For more than 2,000 years, Jewish families have lived in Italy. Their cuisine — a mix of Middle Eastern, Spanish and Sephardic influences — were not the stuff of household American cookbooks; that is, until 1998, when a rather eclectic work called Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen was put together by Joyce Goldstein, who’d spent much time in the country.
It took seven years, but the work is now out in paperback.
Here’s an excerpt: “It was in Italy that I taught myself to cook. I asked questions in restaurants and at the markets, and requested recipes from friends. Knowing that I wouldn’t be in Italy forever, I also searched for cookbooks to bring home, but in those wonderful learning years of 1959 and 1960, very few cookbooks were available, mostly just weighty classics like Il Talismano Della Felicita by Ada Boni and Pellegrino Artusi’s La Scienza in Cucina e L’arte di Mangiar Bene.
“Unlike Americans, Italians were not cookbook crazy, and it was just about impossible to find books that focused on regional cuisine. Years later, my son returned from an Italian vacation with a few cookbooks on the food of the Veneto, part of a new series being published in Padua by Franco Muzzio, and the chapters on cucina ebraica caught my eye. I noted that some Venetian Jewish dishes resembled those I had eaten in Rome, but many others were distinctly Sephardic.
“Since that time, I’ve built a nice library of Italian regional cookbooks, and as I have browsed through them in search of old and new ideas, I have discovered additional recipes attributed to Italian Jewish cuisine. A few remind me of ‘home,’ such as meat loaf with hard-boiled eggs down the middle that I thought was Brooklyn Jewish cuisine, but turned out to be Italo-Sephardic.
“There are recipes for stufatino di zucca gialla, a stew of yellow squash with meat that resembles a classic tsimmes; polpettine di pesce, fish balls seasoned with cinnamon and cloves — not exactly gefilte fish, but tasty — and cavolo ripieno, or stuffed cabbage, a family favorite.
“Grigole, or gribines, cracklings from goose, duck or chicken fat … also appear, as do charoset, the Passover seder condiment of dried fruits, nuts and wine, and chicken soup with rice and chopped hard-boiled eggs.
“Many dishes are finished with bagna brusca, an egg-and-lemon sauce most of us think of as Greek or Turkish, but is really Sephardic. It acts as a thickener in dishes that non-Jews would enrich with cream or butter.
“To my surprise, many recipes I had identified as regional Italian classic turned out to have a Jewish connection, including pasta with tuna, zuppa pavese, baccala mantecato, salsa verde and triglie alla livornese.
“I discovered that most Italian dishes for fennel and eggplant were originally cooked only by Jews, both these vegetables having been shunned by other Italians when they were first introduced in the markets, and many recipes for artichokes and yellow squash, the zucca barucca of the Veneto, were also Jewish in origin.
“My studies are ongoing. Every time I visit Italy, I’m on the lookout for that special dish, a new book that refers to the food of the Italian Jews, an acquaintance who turns out to be an Italian Jew with a story to tell.”
(Spring Vegetable Stew)
In carciofata, a spring vegetable stew from Trieste, all of the vegetables are cooked separately to maintain their texture and color, then combined and heated through at serving time.
juice of 1 lemon
3 medium artichokes or 6 small (1?2 lb. trimmed)
3 Tbsps. olive oil
2 tsps. minced garlic or to taste
4 Tbsps, chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup shelled English peas, blanched for 1 minute
1/2 lb. baby carrots, peeled and parboiled for 5 to 7 minutes
1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced and sautéed in olive oil for 5 minutes
1/2 lb. asparagus tips, blanched for 2 minutes
1/2 lb. small new potatoes, parboiled for 7 to 10 minutes (depending on size) and drained
1/2 lb. tiny pearl onions, parboiled for 4 to 5 minutes, drained and peeled
2 cups vegetable broth or as needed
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
pinch of sugar, if needed
chopped fresh mint, flat-leaf parsley or basil for garnish (optional)
Fill a saucepan with lightly salted water and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, have ready a bowl of water to which you have added the lemon juice.
Working with one artichoke at a time, cut off stem even with the base. Remove all leaves until you reach the pale green heart.
