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September 2012 - Dinner in Venice

Archives for September 2012

Pumpkin and Radicchio Risotto


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Pumpkin and Radicchio Risotto

How could we possibly welcome fall, and celebrate Thanksgiving, without pumpkin? For me, this also one of the symbols in my family’s Rosh haShana seder and under the sukkah. One of my favorite ways to serve it is in a creamy and delicious risotto!

Those who were born in the Veneto region, like me, also celebrate red radicchio and like to incorporate it into many different recipes. While a similar type of lettuce was already grown in North-Eastern Italy before the 16th century, the exact kind  we eat today, with its white-veined leaves, was engineered in the late 1800s by a Belgian agronomist. The different varieties are named after the Nothern Italian regions where they are cultivated: the easiest to find here in the United States is radicchio di Chioggia (maroon and round), and sometimes the radicchio di Treviso, which looks like a large red Belgian endive. Its mildly bitter flavor blends beautifully with the sweetness of the pumpkin or squash!

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut into small dice
  • 2/3 head of red radicchio
  • 1 1/2 cups Italian rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano type)
  • 1 medium white onion,  finely diced
  • 1/2 cup dry wine
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
  • About 1 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 7 to 8 cups vegetable stock
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (to taste)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a skillet. Add the pumpkin and half of the onions and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes. Season with salt,  nutmeg, pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated and the pumpkin is tender, another 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor and puree the pumpkin. Rinse the skillet and heat another tablespoon of oil in it. Add the radicchio (sliced into thin stripes) and cook for 5 minutes, seasoning with salt. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, reduce the heat and keep it hot.
In a heavy pot, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add the remaining onion and cook for 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, for a few minutes. As soon as it starts sticking to the bottom, pour in the wine and allow it to evaporate.  Immediately lower the heat and pour in one ladleful of the hot stock and cook, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Gradually add more hot stock, 1 ladleful at a time, stirring frequently until absorbed before adding the next. After about 15 minutes, stir in the pumpkin puree and continue cooking, adding more stock, 1 ladleful at a time, until the rice is tender but “al dente” (about 5 to 15 minutes longer, depending on the type of rice). The risotto should be creamy and loose. Add the radicchio, and more salt if necessary. The risotto will be quite loose. Spoon the risotto into warmed soup plates and drizzle with little balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately. Of course if you want to be really fancy and impress your guests, you could also serve the risotto in the pumpkin shell.
*** For a slightly different result, you can also cook the pumpkin with the rice. Just add the pumpkin to all the onion at the beginning, and then add the rice. Try both versions, and see which one is your favorite! In the context of a dairy meal, this risotto tastes delicious with the addition of butter and parmigiano. On the other hand, the creaminess and sweetness of the pumpkin make it very enjoyable as a Parve (non-dairy) dish!

Bucatini Pasta in Cheese sauce with Hazelnuts and Thyme


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Bucatini Pasta in Fontina Sauce with Hazelnuts and Thyme (Dairy)

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 3/4 pounds bucatini* pasta 
  •  8 ounces of a sharp, creamy cheese that melts well (Italian Fontina/Fontal, or Brie or Camembert)
  •  4 small leeks
  •  2 tablespoons butter or extra-virgin olive oil
  •  1/4 cup heavy cream 
  •  1/4 cup milk (or less)
  •  1/2 cup coarsely ground hazelnuts
  •  f1 1/2 tablespoons freshly minced thyme
  •  salt and pepper to taste

*(Bucatini are very thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle. Most major Italian brands make them, but if you can’t find them you can substitute linguine)

Clean the leeks, discarding the green and harder parts, and slice them thinly. Heat the oil or butter in a skillet, add the leeks and cook until soft.  In the meantime, toast the hazelnuts in the oven for a few minutes, and grind them coarsely.
Place the cheese in a heavy or non-stick skillet with the milk and cream, and allow it to melt, stirring frequently. Remove the skillet from the heat, and combine the cream/cheese mix with the cooked leeks and the ground hazelnuts.
Cook the pasta ‘al dente’ (for instructions, check my article here) and drain it, setting aside a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Toss the pasta with the cheese sauce and a little cooking water; sprinkle with pepper, decorate with thyme and serve hot.

