Find a fabulous costume, make a magnificent mask and grab a gondola. It's time for carnival in the canal-lined city of Venice.
Plan to celebrate for a day or two, or if your need for revelry explodes, you could party for 10 days. Renaissance celebrants in Venice extended their annual jubilations for six months, until Napoleon's untimely visit in 1797 ended the frivolity.Carnival in Venice or Rio de Janeiro is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans - an extended period of merriment before the austerity of Lent, the 40-day period of dedication and restraint prior to Easter.
And in Venice, like New Orleans, food becomes an integral part of the festivities.
For an Italian, to eat is to live, and that maxim winds through each meal of the day like the gondoliers maneuvering the waterways of the golden city.
Italians are convinced that it is good to be alive, and they spend considerable time and energy proving themselves right. With gusto, they sail, bowl in the nearest back yard, race over sun-soaked soccer fields or argue among themselves at a sidewalk cafe. But nothing reflects their enjoyment more than their cookery.
And carnival time brings out the best of the regional recipes.
Italian cuisine is as diverse as the geographic regions of its land, but each regional speciality is redolent with spicy, simmering sauces.
Southern Italians prefer a proliferation of pastas - a multitude of shapes buried in buckets of tomatoey concoctions.
In the northern regions near Venice, however, polenta is the P-word. Polenta, a corn-based descendant of an Etruscan grain mush, is a mainstay in a northern Italian kitchen. The mush often takes the place of bread and is served in chunks with chicken, rabbit or fish stew or sometimes topped with Italian sausage and tomato sauce. Leftovers are fried or baked with cheese and sauce.
But polenta shares an Italian menu with risotto.
Though it strikes a rhythmic chord in pronunciation, a risotto is little more than steamed rice - short-grain arborio rice, steamed with timely additions of stock, but rice just the same.
Black risotto with cuttlefish is the signature dish of Venice, a northern Italian city whose regional cooking specialities feature a variety of savory seafoods.
The Italian term "in savor" lacks a descriptive translation to English but describes a cooking method centuries old, according to Lidia Bastianich, New York restaurant owner and author of "La Cucina Di Lidia," a recent cookbook featuring northern Italian specialties. The savory technique, devised by Venetian sailors as a means of inhibiting spoilage at sea, involved frying the fish, then marinating it in an oil/herb/vinegar base as a preservative.
Italians carefully preserve their abilities to enjoy life, and carnival claims a top spot in the annual celebrations of pleasure.
For centuries, crowds in exotic costumes and magical masks marched through St. Mark's Square to celebrate the season.
The first festivities were recorded in 1094, but the continuing carnival event became a symbol of political victory in 1162.
Merriment grew as Venice established itself with extravagance and prestige, the wealthy center of financial and artistic achievements during the Renaissance.
Carnival in Venice began with the "corse del le gondole," a procession of ornate gondolas on the Grand Canal, bearing the nobility in splendid costumes and masks, accompanied by trumpets, bells and performing circus animals.
After docking at the square, the procession moved on to the knightly tournaments, gambling, acrobats, dancing and feasting of the celebration.
With the decline of Venice under Napoleonic rule, carnival virtually disappeared for 200 years. In 1979, Venetians revived the celebration, patterning the rebirth after the original events.
Maskmaking developed as an important part of the celebration in both periods of time. Masks were made of leather, ceramic, wood, brass and silver as well as papier-mache.
Omega Studios, headed by master maskmaker Victor Fagarazzi, developed new methods of creating papier-mache masks. Fagarazzi used a seven-step process, combining wallpaper paste, hand-torn Japanese rice paper and paint to create intricate details on mask surfaces.
Details of carnival celebration today resemble the revelry of centuries past.
And in a glorious city like Venice, the celebration is supreme.
Chicken San Marco
1 cup green bell peppers, julienned
1 cup red bell peppers, julienned
1 3/4 cups broccoli florets
1 cup zucchini, sliced 1/4-inch thick then halved
1 cup yellow squash, sliced 1/4-inch thick then halved
3 tablespoons olive oil
San Marco Sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds chicken thigh meat, skinless, boneless, cut in 1-inch cubes
2 large yellow onions, diced
1 cup carrots, cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
1 cup chicken broth
1 can (28 oz.) Italian plum tomatoes, including juice
1 teaspoon oregano
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Wondra flour
1 teaspoon rosemary
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
6 cups fettuccine, cooked and drained
1 tablespoon olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Wash and prepare vegetables; set aside.
For sauce, break up plum tomatoes. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil; add chicken meat pieces and saute for 5-6 minutes, turning frequently, until lightly browned on all sides. Add onions and carrots and saute until onions are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute about 30 seconds. Immediately add the chicken broth to the pot. Stir bits and pieces loose from the bottom of the pot. Add all additional ingredients, lower heat, cover and simmer about 5-10 minutes.
