husband and I are almost vegetarian, meaning that we tend to forget about meat and to serve it only when we have guests who expect it. But a few of you have been asking for a winter-appropriate meat dish, and here you go! You are going to love this slow-cooked recipe, because it’s very simple and yet elegant. Perfect for a date! As always with Italian cuisine, don’t skimp on the ingredients. Use a wine that you would actually enjoy drinking – it will cost more, but it’s totally worth it! Just think of this as a special occasion dish. Wines that work well are dry and with a lot of body: Barolo, Chianti, Super-Tuscans, Bordeaux, etc. The meat should be cut into approx. 1″ cubes.
I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. I had been frying for a couple of weeks already and all my Hanukkah posts were already up. Yet something just felt wrong.
OPS. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t posted anything special for all my readers and friends who are not Jewish and celebrate Christmas. I felt so awful, that I toyed with the idea of attempting a Panettone, the famous Italian Christmas Cake!
However, Panettone is really difficult to make, requiring several phases of exceptionally long rising, and the use of special Italian bread flours that are hard to find. Here is something much quicker, and just as decadent: it’s an ancient Jewish Roman dessert, kind of a cheese pancake, shockingly simple to make, which the Roman Catholic community somehow adopted as the dessert of choice to end their Christmas dinner with (maybe after one too many panettone flops)? .
The Jews of Rome still make it for Shavuot, but of course it would also work for Hanukkah (after all, according to several food historians, the original Hanukkah pancakes were made with cheese). In spite of its minimalism, Cassola is so tasty that Claudia Roden, in her Book of Jewish Food, tells that she enchanted a whole dinner party of food writers with it, at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery. Cassola is sweet, creamy, and delicate (and naturally low-fat! but you could never tell). May your holiday season be just as delicious!
We have many versions of meatballs. You can use leftover cooked meat instead of raw meat for an even tastier version! Leftover roast beef or brisket are great! You can add 4 tablespoons of very finely chopped olives for a different flavor. You can add leftover cooked spinach, drained well and chopped (in this case decrease the amount of the bread/broth mixture). You can add plumped currants and pine nuts, and end the cooking with some lemon juice, for a sweet-and-sour Sephardic touch. Also try substituting mashed potatoes for the bread/broth mixture.
Try them all!
It was probably Sephardic Jews who transmitted to the rest of the Venetian population their passion for rice, after their arrival in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Venetians are still famous for creamy risottos (we call them “all’onda“, with a wave), to which we add pretty much anything, from chicken livers to fish to… stinging nettles. The usual preparation for risotto, adding hot broth a little at a time, releases so much starch that the rice must be eaten right away or it will clump. The pilaf version, besides reminding us of the Sephardic origins of this dish, can be prepared in advance and reheated for Shabbat. “Risi e Ua” (Rice and Grapes, or Raisins) is THE festive rice dish par excellence among the Jews of Venice, and – like most Jewish venetian recipes – it has also been enjoyed by the general population for a very long time. It’s also great for Hanukkah, in case your stomach cannot survive an all-fried menu and you want to start with something a little more digestible…. About the choice between garlic and onion: there are two schools of thought, and, like Hillel and Shammai, they are both right.
The festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been looted and desecrated by the soldiers of Syrian-Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century BCE. Mattityahu, a Jewish priest, and his five sons, led a successful rebellion against Antiochus, which resulted in the rededication of the Temple by Mattityahu’s son, Yehudah the Maccabee, in 166 BCE. The Talmud reports that the menorah in the Temple was required to burn every night, but there was only enough oil for one night left: however, the menorah burned for eight days on that little oil, giving the Jews enough time to procure more. The oil used for lighting the menorah was pure, extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil, which may explain why Hanukkah resonates so deeply with Italian Jews, inspiring them to create a deluge of mouthwatering recipes
While the miracle of the oil is described in the Talmud, the Book of Maccabees makes no mention of it, stating only that an eight day celebration was proclaimed upon re-dedication of the temple: therefore, a number of historians believe that the reason for the eight day festival was simply that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of the harvest holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Azeret, which the Jews had not been able to observe during the war. Obviously, the two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and Hanukkah can very well celebrate the miracle of the oil while also absorbing the previous holiday.
