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December 2012 - Dinner in Venice

Archives for December 2012

Prosecco and White Grape Risotto


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If you read my previous post about our New Year’s traditions, you know about the importance that Italians place upon some food symbols of plenty. This occasionally verges on the superstitious, and on New Year’s Eve you will see some people stuffing themselves with lentils and grapes as if there’s no tomorrow. The Spanish also follow this custom of eating grapes at midnight, but they stop at 12, one for each month of the new year.

Both in the Judeo-Christian and in the pagan/Greek-Roman traditions, grape clusters deliver such a symbolic punch that it’s quite clear why they have become the center of our celebrations for Capodanno (New Year’s Eve); either in their natural form, which can be appreciated by everybody beyond age, cultural and religious barriers, or in the form of wine – the bubbly, sparkly spumante for the midnight toast! As proven by countless sculptures, frescos and paintings, grapes in Italy have been for hundreds of years the allegory of wealth and well-being.

In Venice and the Veneto, another food associated with images of fertility and of prosperity is rice. Rice is thrown at the bride and groom at a wedding to wish them a lifetime full of blessings (in Roman times, wheat was used for this purpose – but given the role that rice has played in Northern Italian economy and gastronomy for the past 500 years, it has long earned pride of place!)

Finally, all of these ingredients together – grapes, spumante and rice – find their place from time immemorial on my family’s New Year’s table. About half an hour before midnight, I start cooking my signature risotto, which I keep “all’onda” (like the waves, creamy and liquidy – that’s how we like it in Venice) and toss with really good butter and parmigiano. With a pomegranate salad and sides of lentils and salmon, followed by a slice of panettone and a fragrant flute of spumante or prosecco, it’s the perfect start to a delicious new year!

Happy 2013! Here are a few recipes from some of my favorite bloggers that would also be perfect for an Italian New Year’s Eve:

And Here is my New Year’s Risotto:

  • 4 cups or as needed, vegetable broth
  • 4 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1 shallot or ½ white onion, very finely chopped
  • 3/4 cup Vialone Nano or Arborio rice
  • 3/4 cup Brut Spumante, Prosecco or Champagne
  • 1 cup white or rose’ grapes (seedless or seeded), halved
  • 1/4 cup or to taste freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions (serves 4, about 30 minutes)

In a saucepan, bring the stock to a boil, reduce the heat and keep at a low simmer.

In a large heavy or non-stick saucepan, melt 1 tbsp butter, add the shallot and cook for 3 minutes until tender. Add the rice and stir , coating it in the butter. Continue “toasting” the rice, stirring, for 3 minutes Add the Prosecco, Brut or Champagne, and simmer until it has evaporated. Add 1/2 cup of  hot broth and stir until almost completely absorbed (2 minutes). Continue cooking the rice, adding the broth a ladleful at a time, stirring almost constantly and allowing the broth to absorb before adding the next ladleful, until the rice is “al dente” (tender but firm to the bite) and the mixture is very creamy. About half-way through the cooking add the halved grapes. It usually takes about 20 minutes total. Turn off the heat, adjust the salt and pepper, stir in the remaining butter, and parmigiano cheese to taste. Serve immediately.

Turkey Hazelnut Skewers with Pomegranate Sauce


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Turkey Hazelnut Skewers with Pomegranate Sauce

In case you haven’t figured it out on your own yet, Italians love to party, and even if Christmas (or, as in my case, Hanukkah) has left us exhausted and bloated, we would never give up an opportunity to celebrate again – and here comes New Year’s Eve!

As opposed to the religious holidays, New Year’s Eve is usually spent with friends rather than family – which can translate into much wilder festivities! Over-the-top midnight fireworks welcome the new year in the center of most towns (Naples boasts one of the best), but people also tend to include firecrackers and sparklers in their private parties, which keeps the ERs quite busy., Talking about accidents, some places in the south follow the puzzling custom of throwing old things out the window to symbolically accept the freshness of the New Year: watch out for appliances such as washers and dryers around midnight!!!!

