Moeche Fritte – Fried Soft Shell Crabs of Venice

moeche-fritte-italy-private-walking-toursOn our recent cooking class our hosts delivered a very special seasonal treat as we worked – a plate of hot moeche fritte, fried soft shell crabs. These unique crabs are a seasonal Venetian treat, as they are in the US. In Venice, they are referred to as moleche, moeche, or moeca in Venetian dialect. These crabs are a different species than found here in the US, they are smaller (about 2-3 inches), and are available twice a year – in the fall and spring. Maseneta indicates the female crab (with shell), which is particularly valued at the end of summer when, after having changed and having mated, she is mature and filled with eggs.

cooking-italy-private-walking-toursThe moleche fishermen of Venice (molecanti) are masters as managing the molting process of their harvest. Raising crabs is a strictly local activity, passed down from generation to generation. The tradition is practiced in Burano and on the Giudecca but until the second half of the last century the raising of moeche was a secret known only to the crab farmers of Chioggia. The crabs are caught by placing nets with funnel shaped traps in the waters at the beginning of the season.

moeche-rialto-private-italy-toursThe fishermen separate the crabs from the fish and bring them back to big warehouses where they select the crabs about to undergo their seasonal change and place them in a particular tub. There is only a very brief 5-6 hour period in which the shells are soft enough to eat, as continued contact with water will harden them in a matter of hours. The trick is to identify those crabs that are just about to molt from those that are not; the former are stored in tanks until they have molted, at which point they are taken to markets such as the amazing fish market at Rialto. The latter are held back in a separate tub until their molting time has come. The crab stocks were almost depleted in the 1980s. Today they are farmed in various locations around Venice, and it now is an important industry in the region.

moeche-close-italy-private-walking-toursThe fascination that the Venetians have with this strange crab has made its way into local expressions. The Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of the Venetian republic, when represented frontally framed by its wings is called “Leon i moeca”, the crab lion. When a person repeatedly forgets to bring a promised gift to another person, one can say: “anca se’l deventa gransio no importa”, “even if it becomes a crab, it doesn’t matter”, in other words, even if too much time has gone by and the moeca’s shell grew back, the gift would still be appreciated. Also the expression “Andar in brodo de masenete”, “to become a crab broth” is used when something disappears, like masenete when they are cooked too long. And Venetians, when encouraging one another not to despair, say “in mancansa de masenete, bone anca e sate!”, “If we have no crabs, well, the legs are good tool!”

The most common way of preparing moeche is fritte, or deep fried.

moeche-fritte-above-italy-private-walking-toursMoeche Fritte

12 live moeche
2 eggs, beaten
Flour
Salt
Oil for frying – peanut, sunflower, vegetable oil

Wash the moeche and immerse them in the eggs. Season with salt and pepper, cover with a plate and let stand in the refrigerator for about 2 hours.

Place about 1 1/2 inches of oil in a heavy saucepan, and heat over medium high heat to about 325°F.

Place some flour in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Remove the crabs from the eggs and dredge in the flour. Fry in hot oil for a few minutes until they are golden. Place on paper towels to drain, season with salt and serve with polenta slices and a glass of prosecco.

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Tagliatelle con Carciofini e Gamberi

tagliatelle-carciofini-private-walking-tours-tuscany-italiaoutdoorsOur April private walking tour brought us from the waters of the Venetian lagoon to the hills of Tuscany – this time of year artichokes are found on menus in both regions. We saw the first blossoms of the carciofo violetto of Sant’Erasmo – the castraure – while in Venice, and were in Tuscany on the 25th of April when the Festa del Carciofo happens in Chiusure, near Siena.

artichokes-private-walking-tours-tuscany-italiaoutdoorsUnlike in the US, where we see only one variety of artichoke, in Italy you will see many varieties as you move from region to region, with different growing seasons and many different preparations. Some can be enjoyed raw, but there are many other ways to enjoy them – braised, fried, poached in oil.

carciofi-violetti-bowl-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsItalian cuisine is filled with legends about the origins and purported benefits of traditional dishes, especially a plant a unique as this one! The artichoke supposedly arrived in ancient Rome from Greece and Egypt. It was considered an aphrodisiac and was thought to ensure male children. According to legend, Jove, the father of all gods, fell for a young girl with blond hair, Cynara, who did not return his affections. As punishment, Jove transformed her into a spiny plant, the artichoke, hence its botanical name Cynara scolymas.

The Italian name, carciofo, comes from the Arabic word for the plant, al-kharsuf, “the plant that stings”, who introduced the plant into the cuisine of Southern Italy. However, its use was limited on Medieval tables as it was believed to cause demonic temptation in young girls.

artichokes-venice-private-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsIn 1446, Filippo Strozzi, a Florence banker and rival to the Medici family, brought artichoke seeds from Naples to Tuscany, and from there the cultivation spread across the rest of the Italian peninsula. In the Renaissance, the juice of the artichoke was administered as a pregnancy test: “Give a woman artichoke juice, if she vomits, she is pregnant.” Caterina de Medici was very fond of artichokes, and she brought them with her to France in 1533, when she married the heir to the French throne.

Here is another recipe from the La Cucina Italiana magazine. Very simple and easy using fresh bought pasta (not tagliatelle, you go with what looks good!), and lovely shrimp from my local fish market.

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Tagliatelle con Carciofini e Gamberi

1 pound fresh tagliatelle
1/2 lemon
8 baby artichokes
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
16 large head-on shrimp, peeled and deveined
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch arugula

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Fill a large bowl with cold water. Squeeze juice from lemon half into the water in bowl, then add lemon half.

Cut off artichoke stems and discard. Cut off top 1/2 inch of one artichoke with a serrated knife. Bend outer leaves back until they snap off close to base, then continue to discard several more layers of leaves in the same manner until you reach pale yellow or purple leaves. Cut off any green tips. Trim dark green fibrous parts from base and sides with a small sharp knife, then cut lengthwise into sixths. Put the pieces in the lemon water. Repeat with remaining artichokes.

In a large skillet, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add shrimp; cook, turning occasionally, until opaque and cooked through, about 3 minutes; season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Drain artichokes. Cook pasta in the boiling water until al dente, about 3 minutes. Reserve 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid, drain pasta and transfer to a bowl. Immediately toss with pasta cooking liquid, arugula and half of the artichokes. Divide the remaining half of the artichokes onto 4 serving plates, and fan out toward rim. Divide the pasta among plates, top with shrimp, drizzle with oil, season with salt and serve immediately.

Posted in Artichokes, Pasta, Travel, Tuscany, Uncategorized, Veneto | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Carciofini con Grana Padano – Baby Artichokes with Grana Cheese

carciofi-violetti-grana-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsJust northeast of Venice lies the island of Sant’Erasmo – half the size of Venice, with many canals, but with 60 resident farmers out of 850 total population. On a visit to Venice’s Rialto market, a highlight of our walking tours in the Veneto, you will note Sant’Erasmo is indicated as the source of the best produce available – the salty clay soil of the island is said to produce particularly flavorful vegetables. In spring, the vegetable particularly sought after is the carciofi violetti, violet artichokes. Their buds, harvested once a year in the spring, are known as the castraure, and are one of the seasons prized delicacies.
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The carciofi violetti are small, prickly, tender and oblong, with a purple color and a meaty, delicious heart. The season begins in April when the castraure (from castrare, which means to castrate or cut) are carefully harvested by hand with a special knife – got to hand it to the Italians for the graphic nomenclature here! These first blossoms of the artichoke are cut in order to allow twenty or more lateral blossoms to grow. A second batch is cut in June. Each generation of blossom has a name: castraure, botoli, sottobotoli, articiocchi,  mazzette.

carciofi-violetti-wine-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsCastraure are so delicate that they are typically eaten raw. Only a limited number are available, and they are offered at only a few local restaurants for a brief period of time, and command high prices at the market. A small local market next to my apartment here had a few, and the vendor questioned me when I asked for 8 – “Do you know how much these cost? These are very special”. I didn’t think paying 60 cents each was particularly exorbitant, given how much I pay for very ordinary ones back in the US.

carciofi-violetti-close-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoorsHere’s a recipe from the now-defunct “La Cucina Italiana” for the classic raw preparation. Next post will be on a pasta dish using carciofi violetti – and more on the history of artichokes in Italy.