In this spirit, here is a delicious fried treat that incorporates the oil, and the honey (a recurrent symbol that appears on our tables from Rosh haShana to Shemini Azeret): for holiness, and sweetness. And Sambuca… just for fun!
Jewish Italian food has been a tradition for over 2000 years – but it still continues to evolve, even in recent times. The Jewish exodus from Libya in the late 1960es brought about 5000 Libyan Jews to Rome, and their earthy dishes are yet another extraordinary influence on our culinary kaleidoscope. I reached out to my friends at Labna, one of my favorite Italian food blogs, and Jasmine shared these yummy pancakes, a traditional recipe from the Libyan side of her family. Jasmine tells us that in her grandparents’ house the kitchen was usually her grandmother’s realm -she was always the one cooking, and her grandfather only walked in there to obtain coffee. But every year on Hanukkah, Jasmine’s grandfather would wake up early, brave the kitchen and prepare the Sfenz, the traditional water-flour pancakes, like they used to make in Tripoli: a few minutes of easy kneading, a couple of hours of rest, and a dive into the hot oil…. for a most irresistible breakfast. Enjoy Labna‘s special treat!
Pumpkin arrived in Italy after the discovery of the Americas, and Northern Italian Jews liked it so much that in Venice we called it “suca baruca” (holy pumpkin, from the Hebrew “baruch”). When pumpkin made its appearance, Venice in general -and Jewish Venice in particular – was a crossroad of peoples and cultures, in which countless examples of what we would now call “Fusion” cuisine came to life. These fritters, which include spices and candied fruit, are a great example! I also contributed this recipe for a guest post on my friends’ lovely Italian blog Labna, which you should check out (especially if you read Italian!)…. and stay tuned for Labna’s own awesome guest post here, coming tomorrow!!!!!
Contrary to popular belief, Italian Jews do not all descend from the Jews who arrived in Rome in the second century b.c.e., and from the Sephardim fleeing Spain and Portugal in the late fifteenth century. There have also been Ashkenazi Jews living in Northern Italy since as early as the Middle Ages. In Venice, in particular, Ashkenazim (“I Tedeschi”, as they were called) were the oldest Jewish community in the city. The name of the first Jewish quarter in Venice (and in the world), “ghetto”, possibly derives from the Germanic term “gitter” (iron grill). Even Moshe Chayim Luzzatto (the Ramchal), one of the most famous Italian rabbis in history, was a “Yekkishe Yid”! (the name Luzzatto is the Italian translation of the German Jewish name Lausitz). A lot of recipes reflect this ancient Ashkenazi influence, and one of my favorite examples is the apple fritters that we make for Hanukkah. One of the reasons I like them so much has nothing to do with history: since in Italy we also have the famous saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” (“Una mela al giorno toglie il medico di torno”), I feel that these must be really good for me even though they are deep-fried, and I indulge in second and third helpings. You can sprinkle them with cinnamon if you like, or serve them with a raspberry sauce for a refined chromatic effect.
Welcome the cold season with a warming, decadent dish that elevates a simple food like potatoes to new culinary heights! Potatoes were introduced to Italy only at the end of the 16th century by the Spanish, who encountered them in the Americas: the Italian climate was perfect for their cultivation, and they quickly became a star ingredient (who doesn’t love Gnocchi?). Potatoes and mushrooms are a classic pairing, and one of the reasons why I love fall
The verb “sformare” in Italian means “to turn out, to remove from the mold”. A Sformato is a kind of savory custard that is thick enough to retain its shape when turned out on a platter, thus making a crust unnecessary. Traditional Sformati are made with béchamel sauce (read: lots of butter!), but you can obtain similar results without wracking your diet if you use ricotta. As filling and creamy as a quiche, at a fraction of the calories, this is basically a savory variant of the Jewish Roman Cassola which I posted in December (I also wrote about it in The Forward) . Ricotta is not technically a cheese, but a by-product of cheese-making: that’s why whole milk ricotta is naturally very low-fat, containing only 5% fat (as opposed to 90% in cream cheese!): no need to go with the low-fat or fat-free varieties, which contain additives and taste bad. Pumpkin is also very interesting from a nutritional point of view, because it’s filling and sweet but very low in calories and sugar, and fat-free. It also contains high quantities of carotene, calcium and phosphorus. Enjoy!
