Essentials in the Venetian Kitchen
Imagine going to market every day, selecting the most appealing heads of lettuce and bunches of herbs, being tempted by purple-tinged artichokes the size of plums, rosy-hued red mullet not long out of the sea, freshly quarried slabs of Parmesan cheese, and painterly red-speckled beans. The essence of cooking in Venice begins in the market.
Can this old-world culinary sensibility ever be made compatible with a modern, highly mobile society dependent on the automobile and vast mega-markets with immense shopping carts? With all that is microwavable, deep-freezable, shelf stable? By carefully leavening such expediency with local farmers' markets and quality purveyors of fresh food, an acceptable working relationship between two seemingly opposite points of view can be achieved. The adaptation might offer a fine solution: convenience married to quality. But where compromises must be made, convenience, not quality, should be the first to give way.
Venetian cooking is one of immediacy, of just-made risotto served steaming, just-caught fish tossed on the grill or in the pan, and just-picked arugula, tomatoes, or peaches lightly dressed and carried to the table.
The market determines the menu.
In the case of Venice, the market is Rialto, acknowledged for centuries to be one of the world's most alluring. The Rialto became the commercial hub of the city in the 13th century, when the two sides of the Grand Canal were linked by a wooden bridge, long the only span across the waterway. In 1588 construction of a stone bridge began. Some 6,000 stakes were driven into the mud to support the single arch, which was completed in 1591. (It was completely restored in 1977.)
For centuries banking offices, grain traders, and butchers clustered around the Rialto. Under the ancient arched market porticoes, fishermen and produce vendors sold their wares, and assorted supporting craftsman like rope-makers and wine vendors gathered around the place where the Grand Canal makes a sharp turn. They continue to do so today. (For a time there were food vendors in St. Mark's Square, but they never competed with the Rialto.)
No other market is like the Rialto. But with a demanding attitude to inform choices, good quality can also be obtained elsewhere. Oddly enough, the Italian shopper does not handle produce to judge whether a pear is ripe or an orange heavy. Probing the goods is replaced with trust in the vendor, who knows hat a dissatisfied customer will never return. Only the rare American market deserves such confidence, and the shopper who finds one that does should abandon all others. The effort made in securing first-rate ingredients will result in fine food on the table, for ultimately it is the raw materials, not the recipe, that determine the flavor of the dish.
Given a pantry stocked with a selection of basic ingredients, among them rice, cornmeal, spices and seasonings, tins of anchovies and jars of olives, good olive oil and wine vinegar, some dried porcini perhaps, as well as raisins and candied fruit peel, a trip to the market takes care of the rest. The Venetian table is a simple one, ready on a moment's notice to satisfy with a bit of salad and prosciutto, a simple risotto, some fresh fish quickly fried, and a piece of fruit.
Because Venetian cooking is so market-driven the chapters in this book are organized according to categories of ingredients. Recipes are cross-referenced in the beginning of each chapter. A number of suggested Venetian menus are given in the last chapter.
Note: In this book broil means to cook food in an oven or broiler with the source of heat coming from above the food; grill means to cook food on a grill typically not in an oven with the source of the heat coming from below the food like a barbecue.