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February 2013 - Dinner in Venice

Archives for February 2013

Artichoke Sformatini


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sformatini di carciofi

Behind a tough, thorny covering, the artichoke hides a tender and fragrant heart. Through the centuries, this contrast has inspired a number of literary productions, from Greek legends to contemporary poetry. And with all due respect to my Israeli friends, the artichoke’s reputation  in this sense even precedes that of the “Sabra”! While we think of the artichoke as a vegetable, it is technically the edible and tasty bud of a flower, which makes it even more romantic – not to mention the satisfaction of finally eating something that it took us two hours and a couple of knife accidents to clean.

In Italy, we are all notoriously obsessed with local food, and we all insist that our particular regional variety is the best (note to my Roman friends: please don’t even bother to comment and criticize under this post, our differences on the topic can not be reconciled!). Italian Jews like me are possibly even more passionate than the others about this topic, given that until at least the 1800s in Northern and Central Italy the Gentiles would not go anywhere near artichokes, which were considered some crazy Jewish ingredient.

In Venice, we buy the purple artichokes that come from Sant’Erasmo, the largest island in the lagoon. In the spring, if you are lucky, sometimes you can find the cream of the crop, the first tiny artichoke to grow on each plant, out of more than one hundred: these are called  “castraure” (kas-tra-OO-reh), because they are “castrated” (cut off ) in order to encourage more to flourish. I have seen my fellow Venetians get into violent fights at the Rialto market over these treasures, which are prized for their relative lack of pricks and their tender, melt-in-your-mouth interior.

While it’s not the same as eating the real thing along the canals of Venice, you can find pretty good artichokes right here in the U.S (my favorites are the ones from Montrey County, in California). Ever since the Italian immigration wave in the early 20th century, artichokes quickly became popular, and started selling for a high price. In the 1920’s, even the mafia invested in them, and when Ciro Terranova, “the Artichoke King”, took the artichoke wars to such extremes as to terrify produce distributors all over the country, Fiorello La Guardia, the legendary mayor of New York, declared illegal “the sale and possession of artichokes” iin the City. The ban was lifted after only one week: it seems that La Guardia, himself the son of Jewish Italian immigrants, admitted that he loved the vegetable too much to prohibit it!

artichokes.001

Sformato is a kind of savory custard, but fluffier, almost soufflé-like and usually including pureed vegetables. The name (sfohr-MAH-toh) means “unmolded” in Italian — from sformare, to turn out. It’s a very traditional recipe, found in many Italian regions and in most classic cookbooks, from “Il Talismano della Felicità” to “Il Cucchiaio d’Argento”. Tuscans, like my mom, are particularly fond of it and make it with every vegetable they can find!

Artichoke Sformatini

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

1 hour, 15 minutes

4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 artichokes (or 2 lb frozen artichoke hearts or bottoms)
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot
  • 2 large eggs
  • For the Bechamel Sauce:
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3 cups milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 2 tbsp grated parmigiano or grana cheese (or more, to taste)

Directions

Clean the artichokes, eliminating the outer tough leaves and the chokes. Slice them. In a saucepan, heat 2 tbsp olive oil with a thinly sliced shallot for 2 minutes. Add the artichokes and barely cover with water or vegetable oil. Cook for about 10-15 minutes or until soft and until the water has been fully absorbed. Adjust salt. Blend in your food processor until smooth.

Make the béchamel sauce: melt the butter in a heavy pot over low heat. Add the flour, whisking continuously to prevent clumps. Cook on low heat until the flour disappears into the butter, without letting the butter turn brow. Start adding warm (not hot!) milk to the mix, stirring constantly with a whisk. Bring the sauce to a simmer, add salt and pepper and keep whisking almost constantly for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Taste, and add more salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. If you still ended up with some lumps, strain through a sieve. Remove from the heat, cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and allow to cool before combining with the eggs.