After last Saturday’s early snowfall, it’s time to put our summer clothes in storage and welcome the cold season (at least in New York)! Don’t be sad – there are plenty of fun things about fall and winter. One example: hearty soups like this one, which incorporates two ingredients with a distinguished history, staple foods for thousands of years in some areas of Europe.
Before the advent of industrial baking products, many of the treats that our grandmothers served during the week included fruit. Compotes and baked fruit are a delicious way to indulge our sweet tooth without overdoing the sugar and the calories, and actually adding nutrients to our diet. Baked fruit, in particular, is easy to make and very comforting in the frosty fall and winter days.
Today, October 24, is Food Day! Americans from all walks of life push for healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way. One of the huge problems we are dealing with is that Americans waste more than 40 percent of the food we produce for consumption, while the number of people without enough to eat continues to rise. A very important Jewish concept, especially relevant today, is Bal Tashchit (do not destroy or waste). Originally, Bal Tashchit refers to the biblical prohibition against the destruction of fruit trees during wartime (Deuteronomy 12:19), but the rabbis of the Talmud extended the concept to the prohibition of destroying and wasting anything needlessly.
Really! Nowadays we should apply this idea to all kinds of waste (do we really need to drive, when we can walk or take the bus?). And of course, let’s start with food. Don’t leave your bread in plastic bags: chances are, it will be covered in green mold before you are done with it. If you keep it in a paper bag or a bread box, on the other hand, it will just dry out and you’ll still be able to use it, soaked in broth, to make delicious meatballs (with leftover cooked chicken), or for this delicious cake!
Often we forget to eat healthy foods just because we are so busy. On top of that, fish can be quite intimidating to people who have never learned how to cook it. This recipe, however, is easy to prepare, looks very pretty, and it tastes great. Tilapia and sole are light, flaky, white-fleshed fish – a perfect low-calorie source of lean protein for those of you who are watching their waistlines or at risk of cardiovascular disease. The extra burst of flavor comes from anchovies, herrings’ “little cousins”: just like their larger relatives they are chock-full of nutrients (for example, they are a rich source of protein, niacin, calcium, selenium, and an extremely high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids), and one of the most beloved ingredients in Italian cuisine.
On the holidays, I usually serve dairy at lunch and meat for dinner. This colorful “roast”, which is actually cooked on the stove, usually “wows” guests. It’s much easier than it looks!
If you prefer, instead of the boiled eggs you can use a thin frittata made with eggs and chopped parsley or spinach. It’s filling, so I would serve it after a vegetable soup or a light broth-based pasta soup.
The Etrog, one of the symbols of Sukkot, is a special fruit, which looks like a giant lemon and grows on very delicate trees, in warm climates. Some Hassidim actually prefer the Etrogs from Italy (from the region of Calabria), probably because of a tradition that says that Moses used one from there. After Sukkot, a lot of us like to use them to make jelly or other specialties. In the movie Ushpizin the protagonists use its juice to dress a salad, but here is another fun idea (and you can make this recipe any time using regular lemons):
This simple and easy fish dish is served in many Italian cities during the meal that follows the Yom Kippur fast. Raisins and pine nuts appear in many Jewish Italian dishes of Sephardic origins, and offer a lovely contrast to the vinegar. For this recipe, Roman Jews use red mullet, but I’ve tried it with other types of white fish and it still works. You could substitute a branzino, orata, striped bass, grouper, snapper, and so forth. Just don’t use a fish that’s too fatty like sea bass or soft like sole and tilapia. (And don’t even think of salmon )
Another very common symbol on the Rosh HaShana table is the head of a fish, with the prayer “that we be a head and not a tail”. We don’t actually eat the head (yikes), just present it as a symbol; but we do eat the rest of the fish and here is a great easy recipe.
