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.
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.
Move over, Gefilte Fish! In Italy, we have our own not-so-refined and yet delicious comfort appetizer…
Tuna Loaf. I don’t know if I can call this recipe historical, because it’s made with canned tuna but it’s been around long enough that a couple of versions are included in a G. A. Vitali-Norsa’s “classic” ‘La Cucina nella Tradizione Ebraica” (1970). Of course, many more variations are enjoyed often – especially in the warm seasons – on countless Jewish Italian tables. Here is mine: