Archive for Venetian Food
A super-sharp friend has just written to me, and apart from remarking pleasantly on my prose and panache, and admiring my musings on cuttlefish and the meaning of life (I think that was what I was doing), asked me why I didn’t explain how to cook them.
This blast of practicality was just what I needed, the perfect antidote to wandering around discoursing on how the once-delectable and desired seppie had become, through exaggeration, just Something Else to be Dealt With in Life.
I will now describe the process, in the style of Mrs. Beeton and others of her era, who were not too precise about quantities of ingredients (example: “a wine glass” amount of something. What wine? Bordeaux? Chardonnay?). But I will approximate as best I can. Here is the recipe according to Chef Lino of the Trattoria Bella Venezia, otherwise known as our kitchen:
2 pounds of seppie, cut in bite-sized pieces, with the ink sacs removed and put aside
extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup chopped onion
1/2-3/4 cup of tomato sauce (not seasoned, just cooked strained tomatoes) OR
a big squirt of tomato paste, diluted
Saute’ the onion in a biggish pot.
Add the tomato sauce.
Add lots of water (1 1/2 quarts, more or less).
Add some salt and pepper (the seppie need to cook with some salt, but I suggest putting a minimum amount because as the sauce cooks down, the salty flavor will become stronger).
Bring to boil.
When the liquid boils, add the pieces of seppie, and the “latti” also (see below).
Take the ink sacs one by one, gently tear them to release the ink into the water, and drop the sacs into the water.
Simmer the seppie in the blackish liquid until the sauce is reduced to a thickish consistency and the pieces are tender.
Eat with pasta, eat as risotto, eat with polenta.
Watch the heck out for the ink as you work with it (and the inky sauce, too) because it makes a stain which is virtually impossible to remove from fabric. Or wear black clothes.
Whether you prepare pasta or risotto, you not only are permitted, you are essentially required, to add grated Parmesan cheese. Venetians don’t put cheese on any fish dish, as far as I know, but seppie requires it. I’ve tried seppie without cheese, and it has a wan, Little-Match-Girl sort of flavor. Try it yourself if you doubt me.
This section is a public service.
I suppose that whatever fish market sells cuttlefish in your neighborhood will have someone capable of removing all the inedible bits before you take them home. But Lino does the operation himself, and if you were ever to want to see a perfectly happy man, you would have to see Lino cleaning seppie. But he can’t clean yours, so if any brave reader wants to chance his or her arm, here is how you do it.
Press outward on the head so that the mouth comes forward. Pull it out. Be careful, because there is a very sharp little “beak” in there.
Make an incision with a sharp knife in each eye, then press behind them in such as way as to make the whole eye apparatus come out.
Taking the body of the seppie in both hands, press against it toward the head, in order to push out the solid white cuttlebone. If you have any friends with birds, you can give it to them and make them happy.
Make an incision in the back of the cuttlefish and open it. You will see the ink sac. Remove it v-e-r-y c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y. Of course, if you don’t want to put ink in the sauce, just throw it away, but I think eating seppie without their ink is like writing without verbs.
Put each ink sac into a small container for the moment; Lino uses an espresso cup.
Inside the seppia you will see two smallish white globes with a small red mark on them. These are the “latti,” or “latte,” and are the ovaries, if you want to know. Remove them and keep them to add to the pot. (Or, you can boil them, add some salt, pepper, and olive oil, and you’ve got one fantastic little antipasto.)
Now tug on the edge of the seppia’s body and pull off the skin. It may come off in pieces. Persevere.
Cut the flayed seppia into bite-sized pieces.
You’re done. Go give yourself a reward.
While everyone else is carbo-loading with frittelle and galani, Lino has taken our modest domestic feedbin in another direction: the classic-Venetian-fish-dishes direction. If you stay on that road, it won’t be long before you find yourself in the suburbs of heaven.
These specialties have no relation to Carnival — it’s mere happenstance that we’ve eaten them now, in the interval in which everything is famously permitted, including frying in lard. (Not made up; our butcher at the Rialto was selling plastic bags of white, waxy-looking rendered pig fat which makes pastry the food of the freaking gods).
Let’s proceed in non-alphabetical order. First, the schie.
Schie (SKEE-eh) (Crangon crangon) are a variety of tiny gray shrimp found in the lagoon and elsewhere. They were once a reliable standby of people who were tending toward poor, such as lagoon fishermen, or large families on small budgets, which is redundant.
Lately, though, its distant relations, or even impostors, have begun to show up in restaurants and bars.
A noticeable number of trattorias, keen to entice tourists with traditional dishes, have begun to offer what they call polenta with schie. They correctly promote it as a great Venetian specialty, and if you mention this combination to older Venetians, at least some will respond with an appreciative “Ie, ie, ie, polenta co le schie” (EE-yeh, EE-yeh, poenta co eh skee-eh). This is the kind of phrase that they must have found entertaining when they were children. It’s a tasty combination, and filling, and cheap, or at least it was once. The perfect makings of a classic.
Now that the price of schie can go up to 40 euros per kilo at the Rialto market ($27 per pound), regular people — like us — don’t buy it anymore, and tourists eating out aren’t likely to know that what purports to be polenta and schie is only an approximation of the aforementioned dish.
Nowadays what the cook usually presents as polenta is infant’s gruel, a wide soft expanse of a golden substance I think of as Cream of Polenta. Real Venetian polenta (always yellow, never white — white is what they eat in the islands, or Pellestrina, or Chioggia, or Cape Town or Vladivostok) is firm, almost solid, and is to be eaten in slabs. Or at least in hefty chunks.
As for the schie, the little shrimpy morsels strewn atop the yellow mush in the restaurants are virtually always pink shrimp, perhaps from far away, who almost certainly have broken their journey in a freezer somewhere.
But the other day, on our way home, we passed Nardo, the local fisherman, and he offered us a half-kilo bag of schie for a paltry 10 euros ($13). Lino pounced. And cooked. And then we ate.
Here is the old Venetian way of cooking (and eating) these critters, as performed by Lino, who alone, pretty much, of all his race still has the patience and desire to put in the time and effort to prepare them. Note: The time involved in preparing schie isn’t noticeably great, but the other recipes require practically a solemn vow that you’ll persevere to the end.
Put them in a saucepan, fill with cold water, and some salt.
Bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, take something made of metal — we sacrificed an old stainless steel dinner knife — and pass it through the gas flame till it’s red-hot.
When foam covers the surface of the water in the pan, turn off the gas (fire, heat) and plunge the redhot knife into the schie-laden water and swirl it around. I have yet to discover the reason for this, but just do it. It will make you feel like Siegfried wielding the Wotan sword.
Pour the cooked schie into the pasta colander to drain off the boiling water.
In a bowl, pour some extravirgin olive oil, lots of sliced garlic, some pepper, and a tiny bit of salt.
Put the drained schie in the bowl with the oil and garlic, mix thoroughly, and eat.
Aha: Eating them. You can’t be in a hurry. If you have to catch a train, forget eating schie because you have to shell every dratted little one, one by one, and it’s nothing like shelling big brawny Atlantic prawns. It’s like picking bits of white mohair fluff off your navy-blue wool peacoat. Lino seems to regard it more as entertainment than nourishment. I regard it as just another great excuse to eat oil and garlic.
The European spider crab (Maja squinado) is a regular at tables in better restaurants, mainly as a toothsome antipasto, for a fairly toothsome price. Up the street, one menu offers this delicacy for 18 euros ($25) per person.
I like crab well enough, though I can’t say that my wildest dreams are dominated by crustaceans of the class Malacostrara. Then again, I’d never turn one down.
When we discovered some bouncing bonny crabs at the Rialto for 4 euros per kilo ($2.50 per pound), it seemed ridiculous to forego a few — even more ridiculous than paying 18 euros to eat one. Especially as Lino, as noted above, regards dismantling dwellers of the abyss as one of the few genuinely amusing activities around.
It takes about an hour to tease all the edible bits out of this animal; I think it’s something like meditation for him. We’ve never gotten around to acquiring fancy tools for this work. He uses a small screwdriver. I use a pocket-size dental pick. We sit there at the table together, surrounded by chips and splinters of crabshell, peering through glasses on noses, going pickpick scrapescrape and discussing subjects more disjointed than our little spiny victims.
We divided the spoils into two parts. We ate one half of the pulp arranged artfully in its shell just as they do in the restaurants, with a little pepper, olive oil and lemon.
The other half was transformed into an exceptional pasta sauce, composed of some saute’d onion, one tiny chili pepper, some tomato sauce, and half a glass of white wine.
FRITTELLE DI BACCALA‘:
I have never seen this on any restaurant menu but it is often sold in bars as bacala’ impana’, or breaded fried baccala’. In the old days this substantial snack used to be baccala’, but considering that as the price and effort involved in preparing baccala’ is inversely proportional to the number of customers who would know what breaded baccala’ actually tastes like, the fish is often something else. Plaice is a common substitute. Hey: It’s white, it’s fish, it’s fried — what’s not to like? Nothing, unless you’re the type of person — such as your correspondent — who is also irked by men who row sandolos and offer their services by calling out “Gondola gondola,” or selling botoli and calling them castraure.