If you didn’t use fennel for the previous symbol, Roviah, but green beans or beans, try adding it to the fish instead – it’s a delicious combination! Some people do not like using lemon on Rosh HaShana (in the spirit of eating only things that are sweet, and not sour): if that’s your case, add only the peel/zest, without the pulp.
For Rosh HaShana I usually serve a fresh pasta soup in chicken broth before the main course: it’s easy to make (make or buy pasta; make chicken stock; cook the pasta and serve with the broth). But I wanted to offer something different for those of you who do not have a seder before the meal, and prefer a more filling first course. As a bonus, this pasta recipe includes pumpkin, one of the holiday symbols in some Italian Jewish communities, including Venice (see my post on “Zucca Barucca” above).
Kosher goose is nowadays only available in the US and in Italy through a few select butchers, or only at certain times of the year. But just a few centuries ago, starting in the Middle Ages and continuing through the Renaissance, goose had become the main source of meat for most Jewish communities in Western Europe, from German-speaking countries to the Italian peninsula. Goose was to the Jews what pork was to Christians: where the Gentiles used lard, the Jews cooked with goose fat; the meat was eaten roasted and stuffed or used to prepare sausages, salamis and kosher “prosciutto“. It was the “Kosher Pig”!
Several versions of this dish are still a popular Rosh HaShana main course in different Italian cities, of course only those years when we can get our hands on a goose.
(A widespread variation is a turkey meatloaf enclosed in the turkey skin, which I will add later.)
On a personal note, while I’m obsessed with this recipe, I am not going to serve it for Rosh HaShana this year, because the last time my husband (who is squirmy about meat in general) saw me stitch the neck with the trussing needle, he went 100% vegan for two weeks.
Pumpkin or Butternut Squash is an important part of our Rosh haShana Seder. While the symbolic foods of the Pesach Seder are meant to internalize the memory of Passover, the symbols of Rosh haShana point to the future to wish us a good New Year. The Aramaic term for squash/pumpkin is ’Kerah“. Because of its resemblance to the Aramaic root “Kara” (to cut), when we eat this vegetable we pray that any of our bad deeds will be cut out of the Book of G-d’s Judgement. Pumpkin arrived in Italy after the discovery of the Americas, and was such a hit with Northern Italian Jews that in Venice we call it “Zucca Barucca” (Holy Pumpkin – from the Hebrew “Baruch“).
Different communities and different families prepare it in different ways, but here are a sweet-and-sour version, plus my favorite (but not very photogenic) Venetian version, mashed.
This roasted chicken is a perfect main course for Rosh HaShana, since the Pomegranate (Rimon) is the sixth of the symbols on our holiday table, eaten with the prayer ”May our merits/good deeds be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate”. Apparently the Sages took the time to count the seeds in a lot of pomegranates, and decided that they average 613, the number of Mitzvot Jews are bound to observe – which is also why silverRimmonim (pomegranates) are used to decorate Torah scrolls.
A quick and delicious way to add some vegetables to your diet. Pistachios were first brought to the Roman Empire from Syria during the reign of Tiberius. Through history, they were considered a refined delicacy worthy of kings and queens (the Queen of Sheba is said to have been a fan!).
I also love the delicate flavor added by celery. It was not until the Middle Ages that celery’s use started expanding beyond medicine and into food. Always choose celery that looks crisp and snaps easily, with leaves that are free from yellow or brown patches. Sometimes Also separate the stalks and look for brown or black discoloration, a sign of a condition called “blackheart” that is caused by insects (yikes). If you are storing cut or peeled celery, make sure it’s dry, as water can drain some of its many nutrients. The optional touch of soy sauce was inspired by my friend Allaya Fleischer, Kosher Asian chef and writer for Bitayavon magazine.
