Oca in Onto & Insalata Bizantina – A Traditional Venetian Menu For San Martino

In Venice these days, children celebrate Il santo che divise il mantello e fece tornare il bel tempo … the Saint who by sharing a piece of his coat with a beggar made the sun return to Earth. In Venice, there’s a special tradition reminding us of this Legend, enacted on 11 November every year …

Late autumn is a time for Feasts in Venice. Venetians traditionally have been celebrating with poultry dishes. Some eat faraona and anara (duck)The tradition of eating bigoí co’l anara (thick Venetian pasta with duck sauce) belongs to this season.

While children walk around and look for the Sanmartin de Pastafrolla, a sweet cake, in the pastry stores and bakeries, adults also have a favorite dish eaten on 11 November. Oca in onto is very much en vogue these days. It’s rather heavy, based on an ancient recipe from the Venetian countryside. But then, in Venice, dishes were usually enriched with spices.

In the Veneto, you can find a special goose breed, l’oca del Mondragon, raised around Treviso. There’s even a Facebook Page dedicated to these geese.

A dinner on San Martino Night would start with crema de suca (squash cream soup) or even, minestra de oca, a spicy vegetable soup flavored with pieces of goose. The soup could be followed by a starter plate of warm and cold antipasti, like crema di baccala’, polenta, oven-baked slices of persimmons and potatoes flavored with rosemary, raisins and lots of black pepper.

My grandparents celebrated San Martino with goose, grilled polenta and vegetables enriched with spicy and fruity flavors. So here we share our recipe for Oca in onto alle erbe, pera speziata e castagne con amarene – Herb-flavored goose, spicy pears and chestnuts cooked with amarena cherries.

Grandmother prepares traditional Venetian goose, oca in onto, based on a recipe from her family cooking journal. She cuts off the fatty parts of the goose into tiny cubes and melts them in a pan. Then she adds mortadella sausage cut in dices and herbs such as parsely, rosemary, laurel leaves, and spices (cloves, coriander seeds and juniper), salt and black pepper. She bakes the goose in the oven until it turns golden brown, adding olive oil when required.

We have adapted this recipe and here is a less fattening alternative if you must eat goose.  Cut cut off the fat entirely, it could be used it for any other purpose like flavoring bread soup or to eat with polenta. Fry the goose in a little olive oil instead, add the herbs and spices mentioned above, a hint of red curry or a berbere spice mixture. Then bake the goose in the oven until golden brown. We’ll cover the berbere spice mixture in our next blog post.

To complete this special day’s menu, serve the goose with pears cooked in water or red wine with spices like cinnamon, cloves and mustard seeds. Serve the goose with castagne arrostite (cook chestnuts in a pan for about 10 minutes, then roast them in olive oil with salt, mustard seeds and pepper and garnish with canned amarena cherries).

Our vegetarian menu, which is also a fine contorno (side dish) is insalata bizantina! This is a warm spinach salad, flavored with a topping made from figs, raisins, pinoli, lots of black pepper and grapes. Fry spinach leaves in olive oil, add the toppings which consists of dried figs in dices, grapes, pinoli and the spices, fried in another pan in olive oil.

As dessert, we would eat a piece of the Sanmartin de Pastafrolla. Take a look at how Pasticceria Majer bake theirs:

Join us and discover Venice on the Night of San Martino in this blog post in our Venice Travel Section.

 

Pan del Doge al Pistacchio – Taste & Bake the Doge’s Autumn Cake

 

The Doges of Venice seemed to love dishes with a green touch. Even their signature dish, risi e bisi, which the Doge’s family and their entourage ate on 25 April, was green.  Risi e bisi is a rather liquid risotto (all’onda) in which the baccelli (pods) of the bisi (green peas) were cooked with the peas and rice. The Doges, just like Venetians in general, have always loved green sauces, le salse verdi. And in autumn, in particular during late October and early November, elaborate pistachio cakes were created for them and their guests.

In winter, Venetian cakes, or pan dolse (sweet breads) as they were called in the past, would be flavored with lemon or orange juice. In autumn, pomegranates and pistachios were used to flavor and color cakes. Colorful food, tinted naturally, was an essential ingredient to create a cuisine that Venice was proud of. And in spring, pink syrup made from rose petals and spices was used to flavor cakes.

