Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A little trip to the world’s most unique city: Venice

A Venetian backwater. Gorgeous, no?
In June 2011, my wife and I had the very good fortune to be able to visit Italy. The trip wasn’t all for giggles, though. I had a crime novel underway (barely) and part of it was going to be set in Italia. The finished product of this trip, Roses for a Diva, will be available for you to buy in less than a month if you so desire.

But that’s not really what this post is about. While in Italy, we ate and cooked a lot of great food. Seriously. We stayed only in places where we could cook. If I had to pick my favourite of the locations visited — a really tough assignment — it would have to be that legendary city on the water, Venezia.

In honor of our first visit, the weather cooperated — an important point in late June when days and nights can be hot and humid — and we had only one short daytime shower to “suffer” through. We were out and about every day from early morning to dusk, visiting locations that I might want to use in my book (read Roses to see what famous places made the cut), and to just get a feel for this most unique city. Our camera was busy throughout, as well, and we have well over a hundred reference photos which I relied on quite heavily while writing the Venetian portion of the book.

As for cooking and eating, we had a one-bedroom apartment in the eastern part of the city just off Via Garibaldi. Our “kitchen” consisted of an alcove that could only fit one person, a two-burner electric hot plate with a tiny fridge underneath it, and a sink that didn’t work all that well. If you’ve read some of my earlier posts on our trip, you’ll know that we had a “traveling larder” consisting of fresh and canned tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, pasta, fruit and oil and vinegar along with some herbs and spices. We also always had or eye out for a good bakery, fruttivendolo or other place where we could pick up something interesting.

Just down Via Garibaldi there was a small market during the early part of the day, and we bought a fish that I cooked within hours. I have no idea what it was, but it was fresh and very good. We also picked up some of the best cherries I’ve ever eaten right off a small boat tied to the side of the canal at the end of the street.

It was all very atmospheric, and during our 4-day visit, we got a good feel for what it’s like to live in this city. As a sidebar, I just loved wandering around, having no idea where we were going. Even if you get hopelessly lost, just keep going. Eventually you’ll get to the shore on the other side of the city, and then it’s just a matter of walking to the next vaporetto stop where you can get a ride on one of the city’s “water buses” that circle the island as well as plying their way up and down the Grand Canal, and to the outlying islands. If you’re ever in Venice, I guarantee if you try this, you will see a lot of unexpected and interesting things. The city is just full of “unexpected”.

But all of this is still not why I’m writing this post.

Served at an intimate dinner on our patio.
My wife, Vicki, bought a cookbook recently, and browsing through it, I found a Venetian pasta dish that looked too good not to try: Bigoli con salsa d’acciughe. For those of you who don’t speak Italian — as my darling wife does — this means “bigoli pasta with anchovy sauce”. It’s considered one of the signature dishes of Venice. We love anchovies around here — and to prove that, we normally have a large tin of salted ones in the back of our fridge — so this recipe really caught my eye. A real specialty of Venice and it has anchovies as a main ingredient? What more could we want?

It did not disappoint, even though I made a very critical boo-boo when measuring things the first time I made it. We were only make a half-recipe and I got everything right except for halving the amount of anchovies we needed. The dish was certainly not inedible by any means, but it was awfully salty. Eager to rectify that and be able to make a proper assessment of the recipe, I tried again a week later. This time it proved to be really delicious, especially the combination of anchovies (salty and pungent) and onions (sweet), the sauce’s two main ingredients. With a really good cold-pressed virgin olive oil, you get a very attractive fruitiness, and the crunch of the breadcrumbs is lovely.

A note on bigoli: This is not a well-known pasta shape outside of Italy and it originated in Venice or the Veneto. The best description is “a larger version of bucatini”. In other words, it’s a long thick tube about as thick as a wooden knitting needle. Originally, it was made with buckwheat, but it’s now more often than not made with whole wheat (integrale). Thus far, we’ve been unable to find bigoli in Toronto, so we used spaghetti, although bucatini would probably have been a better traditional choice.

Bigoli con salsa d’acciughe / Bigoli with anchovy sauce
Serves 4

1 1/3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
2/3 cup cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbs minced Italian parsley (don’t use dried parsley!)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 1/2 cups thinly sliced red onion (I’m not kidding. It will cook way down)
3 oz anchovy fillets, chopped
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 pound bigoli, bucatini or spaghetti pasta

  1. If you don’t know how to make fresh breadcrumbs, it’s easy. Take a loaf of white or whole wheat bread, cut off the crusts and use a food processor or blender (our choice) to turn them into crumbs. Freeze any extra in a plastic bag from which you’ve sucked the air (to keep ice from forming).
  2. Over a medium flame, heat “to the point of fragrance” (love that term!) 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a wide skillet, then add the bread crumbs. Stirring constantly, toast them until they’re golden brown and crisp. Remove them from the skillet and stir in the minced parsley, a touch of salt and a good grinding of black pepper. Set aside.
  3. Cut the onions in half longitudinally (top to bottom), then slice each half very thinly.
  4. Rinse thoroughly and then fillet the anchovies if you’re using the salt-packed ones (and they’re far superior for the usual anchovy filets in oil you find in grocery stores). It’s not complicated. Using a very sharp, thin bladed knife (like a paring knife), start at the tail and cut along the backbone towards the front of the fish. (It’s not hard to cut the filet in one large piece once you get the knack.) Flip the fish over and cut the meat of the other side. Some larger bones may be around the front of the fish, some guts also, so just pull these off with your fingers. I don’t bother removing any fins. They dissolve during cooking, same thing for the fish’s tiny bones. If any meat remains along the backbone, pull it off with your fingers. If you’re using the oil packed fillets, just drain them on some paper towels.
  5. Any anchovies are heavily salted during processing and that can make this dish too salty for some tastes since you’re using a lot of them. If that’s the case for you, soak them for 10 minutes in milk. This will leach out some of the salt. Dry carefully on paper towels if you do this. An alternative — and what I do — is to use little salt in the pasta water. End the anchovy prep by chopping the anchovies relatively finely.
  6. Heat the remaining olive oil in the skillet (now clean again) until the point of fragrance and cook the sliced onion slowly (don’t let it brown) until it’s very soft (about 20 minutes). A couple of pinches of salt will aid the process.
  7. Start heating the water for the pasta.
  8. Add the anchovies to the sauce, mashing them into the onions. You want them dissolve into the sauce.
  9. Once the water is at a rolling boil, add salt to the water but not heavily (see above). Cook the pasta until done. Reserve about a cup of the pasta water.
  10. Turn up the heat under the sauce and stir in a half cup of the pasta water and add the red pepper flakes. Break up the onion/anchovy mixture as best you can. Add the cooked pasta and two thirds of  the breadcrumbs and toss throughly, further separating the clumps of onions and anchovies. Add more pasta water if it’s too dry. We generally serve pasta courses in large soup bowls. Whatever you use, make sure they’re heated! Plate each portion and divide up the remaining breadcrumbs, sprinkling them over each.

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