Another Symbol in my Rosh HaShana Seder is Swiss chard. We identify Swiss Chards (or, in Venice, just their ribs) with the Aramaic term “silka” (other communities use beets). A similar Hebrew word, siluk, means “removal”: therefore, when eating Swiss chards (or beets) we pray that our enemies will be removed. In Venice we often present only the white ribs of the chards, parboiled until soft and then drained and stewed with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper for at least 30 minutes. But if you have time to make Buricche, your guests will ask for seconds!
Meatballs and meatloaves are a staple in Jewish Italian kitchens: I would go as far as to say that every family has a different version (and every son swears that his mother’s is the best!).
For many centuries most Jews in Italy were poor, and had only sporadic access to meat: one of the ways they found to make use of cheaper cuts was grinding the meat and stretching it with different ingredients – bread, eggs, and countless vegetables. The result included not only delicious meatloaves and meatballs, but also a variety of stuffed vegetables and pasta. These dishes are great for Shabbat and the holidays when food needs to be prepared in advance and reheated, because they don’t harden and actually taste better the day after.
If you choose one of the versions that incorporate cooked, chopped vegetables (spinach, leeks, zucchini, eggplant… the options are endless!) you might also be able to sneak some greens into the diets of the most irreducible picky eaters.
Pumpkin seeds started arriving from the Americas in the 16th century, probably brought by the Conversos that had settled in the New World. Since the official start of the Spanish Inquisition was in 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas, it’s not surprising that many Jews and Conversos would see this as an opportunity to leave Spain!
In Northern Italy pumpkins grew particularly well, and local Jews were among the first to add them to their dishes, usually with impressive results. I have already given you some of my favorite recipes for sweet and sour mashed pumpkin, pumpkin fritters , and more…. but here is a stew that will warm up your winter days or nights.
While Italians can be kind of clueless about how to grill a steak (with the exception of Tuscans), we have a long tradition of stewing and braising meat, which culminates in our special-occasion dish, brasato, slowly braised beef, veal or lamb. This particular recipe can also be made as a brasato: just replace the cubed meat with a single cut of beef shoulder – whatever your butcher recommends for braising – and use the same ingredients but cook much longer (over 2 hours) covered and on very low heat. Of course you can also use a crockpot, so you can head off to work, set it and come back home to find that dinner is done and ready to serve.
Fennel (Anise) is one of those vegetables which until the late 1800s were avoided by non-Jews in Italy and considered lowly and vulgar. By the time this delicious vegetable was accepted into general Italian cuisine, Jews had already discovered countless ways to prepare it, raw or cooked, as an appetizer or side. Fennel is said to be a digestive and detoxifier.
Besides eating the bulb, we use the seeds to flavor meats and sausages, and the fronds/leaves for tea and soups. Fennel tea is even said to increase milk production in nursing mothers!
Sweet and Sour is not an everyday combination in general Italian cuisine, but it’s definitely a recurrent theme in Jewish Italian households. Besides the fact that it tastes quite interesting, there is a symbolic value to combining sweet with sour, bitter or salty: while rejoicing for our freedom we should also remember our exile. After all, even at our weddings we break a glass to symbolize how joy is always mixed with sadness!
Several of our traditional dishes incorporate the “Agro” (sour) flavor, through the use of vinegar or lemon juice. This fish recipe blends the sweetness of the grapes with the mild sourness of the lemon and red currants, and the marked saltiness of the capers. I like halibut because it’s a sustainable fish, but other types of mild, flaky white fish will also work.
Many of us love eating fish in restaurants and are aware of its health benefits, but have no idea of how to cook it at home. Actually, the challenge is not so much cooking fish, as shopping for it! The key is finding a good, clean fish market or counter and getting to know the fishmonger, who will help you find the freshest fish available and will clean it for you if you can’t stomach doing it yourself.
LOOK HIM IN THE EYE! (the fish, not the fishmonger)
A fresh fish should look alive! Its eyes should look clear and stick out, they should not be opaque and sunken. Its gills should be wet and bright red (if they are brown or grayish, your friend was frozen); the skin, flesh and fins should be firm and bouncy, and the scales shiny.