Autumn is the season of almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios in Italy, and Venice is no exception. Mele cotogne (quinces) and melograni (pomegranates) were essential ingredients in former times and still are here in Venice. Not just for cakes …

Combining these ingredients with spices when baking a cake means you will get something typical Venetian on your table. Just like in the past, the Rialto Market is still the hub where you can load up on fine produce, herbs and spices. There is also pistachio liquor and crema di pistachio, the delicious sweet pistachio cream made from Sicilian pistachios (i pistacchi di Bronte).

When you look at the vetrina (store window) of pastry stores in Venice, you often find the so-called Doge’s Cake – Pan del Doge. I can definitely say that the names cakes are given in Venice aren’t inventions of creative patissiers. On the contrary, based on family recipes and ancient recipe booklets available at the Venetian State Archive and at Biblioteca Marciana, the cakes we bake today are VERY similar to those of the past.

Which are the ingredients of pan di pistacchio? It’s rather easy to prepare, made from same dough you would use to make zaleti cookies. Substitute one third of the flour with farina di pistachio (ground pistachios), add 3 tablespoons crema di pistacchio to make the dough more soft and perhaps 2-3 tablespoons pistachio liquor.

If you are in Venice, look out for pistachio bread in Strada Nova. Pasticceria Giovanni Pitteri is an expert in making delicious pistachio cakes and zaleti, like the ones you can see in the cover page of this post. I also love the pistachio heart-shaped cookies, cuoricini al pistacchio which I discovered at Pasticceria Marchini Time. In addition to cakes and cookies, you also find torroncini and praline al pistacchio, pistachio-flavored sweet balls in Venice, enhanced with chocolate drops.

And there are the zaleti al pistacchio. Zaleti are the famous Venetian “yellow” cookies enhanced with chocolate drops and grappa-flavored raisins. Sometimes, part of the maize flour they are made from is substituted with pistachio flour and pistachio cream.

Click here to download Nonna Lina’s recipe for zaleti, including the variant zaleti al pistachio – pistachio-flavored zaleti.

You can buy the ingredients to make pan pistacchio and all the other cookies, like farina di mandorle (almond flour) and crema di pistacchio di Bronte at Drogheria Mascari, my favorite gourmet store. I discovered the torroncini al pistacchio at Pasticceria Dolce Vita at the Rialto Market.

Celebrating Samhain with Risotto del Contadino

Like elsewhere, Halloween in Venice couldn’t work properly without la zucca – pumpkins decorations and dishes. But then, when my grandmother was young and the notion of Halloween wasn’t generally known in the Veneto, squashes were a staple food in late October.  Especially, pumpkins were used to make delicious risotto.

It seems that squashes arrived via the Levant in Venice. Venetians had their own home-grown varieties long before Halloween was taken up in the Veneto. For there were other things to celebrate and look forward to …

When my grandmother was young and lived in the countryside in the northern Lagoon, autumn meant a busy time … and it wasn’t all about harvesting. For November 1st marked a special period in the Venetian calendar, the beginning of the new agricultural year ! We’ll write about all that in one of our first posts in November.

So first, after the Remembrance Days had been solemnly celebrated on 1 and 2 November, this month actually became very festive, but with a purpose. For it’s one of the two months when Venice celebrates her very existence (the other is July).

First, in November you already harvested wonderful food and fruit. A bounty to choose from little known or forgotten varieties I don’t see in many other places. I mean, mulberries, pomegranates, figs, quinces and persimmons. Apples, pears and olives.

Venetians loved, and still love, eating pheasant, faraona, and goose in November. They eat goose to recall the tradition of Saint Martin being saved by geese, on 11 November. Then, November is a transition month: After we celebrate La Festa della Salute on 21 November, it is more quiet and Venetians are getting ready for Christmas time.

Yes, you read that correct. Getting ready for Christmas used to be a quiet time. My grandmother tells that people spent it baking, cooking risotti, hunting (fowl) and fishing (pesce di San Pietro, mostly) in the Lagoon. Only a few days before Christmas were pine twigs cut to decorate the house. But that’s another story we will tell when Christmas is around the corner.

