A Genovese gentleman
Venice has reason to be grateful to Genova, her greatest rival and greatest enemy. In the past, competition between the two maritime empires pushed La Serenissima to her most celebrated victories and mercantile exploits; nowadays it’s only the Genovese reputation for miserliness that keeps the Venetians off the top spot as the meanest people in Italy. “Genovese” is basically a synonym for “Scrooge” but when it comes to hoarding the Venetians certainly give them a run for their (closely hidden) money.
Visitors are often surprised by the extent to which Venice is still a cash economy and for all its external opulence we suspect that there are still quite a few carefully-hoarded fortunes stuffed into mattresses. Throwing things away isn’t really a thing here and waste is abhorred. This has recently become a fashionable view, but it’s unsurprising that the Venetians are, as ever, ahead of the game. The arrival of the autumn high tides is a reminder of just how isolated the city was for centuries- when the boats can’t land shortages still occur. For fresh food we’re blessed with the wonderful markets of Rialto and Via Garibaldi, the fish stands in Santa Margherita and our beloved veg boat, but the few supermarkets often run out of supplies in erratic and eccentric fashion. Some days there’s no shampoo or furniture polish, candles are suddenly unavailable and staples like black peppercorns can disappear for weeks on end. Add this to the fact that most shops are closed on Sundays, Mondays and for two hours over lunch and that all marketing has to be done on foot and collecting the ingredients for dinner can become quite precarious. It’s not unusual to walk halfway across the city to find that the particular thing you came for has vanished from the shelves just when you need it, so we’ve learned to pounce when we can. (Visitors are also surprised when we go into raptures at finding Dijon mustard or a bunch of coriander and buy five at once.)
Not relying on a steady supply of everything forces one to be more creative in the kitchen and to make the most of what’s available. It’s an attitude that has always been at the heart of Italian cookery and particularly so in Venice, which in bad weather or times of conflict could find itself cut off from the mainland for long periods. In her hauntingly beautiful autobiographical novel Jigsaw, Sybille Bedford describes this frugal attitude as experienced in Italy between the wars:
“Pasta made at home, clear lean broth distilled from a scrap of beef…vegetables picked out in the market in the morning, lemons and olive oil in those fragile green phials blown at Murano…meat conceived of as a garnish rather than a hunk: aromatic fillings for slivers of veal done with a light hand; salads of tender leaves.”
Providing plentifully whilst staying thrifty has always been how it’s done here, so our recipes this week suggest two ways for stretching the contents of the larder for another day before the inevitable trip with the trolley
FRITTATA DI PATATE
Although frittatas need nothing more than a few good ingredients, it is one of the only things, along with herbs and onions that I find I can’t keep up with before they go off. I know, some of you will be thinking, how is this possible, fool?!, because onions and potatoes are legendary for their shelf life, but seeing as they usually come in bags nowadays, I always find that some go forgotten about, along with the wilting herbs which are dead before they arrive home. Frittata is by far the best end for them all.
Makes enough for 10 medium slices or 30 small squares
250ml of good olive oil
1 large onion diced
salt and pepper
Plenty of oregano or dill (optional but a good idea)
Start by par-boiling the potatoes in heavily salted boiling water. You are supposed to really cook them slowly in oil in the pan, but if you don’t have time for this you can speed up the process slightly by par-boiling whilst you are cooking the onions.
The onions need to be sauteed until very soft and almost caramelizing. About 10 minutes on low-medium heat turning often. In a large bowl crack the eggs, beat with a fork but do not whip. Using a slotted spoon add the onions, leaving the oil behind, to the egg bowl and let sit whilst you cook the potatoes.
Remove the potatoes when they can be pierced with a knife but are not tender all the way through. Drain and run under cold water briefly. Peel and then cut into cubes of 2 cm. This makes it easier to cut into small slices later on. Add the potatoes to the pan which cooked the onions, adding more oil if necessary, on a higher heat cook the potatoes for 5 mins, frying slightly. Remove and add to the egg mixture. At this point add plenty of pepper and any herbs. You can, and it would be good to let the mix rest at this point for some time. But if you want to cook it straight away, preheat the same pan as before, adding a touch more oil if necessary, and when hot add the egg mixture. Scraping the edges inwards in order to allow liquid from the middle to fall into its place and cook. 6-10 mins. When the edges are cooked and the middle still wobbly/liquidy flip onto a plate before sliding it back into the pan the other way up. 2 mins longer then turn off the heat. Best eaten the days after.
PICK AND MIX VEGETABLES
Why is this frugal? The epitome of frugality is roasting into submission all straggling vegetables that are sadly sitting on the counter. Not without its limits, but roasting is almost better with older vegetables and the mix of colour makes any dish seem fancy. Vegetables and cooked and marinated like this are even better cold and can sneakily transition between sandwiches, pasta sauces, and salads without being recognized as the same thing. In the photo below, you can see the vegetables completing a salami and pecorino sandwich.
3 peppers, red and yellow are best
3 small aubergines, quartered and topped
2 fennel, halved and cut into batons
3 courgette cut into angled slices, 1 cm thick
3 garlic cloves, drizzled in oil and wrapped in tin foil
1 Lemon zest, finely diced
dill, mint or basil
1/tbsp coriander seeds crushed and toasted
2 tbsp Flaked, toasted almonds (or just before serving)
Turn the oven onto grill setting whilst you prep the fennel and aubergine. Mix all the sliced aubergine and fennel with oil and salt and then scatter onto a tray. Aubergines, need to be cut sound down. Let these grill for around 12 minutes, keeping an eye that they dont get too charred. Fennel may take longer. Remove from the oven and put to one side. Turn off the grill and set the oven to 220C/425F/gas 7. Put the peppers and chillies (if using) and courgettes on an oven tray lined with baking paper. Drizzle a little oil over everything. Roast for 25 minutes, turning halfway until the peppers are blackening on both sides. Remove the vegetables, and roast the garlic for 10 minutes more. Put the peppers in a bowl, cover tightly with clingfilm, leave for 30 minutes, then peel off the skin, discarding the seeds, stalks and any liquid. Tear the peppers into 8cm strips. Add everything along with juices to the fennel bowl. Add the roasted garlic ‘purree’ and the remaining 6 ingredients, let marinate.