Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Week #39 Moroccan

One of the many reasons I would love to visit Morocco is to venture into a souq and see first hand the mountains of spices, to smell their heady aromas and luxuriate in the exotic atmosphere that my-oh-my certainly does look appealing on all those travel shows. It's just a step across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, so trekking to Morocco would certainly be doable next time Himself and I hightail it to the Continent.

For a preview of what we might expect to find on the table, our friends Pat and Aaron invited us to dinner at Sassi in Encino for a meal that was not only Moroccan but kosher as well. As is our custom, we ordered several items and ate family style. Their young daughter, Gabriella was game for it the adventure, a real trooper. No kid chow for THIS intrepid gal! That made the evening even better--who knew eight-year-olds like mushrooms?!

Morocco may be in North Africa, but its cuisine contains a hefty blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. If you know those cuisines, there will be a familiarity as you delve into your meal, just with a heavy dose of spices.

We started with a platter of fried kuba, little semolina footballs filled with ground beef; pastels, triangular filo pockets filled with potato; falafel, fried balls of ground garbanzo beans; and Moroccan cigars, which I'd liken to a filo "stogie" filled with ground beef. And a dish of hummus to dredge them all through. You really have to approach these babies with caution, because they're so dense and filling you could easily stuff yourself before the entrées arrive. And they're so good that it's difficult to stop with just one of each. Why does fried food have to be so ridiculously satisfying?

The myriad little dishes of salads on the table reminded me of our Israeli meal. We had carrot salad and red and green cabbage salads. The fresh crispness of the salads with their lemony essence helped balance those heavy fried goodies we'd just gobbled up. The flat bread, khobz, is thicker and more substantial than other pita-type bread I've had before. It was a good all-purpose tool for dipping, dredging and sandwich building.

We also got an Israeli salad of cucumbers and tomatoes and an entire bowl of olives. These Moroccan olives are cooked in a peppery red sauce and served warm, which cuts their brininess and enhances their flavor. Oh yes, that's a whole baked chicken in the background, a tasty little guy smothered in mushrooms and love.

Variety was the order of the evening, as we opted to have some fish and lamb to go with our roasted chicken and all the rest (I wonder how you say "fixins" in Moroccan?). The super-fresh salmon is cooked in a spicy, garlicky tomato sauce. I could have forgone the rest of the meal to mop up all that pleasantly warm and happy sauce with the khobz.

The roasted lamb was served with a rice and lentil combo called majadra, making it a sort of North African pilaf. You'll have to forgive me, but at this point my full tum and empty brain conspired to make me forget exactly how this lamb tasted--besides good. I plan to return just for the lamb. Oh yeah, and all the rest as well...

A day or two later, once I'd emerged from the food coma, I was inspired to dust off the tagine Himself had given me for Christmas, and to use those lovely brined lemons that came with it. I made a chicken and olive tagine and served it with couscous, a semolina-based alternative to rice. Just as the first order of business with Cajun and Creole cooking is to make a roux, with Moroccan you start by making ras el hanout, a mélange of spices that can be as varied as the tastes and personalities of those who prepare it. However, it is usually some combination of spices including cinnamon, cardamom, clove, coriander, black pepper, cumin and turmeric. With the spices, olives, onions and brined lemons, not to mention the sweet currants and rich pine nuts in the couscous, this plate of food had an awful lot going for it. It came nearer than any dish I've ever had to satisfying the Thai requirement for sweet, salty, sour, bitter and hot in a single dish. Sublime!

One of the secret weapons of Moroccan cooking is brined lemon, which is pure salty, pickled magic. It's made by slitting and stuffing fresh lemons with salt and stashing them in a jar of brine and lemon juice for a few months, which makes them self-pickling. Do this and you elevate those lemons to new heights of culinary usefulness. What the process does is to intensify the lemon quality--not the tartness, as you might expect, but the sheer lemony flavor. It ferments, sort of like kimchi, so a richness develops that makes them a great flavoring agent. If you don't want all that salt, just wash it off.

To accompany the tagine I made a Moroccan orange salad, one of the easiest and yummiest things you can make, and great anytime, regardless of the menu. The genius of this salad is that it's quick, healthy and versatile.
Moroccan Orange Salad
Peel and segment two oranges and place them in a bowl. Remove the pits from four dates, cut them into eighths long ways and add them to the bowl. If you'd like, toss in a few oil-cured olives. Sprinkle over some ras-el hanout, about a half teaspoon, or if you don't have any, use an assortment of any spices that makes you happy--cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and/or my personal favorite, cardamom. Drizzle on a bit of good olive oil and toss. Top it with some chopped fresh mint. That's all there is to it. If you have a few minutes, let it sit on the counter so the flavors have time to cozy up to each other.

This will serve two people, and the recipe is easy to expand to feed more. I find that once I've had this salad with a meal, I don't go looking for dessert.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

This weekend: Eat My Blog!

 If you live within the sound of my typing, please help us raise money to feed the hungry of Los Angeles by coming to the second Eat My Blog Bakesale.

Last fall, some two dozen bloggers baked up our best gourmet goodies and raised $3,000 for the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. We're at it again on Saturday, June 19, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. We'll be on the patio at Tender Greens at 8759 Santa Monia Blvd. in West Hollywood. 70+ bakers will be serving up more than 2,000 treats to sate your sweet tooth and do a good deed.

All items are priced between $1 and $4, so this is not a budget smasher. Thanks to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf for donating beverages to help wash it all down.

What will you find there? I feel guilty just trying to pick out a few of the many wonderful treats my compadres are bringing. I'm making my usual, bacon walnut maple fudge, and also madelines, both lemon/lavender and chocolate spice. Others are bringing goodies including

mini flourless almond cakes with mascarpone & fresh fruit
coconut clouds
Egyptian basbousa cake
whoopie cakes
jelly candies, both strawberry mint and melon sage
triple-ginger meringues
assorted truffles and chocolates
strawberry rhubarb jam
che xoi nuac: mochi dumplings in ginger sauce
Bolivian sweet & salty empanadas
cream puffs
candied nuts
chocolate Guinness cupcakes with bacon-cream cheese frosting
red velvet cakes (if this won't get you there, nothing will!)

And remember, this is jut a very brief sampling.

Please, please, PLEASE come out and indulge yourself in the name of a worthwhile cause. Think about this: The Los Angeles Regional Foodbank says that every dollar it receives can actually supply $5 of food for the hungry. That means our last donation of $3,000 provided $15,000 worth of food! Imagine how much more we can give if everyone comes out for some goodies! Not to mention that the more people who buy our treats, the more we can spread those calories around, which means less time at the gym... (hey, ya gotta work those angles, right?!)

For more information visit http://eatmyblogla.wordpress.com/. You can also find us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/gastronomyblog#!/event.php?eid=121789961170815&ref=mf.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some baking to do.

Thanks, and bon appetit!