In our family, the beginning of November / end of October was celebrated with squash. Zucca, and now, the variety with the hard emerald-colored skin, zucca marina di Chioggia, una zucca rugosa, was available at the markets. You can see it in all the images of this post 🙂 We cut it in small dices and use it as main ingredient to make Risotto del Contadino.

This risotto consists of two parts, so I think it’s very luxurious 🙂 Part one is the risotto itself, consisting of diced pumpkins, red onions, Arborio risotto rice, red wine (we use a little glass of vino raboso, by the way), and wine cheese (formaggio al vino – we use Fienotto, or any soft, wine-flavored cheese we can get). Lots of pepper and chili flakes go into the risotto broth (all’onda) as well..

 

We prepare part 1 of this dish as we usually cook risotto. That means, adding water in little bits and stirring the rice, diced pumpkins, apples, grapes and onions a lot. Then we add salt and spices (the warm mixture: black pepper, cinnamon, a tiny hint of yellow curry powder and dried chili flakes). Finally, we garnish with tiny dices of the cheese and wait a few minutes until they melt into the risotto.

Part 2 of our dish consists of a special, warming, seasonal topping. In a pan, we fry raisins, pinoli (pine nuts) and a few slices of persimmon. I cachi (persimmons) are the most ancient variety of apple that came to Europe via the spice route during Roman times. And they do taste like a warming exotic apple and vanilla mix.

In Venice, you can often find neglected persimmon trees in the tiny garden courtyards. We pick all our persimmons and they are used to make jam, syrups and to flavor spicy dishes like piatti unici and this risotto. They also look nice if you want to garnish a special dish …

Then, the end of October can be considered a “second spring” as I mentioned above. For example, the herbs in the courtyard garden still look nice and love the sun. Above, you can see our erba cola (artemisia abrotanum marittima) and our olmaria.

By the way, we pick a leaf of olmaria and use it to make a cup of herbal infusion in case anyone in the family suffers from a headache due to autumn weather swings.. It has a rather neutral taste, very greenish, and is often a fine alternative to taking aspirina

Simple and Luxurious Autumn Recipes – Cooking with Truffles in the Veneto

In Part 5 of our Sapori d’Autunno Blog series, we talk about tartufo: I think there’s no better flavor than tartufi (truffles) conveying the earthen scent of autumn in your kitchen 🙂 And to reach this purpose in an effective and economical manner, we’ve got a few tips for you.

First, we use truffles very sparingly, and not always truffles themselves. They taste incredibly intense and must be used in the right manner by all means. For example, we often use high-quality olive oil flavored with tartufo and it conveys just the right amount of earthen taste to risotto or a pasta dish.

While the Apennines are best known for truffles in Italy, you find both tartufo nero (black truffles) and tartufo bianco (white truffles) in various areas (zone tartufigene) in the Veneto as well. For example, black truffles come from the Colli Euganei and Colli Berici hills. White truffles can be found in the southern parts, around the Po River Delta, Polesine and Rovigo.

Flavoring risotto with truffles

When cooking risi in bianco, plain risotto rice (take a look at this post to learn more about risotto rice), we add neutral flavors like a few cubes of zucca gialla (yellow butternut squash) and/or wood berries to enhance the truffle taste. You could also add a spoonful of dry white wine while stirring your risotto, and/or a tiny amount of dried tomatoes.

Serve your risotto with scaglie di parmigiano (parmesan slices, or even better, with cubes of Asiago cheese like I did in the picture below) and sprinkle with olio aromatizzato al tartufo. This is the most economical way to get that flavor as often as you like and the right amount of this flavor, neither too weak nor too intense.

With regard to spices, it’s cinnamon and black pepper that best enhance the flavor of tartufo. Use herbs sparingly, but chives, parsley, and above all, tarragon, will work just fine. Also, dried fruit, used sparingly, can enhance your truffle pasta or rice dish, such as uva passa (raisins) or even pinoli (pine nuts).

 

Cooking pasta sauce with truffles flavor

Here we can prepare a creamier variant than with risotto. For example, I cooked this pasta corta alla salicornia e tartufo – short pasta with salicornia herbs and truffles.