In Venice, where I grew up, people stick to safer games, such as playing Italian bingo (tombola), and perpetuate the suggestive tradition of wearing red underwear (for love, and good luck), hoping to be kissed under the mistletoe at midnight.

But what can’t be missed is the breathtaking midnight celebration in St. Mark’s Square, complete with fireworks, music, prosecco and bellini toasts, and exchanges of kisses at midnight. The most sophisticated make sure to by tickets for the spectacular Concerto at La Fenice Theater, while the adventurous take a chilling swim in the waters of the Venice Lido.

As always in Italy, food also plays a major role. Everybody seems to serve lentils, which, thanks to their coin-like shape, symbolize money for the coming year. The traditional dinner often includes a cotechino, a large pork sausage, or a zampone, stuffed pig’s foot, which I am going to skip since I keep kosher – but you can check them out on my friends’ websites,  Memorie di Angelina and Academia Barilla  (the idea is that the fat in pork also symbolizes wealth). Lastly, grapes, which everybody gorges on following the saying “eat grapes on New Year and count money the rest of the year”, and the pomegranate, which is associated with abundance and fertility. From ancient Egypt and Greece, to Persia, to Judaism and Christianity, the Hindus and the Chinese, so many different cultures have seen the pomegranate as a symbol of prosperity, that it seems to me like the perfect choice for a celebration that in Italy today unites people of different backgrounds (much like the American Thanksgiving). In the Jewish tradition we also serve it on Rosh haShana, the Jewish New Year, as a symbol of prosperity and of all things good (our sages say that all its seeds represent the 613 commandments in the Torah). What a better way to ring in 2013 with high hopes of health, peace and love?

Turkey Hazelnut Kebabs with Pomegranate Sauce

  • 1 pomegranate
  • 1 clove garlic, slightly pressed
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or prosecco
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 1 lb ground turkey (if you are on a low-fat diet, ask for white meat only)
  • 1 scallion, very finely minced
  • 1 slice of bread, crust removed (for GF,1 medium mashed potato)
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ½ cup plain breadcrumbs or panko crumbs (you can use GF crumbs)
  • 1/2 cup warm stock
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped hazelnuts
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp salt or to taste
  • 1/3 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp freshly chopped parsley
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions (prep time: 20-30 minutes; cooking time: 30 minutes; total time: about 1 hr)

Halve a pomegranate, and set aside the seeds. Press them with a potato masher to obtain about a cup of juice. Set aside.

In a heavy (or non-stick) saucepan or skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil and add a sprig of rosemary and 1 clove of garlic.When the garlic is golden brown, discard it and add ½ cup wine and the pomegranate juice to the pan. Season with salt and pepper and allow to thicken on low heat, stirring occasionally. Add the pomegranate seeds and cook for 2 more minutes.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a small skillet, add the scallion or onion and cook until translucent, adding a little water if needed to prevent it from sticking or turning brown. Drain the scallion from the oil and let it cool.
In the meantime, soak the bread in broth until soft, then drain, squeeze all the liquid out, and set aside.
In a bowl, combine the ground turkey with the cooked scallion, the salt and pepper, parsley, drained bread (or mashed potato), nutmeg, egg;  mix everything together, working quickly with your (if you are not on a low-sodium diet you can also add two slices of a natural salami, very finely minced). Allow to rest for two minutes until it firms up, making the mixture easier to shape.
Only if necessary, add 1 tbsp bread crumbs: the mixture should be soft and wet. Shape into 1” to 1 ½” sized meatballs. Roll the meatballs into a dish filled with the hazelnuts and bread crumbs. Line a baking tray with a sheet of parchment paper. Brush or spray the parchment lightly with a small amount of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil (do not use baking sprays! Just transfer a good olive oil into a spray bottle). Thread the meatballs onto skewers (If you’re using wooden skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes before cooking or you’ll cause a fire.)