As the sauce simmers, add 3 tablespoons oil to heavy skillet and saute the peppers, squashes and broccoli until crisp-tender. Add to San Marco sauce, adjusting seasonings.
While the vegetables are sauteeing, cook fettuccine according to directions and drain well in a colander. Toss with olive oil to prevent sticking. Add to sauce mixture and serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Serves 4-6.- From The Olive Garden
1 pound cod fillets, precooked
3/4 cup chopped clams
3/4 cup cooked shrimp
3/4 cup crabmeat
1/8 cup rotelle or spirelli pasta
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
3 1/2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoon fresh garlic, finely chopped
1/2 cup sherry or chicken stock
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
2 quarts boiling, salted water\
Line baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Bake the cod fillets, uncovered for 5-6 minutes, only until cod flakes easily. Remove from oven immediately to prevent overcooking. When cooled, break fillets in half lengthwise, then break each half into approximately 1-inch pieces and set aside.
Cook the pasta al dente, according to package directions, drain well and set aside.
For sauce, melt butter, add the flour and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Do not allow flour to brown. Add the milk and salt and bring just below boiling point, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and keep warm.
Heat oil in skillet; saute garlic and add to warm bechamel sauce. Add the sherry or stock to the saute pan; simmer for 1 minute, then add it to the warm bechamel sauce. Add the precooked pasta. Return sauce/pasta mixture to low heat; add seafood and gently blend, heating until ingredients are warmed thoroughly. Serves 4-6.- From The Olive Garden
Risotto with Ham, Pine Nuts and Basil
3/4 cup pine nuts
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
4 ounces ham, diced (preferably prosciutto)
3 cups Arborio rice
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
6-8 cups hot chicken stock
3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated\
In medium frying pan, roast pine nuts over low heat 2-3 minutes, or until golden brown, shaking pan frequently; set aside.
In heavy saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Cook onion 2-3 minutes, or until softened. Add ham, rice, salt and pepper and stir to coat evenly. Add 2 cups stock and stir until absorbed, 5-6 minutes. Continue to add as much stock as needed, 1 cup at a time, stirring until rice is creamy and tender but still firm in center. Process should take 15-18 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in half the pine nuts, basil, remaining 1 tablespoon butter and Parmesan cheese. Garnish with remaining pine nuts. Serves 6.
Grilled Red Snapper
1/2 cup olive oil
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons Italian parsley, minced
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
4 red snapper fillets
In a small bowl, combine the garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper for the fish. Brush fish on both sides with olive oil mixture. Grill fish over charcoal, gently turning halfway through cooking process; baste with remaining olive oil. (Time depends on thickness of fillet.)
For sauce, blend all ingredients except parsley and lemon juice; simmer while fish cooks.
When fish are done, discard garlic from sauce, add the lemon juice and parsley; whisk lightly with a fork. Serve with lemon wedges and 1 tablespoons sauce with each fillet. Makes 4 servings.
Note: Fish may be baked in conventional oven at 475 degrees for 8-10 minutes or until done; baste once during cooking process. - From La Cucina Di Lidia.
Almond Chocolate Biscotti
1 cup whole blanched almonds
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
2 whole eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons water
3 ounces semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 egg white\ Spread almonds on a cookie sheet and toast in oven 5-7 minutes or until almonds are light brown, shaking pan several times. Grind one-third of nuts in a food processor; set aside in a large bowl. Chop remaining nuts coarsely and set aside in a small bowl.
Add flour, baking powder and salt to large bowl containing ground almonds. Stir until well-mixed. Make a well in the center. Add sugar, whole eggs and water to well. Using a fork, gradually stir flour and egg mixture together to form a dough. Using hands, knead dough 2-3 minutes while still in bowl. Add chocolate to bowl and gently knead in.
Divide dough into two pieces. On a floured work surface, roll each piece into 1/2-inch thick rope. Place on baking sheet. In a small bowl, beat egg white with a fork until foamy. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush each rope with egg white. Bake 20 minutes at 375, or until pale brown.
Reset oven to 275. Using a wide spatula, remove each rope to a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut into 1 1/2-inch slices at a 45 degree angle. Return cookies to baking sheets and bake 30 minutes, until dry and firm. Let cookies cook before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to several weeks. Makes about 2 dozen.
Eggplant and Tomatoes in Cheese Custard
Salt to coat
2 small eggplants cut in 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1 tablespoon basil
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tomatoes, peeled and sliced
1 small onion, minced
2 egg yolks, beaten
1 cup milk
3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced\
Salt eggplant slices and drain 30 minutes; rinse and pat dry. Saute eggplant in oil until golden brown on both sides. Arrange eggplant on bottom of greased casserole or baking dish; sprinkle with parsley, basil and seasonings. Cover with tomatoes and sprinkle with onion. Mix egg yolks with milk and pour over all; top with cheese and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Serves 6.