It should smell like the ocean, but not TOO fishy. If you are buying fillets, be aware that brown edges or red streaks show age and should be avoided. You should always prefer a smaller fish over a larger one, because it will have more delicate flesh (one exception, I believe, is Turbot). I avoid fish that is sold already wrapped in plastic. If you have to buy it, at least rinse it very well and pat it dry with paper towel before cooking. However, it’s best to buy fresh fish, or even frozen. Most frozen fish nowadays is frozen fresh and can taste great if you let it thaw slowly in your fridge, rinse and dry it, and then cook it immediately.
What you should avoid at all costs is fish that was frozen but is being sold as fresh, because its texture will be unnaturally mushy.
Italian cuisine is one of the best for vegetarians. There are so many delicious options and all are simple to make. Meat used to be a rare treat for most people, and legumes the main source of protein. This salad is a staple in Tuscany, and while minimalistic in terms of work, it’s very satisfying. However, never skip soaking the onion! This easy step removes the sting, sweetens the flavor – and allows you to still have a social life 😉
I have seen elaborate versions of this dish, with additions of cheese, pesto, hummus, the works. Trust me, and don’t go there.
For a while I resisted the idea of writing about tomato sauce. In fact, as a typical Italian living in the US, I’m often annoyed when Italian cuisine is identified exclusively with tomato and cheese-laden dishes. But then the spring arrived, persuading me to break the ice, and to use this post as an opportunity to dispel some myths!
Tomatoes first arrived in Italy for the first time during the 1500s. They were brought by the the Spanish, who had encounterd them in the Americas. In particular, Jewish or conversos merchants of Spanish or Portuguese origins brought them to Livorno (Leighorn), and from there to the rest of Europe. However, at the beginning tomatoes were met with suspicion: after all, even in the Americas they were still considered poisonous, and enjoyed solely as a decorative plant. It’s not clear how long it took for people to realize what they were missing on: all we know is that for a while these myths about the poison lingered, or were replaced by others about magical or aphrodisiac powers. But without a doubt, nobody yet was thinking of pizza margherita!
The fact that in Italy the local Jews, always adventurous with vegetables, were among the first to bite into this forbidden fruit is suggested by the fact that many traditional Livornese recipes with tomato are named “alla mosaica” (Moses-style) or “alla giudia” (Jewish-style). Meanwhile, the general population was also starting to experiment with the “pomidoro” (from the Latin “golden apples”), at least in some regions, and with the exception of the aristocracy, which waited much longer. (In France, au contraire, tomatoes were served at the Royal Court). In any case, it took a while to arrive at today’s dishes: the first written record of a recipe for pasta with tomato sauce only dates back to 1837!
Historical digressions aside, one of the reasons I’ve been wanting to write this post is to state clearly that pasta sauce is a dish, not an ingredient. It’s something that you can make easily and quickly to dress your pasta. It should not be used to add flavor to your brisket, or (my pet peeve!) to pizza. You are going to cook/bake your brisket and pizza anyway, so what’s the point exactly of adding a pre-cooked sauce? Use simple strained tomatoes and they will cook with the food. Trust me, nobody in Italy would ever put jarred marinara sauce on their pizza. For a realistic, minimalistic and perfect version of pizza margherita, check out the recipe and video by Mario Grazia for Academia Barilla.
And now on to the pasta sauce, in a couple of variations. You will notice that I use canned tomatoes. That’s because I live in Manhattan, and I find that the varieties that are sold here tend to be quite firm and have a lot of seeds: they are much more suitable for salads than sauces. Even when I was growing up in Venice we used canned tomatoes imported from the San Marzano area near Naples. However, if you are lucky to live in an area where the tomatoes are soft and juicy, go ahead and use fresh!
Tomato-lovers should also check out:
My Pappa col Pomodoro (Tuscan Tomato Soup)
Frank’s How To Buy canned Tomatoes
Smitten Kitchen’s Slow-roasted Tomatoes
Academia barilla’s Tomato Focaccia
Italian Jews have always been very fond of lemons, and incorporate their juice and zest into many recipes: just like those with vinegar, these dishes are described as “all’agro” (sour style).
