Table Talk

Food & Drink - April 24th, 1987

with Donna Sweeny

Venetian Cuisine — Part II
Foods from the New World

Venice’s prosperity in the 15th century restred securely on its monopoly of the spice trade with the East; pepper, which accounted for more than half of the spice imports, was by far the most coveted. By the 1500s, pepper was actually used a currency and was routinely kept under lock and key— understandably so, for at that time a pound of pepper was worth about three week’s salary for an average worker; it was used to pay dowries and to settle debts.

Constant contact with the Orient—as well as with the Arab and European traders who flocked to the Rialto market­place to buy and sell perfumes and silks as well as spices— gave the Venetians a sophistica­tion unknown elsewhere; it was they who introduced glassware and forks to the table, and the banquets of the Doges were famous throughout the con­tinent for their sumptuous elegance.

Three favorable circum­stances gave Venice a great advantage in developing its in­teresting style of cooking. It had fabulous wealth with the leisure to enjoy it, and it had access to spices. A third factor was equally important; it was one of the ports for ships returning from the New World, ships laden with tomatoes, potatoes, squash, beans, corn, turkey, sweet peppers—foods never seen before in Europe.

Because of this, the cooking of Venice was more novel and varied than that of its neigh­bors. The novelty has not worn off, and many of these dishes remain classic favorites to this day.

The vegetable recipes which follow make use of these “new” foods and Eastern spices with delicious results. (Any summer squash, or cucumber, may be substituted for the zucchini in these recipes.)

Zucchini with Tomatoes and Basil (serves 4)

  • 2 tablespoons olived oil
  • 1 pound zucchini, cubed
  • 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 cup dried basil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, and basil and cook over moderate heat until the zucchini is done, about 8 minutes.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.

Peppered Zucchini (serves 4)

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 pound zucchini, cut into one-inch cubes
  • 2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1/2 pint sour cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne papper
  • Salt
  • 8 scallions, thinly sliced
  • Melt the butter and sugar in a saucepan. Add the zucchini and tomatoes, cover, and cook over moderate heal until the zucchini is tender, about 8 minutes.
  • Remove the zucchini and tomatoes from the saucepan and drain them, discarding the liquid; put I hem in a serving dish and keep warm.
  • Add the sour cream to the saucepan, stir in the cayenne pepper, and warm over low heat.
  • Add salt to taste. Pour the sauce over the zucchini and tomatoes and sprinkle the scallion slice on lop.

Tomatoes and Peppers in Wine (serves 4)

This is a very good side dish for fish; it can also be served over rice for a light lunch or supper.

  • 3 slices of bacon, diced
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 pound of green peppers, seeded and cut into strips
  • 2 pounds of tomatoes, peeled, quartered, and seeded
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Fry the bacon in a saucepan until the fat is transparent; add the onion and saute until the onion is limp, stirring occasionally.
  • Add the peppers, tomatoes, and wine and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Soon after its introduction, corn became a staple of the northern Italian diet, rivaling pasta and bread. Corn meal, polenta, is still very popular and is served with myriad dishes. Perhaps the most well known combination is calves’ liver with polenta, the culinary creation for which Venice is most famous.

Polenta (serves 4)

  • 2 3/4 pints water
  • 1 cup corn meal
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Butter
  • Bring the water, to a boil and add the corn meal. An easy way to avoid lumps forming is to put the corn-meal in your closed fist and drop it into the water in a steady stream, stirring continuously.
  • Cook over medium heat for 45 minutes, stirring often.
  • Pour the polenta into a buttered dish or mold, and let it cool.
  • Unmold onto an ovenproof serving plate and cut into portions. Heat in a warm oven while preparing the calves’ liver.

Polenta can be served plain, or with butter and/or grated Parmesan cheese. It is particularly delicious fried — spoon cooked polenta into a buttered loaf pan and chill. Cut into slices and brown them in butter.

Venetian Calves’ Liver (serves 4)

  • 1 pound calves’ liver
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 large onions, finely sliced
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
  • Cut the liver into thin strips, discarding the membrane.
  • In a skillet melt 2 tablespoons of butter, then add 4 tablespoons of olive oil.
  • Cook the onions until they are transluscent. Add 1 cup of white wine to the skillet, allowing it to come to a boil.
  • Add the liver strips and cook them quickly until they are just done, about 4-6 minutes.
  • Stir in 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley, the white pepper, and 1 tablespoon of butter. Keep stirring until the butter is melted.

Despite the popularity of polenta, pasta remains favorite. This canneloni recipe is typical, although not unique to Venice. Don’t be put off by the large number of ingredients —the method is quite simple and the result is well worth it. Delizioso!

Spinach Canneloni(serves 4)

  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil
  • 4 quarts water
  • 12 pasta sheets*
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup cooked spinach, well drained and chopped
  • 1 cup cooked ham, chopped
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup light cream
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup freshly grated mild white cheddar cheese
  • Preheat the oven to 350°F.

To prepare the pasta:

  • Pour 1 tablespoon of cooking oil into 4 quarts of rapidly boiling water.
  • Add the pasta and cook it about 5 minutes until it is done; occasionally stir the pasta to prevent sticking. Drain and pat each sheet dry with a towel.

To make the filling:

  • Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil until the onion becomes limp.
  • In a bowl, combine the onion/garlic mixture with the chopped spinach, eggs, ham, oregano and black pepper.
  • Spoon 3 tablespoons of this mixture onto each pasta sheet; roll the sheets up and place them in a single layer in a baking dish.

To make the sauce:

  • Melt the butter in a saucepan and blend in the flour, salt, nutmeg and pepper, stirring constantly until bubbly.
  • Add the chicken broth and cream and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and smooth.
  • Remove the sauce pan from the heat and add the Parmesan and cheddar cheese, stirring until the cheese is melted.
  • Pour the sauce over the canneloni, and bake at 350° for 30 minutes.

* Pasta sheets, approximately 4 inches by 6 inches, are readily available in Tokyo and are easy to work with; some brands are labeled “lasagna?” The precooked variety cannot be used in this recipe.