Salicornia is a herb growing on the island swamps of the Lagoon, and sometimes alongside the cultivations and the little canals criss-crossing vegetable gardens on the Lagoon islands, such as Mazzorbo, Sant’Erasmo or Le Vignole.

To prepare your pasta sauce, cook the salicornia herbs in a little bit of water until soft. Fry them in a pan for a few minutes, add cream, a hint of cinnamon, sea salt and black pepper. Add the pasta and flavor your dish with olive oil flavored with truffles. In case you use “real” truffles, use a tiny bit of them (grated) while you heat the sauce with the cream. Garnish with Asiago cheese and flavor with black pepper. I also added a few slices of fried courgettes 🙂

By the way – if you would like to know more about Lagoon herbs, I recommend you make a visit to the Serra dei Giardini ! This is a hothouse where you can buy plants, seeds, and also enjoy afternoon tea, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In 2012, during the Biennale, I went to attend the Festival della Laguna, part of which also took place at the Serra dei Giardini.  There’s also a blog dedicated to the 2012 Edition of the Festival della Laguna, click here to view it.

 

I was an avid visitor at this Festival della Laguna five years ago. While visiting the exhibition hosted by Serra dei Giardini, I first thought about starting a blog on Venice dedicated to its Secret World of Herbs and Spices 🙂 Take a look at this website, even though it’s five years old. You will find a lot of useful information on the Lagoon islands, their vocation, and of course, farms, orchards and vegetables !

Three Famous Venetian Rice Dishes & our Favorite Autumn Risotto

Writing about soul food can’t be complete with our beloved risotto. It’s a staple dish in our family 🙂 Rice dishes have always been a favorite in the Veneto. Rice arrived in the Veneto region in the 9th century AD, when Venetian merchants bought it via Amalfi from the Arabs that had introduced rice to Sicily. Today, most rice grown in the Veneto either comes from the Rovigo area or from the flatlands around and south of Verona.

Soon, rice became THE staple food for the Venetians. Just think of their signature dish, or national dish so to say, which is risi e bisi. The Doge and his guests ate risi e bisi (rice and green peas) on St. Mark’s Day (25 April). This is one of the recipes which arrived in our times. Others still wait to be re-discovered … and there are so many family recipes for risotto here, for every season. Often enriched with dried fruit, savoury or even sweet.

The other well-known Venetian rice dishes are risotto al radicchio and riso al nero di seppia. We’ll talk about these when their season has arrived !

In Venice, I buy rice either at Drogheria Mascari’s or at Casa del Parmigiano which I mentioned a few times in this blog series. You can see their fine selection above. You even get riso alla zucca e mela, which is rice enriched with squash and apples.

Venetians are quite strict about which rice to choose. and for risotto, riso arborio is di rigore ( a must-have !). But then, there are a number of other rice varieties on sale too, flavored and natural.

Here’s the family recipe I announced above. You can taste the Venetian September in it, from grapes to herbs and a hint of warming spices.

This is our Riso al curcuma, Asiago, funghi porcini e uva nera – Risotto flavored with turmeric and cinnamon, Asiago cheese, cepes and black grapes.

Fry cepes (fresh or dried) in olive oil, add grapes and blueberries if you like. At the same time, prepare your risotto in the Venetian way, which is stirring a lot, adding a bit of water, then stirring again … when your rice is almost al dente, add the cepes and grapes, plus tiny cubes of Asiago cheese (or Mozzarella if you like). Serve with chives, black pepper, lemon-flavored olive oil and another handful of grated parmesan cheese.

Soulfood Power Bowl: Sweetpotato – Squash Soup & Nasturtium Pesto

 

In part 3 of our Sapori d’Autunno blog series, we will cook our favorite cream soup in late September. We call it crema alle patate americane e zucca con pesto al nasturzio. It’s a hearty soup, because by now, I can’t pretend that mornings in Venice are getting slightly chilly.  The difference in temperature between early morning and afternoon keep rising, calling for food that helps us adapt to the seasonal mood swings. We need balanced food which we can make easily, with a little help from herbs.