In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were apparently heavy lemonade drinkers – in most regions it was sweetened with honey or sugar, but in Rome it was seasoned with salt.*
Beets are native to the Mediterranean, but for a very long time people ate only their leaves, while the root was used in medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It was only in 19th century France that the beet’s culinary potential was discovered, while at the same time the Germans proved that it could produce sugar , making it an easy local alternative to the tropical sugar cane.
Beets are in season from June through October , but they are easy to find throughout the year because, like other root vegetables, they store well. Their flavor is deep, sweet, hearty and rich, making them ideal for cold-weather recipes like this one. Cooking the beets whole is the best way to retain most of their flavor and nutritive value. In particular, roasting intensifies the flavor, and makes the peels easy to remove. Just cut off any greens, (you can cook them and eat them separately), scrub the beets clean, place them on a large piece of aluminum foil, fold and close the foil, and bake in a preheated oven at 375 F for 25 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the size).
We don’t know for sure how rice made its way to Italy, if through the Arabs of Sicily, the Crusaders, or Venetian merchants (or all of them independently).
In any case, after its arrival it was considered for centuries not a food, but a costly medicinal spice used for making digestive teas. In the fourteenth century the use of rice started expanding to desserts, but it was still uncommon and imported from abroad. Its cultivation was forbidden, due to the fear of diseases like malaria, linked to stagnant water. It took a long series of famines and the devastation caused by the great plague (1348-1352), which almost exhausted the production of traditional staples (spelt, millet, barley, etc), to persuade the local governments to invest in the production of this new cereal, which in Asia was already the main source of nourishment for millions of people.
Together with corn and potatoes – which were introduced after the discovery of the Americas – rice was critical to the rebuilding of human life and activities in Europe after the tragedies of the late Middle Ages. By the end of the fifteenth century its cultivation was blossoming, especially North of the Po river, in the Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto regions. It’s not clear at which point someone came up with the idea of cooking rice with the patient and gradual addition of hot liquid, resulting in “al dente” grains enveloped in a mouthwatering, thick starchy sauce that gives the illusion of cream. In any case, once risotto was invented, it became to Northern Italy what pasta was to the South: the signature recipe that could make any ingredient, from vegetables to fish, from meat to cheese, into a perfectly satisfying meal!
Italian Jews have always enjoyed a wide variety of cheeses, both as a simple accompaniment to bread, and as an ingredient in our recipes. Ashkenazi Jews, on the other hand, historically had access to only a couple of kinds of the soft variety, and never developed a cuisine around them – or a real taste for them. In recent years, however, the kosher marketplace in Israel and (to a lesser degree) in the US has expanded to include an ever-increasing range of options.
The newer generations, in particular, have even learned how to appreciate more complex flavors. In this context, a reader emailed me last week to ask how she could serve blue cheese to her friends at a casual Golden Globes get-together, and the quick, easy recipe below (learned from a friend in Modena, who makes it with Gorgonzola) would be perfect for that type of party.
It also gives me the chance to chat about cheese pairings, which are a lot of fun because the possibilities are almost endless. Depending on their texture and flavor, cheeses can be accompanied by fresh fruit, dried fruit, vegetables, herbs, fruit preserves and compotes, and honey. Fruit and cheese, in particular, are a match made in heaven, because they highlight each other’s characteristics: the juiciness and fresh fragrance of fruit complements the creaminess and deep flavor of cheese, and vice versa.
Obviously, this perfect balance derives from the essence of these two foods – one, fat-free and sugar-based; the other, virtually sugar-free and full of fat, sort of a culinary Yin/Yang.
Some ideas of pairings with not-too-hard-to-find cheeses:
– Soft, creamy cheeses with strong, sharp flavor (like Brie, Camembert) with canteloupe or grapes;
– Soft, fresh cheese with bland, milky flavor (Cottage, Mozzarella): fresh tomatoes or oranges;
– Medium-hard and medium-strength (Asiago, Gouda, Edam, Cheddar): pears, apples, berries;
– Hard, strong (Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano, Cheddar): pears, red grapes, dried fruit, honey, preserves, fruit chutneys.