** If you are watching your diet, you can play with the proportions of milk and cream (or just skip to one of my vegetable-based pasta sauces :-)

Pumpkin Soup with Pomegranate and the meaning of Sukkot


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Sukkot is an eight-day harvest holiday that starts four days after the fast of Yom Kippur; it is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
In ancient Israel Jews would build huts (Sukkah = hut) near the end of their fields during harvest season, so that they could spend more time in the fields and harvest more efficiently. For us, Sukkot is a reminder of how our ancestors  lived while wandering in the desert for 40 years (Leviticus 23:42-43), moving from one place to another and using tents (sukkot) for temporary shelter. Associated with these two meanings are three  main traditions:

1 – Building a sukkah.
2 – Eating inside it.
3 – Waving the lulav and etrog.

(above, Sukkot seen by Italian artist Emanuele Luzzati)

Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot , those observant Jews who have the space construct a sukkah in their backyards or decks (in cities like Manhattan or Venice with a lot of small apartments, it’s normal to just share meals in the synagogue’s sukkah). In ancient times most people would just “move” to their sukkas for the whole holiday and even sleep there: nowadays few do, especially in colder climates, but it’s still customary to eat meals in the hut, or at least snacks, reciting a special blessing.

 

Since Sukkot celebrates the harvest, there is a custom of waving the etrog and lulav: (a kind of citron, similar to a big lemon/lime, and a bunch of myrtle,willow and palm twigs). The lulav and etrog are waved in all directions representing God’s power over the whole creation. All kids love decorating the sukkah with drawings, and mine are no exception!

 

As a fall harvest holiday, Sukkot celebrates the bounty of the new crops, and its food traditions revolve around seasonal vegetables and fruit. In this sense, some believe that the pilgrims may have come up with the idea of Thanksgiving inspired by the Biblical descriptions of Sukkot: after all, the Puritan Christians had landed on American shores in search of a place where they would finallly be free to worship as they pleased – a recurrent theme in Jewish history. Besides, just like the ancient Israelites, the pilgrims also had to dwell in makeshift huts (built with the help of the Indians) during their first cold winter in Massachusetts!

That’s why so many of you, unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, will immediately notice how Thanksgiving’s culinary themes mirror those of Sukkot.

All kinds of  vegetables and fruit grace our tables, together with stuffed pies and pastries: stuffing one food inside another is in fact another metaphor for abundance. Many of these symbolic foods have already appeared on our Rosh haShana table, often in the form of a seder (served in a specific order and reciting blessings on each one).

Among these seasonal offerings, both the pumpkin and pomegranate stand out: in Venice we like our favorite local variety of pumpkin so much that we call it “suca baruca” (from the Hebrew “baruch”, “blessed / holy pumpkin”); as to pomegranate, it is so important in the Jewish tradition that Torah scrolls are decorated with silver ones – apparently because this fruit contains more or less 613 seeds, the number of the Mitzvot (commandments)  that Jews are given to observe.

Why not combine these two symbols into a super-pretty and super-festive soup?

 

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 2 lbs cubed pumpkin
  • 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
  • vegetable stock
  • 1/2 orange (or 1/3 cup orange juice)
  • 1 pomegranate (or 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds plus 1/3 cup pomegranate juice)
  • 3 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons coarsely ground hazelnuts (optional)

Directions

Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion and allow it to cook until soft (add little water if it starts sticking). Add the pumpkin and allow it to cook for 5 minutes, stirring. Add the orange zest and 1/3 cup of pomegranate juice (you can skip the juice if you prefer a less tangy flavor and a lighter color). Keep cooking until the juice has evaporated, then add enough hot vegetable stock to barely cover the pumpkin, salt and pepper, and cook until very tender. (at least 30 minutes).
Process with a hand mixer; adding more salt and stock as needed, and pour into individual bowls; decorate with the hazelnuts (if using), a few pomegranate seeds and  salt. In the context of a dairy meal, you can decorate it with a little sour cream or Greek yogurt. Serve warm.

