As has become our tradition, whenever we’re traveling, Monkey and I try to learn as much as we can about the local food and region, by taking a cooking class. We’ve been to slick commercial cooking schools, a farm, and now we’ve been welcomed into someone’s home. A native Venetian, Gioia runs the Venice-based “Cooking and Traveling” from her own kitchen in a lovely apartment just off a typical alley in the city.
We planned with Gioia in advance that our menu would feature a seafood risotto, along with whatever looked fresh and seasonal at the market. It was to be just the three of us spending almost six hours together shopping, chatting, cooking and eating.
We met Gioia on a sunny Saturday morning in June at the Rialto Market bus stop (we were horribly late for a number of reasons). Like all Venetians at the market, she had her shopping trolley with her, ready to be filled with goodies.
First Gioia shared a little history about the old market area, explaining that this is where merchants used to gather—centuries ago—after long sea voyages, to trade and sell their wares. I loved imagining the bustle, noise, sights and smells, and thinking about how these wonderful stone buildings have stood the test of time.
Next we shopped for our ingredients. I spotted discs floating in water and asked what they were: ‘Fondi di carciofo’ or artichoke bottoms, For some reason, I thought they were the root (like celeriac or celery root), but it turns out it’s what we call the hearts, minus all the leaves and stalk, but with just the merest hint of the thistle down left intact.
We also spied the local, skinny green string beans, which Gioia promised us were delicious when prepared with fresh plum tomatoes, so we popped those into her trolley too.
Next on the list was the seafood: clams, mussels, and locally-caught shrimp. Octopus is a specialty in Venice and while we didn’t buy any, we saw it, alongside other giant fish, on sale. Gioia told us that as a child, they would often catch dinner, including mackerel and other seafood, from the canals. Because the tide comes in and out so frequently, the water is very clean.
Once our shopping was complete we stopped by a local pasticceria for a quick coffee and a pastry (the typical Venetian breakfast).
On our way to her apartment, I asked about various restaurants or stores, and each time Gioia told us they were “blood” awful, for tourists only, with many of the products made in China. She expressed how hard it can be as a resident to find an authentic place to meet friends for dinners – Venice has become so oriented around its tourist population.
Once in the kitchen, we got to work, chatting as we went about our business: chopping, prepping, cleaning the shellfish and essentially taking care of our “mis en place“. The clams were set on the windowsill in a bowl of salted water to encourage them to push out any sand; the mussels were simply put on to steam with roughly chopped onion and a splash of water; the shrimp were beheaded and shelled. The green beans topped and tailed and the tomatoes blanched to remove their skins.
The first dish we cooked was the artichoke bottoms. After crushing a couple of garlic cloves, we put a good splash of olive oil in a wide pan, add the garlic and laid out the pieces of artichoke. Next we covered them with water before adding a good dose of sea salt.
We covered and simmered the “bottoms” until the liquid had evaporated, approximately 20 minutes, before serving with a good sprinkle of parsley. As simple as that. And they were delicious.
The skinny green beans were easy too. More crushed garlic (another couple of cloves), a finely chopped onion and the chopped skinned tomatoes (1 kilo) were added to a tall pot, salted, and brought to a gentle simmer.
Next the beans were added, a lid was put on the pot and it was set to simmer on a low heat for 20-25 minutes. Surprisingly, even after that amount of time the beans were still ‘al dente‘, or had a a bite to them, but the flavors of the tomato, onion and garlic had really mellowed to create a tasty, comforting dish.
The preparation for the risotto was a little more labor-intensive, so I will address that in a separate post, in the hope that you can recreate this wonderfully evocative dish at home.
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