Arrange the meatballs on the parchment in one layer and lightly spray the top with a little more olive oil.
Bake until golden (about 30 minutes) in a preheated oven at 400 F. Serve with the pomegranate sauce. Enjoy!

Surprise Holiday Chest


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From Chanukkah to Christmas and of course birthdays, most of you will have to admit that part of the fun about giving and receiving presents lies in the packaging and wrap, which add an element of mystery and surprise to any gift. They conceal the object’s shape and any writings on the box, and increase our excitement and anticipation. For the aesthetes among us, the packaging can outshine the gift (or it can be used to hide a more metaphysical content – for more on this, you can read one of my favorite children’s books, “The Gift of Nothing”).

This rule of course applies to food, which is why chocolates seem to taste so much better when they come in a gorgeous box. The Japanese take this to the next level, cutting their vegetables into beautiful shapes and serving their kids’ school meals in lacquered bento boxes.  This probably sounds like too much work and most of us would not be willing to do it everyday, but when it comes to holiday desserts, I know that we are all willing to go the extra mile.

So here is a special edible gift that your family will love! The mascarpone mousse, which will remind you of Tiramisu, is hidden in a treasure chest made of “Croccante” (Italian almond brittle). This type of candy, popular throughout Italy around the holidays and at fun fairs, is a mixture of caramelized sugar and almonds, easy to make, and easy to eat: you can break it into pieces and serve it with coffee, give it to kids in lieu of candy, or grind it up and sprinkle it over gelato. The only problem is that once you taste it, it will be hard to stop.

Happy Holidays!

SURPRISE HOLIDAY CHEST (Scrigno di Croccante)

(For the chest)

  • 2 and 1/3 cups blanched almonds
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 ½ cup sugar

(for the filling)

  • 2/3 pounds Mascarpone
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 4 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped or coarsely grated.
  • ½ cup sugar

Grind the almonds very coarsely in your food processor, or chop them with a knife. In a saucepan, melt the sugar on medium heat with the filtered juice of half the lemon. Yum, caramel!

Add the almonds and keep cooking until the sugar has completely melted and has turned dark golden brown. Double-Yuml!!!

Cut a circle from parchment, about 9 ½” in diameter. Place it on top of a larger sheet of paper or foil. Now pour the caramel on top of the circle and spread it all over, it should be between 1/3” and ½” thick.

Carefully lift the circle and trasfer it onto a round 8 “ baking pan, lifting the sides and pressing them against the sides of the pan with a tablespoon dipped in lemon juice, until the caramel has molded to the shape of the pan. On a smaller disc of parchment, make a second disc of caramel (slightly less than 8″ in diameter), which will become the “lid’.

Whip the cream with an electric whisk, and combine it with the sugar, mascarpone, and amost ¾ of the chocolate. Pour into the caramel container, and top with the lid. Decorate with the rest of the chocolate, melted in a bain-marie, poured on top of parchment and cut into stars – or simply grated.  Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.

Chocolaty Vienna-Style Coffee


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Have you ever heard of “Caffe Viennese” or “Vienna Coffee”?

I have to confess that I never really checked if it actually has anything to do with Vienna, or if it does my version may not be the most authentic: I discovered this perfect beverage during my college years, in the historic cafes of Venice and Trieste – such as the Florian and the Tommaseo – and regarded it as my grown-up upgrade from Italian hot chocolate. My roommates and I found that it helped immensely with the cold, the fog, the all-nighters before exams, and heartless boyfriends .

While in general I find that most elaborate coffee drinks are just bad examples of “gilding the lily”, please trust me with this: it’s an improvement upon perfection!

Keep in mind that we are not talking about ordinary ingredients. Yes, chocolate tastes great, but there is more to it than what meets the lips: it’s full of chemicals that are associated with mood and emotion (phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and tryptophan, since you are asking), to the point that a shocking percentage of women report to prefer chocolate to sex (sorry, guys!). Daniele Piomelli, from the University of California, compares its effects to those of marijuana.