Pare away dark-green area from the base. Cut artichoke in half, and scoop out and discard the choke. Then cut the tender heart lengthwise, into quarters. Drop into lemon water.
When all the artichokes are trimmed, drain and add to the boiling water. Parboil for 5 minutes and drain.
Warm the olive oil in a large sauté pan over a medium heat. Add the garlic and parsley; stir for a minute or two.
Add artichokes, peas, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, potatoes, pearl onions and enough vegetable broth to moisten.
Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.
Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper, and add the sugar, if needed, for flavor balance.
Transfer to a warmed serving dish. A little chopped parsley, basil or mint would make a nice garnish. Serve hot.
(Florentine Gratin of Salt Cod and Spinach)
Here’s an Italian Jewish classic that combines salt cod, besciamella (the classic cream sauce) and spinach in a most appealing way. This recipe from La Cucina Nella Tradizione Ebraica can be assembled ahead of time and baked just before serving. It can also be baked in ramekins; reduce cooking time to 15 minutes.
1 lb. salt cod fillets
2 cups Salsa Besciamella (see recipe below)
2 lbs. spinach
4 Tbsps. salted butter
freshly ground black pepper to taste
freshly ground nutmeg to taste
2/3 cup fine dried bread crumbs
4 Tbsps. grated Parmesan or Gruyère cheese
Soak the salt cod in water for two days, changing water at least three times. Drain the cod and place in a saucepan.
Add water to cover and bring slowly to a gentle simmer. Simmer until fish is tender, about 10 minutes.
Drain the cod and, when cool enough to handle, break up into chunks, removing errant bones or discolored or tough parts.
Transfer to a bowl; mash well with a fork.
Prepare the salsa besciamella and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350?.
Grease an 8×11-inch baking dish, preferably with butter.
Rinse spinach well; remove the stems. Chop leaves coarsely.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the spinach gradually, cooking it until it wilts and adding more leaves as each batch cooks down. Stir in sauce, and season with pepper and nutmeg.
Stir in the salt cod. Taste and adjust the seasonings.
Transfer the cod-spinach mixture to the prepared dish.
Top evenly with the bread crumbs, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter (cut into bits) and the grated cheese.
Bake until golden and bubble, about 25 minutes. Serve hot.
(Classic Cream Sauce)
2 cups milk
3-4 Tbsps. unsalted butter
3 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
freshly ground nutmeg
Pour milk into a saucepan and bring to just below a boil over medium heat.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in another small saucepan over low heat. Add flour and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes; do not let the mixture color.
Whisk in the hot milk. Continue to whisk until thickened and raw-flour taste is gone, 8 to 10 minutes.
Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
‘Timballo di Ricotta’
(Warm Ricotta Soufflé Pudding)
Be sure to use fresh, moist ricotta for this classic Roman Jewish cheese dessert. I’ve doubled the sugar, as the original recipe seemed very flat. I also added a tablespoon of flour for a smoother texture. I halved the cognac, as the finished pudding was too alcoholic-tasting. You might instead want to try a dark rum.
1 lb. (2 cups) fresh ricotta cheese
4 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsps. cognac (kosher)
grated zest of 2 lemons
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (optional)
Spoon the ricotta into a sieve placed over a bowl, and let drain in the fridge for 1 to 2 hours.
Preheat oven to 300?.
Butter 12 3/4-cup ramekins or one 2-quart soufflé dish.
In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together egg yolks and sugar until very thick and pale.
Add to that the drained ricotta, flour, cognac, lemon zest and cinnamon, if using.
Mix gently till well-combined.
In another bowl, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form.
Stir about 1/4 of egg whites into the cheese mixture to lighten it, then fold in remaining whites just until no white streaks remain.
Pour into prepared ramekins or soufflé dish. Place in a baking pan, and pour hot water into the pan to reach halfway up sides of the ramekins or dish.
Cover the pan with tin foil.
Bake until set, but still a little jiggly, 25 to 30 minutes for the ramekins and about 40 minutes for the large mold. Remove from oven and place on rack to cool.
Serve warm with berries or other fresh fruit.
Serves 8 to 12.