Fish in Saor – Venetian marinated sweet-and-sour fish


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Most American Jews love to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast with a spread of smoked fish, lox, whitefish, herring, and of course bagels and coffee.

In this spirit, last year I had posted a recipe for a simple fish with raisins, which is served in several Italian communities on the same occasion. However, this year I couldn’t resist sharing with you a more elaborate option, one of my favorites: Fish “in Saor”.

Saor” means  “flavor”, in our dialect, and indeed this sweet-and-sour preparation bursts with such flavor that over the centuries it has become THE signature dish of Venice: it’s served as “cicheti’ (tapas) in the many osterias, and as hoers d’oeuvres in the finest restaurants, or passed from boat to boat under the fireworks at the traditional Redentore festival in July.

Many Italians believe that the raisins and pine nuts in savory dishes (as in our stewed carrots, or our spinach frittata for Passover, and dishes with salt cod) always betray Jewish origins. However, Saor was known in Venice long before the expulsion of Jews from Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy, as witnessed by a recipe in the Libro per Cuoco, compiled by an anonymous Venetian at the end of the 14th century. Obviously it’s still possible that the recipe was introduced by some Jews who passed through venice before the expulsion, but it’s not the only explanation.

Venice after the Crusades (1069-1270) had become the most prosperous city in Europe thanks to international commerce. At the peak of its power, it had more than 3,300 ships: the merchants would bring spices from India and China, olive oil from Southern Italy and Greece, sugar from Sicily, unusual fruit from North Africa, and Venetians in general were experimenting with culinary “fusion” like nobody else in Italy or Europe!

The fact that it made fish last for weeks without refrigeration made the Saor a huge hit with the Venetian merchants/mariners, who spent months at a time at sea. As to the Jews, they might have known it from the countries they had to leave, and may have contributed to its increasing popularity in Venice. Besides featuring some of their favorite ingredients, Saor could be made in advance and eaten cold for Shabbat and the holidays!

HERE IS A STEP-BY-STEP:

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 lb. large sardines, OR small soles; scaled, cleaned, gutted (heads off! 🙂
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 3/4 cup olive oil for the marinade
  • more olive oil for frying
  • 2 lb. white onion, sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts

INSTRUCTIONS

Ask your fishmonger to wash the sardines (or soles) accurately, gut them, scale them, take the heads off. At home, rinse them in fresh water and lay them well on paper towel.

Soak the raisins in the wine for at least 30 minutes. Heat oil in a 4-qt. pan over medium-high heat. Add onion; cook until browned, 10–12 minutes. Add vinegar, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until soft, 6–8 minutes. Stir in raisins, nuts, and salt and pepper; let cool.

Drench the sardines in flour (I do this by placing flour in a plastic bag. I add the fillets and shake the bag), and fry them in hot oil for about 3 minutes or until slightly golden. Drain them well on  paper towel and salt them.

When both the fish fillets and the onion marinade have cooled off, start layering them in a serving pan: start with a layer of onions, then a layer of fish), then again onions, fish, etc to end with the onions.

Seal with plastic wrap or foil, and refrigerate for al least 1 or 2 days before eating. It actually tastes even better before 4 or 5 days, and I’m told that with this preparation you could even forgo the refrigeration……

BOLLO – FRUIT CAKE TO BREAK THE YOM KIPPUR FAST


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Bollo is a sweet-but-not-too-sweet bread with raisins, candied zest, and/or anise seeds (depending on which city you live in), served in many Italian and Sephardic communities to end the Yom kippur fast.  Its name means simply “cake” in Spanish and Portuguese, a sign that we need to thank the Iberian exiles for  yet another yummy treat!