Carciofini con Grana Padano

Serves 4

1/2 lemon
8 baby artichokes
1/4 best extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 ounces shaved Grana Padano or Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

Fill a large bowl with cold water. Squeeze juice from lemon half into the water in bowl, then add lemon half.

Cut off artichoke stems and discard. Cut off top 1/2 inch of one artichoke with a serrated knife. Bend outer leaves back until they snap off close to base, then continue to discard several more layers of leaves in the same manner until you reach pale yellow or purple leaves. Cut off any green tips. Trim dark green fibrous parts from base and sides with a small sharp knife, then cut lengthwise into sixths. Put the pieces in the lemon water. Repeat with remaining artichokes.

carciofi-violetti-prep-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoors
Drain artichokes and pat dry well, then put into a dry bowl. Add the olive oil and toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide artichokes onto serving plates and top with the shaved cheese; drizzle with oil from the bowl.

Enjoy with a local wine, here one of my favorite whites from the Colli Berici, a Garganega based wine – the grape varietal used in Soave.

carciofi-violetti-wine-italy-walking-tours-italiaoutdoors

Posted in Artichokes, Gluten Free, Travel, Vegetables, Vegetarian, Veneto, Veneto Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Risotto al Radicchio Rosso con Pere e Formaggio Morlacco

radicchio-risotto-close-private-walking-tours-italy-italiaoutdoorsOur first tour of the season, a walking and cycling tour of the Veneto and then Tuscany really demonstrates the regional variations of Italian cuisine. We cooked Venetian seafood specialties with a professional chef, then a few days later joined a Tuscan home cook in her kitchen. The one theme that unites them both us a deep appreciation for the products of their own regions, which still play a leading role in what they eat today.

radicchio-varities-private-walking-tours-italy-italiaoutdoors
Varieties of radicchio; Tardivo is on bottom right

In late spring here in Italy, I am finding the last of the winter Tardivo radicchio still available at my local fruit and vegetable market. Red radicchio is a chicory, a relative of the wild plant you can still find growing along the roadside today. It was introduced to the Venetian republic in the fifteenth century, and is became intensely cultivated especially in the Treviso area. Growers here developed many different varietals over the years, each providing a different flavor profile and different growing season.

radicchio-risotto-private-walking-tours-italy-italiaoutdooThere are two varieties of Radicchio Rosso di Treviso which are grown in and around Treviso, and both are protected by their own IGP quality designation. The Precoce variety appears first in the season, and has deep red leaves, with an elongated shape. It has the sweetest and most delicate flavor in the radicchio family. The second type, Tardivo, is more elongated, with a more pronounced vein. As with most radicchio, both undergo a forcing, or ‘whitening”, imbianchimento, in which field-harvested plants have their upper halves cut off, and then are replanted in running water. After a few days, the deep red inner ‘heart’ begins to grow, which is sweet and tender, with a touch of the original bitterness still remaining. The older outer leaves are removed and the heart is what you will see in the market.
radicchio-risotto-close-fork-private-walking-tours-italy-italiaoutdoors
The province of Vicenza has its own favorite variety of radicchio, with the center of production in Asigliano Veneto, in the southern part of the province, as well as the Berici Hills, Noventa Vicentina, Poiana Maggiore, Sossano and Orgiano. This particular variety is more compact and oval shaped, with dark red leaves and white veins. These are first planted in July, with a first harvest in October, and a second harvest in December. In December, the harvest does not mean the work is completed – the heads are piled and left in the field for a few weeks of final “ripening”.

radicchio-morlacco-private-walking-tours-italy-italiaoutdoor
Morlacco cheese

The following recipe is from a small booklet of recipes dedicated solely to “Il Radicchio Rosso di Asigliano”. The booklet itself is quite interesting – I’ve included in the translation the very specific instructions on the ingredients, all very local specialties. Substituting what you can find at home will still produce a lovely and tasty risotto, but I’ve included the specific descriptions to give you the flavor of how an Italian understands local foods.