Whisk 2 eggs lightly in a bowl; stir in the béchamel sauce and artichoke puree and parmigiano cheese, and combine until smooth.

Butter the ramekins (you can use 6 6-ounce ramekins, or 4 larger ones, or 8 smaller. Baking time will vary depending on size). Dust with bread crumbs. Pour mixture into ramekins, and bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 F for about 25 to 40 minutes (depending on size), or until a light golden crust forms on top and the sformati are nice and firm. Allow to cool for at least 10 minutes, unmold and serve.

https://dinnerinvenice.com/2013/02/27/artichoke-sformatini/

MORE IDEAS WITH ARTICHOKES:

Madonna del Piatto’s Artichokes & Lemon Salad

Academia Barilla’s Artichoke Fricassee

Jul’s Omelet with Artichokes

Lidia’s Stuffed Artichokes

JOK’s Artichoke Chicken

Barbara’s Lamb Shanks with Artichokes

Crespelle with Asparagus


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CRESPELLE AGLI ASPARAGI E FORMAGGIO DI FOSSA

This post is very special: it’s a virtual wedding surprise for a young and talented food blogger, Ali (check out her yummy recipes on AliBabka), who just tied the knot with her lucky and well-fed Matan yesterday.

A Jewish wedding is not complete without 7 special blessings over the couple (Sheva Brachot). At the ceremony, they are recited by friends and family members first under the chuppa (wedding canopy) before the breaking of the glass, and then again after the meal.

Among more traditional Jews, the Sheva Berachot are recited again for the whole week following the wedding, at festive meals that friends and family of the couple take turns throwing in their honor every night. While it’s impossible not to pack on a couple of extra pounds, and the honeymoon needs to be postponed, many Jewish couples remember the week of Sheva Berachot with more affection than the wedding itself, simply because it’s so nice to be cared for and pampered by the ones we love!

In this spirit, a group of kosher bloggers is throwing a virtual Sheva Berachot for Ali and Matan. Shhhhhh! It’s a big surprise. Each one of us is posting a favorite food as a blessing for a delicious life together.

 

Crespelle with Asparagus

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

1 hour

4 to 6 servings

calories: ignorance is Bliss

Ingredients

  • For the Crepes:
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups whole or 2% milk
  • 1 scant cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Filling:
  • 1 lb fresh asparagus
  • 1 lb fresh ricotta
  • freshly grated Parmigiano–Reggiano cheese, to taste
  • 2 medium eggs
  • Pinch of salt
  • For the Bechamel sauce (if using) :
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz) flour
  • 6 cups milk
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2-3 tablespoons grated parmigiano or grana cheese (or more, to taste)

Directions

Place all ingredients for the crespelle in a bowl, and whisk until smooth. Allow to rest in the fridge for 20-30 minutes (in the meantime you can make the filling). Heat a nonstick pan brushed with butter or oil and pour 1 large tablespoon of mixture into the pan. Spread it and cook each crepe (turning it with the help of a large lid or platter) on both sides. Use up all the batter and set the crespelle aside.

Wash, clean, and steam or boil the asparagus, discarding the harder bottom part. Chop.

In a bowl, comine the ricotta with the grated cheese, eggs, asparagus, salt and pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Blend and set aside.

Prepare the béchamel sauce: melt the butter in a heavy pot over low heat. Add the flour, whisking continuously to prevent clumps. Cook on low heat until the flour disappears into the butter, without letting the butter turn brow. Start adding warm (not hot!) milk to the mix, stirring constantly with a whisk. Bring the sauce to a simmer, add salt and pepper and keep whisking almost constantly for about 30 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Taste, and add more salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. If you still ended up with some lumps, strain through a sieve. Remove from the heat and cover with plastic wrap or aluminum foil.

Combine 1/3 of the béchamel sauce with the ricotta mixture, and use this mix to fill the crepes, which you will roll up manicotti-style.

