Friday, April 22, 2016

HOLIDAYS: Passover + Pesce en Saor Recipe

Venice: La Serenissima, the only city in the world with streets of water, where we're made to slow down the pace. It's home to delicious seafood and fresh veggies pulled from and grown in the briny waters of the lagoon. And, it's the birthplace of the term ghetto (based on the Venetian dialect term for foundry, original site of the neighborhood that became the ghetto...also gettare in Italian means to toss aside, throw out, which is essentially what happened to the Venetian Jews). This ghetto was created for Jews in the 16th century and has morphed into terminology for an area into which a specific ethnic or racial group is pushed, isolated. This original ghetto separated the Jews from the rest of the Venetian population, but it also allowed, on some level, for the city's Jewish population to insulate itself and strengthen its traditions, though perhaps not into a singular Venetian Jewish community -- as evidenced by the five different diminutive synagogues in the neighborhood, catering to Italian, German, Levantine, Portuguese-Spanish, and French Jews practicing in Venice. 

Venice was truly a city at the crossroads of the spice trade and was the hub of trade routes between the east and the west for centuries before the ghetto was created. Jews were a vibrant and integral part of trade and banking for centuries in the middle ages and early Renaissance, and then once the Inquisition started driving Jews out of Spain and Portugal, many settled in Venice, and its Jewish population grew. So, on March 29th, 1516, the Venetian Jewish ghetto was established, more or less to keep the Jews "in check." Their movement about the city was limited and there were curfews set in the evenings, as entry points on the water were blocked and guarded by Venetian security men in boats. And while this was certainly oppressive and limiting, Jewish cuisine in Venice still flourished. So much of what we think of simply as "Venetian food" or "Roman specialties" or "Sicilian cuisine" originated in the kitchen of Jewish Italians. Artichokes, eggplant, and squash and pumpkins are all examples of food items that were not eaten by non-Jews, even up until the 19th century in many cases. Now it's difficult to imagine Italian cuisine without these items.

One of the signature flavor profiles of typically Jewish-Italian dishes is the element of sweet and sour, or agrodolce, in Italian. This comes from the pairing of vinegar and sugar (and honey well before sugar was widely available in Europe). The use of vinegar to preserve food is a classically Jewish one, because no work is allowed to be done on the sabbath, so all the food for sabbath meals needs to be prepared in advance -- and so the dishes are often served cool or at room temperature, having been cooked the day before. This happy coincidence allows for the flavors to develop, resulting in an even-more-delicious dish eaten a day or two after it was prepared. The sugar added to the vinegar is simply to cut the acidity of the vinegar (or citrus juice, or wine). Pesce en saor is Venice's shining example of a practically-conceived dish in the Jewish cuisine canon, going mainstream (pun intended). 

This dish is often made with sardines and called sarde en saor -- it's on most Venetian trattoria menus -- but it can be made with any fish fillets, really, though more oily fish like Spanish mackerel are suited to the sweet-and-sour preparation (they're also good for you, with lots of Omega-3s). A typical pairing would be with polenta, soft if you're making it and serving right away, or made a day in advance, cut into squares, and either served cold or grilled before serving. The addition of carrots and celery is optional, as is the choice of red or white onions. But the raisins and pine nuts are key to matching the sweet and sour flavors of the dish, and add texture and interest. it's the perfect make-ahead dish for Passover, and serves as an interesting substitute for gefilte fish on the American/Ashkenazi Passover table. Try it this year -- you may do as the Venetians have done, and incorporate the dish into your personal repertoire of favorites. HAPPY PASSOVER!



(6 servings)

1 whole fish (about 2 pounds), cleaned, or 1.5 pounds fish fillets -- Spanish mackerel is a nice choice

½ cup red wine vinegar

3 tbs. sugar
1 onion, thinly sliced into half moons
2 small carrots, thinly sliced into a thick julienne or shavings
1 celery stalk, sliced into thin Vs

½ cup toasted pine nuts

½ cup raisins, plumped in hot water

6 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil

salt & pepper to taste

- In a small bowl, stir together vinegar, sugar, pine nuts, and a little of the raisin plumping water. Set aside.

- Warm 2 tbs. of the olive oil in a large saute’ pan over medum heat. Sprinkle the fish with salt just before placing it in the saute’ pan. Saute’ until golden brown. Flip and brown on the other side.

- Remove fish from pan, add 2 more tbs. olive oil, and saute the onions and carrots an celery in the pan until softened, about 4 minutes.

- Add the vinegar mixture, cover, and cook over medium heat until the fish is done – about 10 minutes for a whole fish and 5 minutes for fillets.

- Transfer to a platter and serve warm or, better yet, the next day at room temperature.

* This dish pairs really well with polenta squares, grilled or pan-seared.

Friday, April 15, 2016

RECIPE BY REQUEST: Persian Chicken

"Chicken is just soooo good!" That's one of my father's favorite phrases, and he means it in quite general terms. To his palate, there are few things more tasty, more versatile, or more deliciously restorative than some kind of dish featuring chicken on the bone. He's right -- and this makes chicken a great dinner idea for home cooks around the world. 