And don’t get me started about coffee. How many of us would have graduated from college had it not been for those midnight Americanos, and could we still call New York “the city that never sleeps” without the omnipresent to-go cups of joe?

Obviously, the pairing of the two is a marriage made in heaven – as long as if you don’t suffer from gastric ulcers.

Do not ask me how many calories are in a cup of this concoction. I have no idea. And besides, thinking about the calories may just make you crave it more. Go ahead and  enjoy it, just try to stop after the first two cups!

CAFFE’ VIENNESE

Serves 4

  • 4 small cups of espresso “ristretto” (strong and concentrated)
  • 4 ounces really good bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp sugar, or to taste
  • Whipped cream to decorate, if you like (I prefer it without)
  • Ground cinnamon, if liked

Bring some water to a boil in a saucepan and place a second saucepan or heat-proof bowl on top to create a bain-marie. Add the chocolate pieces or shavings to the top saucepan or bowl, and allow them to melt, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Add the heavy cream and sugar and keep stirring. Add the espresso and keep heating until some bubbles form and it thickens. Remove from the heat, and add cinnamon or chocolate liqueur if liked. You can also decorate with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.                                                                                   I probably don’t need to tell you this, but… serve immediately!

Rebecchini – Fried Polenta Sandwiches


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Rebecchini- Fried Polenta Sandwiches

Maize polenta is creamy, delicious and filling, and for centuries represented the main staple in the poor, everyday cuisine of a large part of Northern Italy. Once it cools off and hardens, it can be recycled into a variety of dishes, from a “pasticcio” with meat or cheeses, to a cake, to these savory fried sandwiches (a classic Jewish Italian recipe, and perfect for Hanukkah). If you don’t like anchovies ( I LOVE them!), you can replace them with smoked cheese.

If you have never made polenta before, check out these detailed instructions on one of my favorite Italian food blogs in English, Memorie di Angelina.

  • 1 cup polenta (finely ground or quick cooking)
  • salt (about 1 tsp)
  • water to make polenta (follow instruction on the package, or about 3 cups)
  • 12 anchovies (salt packed is better, but oil-packed is OK))
  • 4-5 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil to make anchovy paste
  • 1 clove garlic (whole)
  • dredging flour
  • 3 eggs
  • olive oil for frying

 In a large heavy pot, boil water and add salt. Pour in the corn meal in a thin stream whisking vigorously (use a whisk, not a spoon, to avoid clumping) and cook for about one minute or two before switching to a wooden spoon as the polenta thickens. Keep stirring until the polenta is fully cooked  (about 30 minutes for regular polenta, and 3-5  minutes for “instant” polenta). Pour onto an oiled marble surface or cookie sheet or parchment paper. Spread out flat in a layer that’s about 1/4-inch thick, and allow to cool completely.

In the meantime, rinse the anchovies (removing any bones). Heat olive oil in a small skillet on medium heat with the garlic clove. When the garlic is light brown, discard it and add the anchovies, stirring until they melt into a paste. Set aside.

Pour about 2” oil into a heavy-bottomed wide pot with tall sides (I use my le Creuset Dutch oven) or into your deep fryer. Heat the oil until it forms many tiny bubbles around a piece of bread or cracker thrown into the oil. If you have a candy thermometer, or are using a deep fryer, the right temperature is about 355 to 365 F.

Using a knife or a cookie cutter, cut the polenta into regular triangles or rounds about 2” wide.

Spread half of the polenta pieces with the anchovy paste and cover with a second piece, making “sandwiches. Dredge the sandwiches in flour and then in the slightly beaten eggs, and fry for about 2 to 4 minutes or until golden brown, making sure to maintain the temperature of the oil and to flip them only once (if you keep turning them, they absorb more oil).

Drain on a triple layer of paper towel and serve hot.