Lightly grease a baking pan or casserole. Arrange the filled crespelle in the dish, top with more béchamel sauce and freshly grated cheese. Bake at 350 for about 15 minutes or until the top is golden.

https://dinnerinvenice.com/2013/02/18/crespelle-with-asparagus/



Venetian Carnival Galani


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Galani 1

In case you were wondering, “Dinner in Venice” did not grow up with the Carnival: when I was little, all that was left of the old glories was a few fried sweets and children’s costume parties of the same scale as an average birthday. Imagine my excitement  at age 10 – and my mom’s concern – when the local government announced that, in an effort to promote the history and culture of Venice (read: boost tourism and the resulting income) they were going to bring back the historical Carnival. It was 1979, and about 3 millions extra visitors have been literally flooding Venice each winter ever since.

iStock_000015955188.Small.carnival

The first record of some type of Carnival celebrations in Venice is in a document from 1094, which describes plenty of partying and dancing in the weeks before Lent, a penitential period for the Christians;  however, the history buffs among you will be quick to point out that the roots of Carnivals can also be traced in those ancient pagan rituals for the passage of seasons, such as the Greek cult of Dionisus and the Roman saturnalia. Indeed, it was the Romans who best summarized the concept in their famous motto: “Semel in anno licet insanire” (it’s acceptable to go crazy, once a year).

Many scholars, like Edward Muir, suggest that far from being just for the sake of having fun, all these festivities offered our Early Modern European friends an important “safety valve”. Not that anybody would discuss “stress” back then, but think of the pressures of such a structured society! Basically, give the crowds lots of doughnuts and wine, and permission to make fun of the local lords and cardinals, and they’ll forget about actually rebelling against them. Much like the idea of the Roman circus.

Masks, the main symbol of the Venetian Carnival, are only mentioned starting in the 13th century, and we don’t really know why they were first introduced. What we do know is that, while covering up the face and the body is encouraged by many traditional cultures as a means to preserve modesty – in the city of Casanova, it always promoted vice rather than virtue!

Just to give you an idea of the atmosphere, the government even had to issue a specific law in 1339 to forbid sexually provocative disguises and “visiting nuns’ convents while in disguise”(!)

MASCHERE DI CARNEVALE

Masks provided the perfect cover for illicit romantic encounters, facilitated conspiracies, and fulfilled Cinderella-like fantasies by breaking down the usual barriers between different strata of society. The Venetians loved their new-found anonymity, and started wearing masks for longer stretches of time: in the Renaissance and Baroque ages it would have been hard to find anybody in normal attire between October and February!

Among lavish balls, plays, parades and music, people still found the time to indulge in desserts, in particular several kinds of fried sweets, from fritole to galani.

I’ve been looking for some kind of symbolic explanation for this custom, something along the lines of the Jewish tradition of eating fried things on Hanukkah to remember the miracle of the oil. It turns out that the reason behind the Carnival customs is much more prosaic: in the old days, January or February – before the restrictions of Lent – was the time when pigs were slaughtered; all parts of the animal were considered precious, and the lard (in its melted form, called “strutto”) was used for cooking and frying. Apparently, it resists high temperatures and tastes delicious –  those of you who don’t need to follow any religious or health-related restrictions might want to give it a try. The rest of us will have to stick to olive or vegetable oil! Galani (or “crostoli”, “chiacchiere”, “cenci”, as they are called in other regions) are addictive no matter what you fry them in.

Galani.double.001

Venetian Carnival Galani

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

1 hour

yelds about 30

calories: ignorance is bliss

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/3 cup (heaped) sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 stick butter, cubed
  • 1 shot grappa or rhum
  • half a pod vanilla beans, if liked
  • powdered sugar for decorating

Directions

Combine the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder and salt in your stand mixer bowl or on a counter. Add the eggs, the liqueur, vanilla, and the butter (softened at room temperature). Process the dough until smooth, adding little liqueur or water if necessary. Cover with plastic wrap, and allow to rest on the counter for 30-40 minutes. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface using your rolling pin to 1/8", or you can simply use the lasagna attachment if you own a pasta machine. Using a sharp knife (or a fluted pastry wheel if you feel fancy), cut the dough into rectangles and add two cuts near the center.

