Friday, July 27, 2012

Eating our way across Italy (La Terza Parte)

Our Venetian neighborhood.
We ended our first journey to Italy last year in Venice. Since we had rented a car to get us around Tuscany and then up to this iconic city on the Adriatic (via Busseto where Verdi lived, and Verona where we stopped for the night), we had to turn in our vehicle before we got into the city proper. (The city streets are rather damp and it’s hard to see unless you have a good periscope.)

To get to Venice, you either arrive by train, take a boat, or cross the causeway from the mainland in your car which funnels you into a very small area where there are parking garages. In late June, you can imagine the madhouse. It took nearly an hour of waiting in line to get into the garage that Hertz uses – once we figured out which one it was! You can imagine how frazzled we were. Then there were all the Vaporetti routes to Piazza San Marco to negotiate. That morning was not an auspicious start to our stay in Venezia.

But the city charmed us at once. There really is nothing else like it in the world. The weather was coolish with a nice shore breeze during our 3-day visit, unlike what we’d been led to expect (hot and humid). As we had done for the entire trip, we’d rented an apartment. It was just off Via Garibaldi hard on the park in the eastern end where the famous Biennale di Venezia art show is staged. Oddly for Venice, Via Garibaldi is a very wide street, and we discovered later that it had once been a canal.

For Venice, it’s a real neighborhood with small local shops and still with a lot of Venetians living there, something we found out is not common anymore. Since we wanted to do our own cooking, this was the ideal set-up. We quickly found a baker, a cheese monger, a small grocery store and a boat at the end of the original canal a few blocks from our apartment where we could get fresh fruits and vegetables. There was also a small street market where we bought fresh fish – something we were looking forward to during our stay.

Our apartment was down an alley and right at the start of it was a small trattoria that seemed to do a thriving business. We soon found out why. In the evenings, the owner entertains, singing and playing guitar until the wee hours. Being summer, no one sat inside, so it was sort of like a street party. We resisted going there until our last afternoon, when, dog-tired after a long day of researching for the novel I was writing, we got back to the apartment, looked at each other, and both said, “I’m starving, but I’m not cooking!” We immediately thought of the little trattoria.

I believe it's called Giorgione (no doubt the restaurateur’s name) and we had a lovely meal. Why? Because we ordered the house specialty: seafood risotto. Savoring each mouthful, Vicki and I took careful note of the ingredients and possible proportions. We were determined to recreate it at home.

Today, I’d like to share this dish with you.

Our ‘Venetian’ Seafood Risotto
Serves 2

An earlier version of the recipe with larger chunks of seafood.
Very tasty, but somehow not as good as the original.
Risotto is not hard to make, but it most be watched and stirred constantly, and it is a dish where pre-prepping everything is a must. It also has to be served immediately, because even a few minutes wait and everything starts to congeal. Having made numerous mushroom risottos, a family favorite, I felt certain we could pull this all together and give us a memory of our time in Venice. One thing we did notice at the restaurant was that the two shellfish used, shrimp and scallops, were chopped fairly finely. I figured this was a dodge by the kitchen to cut down on the amount needed, but it became clear that the finer pieces allow all the flavors to blend really well. We make this dish with slightly larger pieces of the stars of the show, but still they’re not whole or even in honking big chunks.

Serve this dish with a salad of mixed greens with a simple dressing of primo olive oil and balsamic vinegar. In Italy, you dress your own salad right at the table. Try this with guests. It’s fun. We enjoy a good sauvignon blanc with this dish, but soave or pinot grigio are also quite nice.

3 cups seafood stock
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 doz medium-size raw shrimp
4 large dry scallops
1/3 cup minced onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3-4 Tbs olive oil
1 cup arborio rice (don’t use anything else!)
grated rind of one lemon (our little addition)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbs fresh oregano, minced
3 Tbs fresh parsley, minced
1 Tbs butter
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the stock, peel the shrimp and cut each one into three or four equal pieces. (Reserve shells for more stock, or do this step early and make the stock for the dish on the fly.) The scallops should be cut to the same size. Have all other ingredients ready to go because you won’t have time to cook and prep at the same time! When the stock is just boiling, add the white wine, and turn it down to a simmer.

2. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil and gently sauté the shrimps and scallops until they’re just opaque. You don’t want to cook them all the way. Remove from the pan (and leave as much of the oil behind as you can).

3. Add up to 2 more tablespoons of oil, heat over medium heat to the point of fragrance, then add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft (add two pinches of salt to help sweat them). Now add the rice and cook for about 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until most of the grains have turned opaque.

4. Now, one half-cup at a time, begin adding the hot stock to the rice. Stir it gently allowing the grains of rice to absorb the liquid. As the stock is absorbed, add more. (Stir constantly so the liquid is absorbed evenly.) Don’t have the heat too high. You want the stock to be absorbed, not boiled off!

5. Shortly after putting in the last half-cup of stock, taste the rice to make sure it’s done. You want it to be al dente not mushy. If it’s not quite done, you can add a little water or even more wine. Next time have the heat a little lower so the rice cooks more slowly. This is all a matter of feel, and after you’ve made risotto a time or two, you’ll get it.

6. Now add the lemon rind, parmesan cheese, and oregano, plus the reserved shrimp and scallops. Heat another minute or so, then melt in the butter. You want your risotto to have a nice sauce so don’t let it get too dry. Check the salt and add what you need. Just before serving (on warmed plates!), sprinkle on the chopped parsley. Pass around the pepper mill at the table.

Note: Not everyone has seafood stock lying around, but don’t let that deter you! Whenever we have shrimp or lobster, we save the shells and make stock. The shells are strongly flavored, so it doesn’t take a lot. One lobster or two dozen shrimp shells will make at least six cups of finished stock. Simply throw them in a pot of cold water, bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour or so. Strain, chill, put the stock into old yogurt containers (or whatever you use for this sort of thing) and throw it into the freezer. It will keep for six months or so. Easy, huh?

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