This time, I use the herbs to make pesto. Our nasturtium pesto consists of pistachios (pistacchi tritati), basil leaves (the ones you could see in the first post of our Sapori d’Autunno Blog Series), pinoli (pine nuts), and nasturtium petals called petali di nasturzio.

Today’s ingredients are all locally sourced, and we’ll tell you a bit about the Estuary of the Venetian Lagoon. Especially in the northeastern part of the estuario, you find flatlands covered with vegetable plantations, vineyards and horticultural centers, separated by the odd wild berries hedge and patch of reeds from each other. There are quite a lot of them, next to Portogrande located near Altino and thus, to the Venice Airport, Marco Polo.

It’s an area called zona risorgiva, for the river Sile is a fiume di risorgiva. Risorgiva means resurgence. For part of its journey, the river flows underground through limestone caves.

Its clear water is so beneficial for these plantations located along its banks. From the Sile area, and across to Lio Piccolo and the Cavallino area, we get incredibly fresh produce then sold here at the Rialto Market.

To make two portions of your cream soup, you need 1/2 cup sweet potatoes, cut in cubes, and 1 1/2 cups soft, yellow squash, also cut in little cubes. Currently, the soft piena di Napoli is available at the market. Zucca Marina di Chioggia is also arriving at the markets. (We’ll cover squash from the Veneto in detail later in October 🙂 ) Cook the vegetables with 1-2 white onions in water in a pan until soft. Puree them and flavor with sea salt, black pepper and a hint of cinnamon.

How to make your pesto al nasturzio – nasturtium: Blend nasturtium, dill and basil leaves in a mortaio (mortar) with pine-nuts, parmesan flakes. and chopped pistachios and a few drops of olive oil until you get a smooth mixture. Please note – never cut herbs when making pesto. Reduce the herbs to small pieces / leaves with your hands !

Top your soup with pesto, a few drops of chili-flavored olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and a few twigs of dill. Flavor with a teaspoon panna (cream) if you like.

If you don’t have nasturzio available, use a tiny bit of freshly harvested red chilis to add a sharp, refreshing flavor to your soup.

Nasturtium growing on our window ledge

Tomorrow, we’ll take you on a trip to discover le risaie – rice fields in the Veneto, and our favorite recipe for risotto in early autumn.

The History of Venetian Polenta and a Sweet Market Breakfast

The first products distributed at the Rialto Market, in the 6th century AD, were bread and water. Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that on Campiello dei Meloni, in the San Polo Market area, there’s a street food bar called Acqua e Mais. The “bread” baked with maize flour was called polenta, and it comes sweet and savoury. Easy to prepare, with a thousand possibilities, just a perfect kind of cibo di strada – street food in particular in the winter.

Water and maize have been the main ingredients for bread in Venice. Every location has developed its own bread, after all. At first, I found it surprising that maize wasn’t imported in big quantities to Venice after Columbus had returned from his trip to the Americas. In fact, Venetian merchants did import a certain amount, they were too curious not to do that. They had had, however, an endemic grain variety called “grano turco” ever since … If you take a look at the ancient cookbooks, or others that I go to, such as La Cucina Tradizionale Veneta, you will find that granoturco was introduced from the Levant, probably from northern Persia, alongside with a host of other luxurious ingredients Venetians loved trading with.

So there were “yellow varieties of grain” growing in the Veneto ever since. In fact, they are still here and have been used to bake the Venetian biscuits called zaleti (yellow biscuit breads) for the explorers and merchants to remain healthy during their sea voyages.

My favorite zaléti at the Rialto Market were made by Franco Carlon, who also offered incredibly soft and tasty polenta-coconut cakelets called cestoni al cocco … but by now, these are childhood memories.

I buy Venetian farina di polenta, polenta flour, which is now produced outside Rovigo, around Treviso and Vicenza, at the Casa del Parmigiano, a deli located at the Rialto Market on Campo Bella Vienna.

As announced, a favorite autumn breakfast in my family is made from polenta. As we still get summer fruit like peaches, plums and nectarines, and also wood berries, these could become the sweet ingredient to garnish our polenta cake. Or, we also love home-made fruit gels and jam.

