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!
PESCE EN SAOR
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.