In Venice, we are literally handed a slice as we are walking out of synagogue at the end of services, on the steps. Obviously, even a piece of cardbord would taste great accompanied by a tall  glass of lemonade after 25 hours without food or water! However, this cake keeps being served over and over all through the fall holidays, upon entering the sukkah and until Shemini Atzeret. By then, we are usually stuffed, and I still love it – especially with jelly, for breakfast.

The Bollo is also one of the key elements of the “Tavola dell’Angelo” (the Angel’s table), a ritual table setting that several Venetian families prepare on the eve of Yom Kippur in their homes. The table is dressed in white, and decorated with harvest symbols such as pomegranates, flowers and corn. Jewish ritual objects, like prayer books Kiddush cups and candlesticks are also present. Finally, many families use sprouting wheat grains to write auspicious messages such as “Shana Tova”, or to draw symbols (like hands with the fingers spread out for the priestly blessing).

The center of the festive table are always the bollo and a cup or pitcher of water: a tease to humans during the long fast, these treats are in fact strictly reserved to a mysterious “angel”, in case he/she decides to pay a visit: Yom Kippur is, in fact, the holiest day in the Jewish year, the “Shabbat Shabbaton”, and… you never know!

If you happen to be in Venice around the fall holidays, don’t forget to try the bolo from the local kosher bakery, Volpe . You can also pop into the Giardino dei Melograni kosher hotel (by the Hosteria del Ghetto kosher restaurant) and check out their beautiful Angel’s Table.

But back to the Bollo….

  • about 5 cups flour (a little over 1 lb of 00 or all-purpose)
  • 25 gr fresh yeast, or use dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm water (mix 1/2 cold water and 1/2 very hot water)
  • 1 scarce cup sugar
  • a pinch of salt
  • 3 large eggs (if they are quite large, use 3 yolks and 2 whites)
  • 1/2 cup mild olive oil or seed oil
  • 1/2 cup raisins, plumped in warm water or brandy and drained
  • grated zest of one lemon
  • 1 1/2 tbsp candied lemon or orange zest (optional) OR aniseeds (optional)
  • 1 shot brandy, cognac or grappa
  • 1 egg yolk or more to glaze the surface

In a bowl, combine the yeast with the warm water and only about 1/4 of flour and 1/4 of the sugar . Mix well, cover with foil and allow to rest in a warm place for at least 1 hour (even overnight) or until doubled in size.  If your apartment is cold, you can turn the oven on and then off: once the oven is warm but not scolding hot, place the bowl with the mix inside, covered with aluminum foil.

Once the mix has more or less doubled in size, add the rest of the flour, the sugar, 3 eggs, and mix well by hand or in a stand mixer. Cover again and allow to rest again in a warm place for 2 hours or until it doubles in size again.

Add the rest of the ingredients and knead again for a few minutes, then shape it into two oval breads.

Cover again with a towel and allow to rest and rise for at least 2 more hours or until light and fluffy and doubled in size.

Brush the top with the egg yolk (slightly beaten with very little water). If your oven tends to be dry, you can also spray lightly with a fine mist of ice water (to prevent it from darkening too much), and add a small pyrex pot or pan full of water in the oven, to keep the air moist. Your oven should be preheated at 450F. Bake at this temperature only for the first 5 to 7 minutes, then lower to 360 for another 35 or 40 minutes. Baking time varies depending on your oven.

***P.S. if you are not much of a baker, there are quicker ways to break the fast Italian-style: try quince paste with any simple cookies, or – if you can tolerate alcohol – the Piedmontese “Bruscadela“: layers of toasted challah soaked for a few hours in mulled wine (simmered with cinnamon, cloves and sugar). I had this once and it made me sleep for 13 hours.