Fried Chicken Cutlets, Italian-Jewish Style – by Jayne Cohen


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Today I have a very special surprise for you: a guest post by my friend Jayne Cohen, a food writer and expert whose passion for Italy and its cuisine should earn her an honorary Italian passport. Among many other accomplishments, Jayne is the author of one of my most treasured cookbooks, Jewish Holiday Cooking, which includes 200 tasteful, elegant and special recipes for the holidays. My personal favorite is her hamantaschen with dates and pistachios (yum!).

Visit her blog, Beyond Brisket, on JWI Magazine! For Hanukkah, Jayne is sharing her version of Italian Fried Chicken, and her memories of Casale Monferrato: enjoy!

A Hanukkah Story from Casale Monferrato

Text and recipe adapted from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover’s Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen(print and e-book, John Wiley & Sons)

Like most travelers, we were lured by the taste of Barolo, the scent of truffles and extraordinary hazelnuts, but what we will remember most about Piedmont is the synagogue we found in Casale Monferrato.

The small Jewish community in Casale, located about fifty miles east of Turin, most likely began with the refugees Ferdinand and Isabella expelled from Spain in 1492. Although there were periods of crisis and some restrictions, life under the Italian Gonzaga dukes was relatively calm for the Jews, even prosperous for some. The synagogue was built in 1595.

But when the French House of Savoy annexed the district, conditions quickly deteriorated. In 1745, Jews were crowded into a ghetto around the synagogue. Contacts between Jews and Catholics were limited, and at night they were strictly forbidden. Not until 1848 were the Jews of Piedmont granted full rights.

Now there are no longer enough Jews to make a minyan in Casale, except on the High Holidays, when Jews from other communities attend the services.

From the narrow little street, La Sinagoga degli Argenti looked  like one of the apartment buildings, but inside was one of the most exquisite synagogues we have ever seen. It was late afternoon in July, and light filtered through the windows of the sanctuary highlighting for us the subtle pastels, gilded carved symbols, and gold filigree work. Our guide–who like one we had had years ago in Venice, was not Jewish but extremely knowledgeable about the synagogue and Jewish life–pointed out the beautifully painted ceiling, a fresco of sky and clouds, whose panels announce in four Hebrew words, “This is the Gate to Heaven.”

There is also an impressive museum, showcasing art and furnishings acquired from other Piedmont congregations, antique dealers, and private collections, and life-size dioramas of many of the holidays. The basement of the museum, where matzoh once was baked for all the Jews of the Monferrato region, now houses the Museum of Lights, a remarkable collection of menorahs.

The Hanukkah story of the tiny flame that produced a lasting light is the story of Jewish continuity, and the Jewish community of Casale has adopted it as its own. The museum commissions new hanukkiyot from renowned contemporary artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, who, in the museum’s words, “form a bridge between the lights of the past, which must never go out, and those of the future, which must continue to be lit.” One menorah is formed of two sculpted hands, the thumbs entwined to form the shamash, the flames shooting up from the fingertips; another was inspired by the notes people insert into the cracks of the Western Wall.

In the courtyard, our guide told us that for the past several years, the synagogue has invited members of all the other monotheistic faiths in the area when Hanukkah begins. Another Hanukkah story–a miracle too, perhaps–that has particular resonance for Casale.

For it would be dark, of course, when the Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and Jews gathered to light the menorah candles here between the elegant colonnaded courtyard columns–where once upon a time any contact between Jews and Gentiles after nightfall would have been prohibited.

“Hanukkah,” as Antonio Recalcati, one of the Catholic menorah artists has said, “celebrates life and light after centuries of darkness.”

Fried Chicken Cutlets, Italian-Jewish Style

”The logs of Jerusalem were of the cinnamon tree, and when lit, their fragrance pervaded the whole of Erez Israel.”–Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat

Jews have appreciated sweet-smelling cinnamon since ancient times. Centuries later in Europe even poor Jews usually had access to the spice: inhaling its heady aroma was central to the Havdalah ceremony that ushered out their Sabbath every week.