Besides crowd-pleasers like simple roast chicken or rotisserie chicken (billion dollar businesses are built on the deliciousness of these simple staples), there are dishes from all cultures and all cuisines that feature chicken on the bone. Think American Southern buttermilk fried chicken and Korean fried chicken, Peruvian grilled chicken and the spicy piri-piri chicken of Africa and Portugal, chicken cacciatore from Italy and coq au vin from France. There's chicken paprikash from Hungary and jerk chicken from Jamaica, chicken in the tagines of Morocco and the paellas of Spain, tandoori chicken in India. There are the chicken curries in Thailand, chicken rice in Singapore, chicken adobo in the Philippines, and caramel chicken in Vietnam. And we haven't even gotten to all the preparations and variations on chicken wings! It's head-spinning to think about the versatility of this poultry. 

But out of all the lip-smackingly tempting preparations out there for chicken, one of my favorites is standard fare in the Persian cooking canon. I call it simply Persian Chicken, though its name is actually Khoresht Fesenjan, and it's chicken on the bone, stewed until tender with a sauce of walnuts, spices, and pomegranate molasses, finished with fresh pomegranate. The recipe is thought to have originated with duck in ancient Persia, which might possibly be the only more-delicious way to enjoy this sauce. I could bathe in this sauce. It's incredibly scrumptious: it's got texture, it's sour and sweet and aromatically spiced, with the brightness of the fresh pomegranate arils and layers of flavor. I like to add lots of chopped parsley at the end and just a squeeze of fresh lemon, to brighten it as it all comes together. 

I've made this dish for Passover seders in the past and my clients have loved it. Some have asked for the recipe -- hence, I'm obliging with this "Recipe By Request." It's easy to prepare as kosher for the holiday, and it adds a bit of Sephardic flavor to brighten up the usual brisket-and-matzo-ball-soup menus that are so popular among American Ashkenazi Jews. So, try making Persian chicken this Passover, or try it any time of the year when you can get your hands on fresh pomegranate. I think it'll become a favorite under the "CHICKEN" heading in your recipe files! 


Cook time
Serves: 2-4
  • 1 whole chicken cut into 8-10 pieces 
  • 3 TBS olive oil or vegetable oil or ghee (clarified butter)
  • 8 ounces walnut halves, toasted and chopped into 1/4" pieces
  • 1 large yellow onion, sliced thin in half moons
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup pomegranate molasses/concentrate
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • kosher salt
  • ⅛ tsp freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 cup pomegranate seeds for garnish
  • squeeze of fresh lemon
  1. Heat the oil in a wide, heavy-bottomed pan and sear the chicken pieces on all sides until browned; remove from pan.
  2. Add the sliced onions to the pan and saute with 3-4 TBSP vegetable oil in a 6-Qt stockpot until golden.
  3. Add the ground spices and stir for 30 seconds until heated through with the onions.
  4. Add the chopped/ground walnuts and stir to coat.
  5. Add the pomegranate molasses and stir.
  6. Add the chicken broth and stir to mix.
  7. Add chicken to the pot, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bring the chicken and the sauce to a boil over medium-high heat. 
  8. Once boiling, turn the heat down to medium-low, cover, and cook for about 45 minutes. Stir every 15 minutes to avoid the sauce sticking to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the sauce is thickened and the chicken is fork tender and falls off the bone.
  9. Transfer the chicken to a serving dish and stir the parsley into the sauce. Taste and adjust for salt and seasoning. 
  10. Sprinkle some pomegranate seeds on top as garnish.
  11. Serve over white Persian steamed rice. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


They're not center-stage like artichokes are in and around Rome. But when I see those bright green, grassy bunches of agretti in the markets, I know it's springtime again in The Eternal City. Known in English as saltwort or friar’s beard, or barilla plant – or “land seaweed”, in Japan – agretti can cause stampedes in the markets of central Italy as locals make a run for the bunches of crunchy, grass-like leaves. A Mediterranean native, agretti (Salsola soda, in Latin) were first cultivated as a source of soda ash, which plays a key role in glass and soap making (and an important element in Murano's famous glass-blowing tradition for the wine goblets and chandeliers of the grand Venetian palaces). Then as alternative methods of extracting soda ash were discovered in the 19th century, agretti entered the culinary realm to become a seasonal niche food among peasants in Lazio and Umbria, central Italy.

Saltwort is a succulent shrub and a halophyte -- a salt-tolerant plant -- native to the Mediterranean basin, and can be irrigated with saltwater or fresh. Agretti are harvested in bunches when small, or cropped to encourage new growth among mature plants. Most commonly, they're lightly boiled and then served warm, room temp, or cold -- with some olive oil and lemon. Much like samphire, or sea asparagus (asparagi di mare), they shouldn't be overcooked, so that some crunch remains to the green.
In flavor, agretti are somewhat comparable to spinach, but livelier and with a slightly more verdant bite, half way to chives, without the onion-y, allium aftertaste. They can be eaten raw as well, and can also be used almost like an herb, as chives might be. 
Romans love their greens, so like the ubiquitous and delicious cicoria (chicory leaves) in cooler months and other springtime specialties like wild asparagus, agretti can be spotted from markets to trattorie to the most refined ristoranti in Italy's capital city, and outside in the hills of Lazio. As for pairings, agretti are excellent mixed with eggs, in springtime frittate with other spring veggies like fava beans and fresh peas. Of course, the classic Italian way to utilize any fresh, seasonal item at the market is to either A.) saute it in a pan with a little garlic and olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon, or 2.) toss it with some pasta (and a little garlic and olive oil). So yes, agretti pasta is always a good idea (plus, the name: "spaghetti con agretti": fabulous). It's an easy, mistake-free way to use agretti when you find them. But outside of Rome/Lazio and central Italy, that may be your biggest challenge: finding agretti. In bocca al lupo (good luck), and keep your eyes peeled!