In a heavy wide pot with tall sides (or in a deep-fryer), heat abundant oil (peanut oil, vegetable oil or mild olive oil) until tiny bubbles form when you throw a small piece of bread into it.

Fry the galani in batches, and dry them on a triple layer of paper towel before decorating them with powdered sugar.

https://dinnerinvenice.com/2013/02/07/venetian-carnival-galani/

OTHER FRIED RECIPES THAT YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK OUT:

Frank’s Pizzette Fritte (yay! Fried pizza!)

Ronnie’s Kichels

Silvia’s Savory Donuts

My Recie de Amman (the Jewish version of these galani, for Purim) in The Forward

Tons of fried treats in my Hanukkah category – but they taste good any time of the year,provided you are armed with Alkaseltzer

Four Cheese Pasta – Italian Mac & Cheese


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Four Cheese Pasta

Macaroni and cheese occupies a special place in the American heart, as the ultimate comfort food.

To tell you the truth, when I moved here from Italy and found out that people were so crazy about this abomination in a box, I thought you guys were all a bit eccentric. Really – why would you want your (processed, powdered) cheese to be orange? Not that it was a big deal: I have my own issues with junk food – namely, digging into the Nutella jar when under pressure.

However, when my children started coming back from school demanding Mac & Cheese, I went from mildly entertained to outraged (after all, I spend hours canning made-from-scratch tomato sauce!). I did try to lecture them about the superiority of fresh ingredients, the importance of vegetables, blah blah blah, but they ignored me. I needed a better strategy. Here is how I gained back my cool factor.

Meet Pasta ai Quattro Formaggi, the Italian ancestor of Mac & Cheese. While it’s probably terrible for you (I can’t imagine another dish that packs in as much butterfat), at least this homemade recipe does not include any chemicals, plus it tastes infinitely better than Kraft’s packaged version. You might still end up needing a bypass, but at least you’ll have enjoyed getting there!

Four Cheese Pasta

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

30 minutes

yield: 6-8

Calories/Fat: ignorance is bliss

Ingredients

  • 1 package (1 lb) rigatoni or penne pasta (I like Garofalo, De Cecco and Barilla)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream + 1/2 cup milk (if you feel too guilty, just 1 cup whole milk)
  • 1/2 cup blue cheese (or a sharp and creamy cheese like Brie, Camembert) shredded or cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup taleggio (or Fontina, Asiago, Gouda), shredded or cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup Swiss cheese, Emmenthal or Gruyere, shredded or cubed
  • 1/3 cup Parmigiano, Grana or Parmigianito, freshly grated, plus more for topping
  • Black pepper

Directions

Bring water to a boil and add salt.

Heat the milk in a saucepan; add cream and the cheeses to the hot milk and stir continuously, until all the cheeses are melted together. If you like living dangerously, you can even add 1 tablespoon butter.

When the water boils, add some coarse salt, add the pasta and cook it until al dente, according to the directions on the box. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking water and drain the pasta.

Toss the rigatoni and the cheese sauce together, adding a little of the cooking water (it acts as an emulsifier and thickener); sprinkle with black pepper and serve accompanied by extra parmigiano. Those of you who feel fancy can go with a touch of grated nutmeg, or even shaved truffle! You can also transfer into a baking dish and broil on high until golden and crisp on top (3 to 5 minutes).

(***if you keep strictly kosher, here are some imported kosher cheeses available in the US. The site specifies each cheese's kosher certification, since we often joke that "Two Jews, three opinions" and do not always share the same standards: http://www.kcheese.com/ )

https://dinnerinvenice.com/2013/02/07/four-cheese-pasta-italian-mac-cheese/