This fried chicken lightly flavored with cinnamon is a traditional Hanukkah specialty in Italy. Used without any sweetening, the cinnamon acts in concert here with savory garlic and lemon to produce a very fragrant yet subtle marinade. Because of the Havdalah connection, it makes an especially lovely main course on the Saturday night that occurs during Hanukkah week.

To accentuate the delicacy of the dish, I dip the chicken in egg after dusting it lightly with matzoh meal. And I fry each batch with a few pieces of celery–a trick sent in to Cook’s Illustrated magazine by one of its readers–which makes the chicken beautifully golden and more flavorful.

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 4 large garlic cloves, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional for frying
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken cutlets, trimmed of fat and gristle
  • About 1 cup matzoh meal (use commercially ground–you’ll need a very fine, powdery consistency here)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 or 3 celery stalks, including leaves, washed, dried well, and cut into 4- to 5-inch lengths
  • Accompaniment: lemon wedges
  • Optional garnish: parsley sprigs

In a large bowl or nonreactive baking dish, whisk together the cinnamon, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken and toss to coat thoroughly. Cover and marinate for 2 to 3 hours in the refrigerator, turning the chicken occasionally. Or marinate the chicken in a large, resealable plastic bag.

Set up a work station near the stove. Spread 1 cup matzoh meal on a large sheet of wax paper or a plate and season it with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Next to it, in a wide shallow bowl or pie pan, beat the eggs with a few drops of water until well blended and smooth.

Dredge the cutlets well with the matzoh meal, rubbing it lightly into the chicken. Make sure each cutlet is covered all over with meal. If necessary, add more matzoh meal, remembering to add more seasoning.

Heat about 1/2 cup olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot and fragrant but not smoking. Shake a cutlet to remove all excess matzoh meal, then coat it thoroughly with the egg and slip it quickly into the hot oil. Being careful not to crowd the pan, add more chicken, dipping each piece in the egg just before placing it in the pan. Slip a few pieces of celery in between the cutlets as they fry. Using two spatulas (tongs would ruin the delicate egg coating), carefully turn the chicken when it is light golden, 2 to 3 minutes. Sauté the other side for 2 to 3 minutes longer, until cooked through. Turn the celery pieces when you turn the chicken. Transfer the cutlets to a platter lined with paper towels so they can drain. Discard the cooked celery. Keep the chicken warm in a 200 degree F oven until the remaining pieces are done. Continue frying any remaining chicken in batches, in the same way, adding fresh celery to the pan with each batch. Wipe out the skillet and replace the oil if some of the coating falls off and burns.

Serve the chicken right away, accompanied by the lemon wedges and garnished, if you’d like, with fresh parsley. It really needs no sauce.

Panna Cotta alla Melagrana – Pomegranate Cream Custard


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Panna cotta (cooked cream in Italian) is a traditional dessert from Northern Italy, prepared by simmering milk, sugar and cream and mixing them with gelatin. It literally takes minutes to make, but never fails to “wow” the guests. For a holiday version, I spiced it up with ponegranate seeds – a symbol of prosperity and good luck in many different traditions, not to mention a perfect contrast of color and flavor with the cream. Serve it for Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year, or a romantic anniversary dinner!

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2/3 cup whole milk,
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, cut into 2
  • 1 package powdered gelatin
  • 2 cups pomegranate juice
  • 1/3 cup pomegranate seeds

Soften about 2/3 of the gelatin in a few spoonfuls the cold milk. Heat the rest of the milk with the sugar and the cut vanilla bean. Once it’s hot, stir in the gelatin mixture and mix until smooth. Allow to cool, discard the vanilla bean, and stir in the heavy cream. Pour about 3/4″ of this mixture into 4 glass cups and transfer into the freezer for a few minutes until the mixture thickens.

Soften the remaining gelatin in about 2 or 3 tbsp of the pomegranate juice. Heat the rest of the pomegranate juice, stir in the softened gelatin, mix well and allow to cool. Once the first layer of cream mixture has thickened, pour in a layer of pomegranate mixture, mixed with a few pomegranate seeds, and put the cups back into the freezer. Repeat with one more layer of cream and one of gelatin and pomegranate seeds. Top with a few more pomegranate seeds right before serving.

