Sunday, August 16, 2009

Venetian Night Dinner Party

Italy-venice Throughout the past few years I have tried to present the menus from my more important dinner parties. On the 25th of July I had one of my largest dinner parties, with 11 people making reservations, and 9 people attending. Since it was Venetian night in Chicago, all the courses were traditional recipes from families and restaurants in the Veneto, except that I wandered into neighboring Emiglia-Romagna for the secondi. The menu for the night was as follows.

Antipasti: while serving the antipasti we briefly watched the parade of boats from my windows.
  • Olive fritte: Really one of the easiest dishes I've cooked. You take olives (some stuffed with garlic), and thoroughly dry them, cover them with egg and breadcrumbs, chill them for an hour and then pan fry them.
  • Scampi in saor alla Veneziana served with Ferran Adrià's Inedit beverage in celebration for my friend Mark and Kim's recent wedding in Spain. This was one of the more elaborate dishes, and it took three days to prepare: shrimp are fried in olive oil, then onions are fried until golden, and pine nuts are toasted in an empty frying pan. Everything is combined with raisins, sugar, vinegar and wine, and chilled for 1-2 days.
  • As an amuse-bouche I decided to have a spontaneous blind taste test between a very good 2 year old Parmigiano-Reggiano at $25 a pound and the $32 a pound Parmigiano-Reggiano delle Vacche Rosse, made from the traditional red cows of Northern Italy. The result: of the nine people 6 preferred the $25, and three of us preferred the Vacche Rosse product. Kudos to Rachel for not only accurately distinguishing the two cheeses, but for providing a perfect analytical description of both. I should have written it down, since a cheesemonger could not have done better.
Primi Piatti: 
  • Gnocchi con burro nocciola. This is a dish I've served many times, and it is one of the only dishes that I don't make an effort to vary the recipe on each occasion I serve it: homemade gnocchi covered in butter and sage, served with lemon and fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, why mess with perfection? I did, however, use the cheese of each individual's choice from the amuse-bouche.

Piatti Speciale: It is a special course, since usually Italian meals have two main courses, but I couldn't resist including another Venetian favorite.
  • Risi e bisi. One of the most traditional dishes in Venice, somewhere between a pea soup and a pea risotto. I used two boxes of Campanini Vialone Nano rice, pureéd pea pods pressed through food mill, and pancetta and homemade vegetable broth. I think this was the best Risi e bisi I've made to date.
Secondi Piatti: Before the secondi we went to see the firework show, and returned to have the main course.
  • Tracotto de maiale al latte. This was an experimental dish from Emiglio-Romagna. I've actually never braised a beef in milk before: most of the Italian dishes I know have wine bases instead. The dish was ridiculously simple: all you have is a pork shoulder, onions, milk and something to fry the ingredients in. I used my fish cooker for the meat. After the pork cooks for about three hours, you rapidly reduce the milk until you get a thick brown sauce. To keep up with the Parmigiano-Reggiano theme, I also grated cheese over the top.
  • Insalata di radicchio con acciughe. I like to bill this as the Venetian forerunner to the now ubiquitous Caesar salad. It is made from the bitter and nutty radicchio. The pièce de résistence were my homemade croutons, which were the best croutons I've ever made.
Dolci e Frutta: The desserts for the evening were both from the Veneto, but are dishes that are more typically served in fall or winter. Nevertheless, I thought they were nice treats on this night in July, since a passing rain storm added a certain coolness and crispness to the air.
  • Pinza de polenta alla Veneziana: Venetian corn cakes with raisins, pine nuts, figs, grappa, and ricotta and vanilla, among other ingredients. It was coated in Amaretti di Saronno crumbs. And as an added treat, Vani brought an unopened bottle of grappa she purchased on a recent trip to Venice, which went perfect with the grappa-infused dessert.
  • Ciliege cotte nel vino rosso: Washington cherries poached in a bottle of red wine with cloves, cinnamon, and lemon zest. I actually bought my first cherry stoner to make this.

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