How would you know if it’s baccala’? Well, because the odds are almost 100% that it won’t be. But for the record, my experience is that the giveaway isn’t the taste, because by the time it reaches the being-fried stage, the sharpest edges of its particular flavor have been worn away, as explained below.
But you can’t fake the texture. Plaice is tender and ingratiating, a mere whiff of white fish flesh. Baccala’, no matter how much you may soak or boil it, will always retain its sturdy Arctic character: chewy, slightly resistent, giving your teeth a little work to do, even though you will swallow it knowing you couldn’t completely soften it before sending it to its fate. It’s like certain cuts of inexpensive meat: You just decide when you’ve chewed enough and down it goes.
To make any dish involving baccala’, you start with a dried, shrink-wrapped carcass. You can buy it already soaked and ready to cook, but it costs more, obviously.
I warn you that baccala’ soaking emits an alarming smell. You may be appalled, which is understandable the first time. I just don’t want you to be surprised. You can cover the pan and put it in the oven, as we do, or otherwise enclose and conceal it. Don’t worry that the fish you finally eat will smell like that; when you pour off the water, the odor disappears.
Ingredients: Baccala’, water, salt, a capacious pan, and at least three days.
Put baccala’ in capacious pan, cover with water.
Change water every 6 hours for 3 days.
Change water. add a little salt, and bring to a boil. Boil for 40 minutes.
Remove from water and set it out to cool.
When it reaches room temperature, cut it open like a book.
Remove all the bones and the skin, pull off the pulp into pieces however they come off.
HOW TO PREPARE THE FRITTELLE:
Put flour in bowl.
Place 10 grams of yeast in a glass with tepid water, mix gently.
Pour the water with yeast into the flour, mix.
Add some salt and pepper.
Put the pieces of baccala in the batter.
Cover with dishtowel and leave in a tepid environment for one hour.
Pour enough olive oil in pan for deep frying.
Heat the oil– take a toothpick and put it in the oil, and if tiny bubbles form around it, the oil is ready.
With a spoon, remove pieces of baccala from the batter (however they come; they don’t have to come out one by one).
Put in hot oil, fry till golden.
Place on paper towels to drain.
Best eaten hot, but they’re not bad the next day if you leave them out at room temperature.
If you have been farseeing and clever, you will have put aside at least some of that soaked baccala’ pulp, so now you can make another gastronomic wonder known in Venetian as bacala’ in tecia (bahk-ah-LA in TEH-cha). A tecia is a saucepan (“pentola” in Italian).
And if, for some reason, you didn’t see fit to make polenta to eat with the schie, this would be an excellent moment to stir up a cauldron. There is an instant version, but please don’t tell Lino if you decide to use it. He makes the time-honored version that requires 40 minutes of frequent stirring.
BACALA’ IN TECIA:
Take 3 sardines that have been kept in salt, rinse and bone them.
Take 10 capers that have been kept in salt, rinse.
Take the pieces of fish, in whatever size or form they may be.
In saucepan, saute’ some chopped onions in extravirgin olive oil.
Add the baccala’ to the oil and onions.
Add the boned, rinsed sardines.
Add the rinsed capers.
Add tomato sauce and water.
Slowly simmer till done. If necessary, add more water to continue simmering.
Carnival has become one of my least favorite things about Venice, because each year its negative aspects increasingly outweigh the positive.
I am referring to the Mega-Commercial-Highly-Promoted Carnival whose vortex is the Piazza San Marco. But Carnival in its small, neighborhood version continues to charm me, mainly because it almost exclusively involves children (the smaller, the better) and their doting relatives. Random frolicking. Dressing up for no reason (by which I mean, not the reason of being photographed to, for, by, or with anyone, particularly tourists). Throwing fistfuls of confetti anywhere.
I don’t need to look at the calendar to know that Carnival has, as of today, officially begun. For the past few days the signs have been unmistakable.
Here are a few:
There is an old 19th-century song from Istria (the peninsula just below Trieste, which used to belong to Venice) entitled “La Mula de Parenzo.” Parenzo was the Italian name for a coastal town now known as Porec, Croatia. “Mula” is the traditional local word for a woman from Trieste, or thereabout. Yes, it means a feminine mule. Just go with it.
Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s get to the song. And the food.