Pagine Ebraiche- Italian Jewish Publication


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Pagine.ebraiche.Dec.2012

Bread and Spinach Dumplings – Strangolapreti


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In contrast with today’s rampant carb-phobia, bread was considered for many centuries the most sacred of foods. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, bread was always a symbol of God’s generosity toward mankind and of the fecundity of the earth- it’s still the center of countless religious rituals, not to mention superstitions and everyday idioms.

As a consequence, in many cultures there was always a stigma associated with wasting it or throwing it out, not only among the poor, but even in wealthier households; which is how bread became the main protagonist of the history of sustainable cooking.

Growing up in Italy, I learned how to store bread in paper bags so it wouldn’t become moldy. Rather, it dried out: after a couple of days it could be soaked in water, milk or broth and turn into thick soups or bread cakes, or add fluffiness to meatballs. If we waited a bit longer, we would simply grate it into crumbs. Each region has its traditional recipes, but it was during my vacations in the Italian Alps that I discovered what became my personal favorite.

In northeastern Italy, mountains and glaciers soar to almost 13,000 feet, contributing to a panorama so majestic that some say it makes you feel closer to God. My dad loved rock-climbing, and ever since I was a little girl, he would take me along for his more leisurely hikes. This was our special time together, while my mom would wait for us down in the chalet because she suffers from vertigo! That would give her plenty of time to experiment with the local cuisine, which she learned from the local women, in particular the phenomenal Nonna Plava, an old lady who used to run a small hotel with her son and daughter-in-law, and loved sharing her recipes. One of the best is the Strangolapreti, gnocchi-size stale bread and greens dumplings that are served with melted butter and cheese.

In the Italian Alps, especially in the Trentino region, you can find many different versions of dumplings made from stale bread; the most famous are canderli (similar to knoedels, and to matzah balls), and strangolapreti.  This curious name, which literally means “priest-stranglers” (!) is also used to describe different types of pasta and dumplings in other regions. When I was little, I thought that the recipe must have been invented by some anti-clerical, communist grandmother!

I later learned that after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) prohibited the consumption of meat on Fridays, this became one of the traditional dishes for that day, and the legend goes that the clergy enjoyed it so much that they almost choked on it. Who could blame them? These dumplings are simply addictive, and I’ve risked the same fate more than once.

The most important thing to remember when making them (as with potato gnocchi) is to keep a light hand with the flour, and add it only a little at a time; if you add too much, rather than with priest-stranglers, you’ll end up with weapons.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb Swiss chard or fresh spinach, hard stems removed
  • 8 ounces stale bread, coarsely chopped in the food processor
  • 1 ½ cup  milk
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 to 6 tbsp white flour
  • 2 pinches grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • black pepper to taste
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons butter, or to taste
  • a few fresh sage leaves

Instructions

Place the bread in bowl, cover with the milk, and mix.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt and the greens, and blanch for about 3 minutes. Drain, and dip in ice water to preserve the green color. Drain and squeeze well trough a colander and chop finely.

Squeeze any excess milk out of the bread; combine with the greens, eggs, flour and nutmeg until the mixture holds; if necessary, add more breadcrumbs rather than flour, but the mixture should be very wet. On a floured surface, divide the dough into 5 pieces. Dust your hands with flour, and  roll the pieces into 1/2 inch thick logs. Cut the logs into 1-inch lengths, and place the dumplings onto a floured pan or parchment..

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add salt, and cook the dumplings in batches without overcrowding them.  They are ready when they  rise to the surface; remove them with a slotted spoon, and place on a sheet pan (in a single layer).

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the sage leaves and cook until the butter begins to brown. Remove from heat, toss the dumplings, and serve, garnishing with the whole sage leaves. Drizzle with remaining butter and top with little black pepper and abundant grated cheese.