Fluffy Honey and Orange Cake


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In Italy, “Miele” (honey), is classified as compulsively as cheeses and olive oil – by area of origins, type of flower, and depending on whether pieces of honeycomb were included… we have strawberry-tree (corbezzolo) and Eucalyptus honeys from Sardinia, chestnut honey from Piedmont, millefiori (thousand flowers) from Tuscany, orange blossom from Sicily, acacia from the Pre-Alps, and many more. Every fall, I take a trip to Zebar’s or Eataly where I stress out about which kind will grace my cake this Rosh HaShana!

Rather than blaming this on my all-Italian obsession with ingredients, you should try for yourselves! After all, when the Almighty promised our forefathers that they would be freed from Egyptian bondage, the Promised Land was described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus. 3: 17, etc.) – and not with “milk and sugar”!

In this cake, the orange balances out any excessive sweetness of the honey.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium/large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 cup oil (canola oil or 1/2 light olive 1/2 almond oil)
  • about 300 gr (3/4 a medium/large jar) liquid honey
  • 1/2 cup potato starch
  • 1 1/2 cup 00 or all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp orange liqueur (like triple sec) or brandy
  • zest of one organic orange
  • 1/4 cup of the orange juice
  • 1 package (16 g) baking powder
  • a pinch of salt

Directions

Using a hand mixer, beat the yolks with the honey until frothy and thick (about 3 minutes). Very slowly add the oil, and beat until creamy. Add the honey, the potato starch, orange zest and the liqueur. Now add the flour (mixed with the baking powder) a bit at a time, alternating it with the orange juice.

In a separate, clean and degreased bowl, or in your stand mixer, beat the whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Now combine the egg whites with the batter, with the help of a spatula, using upward movements.

Pour into a 9.5″ or 10″ Savarin or bundt pan (well greased and dusted with flour). Since honey cakes tend to darken more than sugar-based ones, I prefer these cake pans, with a hole, because the inside will cook faster, before the outside has time to darken. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 F for about 30-35 minutes, or until done when tested with a toothpick. To keep the color lighter, you can cover with aluminium foil for the last 10 minutes of baking.


Quince Paste for Rosh HaShana


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Quinces are from the same family as apples and pears. They are much uglier than both, and they taste horrible when eaten raw (I tried!). Feed them to the geese? Think again: as usual, our great-great-great grandmothers were able to turn even this ugly-duckling of a fruit into a delicious treat. So delicious, in fact, that many communities in Italy and elsewhere eat them instead of apples and honey as Tapuach, the first element in our Rosh HaShana seder symbolizing a sweet new year.
(Other Italian traditions begin with dates – in Aramaic,Temareh – for the first blessing, and conclude with figs, apples or quinces).
I hope you try this easy recipe and offer it next to your apples and honey. You will understand why, when quinces were still hard to come by in Manhattan stores, a friend of mine’s 80-year-old Italian grandmother (who shall go unnamed) would be found climbing up the trees in the garden of the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan before Rosh HaShana. We saw her in action and she was quite agile.

Ingredients
– 2 pounds quinces
– 1 and 1/2 pound sugar
– 1 organic lemon
– 4 or 5 cloves

Directions
Clean the quinces, eliminating all the fuzz and any parts that are damaged..
Cook them in a pot of boiling water with half an organic lemon and the cloves.
When they are as soft as boiled potatoes (about an hour) drain them, discarding the lemon and cloves and setting aside about a ladleful of the cooking water.
Halve the quinces and allow them to cool off; then peel them, eliminate the cores, and reduce them into a smooth puree using a food mill or an electric mixer.
Combine this puree with the sugar and 1/2  a ladleful of the cooking water. Cook on low heat for about an hour, stirring regularly. The paste is ready when it sticks to the spoon.
Wet a large cutting board or your countertop, and pour the cotognata on top, forming an even 1/2-inch
layer.. After it has started to dry, you can cover it with parchment paper. After at least 24 hours (48 is better), cut into shapes with cookie cutters.

The Jewish Press: Italian Comfort Food


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