The other ingredient is home-made lavender syrup, from which we will make lavender icing, and to bring back summer vibes, I used some red currant gel to bake, and a few leaves of water mint and lemon balm

To prepare the pancakes, just substitute half the amount of flour with farina di polenta, polenta flour, prepare the dough with sparkling mineral water (!). Flavor with coconut sugar, cinnamon, lemon balm and water mint leaves. Pour the mixture into a pan, place a tiny spoonful of marmellata al ribes rosso, or your favorite fruit gel or jam in the center. Fry on both sides in olive oil, then garnish with cinnamon, sugar flakes, honey and a teaspoon lavender icing or syrup. Here you go 🙂

Tomorrow, we are going to take a look at our market lunch menu … we’ll start with a special creamy fall soup, based on patate americane, herbs, spices and of course, squash !

Sapori d’Autunno – Autumn Flavors from the Rialto Market & A Market Breakfast

Last weekend, autumn was palpable in Venice …. complete with cool breeze, showers, hazy-milky clouds yet there was a hint of summer warmth and pockets of sunshine in the secret corners of the courtyards. So this week, and to relaunch our Food Blog Cucina Speziata, we invite you to join us for a stroll across the Rialto Market. We left early on that Saturday morning to arrive at the market before the crowds …

Casa del Parmigiano, a favorite deli, without the crowds on Saturday … but you’ve got to be here by 9:00 am

In this series of seven blog posts, one published each day this upcoming week, we take you to shop for groceries at the Rialto Market. You will see the bounty of autumn in Venice herbs, fruit and groceries, and finally, how we use all that produce, herbs, blossoms and spices in the kitchen 🙂

In the picture above you can see a fine basket of aromatic herbs I need to make our favorite scrambled eggs dish. First, there is maggiorana (marjoram) growing wild on the southwestern shores of Italy. Next to it, you can see dried oregano. Actually, this is a varietà selvatica, oregano of wild origin, harvested on the slopes of the Monti Lattari (above the Amalfi Coast). True, at the Rialto market these days, you do get bounty from near and far :-), the way it has been for 1,500 years.

In the basket, you can also recognize free fresh fennel and water mint, tarragon and the ubiquitous basil. A mixture of these herbs will go into a hearty breakfast dish at home, uova strappazzate alle erbe selvatiche.

In Venice, you may have noticed, we eggs all day long. They are called vovi in Venetian, and often come as part of the antipasti plates called cicheti. Then, you can even find restaurants that offer pizze with fried eggs in the center, and that’s a favorite of some Venetians 🙂

Actually, we eat scrambled eggs all day long, making baked dishes with rice (looks and tastes exotic), or even fried potatoes in olive oil and scrambled eggs (that was my grandfather’s favorite snack) …

A little note about the herbs you find at the Rialto Market. A friend told me how disappointed she was that there were so many dried herbs on offer at the market stalls. Actually, these herbs are locally sourced and an absolute necessity to cook in the cooler season. I can’t imagine Venetian cooking without dried herbs in autumn and winter, and early spring. Also, the mixtures are quite flowery (as you can see below), but you need to know how to use them … for example, I buy calendula and cornflower blossoms to garnish vegan chocolate cake served in a jar 🙂

To prepare your uova strappazzate, you need to fry slices of spring onions, wild marjoram leaves (fresh), and a garlic clove in pan in olive oil, together with 1- 2 tomatoes (sliced). As soon as the garlic cloves turn slightly brown, add the eggs, bake them and season the dish with sea salt, black pepper and chili flakes.

Garnish with green grapes, basil leaves and parmesan flakes. That’s all ! And, you might like some toasted bruschetta, that is, 1-2 toasted slices of bread. We’d use the white sour bread from the Rialto Market

Of course, before we leave the market, we stop here …. this is Pasticceria Dolce Vita Cafe, and they are well-known for their delicious pistachio cream-filled cornetti. We’ll talk about these presently 🙂 Cornetto means croissant in Italian, by the way. By the way, do take a look at their website and fabulous pastries here !

Tomorrow we’ll continue with the second course of our hearty breakfast, which is a sweet warm polenta, garnished with nectarines, plums, honey, rose blossoms and cornflower petals 🙂