Risotto al Radicchio Rosso con Pere e Formaggio Morlacco

Serves 4

1/4 cup butter
1/2 red onion from Bassano, minced
1 head of radicchio rosso di Asigliano, thinly sliced (I used Tardivo, use what you can find)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
4-5 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup Cabernet from Breganze
1 pear, homegrown or the “doyenne” of winter pear, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/4 cup Vicentina grappa (grappa from Vicenza)
1 cup Vialone Nano di Grumello delle Abbadesse (the local heirloom variety of risotto rice, substitute Arborio or Carnaroli)
4 ounces Morlacco del Grappa cheese (a soft, lean cow’s milk cheese made from cows that graze on the Grappa plateau. Use a stronger flavored cheese of your choice)
1/2 cup grated grana cheese from Ponte di Barbarano

Heat half the butter in a large sauté pan.  Add the onion and the sliced radicchio and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large saucepan, heat the stock, keeping it just below a simmer.

Add the wine to the onions and radicchio. After the wine evaporates, add the cubed pears, half of the remaining butter, and sprinkle with the grappa. Cook until the pear cubes begin to brown. and set some of the best looking cunes aside for garnish.

Add the rice to the sauté pan with the onions, radicchio and pears. Stir for about 1 minute, until the grains are coated with the fat and liquid in the pan.

Add a couple of ladlefuls of the hot stock and again simmer, stirring gently, until the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring and waiting until the stock is absorbed before the next addition of stock. Continue until the rice is al dente. The stock may not all be used.

When the risotto is done, stir in the Morlacco and grana cheeses and remaining butter, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into a soup tureen and serve, garnish with the reserved pear cubes.

Posted in Gluten Free, Radicchio, Risotto, Travel, Uncategorized, Vegetarian, Veneto | Leave a comment

Grappa – Italy’s Favorite Digestif

grappa-at-poli-private-walking-tours-italyThe most famous, and most popular, after dinner drink in Northeastern Italy is grappa. We introduce it in many ways to our guests on our walking tours and private cycling adventures – served as a digestivo, to aid in the digestion of a wonderful meal,  or added to espresso as a caffe corretto, an ammazzacaffe, where a few ounces of grappa are served after you finish your espresso, or a resentin (little rinser), where you rinse out your espresso cup with a few drops of grappa. However you choose to enjoy it, you will find a vast variety of grappa to taste on your visit.

grappa-tasting-private-bike-toursGrappa is similar to other distilled liquors, but is unique in that it is the only spirit made from distilling the skins, pulp, seeds and stems (called vinaccia) leftover from the winemaking process. Legend has it that a Roman solider first distilled grappa in Bassano del Grappa using equipment he stole from Egypt, but this is not the case, as the distillation techniques in use then could not produce grappa. According to Ove Boudin, in his book Grappa: Italy bottled, in ancient times the royalty would drink the wine, and the poor would make their own makeshift wine by adding water to the leftovers – nothing went to waste – calling it vinello. Around 1600, the Jesuits formalized and perfected distillation techniques, making it possible to distill vinaccia, and grappa was born.

grappa-still-private-walking-tours-italyFor many years, grappa was distilled with whatever vinaccia the producers would have available. Nowadays, as with most distilled liquors, modern producers have introduced refinements to the production process, greatly improving the final quality, and resulting in many diverse varieties. Today, the use of varietal grapes and aging in casks of various types of woods allows the producers to offer magnificent grappas that reflect the  high quality and the unique nature of the original grapes. At the forefront here is Nonino, a Friuli based producer that was the first to introduce a single varietal grappa in 1973.

bassano-nardini-private-walking-tours-italyGrappa is now a name protected by the European Union. To be called grappa, the liquor must be produced in Italy, or certain parts of Switzerland or San Marino, be produced from vinaccia (also known as pomace), and fermentation and distillation must occur on  the pomace, with no added water.

bassano-grappa-private-walking-tours-italyWe visit Bassano del Grappa on our tours in Italy, and have the opportunity to visit two very well known producers that are right across the street from each other. Nardini is located at the end of the famous Ponte degli Alpini in Bassano, and is popular with the locales; you will see quite a crowd there, spilling out onto the bridge itself in the late afternoon. Poli is located here as well, and has a very interesting museum that leads you through the production process. Many small antique bottles are on display, and a ‘sniffing’ room, where you can explore the aromas of about 20 or so different grappas.

bassano-bridge-private-walking-tours-italy

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