I love this song, partly because it’s so jaunty, and partly because it’s the only local song I’ve learned all the way through. I’m very proud of that, considering that it has five verses, though the repetition of each phrase helps. I’ve never tried to get past the first verse of the national anthem, but I don’t think anybody has. It’s also got five verses, but they’re patriotic poetry with exotic references, which is harder to retain.
Here’s how it starts (I translate): “The mula of Parenzo/set up a shop/she sold everything/except baccala’/because (or why — same word) you don’t love me anymore.” And continues, “If the seas were sauce/and the mountains polenta/oh mamma, what soaking-up-the-sauce-with-pieces-of-polenta there would be (“che tociae“)/Polenta and baccala’/because (why) you don’t love me anymore.”
Significance quotient: zero. Musical wordage value: 100.
Here is the link, for those who do not see the clip itself here: http://youtu.be/MOWFC-tL9Ss
Polenta seems to be a useful placeholder word, at least in some old-fashioned spontaneous sayings. I’ve sometimes heard Lino say (partly joking) this elderly Venetian phrase which expresses general wonderment: “Ooooh, verze del mio ben, poenta e tocio.” (“Oh, cabbage of my beloved, polenta and sauce.”) No, it doesn’t mean anything, but it shows how useful a word polenta can be. Not to mention the food itself.
“Tocio” (TOE-cho) is Venetian for sauce (in Italian, sugo). The verb: tociar (to-CHAR). I think it must have been remodeled from “toccare,” Italian for “touch.” So therefore, working backwards, the sauce is defined as the thing that gets touched — by bread, by polenta, etc.
As for baccala’, you might be interested to know that the word in fact refers to cod that has been preserved by salting. Stockfish, or stoccafisso, is cod which has been air-dried, preferably in the bracing air of northern Norway. So the fact that Venetians call stockfish baccala’ just goes to show something. Perhaps it’s another example of their “we do things our own way” approach to life, the world, themselves, and also to fish.
Here is the fundamental thing to know about preparing stoccafisso: You have to soak it for at least three days and nights, changing the water every six hours. That in itself is not so demanding, though it does represent a commitment to this dish.
What’s really demanding is the smell. I’m not going to tell you what it’s like, although I could, because I don’t want to discourage you. Unlike andouillette, however, the odor does not presage the flavor. I don’t believe the fish was born smelling like that, so evidently drying its carcass north of the Arctic Circle inflicts some infernal change on its molecules.
Eventually the water carries away whatever effect the drying process has wrought upon this innocent fish. And the remaining flavor is worth waiting days for.
Apologies to anyone who thinks they could say the same thing about andouillete, especially my friend Michel in Nantes, who may be reading this. But they are wrong.
BACCALA’ IN TECIA (TEH-cha). Many other classic recipes for baccala’ (stoccafisso, I mean) don’t include tomatoes, but this is the humblest Venetian version and it will never betray you.
So you soak it for days. When it has become softer and moister, you remove it from the pan, and send the water to the toxic waste disposal site.
Take the fish and open it like a book, remove the central bone and assorted remaining bones, and break the fish into pieces with your hands.
Chop some onions, and saute them in some olive oil.
Add the fish, and stir.
Add peeled chopped tomatoes (we use the canned sort; if you’re a purist, feel free to use fresh tomatoes but I can’t predict the outcome).
Add a few sardines preserved in salt, which you have thoroughly rinsed.
Add a handful of capers preserved in salt, which you also have rinsed. If you use capers preserved in vinegar I decline any responsibility for the result, because they taste like they’ve been kept in a laboratory somewhere, in formaldehyde.
Salt and pepper, to taste. Do not point out the humor in the idea of having removed salt from the sardines and capers only to replace it from a box. I see it all by myself.
Simmer till the sauce is reduced and the flavor is harmonious. Don’t simmer it thinking that the fish will become more tender; it will always be chewy.
As for polenta, I won’t be there to check on you, but you should know that Lino makes the traditional variety, which requires stirring for about 40 minutes. I think the result is worth the effort, but then again, he’s the one doing the stirring.
And it has to be yellow polenta, not white. Venetians eat yellow polenta; white is favored by outliers from Pellestrina and Burano.
Trivia Alert: According to the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, “There are 30 countries on the list of buyers of this exalted commodity. At the top of the list, Italy prevails unchallenged, importing 3946 tons. It is therefore not without good reason that the Mayor of Røst says, “God bless Italian housewives and their kitchens! Long live Italian cuisine!” And God bless one Italian man, too, who actually likes changing the water every six hours and stirring the polenta into total submission.