Week #40 Venetian

At play in a Venetian mask maker’s shop…

The Republic of Venice was its own sovereign entity for well over 1,000 years, during which it was THE gateway into Europe for spices and all manner of exotic foods from Asia. So this former city-state, along with the surrounding Veneto region, has a cuisine that certainly merits its own entry. In addition to all those ingredients that flowed in by the shipload, Venice also has strong culinary influences from eastern Europe, particularly Austria and the western Balkans.

Himself and I treated ourselves to a feast at Tre Venezie in Pasadena, a lovely restaurant that is owned and operated by a Venetian chef who is passionate about the cuisine of his homeland. We did a lot of sharing so that we could sample an array of dishes, beginning with an antipasto of seafood and polenta.

The pesce in saor to the left is branzino, served in a lightly sweet and slightly sour sauce. It’s not as stout as ceviche, which is marinated in an acid (usually citrus), but the idea is the same–to preserve the fish. In this case the fish is cooked and served cold in a sweetened wine and vinegar reduction. The polenta ovals on the right are topped with baccala mantecato, mousse made of cod (yes yes, I remember that line about whipped fish in an early and very funny episode of Friends!). This solidly Venetian dish includes ingredients like currants and pine nuts that arrived on merchant ships from the Middle East.

Then we shared a couple of primi. The first, cjalsons, is a special dumpling that, depending on the season and what’s available, could contain absolutely anything. Traditionally reserved for special occasions, it’s an ancient dish from Carnia, a mountain village north of Venice. I must say having cjalsons WAS the special occasion! These delicate little pasta pouches contain ricotta, figs, chocolate and cinnamon, and are more of a dessert than a savory. Rich and enchanting and distractingly good. We were tempted to cancel the rest of our order and beg for a couple more plates of cjalsons.

The next primo was blecs al tacelenghe, that is noodles with beef cheeks braised in tazzelenghe wine, which we also ordered to go with the meal. Blecs are irregularly shaped noodles. These are made of barley, so they have some heft and texture to them. This dish and the wine are both native to the Veneto and also to Friuli and Giulia. In fact, the word “blec” is Slovenian for “piece of cloth,” Slovenia being the nextdoor neighbor. The word “tazzelenghe” is Italian for “tongue cutting,” on account of the wine’s high level of acidity and tannins, but it’s really not that strident. It was an excellent foil to the richness of the braise.
Then we shared a secondo of merluzzo nero, that is, black cod poached in a cappuccina sauce of onions, raisins, pine nuts and anchovies. While this is a traditional recipe from the Veneto and Trentino, which lies to the northwest of Venice, the cod is sitting on a bed of new potatoes, reminding us once again of all the directions those ships came from returning with new and wondrous foods (both potatoes and corn came from South America).
Showing the Austrian influence, our dessert was a strudel made with apples and pears, and seated in a pool of plum brandy from Bosnia Herzegovina, Venice’s neighbor on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. I’m always impressed with strudel, since I know what’s involved in making it. It took a dozen of us in culinary school to stretch that dough nice and thin across two work tables pushed together, and then to fill it and roll it. This was the best strudel I’ve had yet, with the brandy playing a nice supporting role and not overpowering the fruit. And it certainly looked neater than our student efforts!

Back at home I decided to make one of the region’s signature dishes, risi e bisi, that is, risotto with peas. This part of Italy doesn’t see as much pasta as you find elsewhere throughout the country. The region is low lying and amenable to rice production, so the preferred starch is risotto (and also corn, in the form of polenta). That’s Parmigiano-Reggiano grated over the top. As the name attests, this cheese comes from Parma, just southwest of Venice. Other aged grating cheeses in Italy are called grana. While you may use canned green peas to make this dish, try to get your hands on some fresh ones. They make it so much better. (The recipe is at the bottom of this entry.)

If you’ve ever made risotto you’ll notice that the method for making this dish differs slightly–while risotto is made by stirring the rice into hot butter (or olive oil or a combination of both) and then gradually stirring in the hot broth, with risi e bisi you add the rice to hot broth. If the final product is slightly soupy that’s just fine, too, and very Venetian.

The classic dessert of Venice is tiramisu. While I’ve made it dozens of times, I’m including a photo not of my own, but rather one under construction during a stay in the Veneto, because of the intensity of the custard’s color. This rich gold is in stark contrast to the pale yellow that you usually find in tiramisu made in the United States, where most eggs are mass produced and their tiny creators not provided with a suitably rich diet. These were absolutely stunning, and they made this dish truly eye popping (and tongue popping? Does that even make sense?!)

Here’s Himself laying into those Italian egg yolks–you can get a little glimpse of what a brilliant orange they are.

All this talk of Venice is making me want to dust off one of my fav movies ever, one set in Venice, Pane i Tulipani, that is, Bread and Tulips. Time to pour myself a glass of wine and crank up the DVR to again watch Rosalba run away to Venezia. Arrivederci!

Risi e bisi (Risotto with Peas)
Yields about 4 to 6 servings

2 oz. pancetta, minced (or an equivalent amount of thick-sliced bacon)
1 lb. young, fresh peas (or frozen & thawed if they’re not in season)
leaves of one bunch of fresh Italian parsley (that’s the flat-leafed variety; it tastes better than the curly kind), chopped (I toss the stems into the hot stock for some extra flavor–just don’t stir them into the rice.)
1 1/4 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (if you opt for pecorino, scale back on the salt)
1 1/2 cups Arborio or another short-grain rice
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
About 4 cups of hot beef stock or broth (keep it on stove top on very low heat)
1 onion, small dice
salt & freshly ground black pepper

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauce pan over medium heat and sauté the bacon, onion and parsley until the onion is translucent. Add the peas and stir until they’re combined with the other ingredients. Add a cup of the hot stock, increase the heat to medium high and bring to a boil, stirring. Add two more cups of hot stock, bring to a boil and then stir in the rice. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring frequently until the rice is al dente (with just a slight resistance to the tooth, NOT chewy!). Add more stock if you need to.

Remove from the heat and stir in the last tablespoon of butter and a cup of the grated cheese. Use the rest of the cheese to garnish. Enjoy with a medium dry white wine.

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One Response to Week #40 Venetian

  1. Charles Rosenberg says:

    Fascinating cuisine. So atypically Italian, as we commonly think of Italian here in the U.S. Wow.

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